Author: Clare

Wissink blog 1

Representing Islam in Medieval Christian Europe: Orlando Furioso and the Saracens

One particular topic has always caught my attention: representations of the other and stereotypes. I do not know what made me so interested; the origin, the perpetuation of the same stereotypes, or their sometimes conflictual nature. Maybe it was the abundance of stereotypes: national; regional; gender; and religious stereotypes. I believe that representations and stereotypes are a part of our daily life. People feel better when they are able to categorize and in that way make sense of the world. However, these representations can become very problematic. The problem arises when these assumptions cloud your view of everyday life and you judge people on the basis of what you think you know about them. It gets even worse when legislation is built on these assumptions. For example the burqa ban in the Netherlands, which is partly built on the idea that women are oppressed within their religion and the law is meant to liberate them.



In this blog I want to look into historic representations of Muslims. I do not want to highlight the stereotypes and representations we see today. Rather, I want to see in which ways Islam has been represented in Europe in the past. My focus will be on a 16th century Italian poem describing a story within the historical event of the war between Muslims and Christians. I want to look at the representation of Islam in the poem Orlando Furioso. In what way are Saracens/Muslims represented in the poem? How are Christians portrayed in relation to the Saracens? Are the Saracens demonized or portrayed as equals and how is that done?

Orlando Furioso, ‘the raging Roland’, is an epic poem from the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto. The poem was first published in 1516 and the third and final version in 1532. The story is situated against the background of the war between the Christian emperor Charlemagne and his Christian paladins, and the Saracen King Agramente and his army who are crossing the seas to Europe to avenge his father’s death. The background therefore refers to a story of Christians versus Muslims.

Ariosto does not follow historical or geographical accuracy, and the poem wanders from real places all over the world to imaginative places. However, it means that he, like he does with the spaces, may exaggerate the stereotypes or attributes of the characters. It makes it interesting to examine the representation of Muslims/Moors/Saracens in the story.

The most important plot is of the paladin, a foremost knight of Charlemagne, Orlando and his unrequited love for the pagan princess Angelica.

She falls in love with a wounded Saracen knight, Medoro. Orlando forgets his duty to fight for Christianity and becomes mad. When he regains sanity he kills King Agramente. Another important plotline includes the love between the female Christian warrior Bradamante and the Saracen Ruggiero. They too have to endure many ups and downs. Ruggiero converts to Christianity and kills Rodomonte, a Saracen who accuses Ruggiero of being a traitor to the Saracen cause.

The poem is divided into 46 ‘canti’ each covering around eight-line stanzas. It is one of the longest poems in European literature. Here, I will focus on the Canto Primo, the first verse, because it sets the tone of the story and therefore paints the picture on how Saracens are seen throughout the poem, based on two English translations of the poem, one more literal translated by William Stewart rose in 1831 and one translated by David. R. Slavitt in 2019. In the first verse Angelica escapes during a battle between the Saracens and the Christians and encounters Christian and Saracen knights who all fall in love with her. Even though the motives of the war are not necessarily religious: King Agraments is invading France to avenge his father; the poem is clear that it is a religious fight. Orlando is said to be “Helping the Christians win the War”, while the Saracens are called “the Christian’s foe” or “paynims”, which translates to heathen, pagan or Saracen.

The entire poem of Ariosto is built on both the differences between Saracens and Christians, as well as upon the similarities and relationships between them. The plot of the Christian Orlando losing sight of his duty for a ‘pagan’ woman and the love story between the Christian female warrior and the Saracen Ruggiero show the similarities and temptation of the Saracens and Christians together. At the same time there is a fight between the two religions. In the first verse the following example of such a relationship is portrayed: when two knights see Angelica escape, they both fall in love with her and try to catch her. One is a Christian knight, the other a Saracen knight. In the beginning they start fighting each other, but they resume the search together when they realize she has run away. “o pleasing and so reasonable an idea this was that the Christian and the Pagan became, at least for the moment, friends.”

