Cover image for Polemical Encounters: Christians, Jews, and Muslims in Iberia and Beyond Edited by Mercedes García-Arenal and Gerard Wiegers

Polemical Encounters

Christians, Jews, and Muslims in Iberia and Beyond

Edited by Mercedes García-Arenal, and Gerard Wiegers


$149.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-08121-2

440 pages
6" × 9"
6 b&w illustrations

Iberian Encounter and Exchange, 475–1755

Polemical Encounters

Christians, Jews, and Muslims in Iberia and Beyond

Edited by Mercedes García-Arenal, and Gerard Wiegers

“Mercedes García-Arenal and Gerard Wiegers have fundamentally advanced our understanding of and the debate around the meaning of medieval polemic. This collection of essays is original, impressive, and will undoubtedly inspire a new generation of scholars.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
This collection takes a new approach to understanding religious plurality in the Iberian Peninsula and its Mediterranean and northern European contexts. Focusing on polemics—works that attack or refute the beliefs of religious Others—this volume aims to challenge the problematic characterization of Iberian Jews, Muslims, and Christians as homogeneous groups.

From the high Middle Ages to the end of the seventeenth century, Christian efforts to convert groups of Jews and Muslims, Muslim efforts to convert Christians and Jews, and the defensive efforts of these communities to keep their members within the faiths led to the production of numerous polemics. This volume brings together a wide variety of case studies that expose how the current historiographical focus on the three religious communities as allegedly homogeneous groups obscures the diversity within the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities as well as the growing ranks of skeptics and outright unbelievers.

Featuring contributions from a range of academic disciplines, this paradigm-shifting book sheds new light on the cultural and intellectual dynamics of the conflicts that marked relations among these religious communities in the Iberian Peninsula and beyond.

In addition to the editors, the contributors are Antoni Biosca i Bas, Thomas E. Burman, Mònica Colominas Aparicio, John Dagenais, Óscar de la Cruz, Borja Franco Llopis, Linda G. Jones, Daniel J. Lasker, Davide Scotto, Teresa Soto, Ryan Szpiech, Pieter Sjoerd van Koningsveld, and Carsten Wilke.

“Mercedes García-Arenal and Gerard Wiegers have fundamentally advanced our understanding of and the debate around the meaning of medieval polemic. This collection of essays is original, impressive, and will undoubtedly inspire a new generation of scholars.”
“Mercedes García-Arenal, Gerard Wiegers, and their brilliant collaborators have once again joined voices to provide us with a work of polyphonic scholarship. Polemical Encounters is a volume uniquely suited to revealing the intimate agon of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in the premodern world.”
“This fascinating and valuable collection of essays takes us deep into the medieval and early modern worlds of interfaith relations. Experts across a range of subfields ask fresh and original questions about the nature of the polemical enterprise. From Mozarabic communities in the twelfth century to the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth, we are introduced to a variety of polyglot polemicists who fashioned new styles of discourse from changing geographic and demographic realities both in Iberia and beyond. The basic but profound conclusion of this wide-ranging volume is that the more Christians, Muslims, and Jews challenged each other polemically, the more polyvalent, fractured, and open to reform their own religious hierarchies became.”
“This volume contributes to an important, ongoing revision of Iberian cultural and religious history in the late medieval and early modern periods. It challenges a conventional approach to Iberian polemical exchange that has emphasized theological argument among recognized authorities in clearly defined Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities. This volume, in contrast, highlights polemical exchange in an Iberian context of shifting identities, cross-confessional borrowing, and wide situational variation.”
“This multiauthored volume brings detailed philological and historical research to bear on the unusually complex spiritual, cultural, and linguistic relations among Muslims, Jews, and Christians during Spain’s troubled and incomplete transition from medieval diversity to early modern uniformity. Readers from a wide range of scholarly disciplines will be rewarded with novel perspectives on the remarkable textual evidence that emerged from this conflictive yet productive encounter.”

Mercedes García-Arenal is Research Professor at the Spanish National Research Council (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas) in Madrid and the author of several books, including Messianism and Puritanical Reform: Mahdis of the Muslim West and Ahmad al-Mansur: The Beginnings of Modern Morroco, and coauthor, with Fernando Rodríguez Mediano, of The Orient in Spain: Converted Muslims, the Forged Lead Books of Granada, and the Rise of Orientalism.

