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In our modern world, the frequency of terrorist activity and the ubiquitous threat of attack has greatly affected the way Western culture has come to regard the religion of Islam. Skewed by the media, society’s perceptions have reverted to the views of its European predecessors. It seems the negative attitude toward Islam that so defines today’s political landscape stretches as far back as the High Middle Ages, and with this being such a prevalent and powerful force, it is important to examine the roots of this idea as it pertains to evil. Much like today, though to a generally far lesser extent, the Western Europeans in The Song of Roland and the Muslims in the Koran believe their doctrines to be so different that a peaceful coexistence seems impossible when in actuality their beliefs, particularly regarding the notion of evil, are very similar. To both cultures, evil is defined as rejecting the will of God; however, in examining the intricacies of their notions of evil, further similarities will be revealed. This essay will discuss how the Islamic and Western European cultures conceptualize evil in their respective texts, which will enhance the understanding of the long-time rivalry that has existed between these cultures, in that their misunderstood notions of one another obscure the fact that many of their beliefs are alike. Both Islam and Christianity focus on the notions of deception, namely hypocrisy and trickery, and bartering of one’s soul for material goods and personal glory as sources of evil; therefore, their values are not as different as they misperceive, rather they are essentially one in the same.
In the Koran, evil comes in many forms, one of which is deception, which is constituted by three actions: accepting then renouncing the faith, falsely representing oneself as a believer, and trying to hide God’s revelations. The Koran censures the people who commit such acts as these by saying that those who “break His covenant after accepting it, and put asunder what He has bidden to the united…these will surely be the losers” (2.12). Also to be guarded against are “those that hide the clear proofs and the guidance We have revealed” (2.25) because they try to steer believers away from the path of God. All of these prohibited actions may cause followers to be corrupted, which seems to be what the Koran fears most about the practice of deception.
This statement is less applicable to the Koran’s notion of hypocrisy, which says that the hypocrites “deceive none save themselves, though they may not perceive it” (2.11). Here the Koran expresses two notions regarding hypocrisy: that the faithful are strong enough to discern truth from fiction, and that this evil dulls one’s sense of perception, an outcome elaborated on in the likening of hypocrites to “beasts which, call out to them as one may, can hear nothing but a shout and a cry” (2.26), deafened and blinded by their evil. Under the same realm of hypocrisy, those who pretend to be faithful for personal benefit are also evil, as God “will not forgive those who do evil and, when death comes to them, say: ‘Now we repent'” (4.62)! From the negative consequences for such deception described, it is obvious that such actions are condemned.
Insincere proclamation of faith for personal benefit is evil as well in The Song of Roland. In this text, evil is identified with the Saracens who refuse to submit to Christianity; therefore, any of their actions may also be considered evil. This holds true for the pagan king Marsile, who dispatches ten envoys to tell the Christian emperor Charlemagne, “that before a single month has passed, I’ll bring to France a thousand of my men, there be converted” (Roland.82-81) when in reality he has no intention of keeping this promise. This is not the first instance Marsile has shown treachery; as Roland recalls, he once sent a message of peace, but when Charlemagne “sent two Counts as envoys to the King…they left their heads on a hill near Haltilies” (207-9)! With this history of deception, it is fitting, even imperative, that a pagan be made an example and punished for his kinsmen’s crimes. This comes when a Saracen feigns death and tries to rob Roland, who “strikes the helmet…smashes the skull and bones; he puts both eyes out of the pagan’s head and sends the body crashing into the ground” (2288-91). This gruesomeness shows that trickery is not only unprofitable but detrimental to one who commits such a crime.
As deception is reproved in both The Song of Roland and the Koran, so is the act of bartering, namely one’s soul or morality for material goods and personal glory. Written in a world where evil is equated with the love of the material obtained by trade over God, the Koran says of these infidels, “Evil is that for which they have bartered away their souls” (Koran.2.18). Here the term “barter” is introduced as a manner in which one may obtain evil. It continues, denouncing “those that barter guidance for error and forgiveness for punishment. How steadfastly they seek the fire … [and those who] cast the Scriptures over their backs and sold them for a paltry price…Evil was their bargain” (2.27-3.59). Examining these quotes in the historical context in which they were written, it is appropriate that barter be seen in this negative light. Mohammed, the chief preacher of the Koran, was a social critic born into a Meccan trading family. Unhappy with his wicked society, he attributed its evils to the very barter which ran it. Mirroring these thoughts, the Koran says “They sell God’s revelations for trifling gain and debar others from his path. Evil is what they do” (9.134), reproaching the evil traders.