As is shown in the previous example, the Saracens are called: Saracens, Moors, and pagans. The word ‘pagan’ is used more often to describe someone who is not Christian. Both the Saracen and Christian ‘soldiers’ are called knights in the poem and the Saracen knight is shown to have a chivalry code, which means that they behave according to similar rules as the Christians do and show that they are not pictured as uncivil or backwards. However, the description and circumstances under which Angelica meets the knights is different. When Angelica encounters the Christian knight he is described as carrying his shield “in knightly wise” and he is better when compared to a “farm lad”. While when she encounters the Saracen knight, Ferrau, he is portrayed in “grisly plight”, “begrimed with dust, and bathed with sweat and blood”. Thus, a very grim picture in comparison to the Christian knight. Later on, Angelica meets a Saracen king of Circassia, who first mourns his love for her because she is presumably not a virgin anymore, however when he finds out she is still a virgin, he plans to rape her. Before he can execute his plans, he loses a battle from the female warrior Bradamente. The Saracen king is portrayed as a mean man who then loses from a woman, which gets him into a ‘rotten mood’. The two Saracen men who are introduced in the first verse are two different characters, however their first appearance is a bleak first impression in comparison to the appearances of the Christian knights. The poem starts by introducing some of the knights that are mentioned, before the story begins. The Saracen knights are only introduced in the story itself.

In relation to the Christians, Saracen are portrayed as having similar chivalric codes, they are shown to have some of the values that Christians have and that there are possibilities of friendship and relationships between the two. However, the Saracens are not completely portrayed as equals, since in the first verse the Saracens are put in a more grim light. Since this is just the first verse of the poem, it is hard to paint the picture of the entire poem, however it has shown the first glance of a bigger story.

Many scholars have already looked at the representation of Islam in Medieval times. A study on the image of Muslims in the Western imagination shows that the image of the Muslim from Western perspective can be traced back to the Medieval times, specifically to the eighth and ninth centuries. In these centuries the image of the Muslim monster also emerged from Christian imagination. An important foundation of the later “Muslim monster” is created in this time with the image of Muhammed as the “progenitor of a monstrous race of Saracens”. Arjana focuses on the image of the Muslim Monster, although I agree that many depictions from Christian sources do not portray Muslims in a positive light, focusing solely on the accounts of Muslim Monsters gives a distorted view on how Islam was portrayed. There was both admiration and fear for Muslims in Christian Europe. How were they able to convert so many people to Islam? Why was Islam so similar to Christianity? In the eleventh century Christian European authors depicted the ‘Saracen’ religion as pagan idolatry. However, when the information and knowledge of Islam spread over Europe and the Turks emerge as a world power, Christian writers learned more about Islam through trade and other contact, therefore they could not maintain the pagan paradigm. The image of Islam changed to a religion of Christian heresy. The focus on heresy is interesting, since in the twelfth century anxiety arose among Christians about heretics, because heretics used the same sources of authority as the Christians did and derived similar arguments from these sources. How were they able to distinguish what was false or true?

These accounts can also be found in the first verse of Orlando Furioso: the comparison between the Saracen and Christianity; the use of pagan but also the similarities between their chivalry; the description of Saracens as almost equals, but in a worse light than the Christians.
The poem of Orlando Furioso has been adapted many times, in stories, operas, music and art. Even today, the poem is still told in different versions, for example in the puppet play in Sicily: Opera dei Pupi. Over time the view on Islam and the representation of Islam has had its turning points. One possible direction for further investigation: how have the Muslim figures in the poem been depicted in different times and places?


• Ariosto, Lodovico. Translated by William Stewart Rose. Orlando Furioso: The Frenzy of Orlando. 1831,
• Ariosto, Ludovico. Translated by David R. Slavitt, Orlando Furioso, A New Verse Translation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.
• Arjana, Sophia Rose. Muslims in the Western Imagination. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
• Farris, Sara R. In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.
• Ross, Charles S. “Introduction.” Ludovico Ariosto. Translated by David R. Slavitt. Orlando Furioso, A New Verse Translation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.
• Tolan, John V. Saracens Islam in the Medieval European Imagination. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.


Laurie Wissink

December 2019 Continue reading

Burqa verbod?

Recently seen circulating on Facebook, the message displayed here is troubling on a number of levels. Perhaps because of my own US background (where the protection of “religion”, and individual choices based on religious beliefs – as long as those choices do not harm others, is still strong), or because of the time that I have spent in places where many women do veil their faces, I have not found that an inability to see a person’s entire face threatens my safety or impairs my ability to communicate with her. (Although this may also be due to a mild case of prosopagnosia.)

While the Qur’ān exhorts modesty, it is not universally interpreted as mandating any particular veiling practice. In fact, although a niqab-banning bill was recently rejected by the Egyptian parliament, less than a decade ago, Egypt’s preeminent religious scholar, the Sheikh of al-Azhar, emphasized the (Arabian) cultural nature of the practice of full-face veiling with a niqab (as opposed to the hair-covering hijab), going so far as to state that the niqab has nothing to do with Islam and is a sign of radicalization.