Gerard Wiegers is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He is the author of Islamic Literature in Spanish and Aljamiado: Yça of Segovia (fl. 1450), His Antecedents and Successors; coauthor, with Mercedes García-Arenal, of A Man of Three Worlds: Samuel Pallache, a Moroccan Jew in Catholic and Protestant Europe; and coeditor, with García-Arenal, of The Expulsion of the Moriscos of Spain: A Mediterranean Diaspora.


List of Illustrations



Part I The Medieval Iberian World

1. “‘When I Argue with Them in Hebrew and Aramaic’: Tathlīth al-waḥdānīyah,

Ramon Martí, and Proofs of Jesus’s Messiahship,” Thomas E. Burman

2. “Qurʾānic Quotations in Latin: Translation, Tradition, and Fiction in Polemical Literature,” Antoni Biosca i Bas and Óscar de la Cruz

3. “The Mudejar Polemic Ta’yīd al-Milla and Conversion between Islam and Judaism in the Christian Territories of the Iberian Peninsula,” Mònica Colominas Aparicio

4. “‘Sermo ad conversos, christianos et sarracenos’: Polemical and Rhetorical Strategies in the Sermons of Vincent Ferrer to Mixed Audiences of Christians and Muslims,” Linda G. Jones

Part II Around the Forced Conversions

5. “Jewish Anti-Christian Polemics in Light of Mass Conversion to Christianity,” Daniel J. Lasker

6. “Theology of the Laws and Anti-Judaizing Polemics in Hernando de Talavera’s Católica impugnación,”Davide Scotto

7. “The Double Polemic of Martín de Figuerola’s Lumbre de fe contra el Alcorán,” Mercedes García-Arenal

8. “Art of Conversion? The Visual Policies of the Jesuits, Dominicans, and Mercedarians in Valencia,” Borja Franco Llopis

9. “Marcos Dobelio’s Polemics against the Authenticity of the Granadan Lead Books in Light of the Original Arabic Sources,” Pieter Sjoerd van Koningsveld and Gerard Wiegers

Part III Mediterranean and European Transfers

10. “Prisons and Polemics: Captivity, Confinement, and Medieval Interreligious Encounter,” Ryan Szpiech

11. “The Libre de bons amonestaments by ‘Abd Allāh al-Tarjumān: A Guidebook for Old and New Christians,” John Dagenais

12. “Poetics and Polemics: Ibrahim Taybili’s Anti-Christian Polemical Treatise in Verse,” Teresa Soto

13. “Torah Alone: Protestantism as Model and Target of Sephardi Religious Polemics in the Early Modern Netherlands,” Carsten Wilke

Notes on Contributors



From the Introduction

This book focuses on polemical encounters in the field of religion and culture that took place in the Iberian Peninsula between the late Middle Ages and the seventeenth century. Polemic was not a term used in the Middle Ages; it only begins to appear in the sixteenth century to denote a particular kind of writing dedicated to debate between competing (religious or philosophical) ideas. This fact poses an analytical problem: we need to explain in which sense we are using a label (polemicus, polemica) that did not exist in premodern times and nowadays covers different literary genres. By using the term polemical encounters, we allude to a certain type of interaction between religious communities mediated usually—but not only—through learned discourse. This interaction is considered here under the aspect of its verbal and rhetorical aggression toward the religious other, aiming to prove him wrong, to challenge his truth claims, or to exclude him from salvation. At the same time, this interaction affects the polemicizing person because he must learn about the other in order to argue against him. Not less importantly, many times the polemical encounter was in fact a rhetorical one, from the well-orchestrated public disputation to the erudite text geared to internal consumption. In this last case, the polemical encounter is mostly an encounter with oneself. By attacking the other, the aggressor defines his own boundaries. We are interested in this two-sided dynamic of the phenomenon. In that sense, the term polemical encounters will serve to shift our attention away from the singularity of the historical case and the specificity of the genre of religious dispute (disputatio, apologia, confutatio, humanist dialogues, martyrologies, Counter-Reformation sermons, the spiritual autobiographies of converts, devotional images, and many others that are discussed in the different chapters of this book). Instead, our focus on the polemical encounter will draw our view to the larger cultural and intellectual dynamics of the conflicts that marked relations among Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Iberia in its Mediterranean context. We want to approach these polemical conflicts in a comparative perspective and consider polemics not only as part of a theological discourse but also as a form of social practice that carried with it real consequences for interreligious relations.

