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Individu et societe dans Ie monde mediterraneen musulman

Individual and Society in the Mediterranean Muslim World
Directrice de la collection: Randi DEGUILHEM
Directeur du progranune de recherche : Robert ILBERT
Paroles d'Islam
Individus, societs et discours dans I'islam europeen contemporain
Islamic Words
Individuals, Societies and Discaurse in Contemporary European Islam
Dirige par/directed by Felice Dasseto
Les points de vue presentes dans cet ouvrage n'engagent que leurs auteurs.
Authors are solely responsible for the points of view presented in their articles.
Conversions islamiques
Identites religieuses
en Islam mediterraneen
Islamic Conversions
Religious Identities
in Mediterranean Islam
dirige par I directed by
Mercedes Garcfa-Arenal
Maisonneuve et Larose
European Science Foundation
Dreams and reason:
Autobiographies of converts in religious polemics
The fact that many converts are to be found among the authors of works dealing
with religious polemics or controversies is so well established in all religions that it will
not be dwelt upon here. Of course, in the medieval period, many Christian and Jewish
converts in Islamic lands wrote polemical treatises in defense of Islam and against
Christianity or Judaism. I In these works, authors sometimes (though, unfortunately, not
very often) included autobiographical material with a narrative of their own conversion
as part of the apologetic. discourse. These texts are important because they add to our
notion of what was possible in the medieval Islamic presentation and religious
exploration of the self. They can contribute to OUf knowledge of what constitutes the
realm of the individual in medieval Islamic society since they present portrayals of
individuality. Autobiography is a rare expression in the Middle Ages and particularly so
in the Muslim world, a fact that bestows an added interest upon those texts. Conversion
is always subversive, whether it is to another religion or internal conversion to another
fonn of religiosity. The anxiety caused by the process of converting or the dramatic
L The classical reference not so much for converts as for controversialists is of course Steinschneider,
1877. Also see references in Caspar, 1975, pp. 144-145; ibid., 1978; Perlmann, 1974. More specifically
for the topic at hand: Stroumsa, 1995; Fiey, 1995, pp. 24--25.
moment of conversion and the fupture which it brings to the life of the convert
occasionally seems to have acquired an imperative force to be recreated and explained
in writing or to have induced an uncharacteristic drtve for public confession. 2
As is well known, Western scholars have denied the existence of autobiography in
the Islamic tradition. G. E. von Grunebaum's appraisal of Muslim cultural values as
responsible for discouraging portrayals of individuality as well as introspection is still
basically held as valid.
The implicit notion that Muslims are incapable of reflecting
upon themselves as individuals within a larger society, that they experience anxieties as a
result of conceiving themselves as distinct entities and cOmmitting such thoughts to
paper, continues to meet with wide acceptance. In view of the texts that will be
considered in this work (and in others in this volume), it is obvious that these notions
must be revised.
These autobiographical narratives are also related to questions that have been the
object of recent attention by scholars of the medieval Christian world: on one hand, it
concerns the possibility, appropriateness or extent in which the term "autobiography"
can be used when speaking of the Middle Ages 5 and, on the other hand, it studies the
experience of conversion as conveyed by narratives of conversion, the most exploited
texts being those of Paul and Augustine. Many authors treat these tales of conversion
as fiction or as historical artifacts. Some of the ideas proposed in those studies will be
surrunarised in the present research to be used as a framework for the autobiographical
texts which constitute the object of this study.
Autobiography as a genre has received much critical interest which tends to
centre on the periods of its greatest flowering, subsequent to the European
Renaissance. This type of autobiography has three styles or models of reference: 1) a
biography such as that of Petrarca which tells how an individual has triumphed over
Destiny; 2) a subjective and existentialist discourse a 1a Montaigne and 3) a personal
journey which is didactic and ordered in the humanistic tradition.
But, during its primary stages, autobiography more clearly reveals the evidence
of its origins.
In a much quoted article entitled "Autobiography in the Middle
Ages?", Paul Zumthor presented his doubts "regarding the univocity of personal
discourse: the referential relation involved in the use of the pronoun 'I', obviously
conditioned by a certain cultural model, must surely have undergone a radical
change between the twelfth century and that of Jean-Jacques". 9
In the Christian West, antecedents to autobiography have been found in the
ConfessionaL Beyond the habit of alleviating guilt by confession, the institution created a
formal system of introspection. It has been shown that confession can be closely linked to
medieval notions of indiViduality. Confession, as autobiography, also brings consolation,
is therapeutic and is part of an increased sensitivity to the spiritual and emotional needs of
the indiVidual which developed from the central Middle Ages onwards.
2. Revah, 1961; Pascal, 1960.
3. von Grunebaum, 1969. Another classical reference (which I have not read) is Rosenthal, 1937.
4. Marin, 1998.
5. Lehman, 1953.
6. Chartier, 1996; Liechtenhan, 1993.
7. Zimmennann, 1960.
8. Zumtho!, 1973, p. 29.
9. Fergusson, 1983.
.,.-f ,.

On the other hand, the ethical wills and the establishing of family genealogies
encouraged wilting about the self among Jews living in Christian lands. Along with
dispositions for inheritance, from the twelfth century onwards, Jewish wills had
sometimes included burial prescription as well as pages of moral injunctions and rules
for the deceased's children. These ethical conunands are part way to a self-portrait. 10 In
these wills, one can speak of the 'I' since there is thinking about the other, the constituant
of the will setting himself up as model and example. !! All this is also found in the texts
of Muslim converts and polemicists in which much infonnation relates to a "ConfesSion"
. and. of course, still more by way of representing oneself as a model and example.
It can be assumed that autobiography comprises two elements: an 'I' and a
narrative presented as non-fictive. Autobiography involves the formulation of a
coherent interpretation of the self from a particular viewpoint in time: the author's
view of his past life in an effort to construe it as a whole. 12 There emerges an
interpretation of past experience through the process of reflection which attempts to
clarify the development of the self. 13 Therefore, written autobiographies by converts
raise the problem about the way in which conversion affected the perception of pre-
conversion events. A man who changes his own name because he has become another
person must define the border between his present and his previous selves.
It has been said above that autobiography comprises basically two elements, an
'I' and a narrative presented as non-fictive. But medieval writers did not make as
clear a distinction between an account of real events and fiction. This opposition was
much less important to them than the opposition between teaching and non-teaching.
Their discourse is essentially moral and didactic, but it is nevertheless centred
around events which are composed of verifiable elements and which can be defined
as historical. Individual experience, even on the level of the deep intention of the
text, is transcended. 14 In brief, this volume deals with texts that have a moral and
didactic injunction in which the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is blurred
but in which indiVidual experience can be grasped.
This very post-modern blurring of fact and fiction is what underlies many a
recent study on tales of conversion. In his two books on the issue dedicated to the
writings of Paul, Augustine, Hermann the Norman and others, Morrison emphasises
the categorical difference between the experience of conversion and written
narratives about it. IS According to him, experience and text can only be related to
each other in fictive ways. Morrison establishes two levels of conversion: 16
- affiliation where a person embraced a creed, submitted to the institutions of the
society that taught the creed and lived the consequences of his acceptance and
submission, its sequel being lived within a SOCial context.
- conversion as a process of redemption that was initiated, SUStained and completed
by divine action: This is the metaphYSical or even supernatural sense which occurs by
10. Though they have not received much attention, thls kind of will is also found in the medieval Muslim
world. As an example, see de la Granja, 1968.
11. Zemon Davis, 1988.
12. POints developed by Pascal, 1960, chap. I.
13. Zimmermann, 1960, p. 121.
14. ZUmtho!, 1973.
15. Morrison, 1992; ibid., 1990.
16. See a similar between "conversion" and "adhesion" in Nock, 1983, pp. 7ff.
grace rather than by any logical deductions. Non-demonstrable and mysterious, it is also
imponderable, cannot be predicted and is not possible to be put into words. How can
this experience which belongs to the realm of inexpressible feeling and intuition be
transported to the realm of representation?
Morrison raises such questions as whether one can assume that conversion
actually occurred because there is a text about it and, if so, whether one can accept
the narrative as a historically accurate description of events. He presents the texts as
imaginative renderings into words of experiences that could not be expressed <l$
deliberate fabrications calculated to achieve specific objectives. The texts, he
concludes, are metaphors defined by tradition with a repertory of meanings.
Therefore, tales of conversion are historical artifacts and expressions of an ascetic
wing of a literary, even highly intellectual male elite.
Fredriksen argues that the theological (intellectual or ideological) content of
conversion does not lie in the dear moment of radical change presented by the classic
literature. That moment exists only retrospectively when the convert, examining his
life, attempts to interpret his present in light of his past (how did I get here?). But, he
comes to his past only through his present and it is from his vantage point in the
present that the convert constructs a narrative which renders past and present
continuous, intelligible and coherent (this is how I got here). J7
These are notions which should be kept in mind when reading the texts
presented in this study by authors of polemics who converted to Islam between the
twelfth and fourteenth centuries. The questions raised here concern the identity of
these men Cif they belong to one or several categories), for whom they were
writing and in which tradition the meaning of the metaphors is anchored. How did
they represent the dramatic and single moment of their conversion?