Historically, most scholars (and Islamic law schools) maintained that women’s faces and hands did not have to be covered. In fact, many scholars would say that, in business transactions, it is mandatory to see the face and hands.

Although qur’ānic exhortations to modesty have been variously, and variably, interpreted throughout the ages, rarely have “Islamic” modesty norms been mandated for non-Muslims. Non-Muslims have lived among, and under, Muslims since the earliest days of Islam, again, with a wide range of societal rules and regulations. There is a large body of literature on recent attempts at the “Islamization” of various Muslim-majority societies, but in the early Christian Arabic texts that I study (from the 9th-12th centuries CE), I have yet to come across any reference to a niqab (let alone a burqa), or an expression of fear of an imposition of Muslim dress codes on non-Muslim populations. There are laments about the loss of their past glory, as well as the reduced (e.g. second-class, subjugated) status of Christian communities. These laments are, however, penned in Arabic, the language of the overlords. (This fact, combined with the pre-Islamic history of Christian-Jewish, and intra-Christian, polemics, leads me to question whether their laments were based on their subjugation, or on their social equivalence with groups they considered inferior.) And, a millennium later, I have never been forced to cover my face (or my hair) in any of the Muslim-majority countries in which I have lived and traveled. Much to my surprise, I have even been told that (as a non-Muslim) I did not have to cover my hair in some mosques (here in the Netherlands, as well as in New Zealand and in Turkey). I have also been told (by Muslim men) that women are more beautiful when they wear hijab. (I have not traveled to Iran or to Saudi Arabia, but I taught in Qatar, studied in Jordan, and have traveled in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey.)

As in many parts of the world, there are expectations that you respect local customs. The fear that a face-covering veil necessarily means a rejection of “European” or “Western” or “Dutch” values, as well as the assumptions that a woman who wears one comes from another land, and that she had worn it there before coming here, need to be questioned. What, exactly, are those western or Dutch or European values? Who, in fact, are the women who wear face-covering veils?

These questions are salient and urgent, as the UN Human Rights committee has recently ruled that France’s ban on the full-face veil (in place since 2010) disproportionately harmed women’s rights to exercise their religious beliefs; this summer, the Dutch Upper House of Parliament passed a law banning face coverings in some public spaces (not, however, on streets). The rationale behind the Dutch and other “burqa bans” invokes a range of reasons, including public safety, societal values and women’s rights. If European or Dutch or Western liberalism rejects the mandated modesty of Iran or KSA, is it the mandatory aspect, or the modesty aspect, or the select application, that is objectionable? How is a prohibition on an article of clothing (more) in keeping with these values?

San Francisco’s De Young Museum is currently running an exhibit on “Contemporary Muslim Fashions.” In May-October of this year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art had an exhibition on fashion and the Catholic imagination. I have not been able to visit these exhibits (although Contemporary Muslim Fashions will next show in Frankfurt), but am curious if and how veils were featured.

For, it is worth reflecting on whether part of the current “Western” reaction to the hijab, burqa and niqab (although distinct concepts, the terms are sometimes conflated in popular discourse) is rooted in its Christian heritage. For, especially in Latin Christian tradition, women’s head covering was interpreted as due to her role as the “originator of sin” and as a sign of her subjection to authority. Although the biblical account of woman’s creation from man’s rib is known to Islamic tradition, this account is not in the Qur’ān. Rather, in the qur’ānic account, men and women are created from a single soul (reminiscent of the creation account in Genesis 1); elsewhere, man is created from dust (e.g. Q 36:20) or a clot (e.g. Q 96:1-2), but the rib is not mentioned. And, although the Qur’ān contains narratives on primordial human disobedience, it is Adam, not Eve, who is named as disobeying his lord.

Just like the rich and varied accounts in the Bible and the Qur’ān, so, too, the nature of, and reasons for, (female) veiling have varied throughout the ages. Before we judge those behind the veils, we should examine our reasons for judging, as well as the reasons given by those who wear them.

Breakfast 7 February

Details coming soon



The Convert

Hassan and Marcus


The Intouchables

Malcolm X

Paradise Now


A Prophet

Punching at the Sun

A Separation



Waltz with Bashir


Abdel-Fatteh, Randa, Does My Head Look Big in This? (Australia, 2005)  

Abdoleh, Kader, