During the 850s, 48 Christians were executed in the Muslim-governed city of Córdoba in modern-day Spain. Each had intentionally committed a religious offense against Islam; most had publicly denounced the prophet Muhammad. The martyrdoms, as some immediately claimed they were, strangely began during a period in which the Muslim emir was tolerant of Christians as dhimmi, protected “People of the Book.” It was also a period during which the majority of Christians were resigned to Muslim rule, and in fact viewed the martyrs as dangerous and destabilizing.

The phenomenon of Christian martyrdom in Córdoba was to a large degree a result of both Christian and Muslim extremism, as conservative adherents of each religion responded to the growing secular Arabic culture in the city. Some Christians, including most notably the priest Eulogius and the layman Paul Alvarus, reacted with attempts to “revive, stimulate and enhance the study and pursuit of Latin literature,” combat heresy and non-Christian religions, and promote and intensify traditional Christian rituals and sacraments. At the same time the Muslim government, and specifically the emir and qâdî, or judge, enforced laws restricting Christianity more strictly under the influence of the Malikite school of jurisprudence and other intensely religious Muslim movements. In addition to these general extremist tendencies among powerful minorities of both Chrisians and Muslims, Christian perceptions and characterizations of Islam and Muhammad had a tremendous role in the martyrdom movement and in Christian opposition to it. There were thus three forces that encouraged the Córdoba martyrs: Christian conservatism, Malikite interpretation of shari’a law, and Christian characterizations of Muhammad and Islam.

The first issue, that of Christian conservatism, is the one most often discussed in relation to the martyrdom movement, in part because it serves as the easiest link between the martyrs and broader issues of Iberian history. Even viewed only within the context of the martyrdoms, though, this anti-Arabic, anti-secular movement led by Eulogius and Alvarus is quite interesting. The movement was essentially a broad propaganda campaign for traditional, uncompromising Christianity. According to James Waltz it had three components. The first was at attempt to revive the study of Latin, the state of which was famously decried by Alvarus. As part of this effort, Eulogius traveled to Northern Spain and brought back to Córdoba copies of classical texts such as the Aeneid as well as important Christian documents, including the Istoria de Mahomet, which I will examine in more detail. The second aspect of the movement was opposition to heresy, which included extensive arguments between Alvarus and Bodo, “a Frankish deacon who converted to Judaism and came to Spain.” This aspect is important to the story of the martyrs because Eulogius and Alvarus defined heresy as encompassing not only heterodox forms of Christianity but all religions except orthodox Catholicism, thus terming their Muslim rulers heretics.

Finally, the conservative movement aimed to promote and intensify traditional Christian rituals and sacraments, especially the sacrament of penance. The sacrament “could be received only once in life and bound the person who received it to a strict penitential discipline thereafter” and the asceticism inherent in penance became commonplace in conservative Córdoban Christianity. It is likely that many penitents either moved to monasteries or developed rules to follow, as Alvarus himself did. Penitence and asceticism was played an intense and prominent role in the lives of many of those who denounced Muhammad and became martyrs in Córdoba.

A central example of this phenomenon is related in the Life of Eulogius, Alvarus’ hagiography of his friend, which describes the closely linked martyrdoms of Eulogius and a woman named Leocritia. Leocritia’s nuclear family was Muslim but members of her extended family were Christian; she was baptized and educated in Christianity by a nun named Litiosa, who, Alvarus wrote, “was of her kindred.” She revealed her Christianity to her parents, who “attacked [her] with severe punishments and tied [her] with heavy bonds.” Not wishing to renounce Christianity out of fear that “she would be burned in hell for her infidelity,” Leocritia went to stay with Eulogius. Eulogius was also concerned for her soul, and while under his watch Leocritia “austerely wore down her body, being constant in fasting and vigils, wearing haircloth and sleeping on the ground.” Eulogius himself, meanwhile, “spent nights without sleep, beseeching the Lord for help and strength for the maiden, and consecrating her to the Lord by these exercises.” These were extremist behaviors that most Christians did not see the need to engage in, but they were an essential aspect of Eulogius’ radically observant form of Christianity.

This ascetic aspect of the Córdoban Christianity encouraged martyrdom by relating it to penance and by emphasizing the importance of purity in Christianity, but it alone probably would not have led to the martyrdom movement. The second trend that encouraged the martyrdom is in a sense the flipside of the first: that of decreasing tolerance of Christianity on the part of Muslims. James Waltz, among other historians, states that the strict Malikite school of Islamic law had a massive influence on the emirs of the mid-ninth-century, Abd al-Rahman II and Muhammad I. Malikite thought “was introduced into Islamic Spain about 800,” and “opposed the introduction of new ideas and the study of traditions,” essentially forming a dogmatic legal system that regarded opposition to it or even question of it as heresy. “They firmly opposed Christians, particularly those who questioned Islam.”