Autobiographies of converts which predate the main texts focused upon in this
study will briefly be reviewed first, namely, those of Samuel al-Maghribi, a Jewish
convert, and Abdallah al-Tarjuman, a Christian convert from Majorca, who was
formerly Fray Anselm Tunneda. Their tales of conversion will be compared with
fictional qi$$as in which a story of conversion appears. This is not to say that these
narratives are fictive: on the contrary, their texts correspond to a real conversion
experience. Rather, the point is to show how topoi and stereotypes appear in both
fiction and narratives of real facts. This will lead to questions about the extent to
which one responds to the image of oneself which one perceives in the other, Le.
how one interiorises stereotypes as well as how one recounts great things as they
are generally known to happen. The coincidence between fictional tales of
conversion and autobiographical narratives indicates that those converts often
accepted definitions of identity from the outside world; the convert is the
autobiographer answering to this world in the way in which he is expected to do
so. It is also well known that culture mediates the experience of individuals. It
provides in advance some basic categories and patterns in which ideas and values
are ordered. Above all, culture has authority since each person is induced to assent
because of the assent of others. The question is therefore to ask if cultural patterns
can be seen in the texts examined here which shape the authors' experience and
what those authors tell of that experience.
17. Fredriksen, 1986.
In the Christian West, the first known conversion text after that of Augustine is
the Opusculum de conversione sua written about the middle of the twelfth century
by Hennannus quondam Judaeus who was previously Juda Levi, son of David. The
bibliography for this Opusculum is abundant with many considering it to be mere
fiction. A. Momigliano, who thinks that it is authentic, believes that the
autobiography of Hermann was constructed to explain the dream which brought
about the conversion. Hermann places the totality of his autobiographical data
between the account of the dream and its interpretation. 18
Dreams play an important part in autobiographies and in conversions. For
example, they are prominent in the documents which depict two conversions of
Christians to Judaism in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries: the Cairo Geniza
has preserved at least two autobiographical accounts in Hebrew by converts to
Judaism who went to live in Islamic lands. One is an anonymous letter in which the
writer, a fonner priest, relates a dream that he had while in prison which persuaded
him to convert; in the dream, one of his jailers allowed him to escape. The author's
ecclesiastical education and his study of the Scriptures brought the priest to doubt the
meaning of the Holy Text. Questioning its meaning, he wrote fourteen treatises to
prove the correct interpretation of SCripture, i.e. that which is in accordance with
Judaism. 19 This letter is therefore a case of autobiographical writing and polemics.
The other conversion experience is written by an aged Nonnan aristocrat from
southern Italy, Johannes of Oppido, who was also almost certainly a fonner pdest.
In 1102, he converted to Judaism and took the name of Obadiah. 2G This person was,
as he himself writes, "a man who pursued knowledge and wisdom in books". 21 The
example of Andreas, archbishop of Bari, who converted to Judaism and went to live
in Islamic lands when the author, Johannes, was a child, was an important role
model in Johannes' decision to convert. Johannes-Obadiah, who speaks in the third
person about himself in a fairly long personal memoir of which different fragments
are preserved, states that he was inspired to convert not only by the example of
Andreas, but also by a dream which he had in his youth while still living in his
father's house in some state of impurity.22 The fragments preserved of Obadiah's
autobiography come from more than one copy of the text. Some are vocalised and
some have Bible quotations in Latin although they are written in Hebrew characters.
The text was undoubtedly meant for wide diffusion at a time when Obadiah,
although maintaining contacts with the west, was already residing in Eastern Islamic
The two conversion accounts were contemporaneous; Obadiah's text was written
after 1121 and Hennann's was written after 1129 when he became a Christian. Both
converts considered themselves summoned to conversion in dreams which they had
had in adolescence. Obadiah was in a state of defilement in his father's house and
Hennann was tempted away from conversion to Christianity by his father who tried
to marry him off to a very young and beautiful Jewish bride. He fought and escaped
lust by conversion. The ascetic yearning is present in both of them.
18. MOrnigliano, 1984.
19. Assaf, 1946, p. 149.
20. Prawer, 1979.
21. Ibid., p. 114.
22. The main fragments from Obadiah's text were published by Adler, 1919; Mann, 1930; Goitein, 1953.
Disgust at his own lust and debauched way of life also seems to have been a
factor in the conversion to Judaism by the Carolingian courtier and deacon, Bodo,
who converted in the 8408, adopting the name of Eleazar; he then emigrated to
Islamic lands, to al-Andalus.
He had himself circumcised, let his hair grow,
changed his clothes and his name and went to Zaragoza and then to Cordova. There,
he maintained a very militant attitude against Christianity, exchanging letters of
religious polemics (of which about seven have been preserved) with Paulus Albarus,
the Mozarabic bishop.24 Those converts to Judaism emigrating to Islamic regions
deserve a monograph of their own. They established patterns which became
recurrent, among which is the convert's need to geographically separate himself
from his previous community.
A trip in the other direction (Islamic to Christian lands) was made by Petrus
Alfonsi, a Jew from al-Andalus who became a Christian in 1106 and emigrated to
Christian Spain. He is the wen-known author of the Dialogus contra ludaeos, a
work which had enormous repercussions not only in the medieval Iberian Peninsula
but also in the rest of Europe. He was one of the first to have made abundant use of
rabbinical literature in a polemic against Judaism. In his Dialogus, he also includes a
chapter (number V) against Islam on which he was considered an authority. 25
Petrus Alfonsi, born and bred in al-Andalus, was a distinguished scholar in Arabic
astronomy and science as well as a rabbi educated in the traditions of Jewish religious
learning. The book is written in the form of a dialogue between the author with
his former self in which he transforms this former self by means of
theological and philosophical arguments. In his introduction, Petrus Alfonsi
describes the circumstances of his own conversion (see Appendix 1). He presents the
reactions of his fonner co-religionists as a cause for his writings and wants to present
arguments which prove, by the force of reason, that Christianity is superior to any
other religion. He insists on the idea that it is not reason, but emotion which prevents
men from seeing the truth. He also puts forward the idea that one should learn from the
man who has greater knowledge and experience at his disposal: he is very explicit
about his own intellectual achievements and obviously is proud of them.
The best extant autobiographical text is that of Samwal b. Yal).ya al-Magbribi.
Samuel was a Jew of North African origin who had acquired a certain reputation as a
scholar, physician and mathematician who converted to Islam in 558/1163.
Immediately after his conversion, he wrote a very widely diffused treatise against
Judaism, lftuim al_Yahud,26 in the form of questions and answers. Four years
afterwards, as a reaction to attacks by a former co-religionist, he added a long
autobiographical text to it (see Appendix).
Samuel starts by describing his origins and lineage, his parents' name as well as
their education which made outstanding persons of both of them. He then goes on to
describe in detail his own education and achievements. He is proud of his parents and
grateful to them because of the education which they gave him. He is very clear in the
expression of his pride in these intellectual achievements. In fact, he describes his
23. Cabaniss, 1952-1953.
24. Gil, 1973, pp. 227ff; Delgado Le6n, 1996, pp. 18ff.
25. See this chapter in Tena, 1997.
26. I used the edition and translation by M Perlmann included in 1974, pp. 115ff. Stillman, 1979, which
reproduces Perlmann's translation of the autobiography, omits some passages.
curriculum (which included medicine, logic, history, mathematics, rhetoric and
literature), the masters with whom he had studied as well as the books that he
memorised in a way not different from what is familiar to us by way of the fahiiris
genre. But, Samuel goes further than mere description, he lets us see the passion and the
subsequent interests that have taken hold of him during his intellectual and spiritual
development. In fact, it is not so very different from the way in which a modem scholar
would define and talk about himself, the difference being that Samuel's explicit
manifestation of pride in his merits and achievements (because Samuel boasts) would,
nowadays, be frowned upon. Samuel defines himself through his passion for knowledge
and study, his learning, his enjoyment of literature and his professional activities; that is
the aspect of himself about which he is prepared to be more explicit. His past and
present are made coherent, intelligible and continuous through his love of study and his
intellectual development which are ineluctably bound to bung him to conversion.
Samuel explains that reading Arabic literature and espeCially Arab history made
Islam interesting and attractive to him. It is histOrical certitude which first convinces
him of Mul,lammad's mission. But his path to Islam is an intellectual process of
study and higher knowledge gUided by reason. Those are peculiarities shared by
other intellectual converts: search for knowledge and learning wherever they can be
found, the quest for religious truth and a higher religiosity in addition to a tendency
to identify the place of religious truth with the place of education and learning. 27
Conversion appears as the culmination of acculturation.
Samuel accords a paramount place in his autobiography to the deSCription of his
dreams which represent a turning point in the path towards his conversion. His
dreams are important because they pushed him to overcome the last and important
obstacle to conversion, namely, Samuel's love for his father. This is another feature
of his indiViduality about which he is prepared to be quite explicit and which rings
piercingly sincere:
I held this belief (Islam) out of consideration for my father ... for he loved me intensely,
was very much attached to me and could hardly live without me. He was careful about
my upbringing ... The consideration for my father did not abandon me for a long time,
until travels separated me from him and my abode became distant from his. Yet, I
persisted in my respect for him and the effort to avoid distressing him on my account.
This is a paragraph in which emotion is allowed to appear (see Appendix).
Eventually, it was the distance that he put between himself and his father plus
diVine guidance in the fonn of dreams that enabled him to Convert to Islam. Samuel
repeatedly insists that his dreams were not the cause for his conversion: for him,
religious expeIience does not constitute a suffiCient argument for conversion nor does
tradition or heritage compel one to follow a certain religion. The only legitimate
argument is reason. Reason and demonstration are "the fmal arbiter". He insists on the
fact that since his early youth, his mind had been trained in diSCiplines based on logical
demonstration. He describes that after he trained his mind in the mathematical sciences
and its demonstrations, he began to ask himself about differences among men in
religious faith.
27. Stroumsa, 1995, p: 184.
I received the greatest impulse to inquire into the subject from reading the epistle of
Bardawayh, the physician in the book Kalila wa-Dimna.2S
Sarah Stroumsa 29 has indicated the possibility that Samuel took his argument
from Barzawayh about reason being the sole arbiter. But reason brought him,
Barzawayh, to conclude that religions contradict each other and are based on
illusions; he rejected them all and chose an ethical, ascetic way of life. 30 The
following paragraph by Barzawayh mllst be compared with Samuel's text:
I found that there are many religions and creeds and that the followers of these creeds
differ one from another. Some inherited their religion from their ancestors, others
adopted it on account of fear and coercion, yet others hoped by means of it to acquire
worldly goods, pleasures and prestige. But every one of them claims that his religion
is the true and correct one and that whoever contradicts him lives in error and
deception. I decided to frequent the scholars and leaders in every religious faction and
to examine what they teach and stipulate in the hope that perhaps I could learn to
distinguish truth from falsehood without having to accept on the authority of otherS
something that I could not know or understand myself. I pursued this plan,
investigated and studied. But I discovered that all of these people merely repeat what
was handed down to them. Each one praises his own religion and curses the religion
of those who disagree with him. It became clear to me that their conclusions are based
on illusions and that their speech is not motivated by a sense of fairness. In not one of
them did I find that degree of honesty and rightmindedness which would induce
rational persons to accept their words and be satisfied with them.
Samuel, for his part, also insists on reason and the need to revise what our ancestors
have handed down to us. Samuel says (see Appendix for additional citations):
I realized that if it is reason that is the root of the adherence to the religions inherited
from earlier generations ... it is necessary to make reason the supreme arbiter. And if
we make reason to be supreme judge of what we learn by transmission from our
ancestors, we realize that reason does not oblige us to accept ancestral tradition
without examining it as to its soundness, merely because it has been handed down
from ancestors, but obliges us to accept tradition only if it be a verity per se and if
there is proof of its soundness. Mere reference to fathers and ancestry, however, is nO
proof. For if it were. it would serve all (religions ... ).
If the path and method are the same for both Samuel and Barzawayh, they brought
Samuel not to skeptiCism, but to conviction. He seems to have really meditated upon
Barzawayh's text, for he retorts "as to disbelieving all (religions), reason does not
dictate that either" (see Appendix).
According to the physician and philosopher al-Razi (d. 923), reason is also considered
as the greatest of God's gifts and the source of knowledge about the Creator.
! Could
28. Ibn a1 Muqaffa', 1905, pp. 33-34.
29. Stroumsa, 1995, p. 193.
30. Van Ess, 1968.
31. Watt, 1963, pp. 35-37.
Samuel have known al-Razi's work? Another physician who converted to Islam
allegedly through reason is 'Ali b. Rabban al-Tabari, a Christian intellectual." Like
Samuel or Petrus Alfonsi, al-Tabarl attacked his former faith by justifying his new one
and, like them, he wrote in order that slanderers may not say that he converted out of
pursuit for temporary gain. Similarly. 'Ali b. Rabban al-Tabari hastens to assert the
superiority of reason as a fundamental principle for the quest of true religion.
AJ-Tabad is very influential in the works of another convert, Fray Anselm Tunneda, of
whom more will be said later. Reliance upon reason is evidently an important part of
Muslim polemical tradition.
Samuel must have been moved by Barzawayh's case and might also have been
inspired by the fictional account of the doctor's life in the book which prompted him
to write his autobiography in a Similar way. The Book of Barzawayh (or Burzoe),
the Physician" is presented as a spiritual autobiography. Below is a quote from the
beginning of the "Book":
My father belonged to a distinguished race, and my mother was descended from
mighty chiefs of the Magi. Through the great goodness of God to me, I was dearer to
my parents than all their other children, and they cared more for my welfare and
advantage than for that of all my brothers. When I came to seven years old, they sent
me to a school. Having learnt everything according to the custom of our law, I was
grateful to God and my parents for the benefits which I had received from teachers
and the learning I had gained from instructors. But when I examined all the different
beliefs, and considered the various professions and weighed everything with common
sense, I conceived an ardent desire to study medicine, and to this occupation I devoted
myself with all my might, and persevered in it, and made it my object, until I acquired
much wealth from it. }<
Like Samuel's autObiography, Barzawayh begins with his genealogy, his
parents' lives, the education that they gave him and their love and solicitude for him.
His love and pursuit of scientific knowledge leads him to study the different
religions in a "scientific" way. This is not to imply that Samuel's autobiography is
fictional, only that the way in which he speaks of himself is rooted in (and made
possible by) a literary tradition with which he is current. It is this literary tradition
(not only literary fiction, but ajbiir, jaharis, ribia, etc.), hallowed by writing, which
defines the framework and means by which Samuel finds it possible to speak about
Much could be also said about Samuel's love of history and Arabic "belles-
Iettres" which he describes as his "fascination by records of the past" and
"infatuation with books of entertainment", It is here where Samuel reveals most
about himself and it is in the study of history where Samuel finds proof and
demonstration for the truth of Islam. This love of history as an impulse to change
one's life can be related to the contemporary Maimonides' distrust of cultural
attitudes which can undermine Jewish identity and, in general, to his criticism of an
32. aITabari, Kitrib al-Tadd 'ala a l ~ ~ a m , apud Brockelmann, 1937, pp. 414-415.
33. Khalife and Kutsch, 1959.
34. Keith-Falconer, 1885, p. 248; Ibn al-Muqaffa', 1905, p. 33.
acculturated Jewish elite.
In chapter XII of his Moreh, Maimonides very explicitly
warns against "those books to be found among the Arabs, such as chronicles (ajbar),
books about the stories of kings, genealogies of Arab tribes, books of songs and
poetry and the like". 36 Maimonides arrived in Egypt where he wrote the Morek in
1166, three years after Samuel's conversion. One wonders whether Maimonides
knew Samuel's text. In any case, Maimonides never mentions Samuel. 37
As said, although Samuel dedicates pages of his text to his dreams, he does not
accord high value to them. They are somehow out of place in his text, like a topos
that was inserted there since he knows this is the way in which inexpressible things
were explained. In Islamic tradition, one of the first Jews to convert to Islam, Ka'b
al-Akhbar is a recurrent figure and certain features of his legend recur in conversion
stories. J1l Ka'b al-Akhbar is credited with wisdom and knowledge. He is said to have
awaited the advent of the Prophet because of his arrival having been foretold by
Scripture; the story goes that Ka 'b al-Akhbar converted because of his dreams. 39
Another well-known tapos seems to be the notion that Jews seek knowledge and
science; it is through science that they reach Islam. The story told in the Appendix
about the conversion of a Jew gathers features recurrent in the conversion stones. If
one carefully reads Samuel's text, one realizes that the descnption of his dreams are
included at a moment where reason seems to have taken him to an impasse: reason
does not dictate the belief or disbelief in all religions because all of them have
virtues and preach lofty morals. It is at this point that he includes the account of his
dreams. Reason is not enough: Samuel also needs his dreams to confinu his belief.
Sa'id b. Basan of Alexandria is another convert polemicist who has left
autobiographical information. Sa'id b. I:Iasan was a learned Jew who, as a
consequence of his miraculous recovery from a serious illness, converted to Islam in
1298. As he graphically relates in his Kitab Masiilik aI-Nazar. 40
Know (and may God Almighty direct thee to his service) that I was one of the learned
men of the Children of Israel, but God bestowed Islam upon me. The occasion was
this: I became ill and a physician was attending me. The shroud of death was prepared
for me when I saw in my sleep one speaking who said, "Read the sura al-l}amd, then
you will escape death." So when I awoke from my sleep I immediately sought one of
the trustworthy Muslims. He was my neighbour and I grasped his hand saying, "I bear
witness that there is no God but Allah, he alone, and he has no partner; and I bear
witness that Muhammad is his servant and apostle, whom he has sent with guidance
and the true religion, to make it triumph over every religion." And I began repeating
and saying, "0 strengthener of the heart, strengthen me in the belief'. Then when I
entered the mosque and saw the Muslims in rows like ranks of angels, a voice within
me said, 'This is the nation concerning whose appearance the prophets preached good
35. Alfonso, 2001.
36. Baron, 1935.
37. Stroumsa (1995, p. 184), quoting the letters of Bishop Timotheos r (eighth-century Baghdad) who
mentions a learned Jew preparing to convert to Christianity because of his interest in the archaeological
discoveries of the day and their significance for the history of religions.
38. Perlmann, 1953.
39. Lewis, 1984, pp. 96-97.
40. Weston, 1903.
tidings" and when the preacher advanced clothed in black hair-cloth, great reverential
fear came over me .... and when the prayers began I was greatly moved, because I saw
the rows of the Muslims like rows of angels, and God revealing himself as they
bowed in prayer and as they prostrated themselves. Then a voice within me said, "If
the revelation of God came to the Children of Israel twice in the course of time, then it
comes to this people in every prayer." Then I was convinced that I was created to be a
Muslim only; and my conversion to Islam took place in the beginning of the month of
Sha'ban in the year 697.
Sa'id introduces this paragraph with a long account about how dreams are part of
-: prophecy. He goes on to speak about the beauty and inimitability of the Quran in
addition to giving the usual argument about Jews having corrupted the Scriptures.
'_. The miraculous nature of the Quran had also been an important factor in Samuel's
Sa<id's text, as well as those of Barzawayh and Samuel's are relevant not
only for the important role of reason in Islamic theology and polemics but also for
discussions about the religious nature of man and his religious heritage.
Sa'id seems convinced that he was born a Muslim. The Prophet Muhammad
has said that "Everyone who is born is born with a sound religious nature. 'It is his
parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Magian."42 This tradition has been
frequently discussed in Muslim theological literature and is generally interpreted
as meaning that man is naturally born a Muslim and only historical or social
circumstances deviate him from the right path (This can be compared with
St. Jerome's statement that "Christians are made, not born", Epistles 107/I). This
idea has implications for our knowledge concerning the realm of the individual in
a medieval Islamic society because this tradition seems to imply that man can
redeem himself from any religious danger with only a minor effort. He may
thereby attain salvation due to his inborn religious disposition and his belonging to
a religious community. 43
Yet, this has proved to be insufficient for many a highly learned Muslim. Ibn
IJazm speaks in the first person about this inborn faith. He says that everything
which he learned, his science and his logic, only confinued but did not increase his
certitude and deepness of his earlier faith.44 On the contrary, al-Ghazzali, in his
~ u n q i ~ min aI-dalaI, 45 quotes the above-mentioned tradition but seems to interpret it
III a dlfferent way: that one is born a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew according to
historical and social circumstances. After a certain time, one should then revise that
which he has received from his parents and search for the roots of true knowledge in
a way comparable to that undertaken by Barzawayh or Samuel; like them, other
persons use arguments which suggest the eqUivalence of religious traditions. Samuel
says very clearly: "For we find that they all (the different religions) preached lofty
morals, appealed to the virtues and against the vices, and regulated the world in a
fashion benefiCial to mankind." Like Samuel, Ghazzali is able to reach religious
41. Ibid., pp. 379-380.
42. Wensinck, 1927, p. 43, s.v. child, children.
43. Rosenthal, 1977.
44. Adang, 2000.
45. I have used the Spanish translatiOn by Tomero, 1989, p. 30.

certitude and avoid the skepticism of Barzawayh and al-Razi. 46 In fact, al-GhazzaII's
Munqid should be included in this essay since it can be considered autobiographical
in relation to a conversion episode. The Munqid has, in fact, been compared to
Augustine's confession
because it tells of a conversion in the sense of a search for
higher spirituality and an encounter of it in the fonn of Sufism; Sufism being an
important force for "internal conversion" but also for conversion from Judaism
to Islam. <IS The search for higher spirituality often seems to be combined with
asceticism and a certain dose of scepticism.
This study now deals with the last of the polemicists. At the end of the fourteenth
century, another convert, 'Abd al-I:Iaqq al-IsUi.mi of Ceuta, wrote a treaty of
polemics against Judaism entitled, al-Sayf al-mamdudfi 'l-radd 'alii al-yahiid,49 in
which he includes brief autobiographical notices, albeit disappointing from the
researcher's pOint of view. Unlike other converts, 'Abd al-I:Iaqq does not mention
any sudden enlightenment, event, shock or dream. He only mentions that, before his
conversion, he had not been free from doubts about his religion and that he had
discussed these doubts with other Jews. He also seems to have had connections with
Muslim 'ulamii'. Through divine inspiration, 'Abd al-I:Iaqq converted when he
was fourty years old. Sixteen years afterwards, he wrote his book. His entire family
(children and near relations) converted along with him. so In his work, 'Abd al-I:Iaqq
repeats his gratitude to God for having led him to the true religion. He shows
himself to be very proud of his logic, consistency and methodological standards but
tells us little about his own education. One learns more, however, about his
intentions: "With God's help I shall refute them, and annihilate their doctrine with
arguments which they themselves accept and cannot diSmiSS, for I am going to cast
their own stones upon them, and flog them with their own assertions, taking my
arguments from their books."51
The case of Anselm Turmeda is very different from the above. Born in Majorca
in 1353, Anselm Turmeda was the son of a merchant. He became a priest, probably
a Franciscan monk, and studied in Lerida, Bologna and perhaps also in Paris. He
affirms that it was in Bologna where his teacher of Christian theology told him that
Jesus had revealed the coming of the Prophet Mul)ammad and that the teacher
counseled him to become a Muslim.
This episode seems to be a literary device. Stories just like it appear in other
fourteenth-century Muslim polemics, in particular, the Kitiib al-miftiil;. of Mul)anunad
al-Qaysl (d. 1309), a Tunlslan 'iilim who spent part of his life as a captive of Christians
in Catalonia, the same region to which the Balearic Islands and Lerida belonged. His
book is a treatise of polemics with a long autobiographic narrative about his expertence
as a captive in which there also appears a story about a religious person (in this case. a
46. AI-R1i.zI states: "We have seen that those who hold fast to tradition ... believe in the truth of their
religion basing themselves upon their faith in the truth of their ancestors' words .. .If this religion is true for
this reason, then all the faiths - Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and others - are valid as well since
they employ the same demonstrative method as does Islam": Kraus, 1936.
47. Frick, 1918.
48. Kraemer, 1992.
49. Edited and trans. (into Spanish) by Alfonso, 1998.
50. Perlmann, 1940.
51. Ibid., p. 180.
member of the Knights Templars who was a secret Muslim).52 The closeness in time
and region (Tunis and Catalonia) suggests that this is more than just coincidence and
that Turrneda must have known al-Qaysi's work.
Anselm Turmeda travelled from Majorca to Sicily and Tunis where, before 1390,
he was converted in the presence of the Hafsid sultan. He married the daughter of a
rich TuniSian merchant and became the translator of the sultan (al-Trujuman) and
qii'id in the dfwan al-babr. He was a Muslim to the end of his life and his tomb can
still be visited in the entrance of Suq al-SarrajIn in the madfna of Tunis. Anselm
Tunneda wrote several works both in Catalan and in ArabiC. At the end of his life,
when he was probably more that sixty years old, he wrote the Tul:ifat
fi 'i-radd 'alii ahl a polemical work against Christianity. The Tubfa had an
enonnous diffusion in Arabic and in a Turkish translation. 53 His autobiography (see
Appendlx) constitutes the first part of the Tu/lfa.
Tunneda's text is also written in the form of afihris and a ril;la. Though he starts
with the mention of his parents, an account of the studies that he had undertaken and
his intellectual development, Turmeda's text is very different from Samuel's.
Written at the end of the author's life and chronologically far removed from the
moment of his conversion, it is more adorned and embellished. Turmeda's text
brims with recreated dialogue and anecdotes and rises to a brilliant theatrical
denouement in which he professes Islam and accepts gifts from the sultan to him
(money, Wife, distinctions and high office). Tunneda belongs to a milieu which was
very different than Samuel's. Whereas the latter belonged to an environment of high
culture, Tunneda's world consisted of Mediterranean ports where exchanges and
influences were continuously felt, this was the world offunduks and consulates.
In his excellent study of Tunneda' s Tubia, M. de EpalzaS4 wrote about literary devices
and recurrent theme:s found in Tunneda's autobiography such as the oft-used method of
demolishing the slanders uttered by previous co-religionists. De Epalza analysed the
episode in which Turmeda destroys the slanderers' arguments in the presence of the
sultan, showing that Turmeda must have used a translation (even the same Arabic
sentences and formulations are taken up) of the traditions concerning the conversion of
'Abd Allah ibn Salam, the Jew from Medina who had converted in the time of the Prophet
Mul)ammad. 'Abd Alliih ibn Salam had requested of the Prophet that he ask the Jews of
Madina about him. The Jews said that Ibn SaHun was the most learned person, the best
teacher and the son of the most learned and the.best teacher. The Prophet then informed
the Jews about Ibn Salam's conversion whereupon they become furious and confused. In
this way, Tunneda anchored his conVersion to an archetype, to the ultimate model of
Conversion. De Epalza also analysed the autObiography in the context of the Tul:Ifa as a
whole, showing that Turmeda made abundant use of al-Tabarl, emphasizing that Ibn
Salam based his arguments on reason although he added that, in certain passages of
another of Tunneda's work, his Catalan Disputa de ['Ase, Tunneda manifested a certain
skepticism. But what is most pertinent to the present essay is that de Epalza demonstrated
that the Tubfa is an entirely Muslim work, rooted in the Arabic Muslim tradition.
52. Van Koningsveld and Wiegers, 1994.
53. In his own edition and Spanish translation, de Epalza, 1971. M. de EpaIza counts 43 manuscripts for
this work.
54. Ibid., pp. 26ff.
The following Appendix contains the translation of two stories which appear in an
unedited Arabic manuscript in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. 55 This manusCript
includes three conversion stories (only two are used in the present study since the third
refers to a Zoroastrian conversion, a topic not treated here) which seem to express
perceived conversion "models" as well as the different ways and reasons by which
members of different religions convert to Islam. For example, a Jewish individual
converts as a consequence of his search for science and higher knowledge whereas the
motive for a Christian convert is the seeking of temporary gain and high office, These
stories illustrate quite well some of the features noted in Samuel and Tunneda's
autobiographies. In relation to this, one should perhaps consider whether Art reflects
Life or Life imitates Art in an intricate intertwining perceptions of the Other and
of oneself as in the reflection of a mirror. That is to say, the stories illustrate how
stereotypes are built and then, once built and established, shape events.
Conclusions are rather meager at this point in time since this study represents but a
preliminary stage of analysis. The conversion stories referred to in this study
correspond to historically authentic individual expertences where conversions actually
took place. But religious polemics is the ultimate cause for the writing
of these autobiographies and one's own example becomes an argument in the
controversy. Conversion accounts are both anachronistic and apologetic. They are
apologetic on a personal and public level in that the convert must explain his actions to
himself and his audience (his new and his old groups). But, they are also anachronistic
because the account rendered in the conversion narrative is shaped by later concerns,
by the polemics in which it is included and by cultural dictats as well as the culture of
the audience to whom the text is directed. As Fredriksen says, 56 the conversion
account, never told by a diSinterested person, is a condensed or disguised description
of the convert's present situation which he legitimates through his retrospective
creation of a past and a self. This past is interpreted and understood in tenns of what
one wants to show, namely, that the present is better than the past and that it is on a
higher plane. At the same time, the conversion story is shaped by a narrative fonn
rooted in a literary tradition which dictates a way of saying things by using an array of
anecdotes and metaphors to guarantee the reception of the narrative and its
acceptability. The main ingredients for these conversion narratives are the ones
mentioned in the title of this paper: reason and dreams as the means through which a
man converts from one religion to another. Dreams are obviously a topos to explain
that which is needed in addition to reason, dreams are the ineffable something else.
Reason leads the trajectory but the convert needs dreams for his conversion.
No narrative is absolutely transparent in historical fact; it was not the study's
primary aim to separate historical fact from topoi and metaphor in those texts, but
rather to see which aspects of individuality are thereby perceived. What is it then
that those texts show us about the way in which an individual felt it possible to
present himself? Our authors belong, as Morrison says - to a highly literary
intellectual male elite which has an ascetic penchant. They feel at ease speaking
55. I am grateful to Hanna KassiS for allowing me to use his transcription of this manuscript.
56. Fredriksen, 1986.
about their education, travels, teachers, readings and intellectual growth. They can
manifest feeling, love and respect for their parents, pride of lineage and passion for
knowledge. Boasting about one's achievements and the defense of one's honour
. seems to be perfectly acceptable in relation to slanderers from the previous religious
group or in the face of suspicions among the new co-religionists. The setting up of
oneself as a model and example is evident; the didactic intention of conversion texts
is also manifest in addition to the need for self-justification. Reference to actual and
inner voyages are also recounted as well as man's triumph over Destiny. There is not
much which differentiates these narratives from Western autobiographical texts on
which the publications quoted at the beginning of this study have been based.
Although the authors Cited here are converts, i.e. men who have not been born into
an Arab-Muslim community, their cultural references and metaphors, as has been
shown, are fully Islamic. If literary institutions (such as the ConfeSSion model)
which are at the root of the Western genre of autobiography are not found in the
Islamic medieval world, the texts presented in this study do not, however, differ
dramatically from their European counterparts. The realm of individuality perceived
in the conversion texts is equivalent to that of the European ConfeSSions which are
based on the same aspects of the person. In the words of Paula Fredriksen:
Any traditional religion which sees its origins in a discrete historical revelation will
hold consonance with the past to be the ultimate criterion of legitimacy. Put
differently, the present is legitimate only to the degree that it re-articulates and
reaffinns the past. But the past is not thus preserved so much as remade in the image
of the present: the Past is too important, in a sense, to be allowed to exist. 57
Introduction of Petrus Alfonsi
in his Dialogui contra Iudaeos"
(He tells how the Almighty has enlightened him, shown him the path of
righteousness, opened the doors of his understanding, etc.)
As I now by reason of God's mercy have arrived at such a peak: of belief, and
have put off the mantle of error, and driven out the garment of sin, I have been
baptised and purified from sin in my place of living, the town of Huesca, at the
hands of the most glorious and righteous bishop of the town, Steven ... This baptism
took place in the year 1106 of the birth of Our Lord, in the forty-fourth year of my
life, in the month of June, on the feast of ss. Peter and Paul. It is for this reason that I
57. Ibid., p. 33.
58. Hermes, 1970, pp .. 37-40.

took the name of Peter in veneration and in memory of the Apostle. My father Was
Alfonso the famous ruler of Spain. It was he who introduced me to the springs of
heaven, and for that reason I added his name to my adopted name of Peter ... The
Jews who had known me previously, and had acknowledged me as learned in the
books of the prophets and the sayings of the masters, and also possessed of a good
education in the seven liberal arts, when they heard that I had adopted the law and
beliefs of the Christians, and had become one of them, thought that I had done this
by spurning God and the Law, and by putting off all shame. Others held the opinion
that I had acted in this way because I had not correctly understood the sayings of the
prophets. There were others who held that 1 had done it for vain glory, and
slanderously alleged that I had done it for secular honours, because I saw that
Christian society was superior in power to all others. It is because of all tbis that I
have written this little book, so that everyone can learn my intentions and the
reasons that I had for my action .... I have given the whole book the form of a
dialogue, so that the reader's mind may be quicker to understand. In the role of the
defender of Christian principles, I have placed the name which I now have as a
Christian and, in the role of the person speaking for the opposition, I have placed the
name of Moses, which was my name before baptism. 59
(He then talks about a friend of his from childhood who had been his fellow
student and companion. When this friend received the information that Moses had
become Petrus, he became furious with him, addressing him as a stranger and asking
him why he had converted.)
.. .1 ask you to explain your reasons for leaving the old beliefs, and taking up new
ones. I know well that you were learned in the books of the prophets, and that even
as a lad you excelled all your contemporaries in the interpretation of our Law ...
I know that you, whenever there was an opponent, always took up the shield to
defend our beliefs, and that you preached in the synagogues that the Jews should
never desert their beliefs. I know, too, that you taught scIipturallearning to many of
your fellow believers, and that you furthered the scribes in their knowledge.
Therefore, now I am completely at a loss to know why I now see you so changed,
and cut off from the path of righteousness. It seems to my heart that this has come
about solely through error. 60
I answered him: 'It is the way of uneducated and inexperienced people to make a
protest if they see someone do something which is contrary to their own custom,
even if that action is completely correct. They declare it to be incorrect according to
their standards and prejudices ... '61
Further on Peter (petrus) said:
Human nature has the peculiarity that, in the differentiation of true from false,
the organ necessary to differentiate becomes useless, when the inside of man is, as
were, troubled in some way by emotion. So now, if you do not remove from your
soul all those things that trouble you so that we can act like intelligent men, and find
out what is right without disagreement, and without anticipating the result of our
undertaking in any way, all our words will be thrown upon thin air.62
59. Hennes, 1970, pp.
60. Ibid., p. 39.
61. Ibid., p. 39.
62. Ibid., p. 40.
The conversion to Islam by Samwal ibn Yal;tya
Divine Providence leads a man, who through God's knowledge is predestined to
be rightly gUided, until he finds the right course at the exact time which God in His
knowledge has set in advance. I shall relate God's guidance granted to me, and how
I was led since my birth from the faith of the Jews toward my conversion, that it
may become an example and an exhortation to whomsoever this may reach. The
reader shall know that diVine kindness is so concealed as to be unfathomable. God
will select whomsoever He wishes, will grant wisdom to whomsoever He wants, and
will lead him along the straight path.
My father was called Rab Yehlida Ibn Ablin and was from the city of His in
Morocco; Rab being a title, not a name, and its meaning - a Rabbi. He was the
most learned man of his time in Torah studies, and the most gifted and prOlific
stylist and exquisite extemporizer in Hebrew poetry and prose. Among the Arabic-
speaking people, he was known as Abii-l-Baqa' Ya4ya Ibn 'Abbas al-Maghribi.
For most of the distinguished people among the Jews have an Arabic name distinct
or derived from the Hebrew name, even as Arabs who have a name and a surname
He married my mother in Baghdad. She came from Basra and was one of three
distinguished sisters well-versed in Torah studies and Hebrew writing, daughters of
ISQaq Ibn Ibrahim aI-Lewis, i.e. of the tribe of Levi, a tribe of good lineage,
for Moses sprang from it. This Isl).aq was a man of learning and taught in Baghdad.
Their mother was Nafisa, the daughter of Abu Na$r al-DawudI, one of their well-
known dignitaries whose progeny still dwell in Egypt to this day.
My mother was named after the mother of the Prophet Samuel. This prophet was
born after his mother had been barren, childless, and had not conceived for a number
of years, not until she prayed to the Lord requesting a son who would become a
devotee of God. A pious man, a spiritual leader by the name of Eli, blessed her and
she gave birth to Samuel the prophet. All this is described in the beginning of the
Book of the Prophet SamueL Now my mother had been with my father for some
time, childless, until she was filled with fear of her barrenness, and saw a dream in
which she was reciting the prayer of Hannah, mother of Samuel, to the Lord. She
then vowed that if she had a son she would name him Samuel, as her name was the
name of Samuel's mother. It came to pass that after that she conceived [2Sb] and
I was born; she called me Samuel which, in Arabic, is Samau'al. My father called
me Abu which was the Kunya of my grandfather.
My father had me learn Hebrew writing, and then study the Torah and the
commentaries until, by the age.of thirteen, I had mastered this knowledge. Then he
introduced me to the study of Indian reckoning and the solution of equations under
Shaykh Abli-I-I:Iasan Ibn aI-Daskari, and the study of medicine under the
philosopher Abli 'I-Barakat I:Iibat Allah Ibn 'Ali:, and the observation of current
surgical operations and the treatment of diseases as practiced by my maternal uncle,
Abil-I-Fatl:I Ibn As to Indian reckoning and astronomical tables, I mastered
63. Perlmann, 1964.
them in less than a year, by the age of fourteen, and at the same time continued to
study medicine and to observe the treatment of diseases. Then I studied,
administrative accounting and the science of surveying under Shaykh Abll-1_
ash-Shahraziiri, as well as algebra and equations under him and with the
kiitib Ibn Abi Turab as well. I then frequented Master Daskari and Abu-I-Basan Ibn
an-Naqqash for the study of geometry, until I had solved the problems from Euclid
that they used to solve. At the same time, I was so devoted to medicine that
I absorbed whatever I could from the above-mentioned two teachers of this science.
There remained parts of the Book of Euclid, the book of ai-Waslti on arithmetic and
the Book ai-Bad,' on algebra by al-Karkhl. But I could find nobody who knew
anything of these books, or beyond these, on the mathematical sCiences, e.g., the
book of Shuja' Ibn Aslarn on algebra and others.
My passion and love for these studies were so strong that I would forget food
and drink when pondeIing on some of them. I secluded myself in a room for a time
and analyzed all those [26a] books and expounded them; I refuted their authors
wherever they committed mistakes, demonstrated the errors of their compilers; and
undertook to verify or correct where other authors had failed. I found Euclid's
arrangement of the figures in his book faulty for by rearranging them I could
dispense with some as superfluous; this - after the book of Euclid had been
considered the acme by other geometricians, so much so that they had introduced
nothing new either by changing Euclid's set of figures or by eliminating any of
them. All this I achieved in that year namely, by the age of eighteen. Since that year,
my writings in these sCiences followed one another continuously down to the
present. God has revealed to me much that had been withheld from my predecessors
among the eminent scholars; all this I put into shape for the benefit of whomever it
might reach.
During that time, my only source of income was from the practice of medicine.
In this, I enjoyed a great measure of success for, with divine support, I was able to
distinguish a curable disease from an incurable. I never treated a patient but with the
result that he recovered. Whenever I felt disinclined to treat a patient, all the other
physicians would fail to cure him and would give up his case.
Praise to God for His bounty and great favour.
After extensive readings of books in Iraq, Syria, Adharbayjan and Kuhistan, I
acqUired the method of extracting much knowledge and of discovering mediCines
which, as far as I know, I was the first to find: such as the preparation I called "the
penetrating rescuer" because it cures several serious diseases within a fraction of a
day, and other preparations which I compounded that were useful and healing to
men, by the grace of God Almighty.
Before I took up these sciences, that is, in my twelfth and thirteenth years, [26b]
I was faSCinated by records of the past and by stories, and was eager to learn what
had happened in ancient times, and to know what had occurred in ages past. I
therefore perused the various compilations of stories and anecdotes. Then, I passed
on from that stage to an infatuation with books of entertainment and long tales; later
still - to larger compilations such as the tales on 'Antar, Dhu-I-Himrna, aI-Banal,
Iskandar dhu-I-Qarnayn, the stories of 'Anqa', Taraf b. Ludhan, etc. Upon reading
these I recognized that most of [the material was derived} from the works of the
historians. Therefore, r sought the real historical accounts, and my interest shifted to
the histories, of which I read the book of Abu 'Ali b. Miskawayh entitled
Experiences of the Nations, the History of at-Tabari and other historical works.
In these history books there passed before me accounts of the Prophet - God's
prayer and blessing upon him - his conquests, the miracles God had performed for
him, and the wonders he was given to work; divine victory and help which were
granted him in the battles of Badr, Khaybar and others; the story of his beginnings in
orphanhood and wretchedness; the animosity of his own people toward him while he
stood up to his adverSaries over a period of many years, rejecting openly their faith
and calling them to his own faith, until God pennitted him to migrate to Medina;
what calamities befell his active enemies and how they were slain under his eyes by
the swords of his supporters at Badr and in other battles; the revelation of the
miraculous verse foretelling the defeat of the Persians who, though headed by the
mighty Rustum with many thousands of a very great and powerful army, fled before
the small and weak column under Sa'd b. abi (sic.) the dreams ofChosroes
Anushirwan; the collapse of Byzantium and the destruction of its annies at the hands
of Abu 'Ubayda b. al-JarraJ}- God's mercy upon him. Then I read about the
governance of Abu Bakr and 'Umar, their justice (27a) and asceticism. At the same
time, engrossed in the accounts of ministers and secretaries, I acqUired from this
wide reading of the stories and reports about them, and from their own words, a
mastery of eloquence and a knowledge of rhetOriC to an extent that evoked the praise
of stylists and the admiration of rhetoricians, and that will be recognized by those
who read any of the books I wrote on some scientific discipline.
I saw the miracle of the Koran, which human eloquence cannot rival, and well
did I recognize the truth of its miraculous character. Then, after I had trained my
mind on mathematical SCiences, especially on geometry with its demonstrations,
I asked myself about the differences among men in religious faiths and tenets.
I received the greatest impulse to inquire about the subject from reading the epistle
of Bardhawayh the phYSician, in the book Kama wa-Dimna, and what I found
therein. I realized then that reason is the supreme arbiter and that its rule should be
established generally in the affairs of this, our world. For were it not that reason
directs us to follow the prophets and apostles and to trust the elders and authorities
of the past, we would not accept anything transmitted on their authority. I realized
that if it is reason that is at the root of adherence to the religions inherited from
earlier generations, and at the root of follOWing the prophets, it is then necessary to
make reason supreme arbiter in this whole sphere. And if we make reason supreme
judge of what we learn by transmission from our ancestors, we realize that reason
does not oblige us to accept ancestral tradition without examining it as to its
soundness, merely because it has been handed down from ancestors, but obliges us
to accept tradition only if it be a verity per se and if there is proof of its soundness.
Mere reference to fathers and ancestry, however, is no proof. For if it were, it would
serve all the infidel rivals as well, e.g., the Christians. Thus, they have it from
ancestral tradition that Jesus is the son of God and upon him depend sustenance,
privation, injury, benefaction. If following the fathers and ancestors were to prove
the truth of what has been handed on their behalf, this would oblige us to accept as
true the tenets of the Christians and Magians. [27b] Should it be claimed that
emulation of the ancestors be correct only in the case of the Jews, this would not be
accepted unless the Jews proved that their ancestors were wiser than those of other
peoples. The Jews may make such a claim with respect to their fathers and
ancestors, but all reports about their ancestors give the Jews the lie in this matter" .
Once we abandon partisanship in their favor, their ancestors are put on the same.
footing as those of other peoples. If the fathers of the Christians - and others -.,.
transmitted from their fathers such unbelief and error as reason avoids and sound
human nature shuns, then it is not impossible that what the Jews have transmitted on
behalf of their fathers be of the same nature.
When I realized that Jews and non-Jews are on a par with respect to transmission
of ancestral tradition, I realized that the Jews had not true proof in their possession
about the prophethood of Moses other than the evidence of the chain of
transmission, which is available for Jesus and Muhanunad just as it is for Moses ..".
peace upon them all; that if the chain of transmission serves as confinnation, then aU
three are right and the prophethood of all of them is true. I also realized that I had
not seen Moses with my own eyes nor had I witnessed his miracles nor those of any
other prophet, and that, but for tradition and our following in the footsteps of the
transmitters, we would know nothing of any of this. Then I realized that a reasonable
person cannot believe one and disbelieve another of these prophets, not having seen
any of them nor having witnessed the circumstances of any; except [that he may
trust] tradition, whose evidence of transmission, however, is available for all three
prophets. It is therefore neither reasonable nor wise that one of them be accepted as
true, and the others rejected as false. Rather, it is rationally incumbent either to
believe all of them or to reject all of them.
As to disbelieving all, reason does not dictate that either. For we find that they all
preached lofty morals, appealed for the virtues and against the vices, and regulated
the world in a fashion [28aJ beneficial to mankind.
Thus, trenchant proof convinced me of the prophethood of Jesus and of .
Muhammad, and I believed in them. For some time, out of consideration for my father,
I held this belief without performing the Muslim rites. For he loved me intensely,
could hardly live without me, and was very much attached to me. He was careful about
my upbringing, occupying me since my early youth with diSciplines based on logical
demonstrations, and training my thought and mind in arithmetic and geometry, the wo
disciplines whose mind-developing quality was praised by Plato.
For a long time I was not granted divine guidance, and this uncertainty, Le. the
consideration for my father, did not abandon me until travels separated me from him
and my abode became distant from his. Yet I persisted in my respect for him and the
effort to avoid distressing him on my account.
And the time of divine gUidance arrived. The divine can reached me in a vision
of the Prophet, in a dream, the night of Friday, the ninth of Dhu-I-F.fijja in the year
558. This was in Maragha in Adharbayjan. 54
(Samuel goes on from here to narrate in a very detailed way the dreams that he
had - the anguish, terror and repentance that they caused him. He dreamt of the
Prophet and decided to convert. And he adds:)
The reader of these pages should now understand that it was not the dream that had
induced me to abandon my first faith. A sensible man will not be deceived about his
affairs by dreams and visions, Without proof or demonstration. But I had known for a
64. Ibid., pp. 75-81.
long time about the proof, demonstrations and arguments for the prophethood of our
master Muhammad - may God pray over him and grant him peace. It was those proofs
and demonstrations that were the cause for my conversion and for taking the right path.