Our comparative approach brings us to consider here not merely attacks by Christians on Jews or Muslims followed by counterattacks against Christians. Jews and Muslims also wrote polemics on their own initiative against Christianity and against each other. We say attacks because texts of polemics are aggressive and vituperative in nature. Medieval and early modern polemical texts are produced within the framework of exclusive prophetic religions. Each of the three religions played a persistent role in the entangled sacred histories and apologetic discourses of the others, challenging or establishing some “salvation histories” as superior. We need not insist on what Jan Assman has defined as the exclusive and polemical stance of monotheism. Monotheisms vindicate the superiority of their own prophecies and assert the supremacy and uniqueness of one revelation, which could itself be presented as a polemical text.

All polemical texts analyzed here offer examples that express both implicitly and explicitly the understanding of their authors and readers that they are members of distinct communities of faith—they are, in the words of Ryan Szpiech, “polemical communities.”

This book will pay close attention to how the three religions each affected the development of the others over time and will focus on polemical social, cultural, and political fields as factors in the way the three religious communities interacted in the many diverse regions of the peninsula. This is because, as this book argues, the polemic usually serves not to convince an opponent but rather to erect religious and social barriers between the group to which the polemicist belongs and the group or groups from which the polemist deems it necessary to demarcate his own. This book reveals the permeability of boundaries in interconfessional apologetics, challenging our notions of religious homogeneity. A point made in most of the chapters in this collection is that many of these polemics and disputations are addressed by Christians to Christians, not to Jews, Muslims, or converts from Islam or Judaism—or at least as much to the former as to the latter. Inter-and intra-Christian religious polemic was an important factor in defining Spanish Catholicism up to and including the seventeenth century. We also find that theological debates took place not only among Christians but also within Jewish and Muslim communities and were translated into polemics against others.

Recent historiography about polemical writings has oscillated in a debate about whether interreligious polemics were produced for internal consumption or external conversion. Alex Novikoff has mediated in this debate, suggesting that the emergence of a “public sphere” in the thirteenth century conditioned by the rise of universities and itinerant preachers is a more profitable place to situate the increasing number of polemical texts. In the same line of thought, Harvey Hames’s work on Ramon Martí has shown that it was written for Christian consumption, particularly in a university setting as an attempt to reconcile reason and faith. The purpose of the use of rabbinic materials and Muslim texts was to provide new textual evidence for establishing the truth of Christianity for doubting Christians. We will follow in the paths of these two scholars, whose participation in the conference from which this book grew up was of crucial importance, and will consider the polemical material not so much from the point of view of their intended aim—which is to mark boundaries, to reach self-definition though the other—but to attend to unintended effects. This book will show how, at times, dialectical exchange with the other religion also entailed a knowledge, a recognition, and even an ethnographic consideration of the adversary. Religious polemics are often characterized, as we have said, by truth claims, doctrinal clarity, and an explicit articulation of the boundaries between groups. But many scholars of polemics have for too long privileged clear-cut definitions and fixed categories. Polemicists and apologists really did try to define and maintain the religious, social, and legal positions of their groups, and because of this, highly diversified and indistinct religious cultures were pigeonholed. But the sources that document the forced conversions in Iberia bring to life people who did not fit these categories. Therefore, we are especially interested in identifying and analyzing this diversity, ambiguity, and indeterminacy both in the texts and the authors who wrote them as well as in the sociohistorical context that they reflect. Where polemical texts deal in binary distinctions, many chapters in this book show the blurred and complex contexts in which the texts were produced. Our intention is to make clear how the focus on the three religions obscures the diversity—both religious (rationalist, reformist, illuminist) and cultural (language, dress, food)—within the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities in the Iberian Peninsula as well as among the growing ranks of skeptics and outright unbelievers, who can only with difficulty be categorized as belonging to one of those communities. The more Christians, Muslims, and Jews challenged each other polemically, the more they challenged their own identities. And the more they sought to define and defend identity, the more open to reform their own religious hierarchies became.

That is why we reflect on the compartmentalization that, due to polemics, has become a methodological problem in contemporary historiography. Thus the present book asks the following questions: Has scholarship, by adopting the clear separation between religious cultures expressed in polemical works, created the illusion of a multiplicity of well-defined and different cultures inside a dominant one, where in reality, there was no such compartmentalization? Has this clear separation obscured the different currents and versions inside each alleged group? And is it possible that the very absence of clear religious categories might explain, in part, the large number of polemical works produced in Iberia?