Waltz further suggests that the rapid turnover of judges during this period was a result of pressure from the increasingly influential Malikites on the emir and qâdî. The qâdî who handled the cases of most of the martyrs was Sa’id bin Sulayman, the immediate successor to Muhammad bin Ziyad, who was deposed “for failure to order the execution of a Muslim who blasphemed in a moment of anger.” The dismissal of bin Ziyad is a sign that judges were expected to punish blasphemers harshly, and the Christian martyrs were considered to be blasphemers. Additionally, Muhammad I had been brought up in the Malikite legal tradition and was quite willing to act against Christians. When Christians again began denouncing Muhammad after nine months of no martyrdoms in 852 and 853 he threatened “to kill all Christian men and to sell Christian women into slavery.” According to Eulogius, Muhammad also “replaced the Christian officials with Muslims who ‘laboring with a similar zeal against God, afflicted, subverted, and oppressed them everywhere.’”

Muhammad I’s enforcement of restrictions on the roles of Christians in government was a reaction to Christian insurgence, though, not the reason for it. This is clear from the fact that the martyrdom movement was well underway when Muhammad I became emir. The restrictions were also not purely motivated by the Malikites’ strict interpretation of shari’a; the law placed the same restrictions on Jews as on Christians, but the emir did not eject Jews from positions of power. As Kenneth Baxter Wolf notes, “Eulogius himself could not figure it out: ‘why… if the emir enjoyed such free exercise of power, did he not also force the Jews to be removed from his presence…?’” His answer is simply that Jews were not “troublemakers”; removing potential enemies from power was smart, but Jews were not likely enemies. Whatever the motivations of Muhammad I, his restrictions of Christians served as additional ammunition for arguments in favor of the martyrs. Alvarus, for instance, wrote that the Córdoban martyrdoms took place “at the time… when King Mohammad with unbelievable rage and unbridled fury determined to root out the race of Christians,” and Eulogius wrote an entire book on the destruction of churches by Muslims.

A third issue is closely intertwined with the other two, though. This is the place of Islam in a Christian worldview. In his article on “The Earliest Spanish Christian Views of Islam,” Kenneth Baxter Wolf writes about this topic. He argues that until “almost a century after the conquest” in the early eighth century, Iberian Christians made no effort to understand Islam due to “psychological distance.” This distance, in some ways enforced by laws against intermarriage and public display of religion, existed in part because Muslims segregated themselves from the Christian majority to prevent both conversions to Christianity and Christian influence on Islamic practices. By the time of the martyrdoms, though, most Christians were familiar with Islam and saw it as a religion with which they could coexist. Eulogius and many members of monastic communities near Córdoba, who had less contact with Muslims than city-dwelling Christians, saw this as impossible and created the portrayal of the executed Christians as true martyrs to religious persecution.

Many Christians detected the obvious problem in this portrayal: they weren’t being persecuted, at least not in any way comparable to the persecutions of early Christianity in Rome. Furthermore, they saw the martyrs as having, in Eulogius’ words, “suffered at the hands of men who venerated both God and law.” They respected Muslims as fellow monotheists, actually adopting the Muslim notion of “People of the Book.”

Eulogius’ works in defense of the martyrs, Memoriale sanctorum and Liber apologeticus martyrum, were written largely to argue against this position and to provide a context in which the martyrdoms were justified. As Kenneth Wolf wrote, he had to “construct an unambiguously derogatory image of Islam, not only to justify the radical actions of the martyrs, but to embarrass those Córdoban Christians who felt at ease working within the framework of Arabo-Islamic society.” Exactly what Islam was became important, and Eulogius tried to demonstrate that it was not the religion of “God and law” that his opponents saw it as. An important source in understanding Eulogius’ anti-Islamic argument is the Istoria de Mahomet, or History of Muhammad, a short and very negative biography of the Prophet. The author of the Istoria was evidently Christian and likely Iberian, but his exact identity is unknown. It is clear, though, that Eulogius found the text at the monastery of Leyre around the year 850, shortly before the first martyrdom. When he wrote his Liber apologeticus martyrum he copied the Istoria into in, using its anti-Muslim rhetoric as a basis for his own.