In The Song of Roland, bartering is also condemned as the two symbols of evil, Marsile and the traitor Ganelon, put their own countrymen at stake for personal glory. Marsile does this twice. First he offers twenty pagan hostages to Charlemagne saying, “We’ll have to yield the sons our wives have borne – it’s certain death but I will send my own” (Roland.42-3). Then he trades his people and land to the pagan Baligant to fulfill his own personal quest to defeat Charlemagne, saying “Baligant has rights in Spain; he’ll have my kingdom” (2747-8). This bartering is not exclusive to the ruler of the pagans; his subjects share this susceptibility to exchange evil for material wealth when Marsile promises, “If you persuade the King, much gold and silver shall be your thanks from me, fiefdoms and land” (74-6). The pagans’ reply of “That’s all we require” (77) shows they care only about their reward and not the evil means they must use to achieve it. Ganelon also succumbs to the lure of barter when he trades the lives of twenty thousand Franks for land and the recovery of his honor by killing Roland, who caused him to “suffer such pain he nearly splits with rage” (304-5). From this description of such intense anger, Ganelon’s motive is most obviously the humiliation he endured at the hands of Roland. Because both these men are evil, their actions are also considered evil by the texts.
Although both these religions in their own works agree about the pitfalls and sinfulness inherent in deception and barter, it may be argued that the texts’ notions of evil diverge at the treatment of evil-doers, who in this instance are the nonbelievers. The Koran teaches a blind-eye policy, saying “do not make friends with any but your own people” (Koran.3.52). It continues that “It is no concern of yours whether He will forgive or punish them” (3.53), which means the nonbelievers are to be ignored. Even their monotheistic cousins are not to be trusted, as they are to “take neither the Jews nor the Christians for your friends. They are friends with one another” (5.85). Not only are they to shun them, but they are to doubt them, for “if an evil-doer brings you a piece of news, inquire first into its truth” (49.363). One of the most telling statements, “If God afflicts you an evil, none can remove it but He” (6.94), demonstrates why Muslims are not to try to convert other religions’ members. They should not waste time trying to achieve the impossible but rather make sure that they themselves are completely submitted to God’s will.
On the other hand, The Song of Roland takes place during the Crusades, at the end of “seven long years [of] war in Spain” (Roland.2), when the active spread of Christianity was a prevalent and guiding force. Talking to his comrades, the hero Roland outlines the ideal knight, “crushing vile pagans, who cannot see the light” (2211-4), meaning that those who refuse to convert are to be destroyed. However, if they allow themselves to be baptized, action is mitigated to peaceful conversion, which is shown when Marsile tells Charlemagne that a thousand pagans will be christened. Judging by Charlemagne’s joyful reaction to the prospect of a society where “no pagan now remains who isn’t dead or one of the true Faith” (101-2), it is inferred that this world where all nonbelievers are either dead or converts is the Christian ideal.
The argument that these religions differ in this way applies only under peaceful circumstances. When the evil-doers wage war against God Islam converges with Christianity once again. In this case, Muslims are instructed to retaliate, to “fight valiantly for His cause, so that you may triumph” (5.83). As demonstrated earlier, Christianity employs a similar remedy: a “convert or be destroyed” policy which often ends with the destruction of the pagans. Moreover, in the Koran the infidels are to be “slain or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides, or be banished from the land” (5.83). The Song of Roland instructs an equally violent action by saying, “The Franks of France have struck with a mighty force; enormous numbers of Saracens are slain…no king on earth can boast of better men” (1438-42). By lionizing such actions, the book applauds the merciless destruction of those who refuse the faith.
By examining the notions of evil as represented in these texts depicting two seemingly different religions, it has been revealed that although tension between Islam and Christianity has existed for over a thousand years, the two faiths take similar standpoints on the notion of evil. While the authors of The Song of Roland and the Koran attempt to vilify and discredit the other religion, the views expressed by these texts are in actuality essentially one in the same when compared. Born from the same Abrahamic tradition, Christianity and Islam unite in their beliefs, and out of this revelation these two long-standing rivals may learn to peacefully co-exist.
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