As to the dream, it served merely to alert and to prod me out of my procrastination and
inertia, toward declaring, now that my father was dead, the true creed.
Praise be to God for the conversion to Islam and the true creed, for the light of
faith and guidance. I ask him to direct me toward what pleases Him in Muhammad
and his kin.6S
The story of the Jew and the seekers of knowledge"
'This is a story about a man who gave charity to someone in quest of knowledge,
namely, it is said that Mul).ammad b. Jarir al-Tabari stated in [one of] his works that
when he wanted to set out in quest of knowledge, he and a group [of companions]
numbering twelve men set out (in quest of knowledgeJ and entered a certain country
where they devoted themselves to [the smdy of] the books of [prophetic] traditions and
knowledge until their money ran out When they wanted to leave, a Jew came to them
and gave 3.3 dirhams to each of them so that they resumed their study of the books of
knowledge until their money ran out [again]. The Jew kept coming back to see them, up
to forty times. When he came to them the fortieth time, he gave each one of them forty
silver dirhams. They were astonished by his action and said to him: Hey, you there!
Who are you? And he replied: A Jew and you are Muslims. They said: But why have
you shown us [such] generosity forty times? And he told them: Because I have read in
the Torah of Moses, our prophet, peace be with him, that God, exalted is He. said: The
most excellent gift [ ... J for My cause is for you to spend on the seeker of knowledge and
he who is prepared [to acquire] knowledge. Now, I have looked among all the Jews and
have not found anyone among them who is in quest of knowledge, so therefore I spent
on you when I saw you seeking knowledge.
After that, we took our leave of him and set out to make the pilgrimage [to
Mecca] and [when we got there], we saw him, making the circumambulation
[around the Ka'baJ, and we called: Hey, so-and-so! And he said, Yes? We said to
him: What is your business [here]? He said: When you left me, I retired [to bed] and
that night I saw [Mul)ammad], the Chosen One, may God bless him and grant him
salvation, in my dream. He said to me, God, exalted is He, has honored you with
[the gift of] Islam for your support of the people of knowledge. I embraced Islam in
my dream in the presence of the Messenger of God - may God bless him and grant
him salvation. When I woke up, my wife said to me, I have seen such and such and
she described to me her vision: she [too, had] embraced Islam in the presence of the
Messenger of God - may God bless him and grant him salvation. In our house, there
were some seventeen people - children and servants - and every single one of them
had had the same vision as mine; all of them had woken up as Muslims ( ... ).
65. Ibid., pp.87-88.
66. Bibliotheque Nattonale, Paris, ms. 1363.
The story of the Christian and the island 67
This is a hadith from the imam Mul)ammad b. Idris aI-Shafi'I, may God be'
merciful to him. He said: I met a Christian man in Mecca by the name of Ibn aI-
Asqaf who was circumambulating the Ka'ba. I said to him:
- What compelled you to give up your parents' faith?
He replied:
- I have replaced it with a better one.
lasked him:
- How did that happen?
He told me, then, that he had gone on board a ship and when they were on the
high seas, the ship was torn apart with him and all the other [passengers J aboard.
He said; I survived because (I climbed) on to a plank from the wreckage and the
waves carried me and left me marooned on an island in the middle of the sea. There
were many trees and streams in it. The trees had a fruit sweeter than honey and
softer than foam. There was also a sprtng from which honey flowed and I said to
myself: Praise be to God for this. I ate that fruit and drank from that spnng until
God, may He be exalted, comforted me.
When that day was over and night came, I was gripped by fear of sea creatures.
I climbed a tree and fell asleep on one of its branches until, about midnight, a beast
appeared on the water, praying to God (and repeating):
- Bakr, his army companion, 'Umar, key of the confines (towns), 'Uthman,
murdered in the mosque (fi 'i-dar), 'Ali, God's sword against the infidel. May the
wrath of the Almighty befall those who hate them!
He, the sea beast, didn't stop uttering these words until sunrise. When he was
about to depart, he added:
- There is no God but Allah, the Sincere and the Glorious, and Mul)ammad is
His prophet, the sincere and the rightly-guided, Abu Bakr, the sincere and the just,
'Umar b. al-Khat!-ab, the iron horn, 'Uthman b. < Afran, the slain one, the martyr, 'All
b. Abi TaUb, the brave. May the wrath of God, the Glorious, befall those who hate
them! May they end up in hell! May they be doomed!
When the beast reached the mainland, he saw that its head resembled that of an
ostrich, its face that of a man, its legs those of a camel and [that] it had a fish-tail.
I was afraid of being killed and (tried) to flee. It then turned around and said to me:
- Do not move! Do not be frightened!
I stopped and it asked me:
- What is your religion?
I replied:
- I am a Christian.
He answered back:
- 6, you poor lost soul! Return to the I;anifiyya, You are worthy to be a member
of a people protected from the jinn from which no one can be saved but Muslims.
I asked:
67. Idem.
It answered:
_ Say: I swear that there is no God but AlHih and that Mul)arrunad is His prophet,
God bless him and grant him salvation.
I uttered those words and then it said:
_ Your conversion to Islam (islamuka) is now complete. Now [try to] please
'Vmar, 'Uthman and 'Ali.
I asked:
- Who brought you this?
It replied:
_ A people who lived during the time of God's prophet, may God bless him and
grant him salvation. who heard him say: When doomsday/the Last Judgement
comes, you will go to heaven and proclaim in a joyful and divine language: You
promised to me that you would strengthen my faith (irkan) and the Exalted one said,
how sublime is His majesty! I have strengthened your faith through Abu Eakr,
'Vmar, 'Uthman and 'Ali and have enriched you through Basan and ijusayn.
The beast said to me afterwards:
- Young man, do you wish to stay here or go back to your family?
I said:
- Go back to my people.
It replied to me:
- Stay where you are until a ship arrives.
I remained where I was and the beast came down towards the sea and did not
leave me until a ship sailed by. I waved at those who were aboard and they rescued
me. I found twelve people [on the ship], all of them Christians. I told them my story
and they all converted to Islam. I later found out that these people kept it secret from
the young king and it was thanks to their charisma (baraka) that Islam took root and
I [managed to] attain a high position. Only God knows better, God bless our lord
Mul)ammad and his family and grant them salvation.
The Tul;!fa of 'Abd AlHih al-Tarjuman 68
Know, may God have mercy on you, that I am a native of the city of Majorca,
may God return it to Islam! It is a large city on the sea between two mountains cleft
by a small stream. It is a commercial city with two very good landing docks where
great ships cast anchor for important commercial traffic.
The city is on an island named by the name of the city: Mayurqa. Its agriculture
is composed, above all, of olives and figs. Each year, it exports more than 20,000
barrels of oil from its production of olives to the lands of Cairo and Alexandria. On
the cited island of Majorca, there are more than 120 walled cities, all very
prosperous, and many springs which cross its surface and flow into the sea.
My father was a member of the aristocracy of the capital of Majorca and had no
children other than myself. When I was six years old, he sent me to a teacher, one of
the priests. I learned the Gospels from him until I knew more than half by memory
within two years. Later on, for two more years, I applied myself to the study of the
languages of the Gospel as wen as logic.
68, Arabic ed. and Spanish trans. by Miguel de Epalza, 1971.
Afterwards, I went from my country to the city of Lertda, in the land of Catalan.
It is a city of learning among the Christians of the area and has a great river running
through it. There, I saw nuggets of gold mixed in with the sand, but it is well known
among the people of this country that the expense of exploitation would not be
compensated by the value of what one would obtain. And, for this reason, they
abandoned it.
In this city, there is a great deal of fruit I saw villagers there who cut peaches
into four parts and left them to dry in the sun. Also, they leave pumpkins and carrots
to dry in the same way. When they want to eat them in the winter, they put them in
water to soak during the night and then cook them as if this produce were fresh fruit
of the season. In this city, the students of science meet and their number comes to
1,500 men. They depend only on the priest with whom they study. The most
abundant harvest of these lands is that of saffron. There, I studied the natural
sciences and astrology for six years.
Then, I went to the city of Bologna in the Lombardy region. It is a very great
city. Its buildings are of excellent red brick as they do not have stone quanies there.
Each master builder who makes bricks has a special seal to indicate them; over them
is an amin muqaddim who measures the quality of the clay of each brick and their
firing. If he scratches or breaks anyone of them, he lays a penalty on whomever
made it in accordance with its value and inflicts a beating.
This city is a city of learning for the people of that country. Every year, more
than 1,000 persons come there from all over to meet for study, All wear the mantle
which is the habit of God. Although there might be a sultan or son of a sultan
amongst them, they wear only this habit so that no one can distinguish the students
from those who are not. They do not depend on anyone other than the priest with
whom they are studying.
There, I lived in a church led by a priest of great age and who had great authority
amongst them, called Nicohiu Fratello. His position was highly elevated amongst
them due to his science, hiS piety and his austere life. For this reason, he had no
equal in his day in all of Christendom. All kinds of eminent persons, including kings
and others, consulted him regarding religious matters. The consultations went
accompanied by substantial gifts; always the best of their kind. All wished to obtain
his blessing and hoped that he would accept their gifts which would highly honor
I studied the prinCiples of the Christian religion and its doctrines with this priest.
I was always with him, at his orders, always in agreement with him, so much so that
he admitted me amongst the most intimate of his friends. I continued serving him in
this way and our familiarity reached such a point that he entrusted me with the keys
to his residence and to the larder of his victuals, food and drink. All was in my hands
with one exception: the key to a small room at the back of his bedroom where only
he would enter. I suppose that it was the room of the treasures with which they used
to present him. God knows. I was with him, in the said manner, learning and serving
him for ten years. .