The Istoria itself is closely based on both the Qur’an and Muslim tradition, and the author was quite familiar with Islam. It describes Muhammad as a usurer and adulterer who “began to commit some of the sermons of Christians to memory” and then heretically claimed to be a prophet himself. One of the claims most useful to Eulogius was that Muhammad took his ideas about religion from Christians, a statement that Norman Daniel terms a “misrepresentation of actual fact” because it is “based presumably on the Islamic apocrypha about Bahira” but twists the Muslim tradition to ascribe Muhammad’s wisdom only to his knowledge of Christianity. Eulogius also used the central claim of the Istoria, that Muhammad was a false prophet, “to attack the authority of the Prophet to teach.” Eulogius was thus able to make an argument that shared the assumption of the compromising Christians: that Muslims worshipped the same God as Christians under a different law.

Alvarus also made an argument against Islam, but on the somewhat different basis that Muhammad was Antichrist. Alvarus supported this claim with his interpretation of the biblical book of Daniel and included it in his Indiculus luminosus, written in 854. Working in a tradition began by Jerome, Alvarus depicted Muhammad as an Antichrist, not as the Antichrist, aiming more at apologetics than at apocalypticism. He argued vigorously that the new Arabic culture of Córdoba was anti-Christian, to the point that martyrdom for the cause of Christianity was justified, but in essence compared it to the apocalypse rather than saying that it was the apocalypse.

Alvarus’ argument that Arabic culture was anti-Christian gets to the core of his and Eulogius’ involvement in the martyrdom project, though. The martyrdoms were (perhaps like modern suicide bombings) a way of driving apart religious and political groups that were coming to enjoy a peaceful coexistence. Each of the three forces I have discussed in this essay encouraged the martyrs by encouraging this split in Córdoban society, and Eulogius and Alvarus used the stories of the martyrs themselves to further widen this rift. As it turned out, the martyrdoms eventually ended without bringing the Christians much, and Christians continued to assimilate into the Muslim-controlled culture, but the goals and motivations of the cheerleaders of the martyrs’ movement stand independent of their successes or failures. To Eulogius and Paul Alvarus, the martyrdom movement was primarily a wedge that served their goal of separating Christianity from unpure Muslim and Arabic culture.

Works Cited

  • Paul Alvarus, “Life of Eulogius,” translated by C. M. Sage, Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources, edited by Olivia Remie Constable (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), pp. 51–55.
  • Edward P. Colbert, The Martyrs of Córdoba (850–859): A Study of the Sources, dissertation at the Catholic University of America (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1962).
  • Norman Daniel, The Arabs and Medieval Europe (London: Longman, 1975).
  • Istoria de Mahomet,” translated by Kenneth Baxter Wolf, Conversion and Continuity: Indigenous Christian Communities in Islamic Lands, Eighth to Eighteenth Centuries, edited by Michael Gervers and Ramzi Jibran Bikhazi (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1990), pp. 96–99.
  • Marđa Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Boston: Little, 2002).
  • James Waltz, “The Significance of the Voluntary Martyrs in Ninth-Century Córdoba,” Muslim World 60 (1970), pp. 143–159, 226–236.
  • Kenneth Baxter Wolf, “The Earliest Spanish Christian Views of Islam,” Church History 55 (1986), pp. 281–293.
  • Kenneth BaxterWolf, Christian Martyrs in Muslim Spain (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
  • Kenneth Baxter Wolf, “The Earliest Latin Lives of Muhammad,” Conversion and Continuity: Indigenous Christian Communities in Islamic Lands, Eighth to Eighteenth Centuries, edited Michael Gervers and Ramzi Jibran Bikhazi (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1990), pp. 89–101.
  • Kenneth Baxter Wolf, “Muhammad as Antichrist in Ninth-Century Córdoba,” Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Medieval and Early Modern Spain: Interaction and Cultural Change, edited by Mark D. Meyerson and Edward D. English (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), pp. 3–19.

Additional Related Works

  • Ann Christys, Christians in al-Andalus (711–1000) (Richmond, Surrey, UK: Curzon, 2002).
  • Allan Cutler, “The Ninth-Century Spanish Martyrs’ Movement and the Origins of Western Christian Missions to the Muslims,” Muslim World 55 (1965), pp. 321–339.
  • Kenneth Baxter Wolf, “Christian Views of Islam in Early Medieval Spain,” Medieval Christian Perceptions of Islam: A Book of Essays, edited by John Victor Tolan (New York: Garland, 1996). 85–108.

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