The chapters in this book transcend not only disciplinary limits but also the frontiers of Iberia, taking into account in particular the Mediterranean and Northern European contexts and considering the influence of problems traditionally associated with Iberia in other parts of Europe and the Mediterranean. We will discuss the question of how the Iberian polemical context works when transferred to other settings, particularly after the expulsion of Jews (1492) and forcibly converted Muslims (Moriscos, many of whom continued to practice their previous religions in secret) from Spain between 1609 and 1614. Therefore, this book will cover a long period of time—namely, from the twelfth century to the end of the seventeenth.

Religious conversion is very much at the core of religious polemics. Religious conversion necessarily implies the articulation of religious or communal boundaries; it forces the parties concerned to conceive of the kind of transformations that were supposed to be taking place.6 In fact, from the late Middle Ages onward, a culture developed in Iberia that was heterogeneous and continually involved in debate, a culture that can itself be seen as polemical in its diversity.

During the Middle Ages, the Iberian Peninsula was divided into separate territories under Islamic or Christian rule, with Jewish minorities living in both. This fact set Iberia apart from other regions of Europe. The borders between Islamic and Christian territories were slowly shifting over the course of the Middle Ages. Conquest, emigration, internal political strife—all contributed to the existence on both sides of the Islamic-Christian border of minority communities: Muslims in Christian territories, Christians in Muslim territories, and Jews in both. These religious minorities were legally recognized in accordance with a system of religious and legal pluralism in which the king was the ultimate arbiter and protector. This political order was challenged by the emergence in the twelfth century of what some historians have called “the dream of conversion” (in the words of R. I. Burns or of John Tolan), shared by Christians and Muslims in Iberia. Thus we have the appearance of the orders of Mendicant preachers and their large-scale campaigns on one side and the Almohads and their policies of forced conversion on the other. The thirteenth century was also important: it witnessed four crusades and saw the Mongols defeat the Abbasid Caliphate. It was as if the end of Islam was at hand. It is also the century of the great territorial expansion of the Iberian Christian kingdoms, which conquered most of Islamic Spain. It was in this century that Franciscans and Dominicans started to fully apply their ideas of conversion to Jews and Muslims. The end of the fourteenth century witnessed a more radical change in the treatment of minorities in Iberia. The work and preaching of Vincent Ferrer was of singular importance. His declaration that “the neighbor of a Jew will never be a good Christian” fundamentally changed the general attitude toward cohabitation in medieval Iberia and provoked a series of pogroms and forced conversions, targeting mainly Jews. The civil war and succession struggle that marked the life of Castile in the 1460s and the violence against Jews and converts erupted in several urban centers. The situation escalated up to the time of the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, which was followed in 1502 by the first decree of conversion of the Muslims. As a consequence, there was growing debate in the sixteenth century about heterodoxy, Christianization, and conversion, reflecting how entangled political challenges, theological considerations, and interreligious contact had become a triad peculiar to Iberia.

The forced conversions that took place between the end of the fourteenth century and the first decades of the sixteenth coincided with the final Christian conquest of Islamic territories in Iberia. The Kingdom of Granada ended the same year as the expulsion of the Jews was decreed. The evangelization of Granadan Muslims, the forced conversions that gave rise to crypto-Muslim and crypto-Jewish groups, were the base of an early modern wave of polemical texts and images. Widespread conversion created new forms not only of otherness but also of familiarity, of intimacy. Christian society had to redefine itself through confrontation with and rejection of what it considered to be the religious and cultural characteristics of the other religious groups. Moreover, defining Spanish Catholicism meant distinguishing it from other local forms of Christianity. This redefinition was undertaken with an ongoing commitment to polemical confrontation and self-assertion. From the fifteenth century onward, the converso problem—in the sense of not only how to regard converts but also how to be a convert, what to retain from the old religion—was of primary importance. Converts often gave little thought to the precise limits between their old and new religions, and even Christians sometimes had doubts about the boundaries or the tenets of their own religion when faced with large numbers of converts or with, for example, the Hebrew Bible, which was the sacred text of a rival religion but also contained part of the revealed truth according to Christianity. In different historical moments, it is clear that here were similarities among the three groups’ religious and philosophical thought, as is shown in the chapters of this book. Due to ambivalence and to the fact that some converts continued to practice their original religion in secret, differentiating between religious affiliations was difficult. What becomes evident from the chapters in this book is that polemics against Islam and Judaism provided an opportunity for Catholics to clarify their own doctrines vis-á-vis those of competing Christian groups and for those who would reform the Church and society to express their reform agendas disguised as a struggle against Judaism or Islam.

[Excerpt ends here.]