Then, it happened that one day, he fell sick and did not come to a meeting with
his colleagues. Those at the meeting waited for him and began to discuss different
topicS in the SCiences until they came to the text regarding the word of God, hoW
powerful and great He is, by the mouth of his prophet Jesus, may peace be upon
him, that there will come after me a prophet named the Paraclete. They tried to
determine which of the prophets this was. Each one spoke in turn of what he knew
and thought and a great argument evolved amongst them over this point. Afterward,
they parted without arriving at a definitive resolution of the problem and I returned
to the house of the aged director of the said class.
He asked me: What topic were you discussing in my absence?
I made him aware of the divergence of opinions which had evolved around the
name of the Paraclete and that so-and-so had resolved it this and that way and so-
and-so in this and that manner. Thus, I reproduced all of the responses for him. .
And you, how have you solved it?
I answered according to the responses of the learned so-and-so in his
commentary on the Gospel.
How far and how near you were! So-and-so was mistaken. And the other was
correct in something and came closer. But the truth is very different from all of that
because no one other than God and he who has had very solid instruction knows the
exegesis of this illustrious name. You all have not reached a high level of science yet.
I threw myself at his feet, kissed them and I told him: 6, my lord! You know that
I have travelled to you from a country far away and I have spent ten years in your
service. During this time, I have acquired so much knowledge from you that it could
not be enumerated. But, you would fill to overflOWing all of these benefits by
revealing to me the knowledge of this illustrious name.
The old man began to weep and he told me, 6 my son! You are very dear to me
on account of your service to me. Indeed, the knowledge of this illustrious name is
very useful, but I am afraid for you. If it is divulged by you, the Christians will kill
you at that moment.
6 my lord! By God on High and by the truth of the Gospel and of who brought
it, I will reveal nothing of what you tell me except by your express pennission.
My son, I asked you the first time that we met about your country, if it was near
the Muslims and if you fought or they fought you in order to know your feelings
toward Islam. You must know, my son, that the Paraclete is one of the names of
their Prophet MUQammad, may God bless him and save him, to whom was revealed
. the fourth Book according to what Daniel said, may peace be upon him, when he
announced: the religion of him to whom will be revealed this book is the true
religion and his community is the immaculate community which the Gospel
My lord, what do you say, then, of this religion, that is to say, the religion of the
My son, if the Christians had followed firmly in the early religion of Jesus, they
would certainly be in the religion of God because the religion of Jesus and of all the
Prophets, may peace be upon them, is the religion of God.
My lord, then what is to be done?
My son, enter into the religion of Islam.
Can they save those who enter into it?
Yes, they save him in this life and the other.
My lord, generally, every prudent man does not choose for himself anything
other than the best of what he knows. If you have recognized the incomparable
position of the religion of Islam, what impedes you from it?
My son, God, may He be praised, showed me the truth of what I have told you
about the religion of Islam and the greatness of its Prophet, may the blessing an<l
peace of God be with him, when I was very old and my body was already very
weak. (What he says is no justification. God has reason to punish him.) If God had
directed me toward this when I was your age, I would have left everything without
doubt. But, you see that I enjoy among the Christians all types of honors, titles, well-
being in the present life and riches in goods of this world. If the Christians saw
something of my inclination toward Islam, they would kill me immediately. And if
I managed, perhaps, to escape from them and put my safekeeping among the
Muslims, I would say to them, I came to you in order to become a Muslim. I would
remain among them, then, as a miserable old creature, with more than 90 years,
without knowing their language and without their being able to understand me.
r would remain there only to die of hunger. So that is why, glory be to God, that
r remain in the religion of Jesus and in what he has revealed. God knows this of me.
My lord, do you advise me, then, that I go to the land of the Muslims and that
I enter into its religion?
Certainly you will have success in searching for your salvation. Go qUickly and
you will obtain this world and the other. But, my son, for now, nobody must
understand anything regarding this subject other than us two. Conceal it with all
your will. If you reveal something of it, they will take your life and I will not be able
to do anything for you. It will not serve you to attribute the idea to me. I will deny it
and my word will be confinued against you whilst your word will not have any
substance against me. I will be innocent of your blood and nobody will think that I
have opined any of this.
My lord, God preserve me from even thinking about it.
I promised him what he wished in a manner which satisfied him. Afterward, .
I took travel provisions and I went to take my leave of him. Upon leaving, he gave
me his blessing and the aid of a sum of 50 gold dinars. I set out toward my country,
the City of Majorca, and I stayed there for six months. Afterward, I left for the island
of Sicily and I stayed there five months. r went looking for a boat which was going
to Muslim lands. There arrived, then, a boat which was going to the city of Tunis.
I made the journey from Sicily on it. We set sail near sunset and arrived at the Marsa
of Tunis around midday.
When r disembarked from the boat, some men who were among the Christian
troops who had heard of me, came with mounts and took me with them to their
houses. Accompanying them were some merchants who also lived in Tunis. r was
their guest, honored and treated very well for four months.
And after that, I asked them if there was someone who knew the language of the
Christians in the sultan's household. At that time, he was our sovereign
Abu 'l-'Abbas A1)mad, may God have mercy on him. The Christians told me that
there was a man in the palace of the said sultan who was one of the highest
dignitaries of his retinue called Yusuf, the Physician. He was the physician of the
sultan and one of his intimates. I was very happy to know all this.
I then asked for the house of this man, the physician. r went there, introduced
myself and recounted my situation to him; [1 told him] that the reason for my
presence there was my wish to enter into Islam. And knowing this, the man became
very happy and very content to be able to take part in the conclusion of this matter.
He mounted on his horse and took me to the palace of the sultan. He entered in
his presence and told him my story. He asked for an audience for me which was
conceded. I introduced myself, then, in his presence and the sultan first asked me my
age. I told him that I was 35 years old. Afterward, he asked me various questions
about the sciences that r had studied. I also explained these. He then said to me:
You are to be congratulated (and he gave me 50 gold dinars) now that you have
travelled, abandoning your land for ours. Now, become a Muslim with the blessing
of God.
I then said to the translator, Yusuf al-Tabib (the physician): Tell our sovereign,
the Sultan, that no one leaves his religion without his people raising their voices
against him and slandering him. I supplicate, therefore, of your benevolence that you
send for the most respected Christian soldiers and merchants that are here and ask
them about me and listen to the impression that they have of me. After that, I will
become a Muslim, if God wills.
The sultan answered me by means of the translator: You have asked of me the
same which 'Abd Allah b. Salam had asked of the Prophet, the bleSSing and peace of
God be upon him abundantly, when he wanted to become a Muslim.
He then sent for the Christian soldiers and some merchants and made me enter
into a room near the audience chamber [majlis]. When the Christians- entered, he
asked them:
What can you tell me about this new priest who arrived in that boat?
Lord, he is a great learned man of our religion. Our learned men have come to
say that they have not seen an authority higher in science and religion in all of
And what would you say if he became a Muslim?
God preserve us from that! He would never do it.
When the Sultan had heard what the Christians thought, he sent to look for me.
r presented myself before him and made the profession of the true faith in the
presence of all of the Christians. They made the sign of the cross on their faces and
That which has bought this man to do this is the wish to marry because priests
among us do not marry.
They left afflicted and melancholic.
The sultan, may God have mercy upon him, assigned me four dinars daily from
the dar al-Mujtass and I mamed the daughter of /:lajj Mul;tammad al--,$affar. When
I brought her to my house on the day of the wedding, he gave me 100 gold dinars
and a magnificent new robe. We came together and 1 had a son from her. I called
him Mul;tammad for the blessing which the name of our Prophet Mul),ammad bears,
blessing and peace be upon him.
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La conversion des chevaliers musulmans
dans la Castille du xv' siec1e'
A l'aide de paroles jllstes et de predications appropriees, les chretiens doivent
s'appliquer a convertir les Maures, ales amener a notre foi et a faire qu'ils croient en
elle et ce, ni par la force, ili SallS la contrainte, car si c'etait la volante de notre
Seigneur que de les forcer a adopter notre foi et a y croire, alors II les contraindrait I.
Ces mots du roi Alfonso X (1252-1284) peuvent servir de point de depart a
l'etude du cas de conversion au XV" siecle, d'un groupe de chevaliers morisques qui,
dans la derniere phase de l'offensive chretienne contre Ie royaume de Grenade, se
placerent pour des raisons diverses sous les ordres des rois de Castille Juan IT (1406-
1454) et Enrique IV (1454-1474). Ii semble qu'aucun ne fut contraint a se
convertir. mais ils sont presque tous enregistres dans Ie corps de garde du roi SOllS un
nom chretien.
* Une partie de ce travail a ete realisee dans 1e cadre du projet de recherche ({ Implications sociales et
politiques de la conversion dans 1a Castille du xV' siecie , finance par 1a Communaute Autonome de
1. Por buenas palabras et convenibles predicaciones deven trabajar los christianos de convertir a los
moros, parajazerles creer en nuestra fe, e aduzirlos a ella, e non por juen;a ni por premia, ca sf volumad
de nuestro sefior fuesse de los aduzir a ella, e de gela jazer creer par juen;a, el los apremiaria, sf
qUisiesse ... . Las Siete Partidas, Salamanque, 1974 (facs.), f. 76 v. Partida VII, XXV, 2.