As previously noted, Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse (Basic Books, 2011), by American medieval historian Jay Rubenstein, is as readable as it seems credible. (See Sanctifying the Killing of Muslims).
At the turn of the first millennium, Rubenstein explains, Christians often referred to Muslims as Ishmaelites. When the biblical Abraham, childless, suggested that his wife Sarah allow her servant to impregnate her, Ishmael was the result. But when he finally produced an heir himself (Isaac), Abraham drove out Ishmael — called a “savage man” in Genesis — as well as Sarah.
Even before the dawn of Islam, this passage of the Bible was applied to nomads. As for the term Saracen, Rubenstein writes:
The Ishmaelites, Latin authors believed, desperately wished to conceal their base heritage. They wanted to pretend that they were not the illegitimate children of a slave. Hence, they called themselves the “Saracens,” the descendants of Sarah.
Christians stuck with that because
“Saracen” was simply too useful — by itself evidence of that faith’s base ancestry (Muslims were born of a slave), its illegitimacy (they were bastards), and its mendaciousness (they used their names to lie about it).
However, the “origins of the Saracen faith … were almost a complete mystery to Europeans.” How much of a mystery? Rubenstein explains.
The only reliable information about the faith’s origins could be found, perhaps predictably, not in history books or in theological treatises but in … a series of popular prophetic manuals. … Saracens, we learn from these books. … were nomadic warriors who moved like locusts, traveled nude, ate raw meat stored in skins and drank the blood of oxen mixed with milk, desolated cities, and spread their destructive influence all around the Mediterranean.
Surely, in creating them, there was method to God’s madness.
Their arrival would be for the whole world “a punishment without pity.” They would attain power not because God loved them, but because He wished to punish sinners. On account of sexual crimes committed by Christians, “God shall hand them over to the barbarians [Ishmaelites].”
Who would …
… stab pregnant women in their bellies. … murder priests in sanctuaries. … steal priestly vestments and use them to clothe their women and children. … And as the final insult, they would bring beasts of burden into the tombs of the saints and there shelter them as if in a stable.
In their ignorance, Christian writers called Mohammed “Mathomos,” who they found “by looking at Christ through a glass darkly,” as if he were a “negative image” of Christ. Writes Rubenstein:
The various biographies of Mathomos tell roughly the same story. They usually begin with a heretic: an embittered, failed Christian leader who … exiled to the land of the Agarenes. … takes on a pupil [Mathomos]. He trains the boys in the ways of his faith — essentially a complete surrender to libidinous pleasures. According to twelfth-century writers, that was indeed the secret to Islam’s rapid expansion and popularity: free love.
It’s almost needless to point out the irony in light of Islam’s family values today (as well as the puritanism of Muslim extremists). Rubenstein also writes:
As far as some crusaders could tell, there was no real difference among Saracen, Jew, and heretic. They were “equally detestable,” all “enemies of God.”
Never let it be said that Christians, who slaughtered Jews as a warm-up for killing Muslims on the way to Jerusalem, haven’t been equal-opportunity haters down through history.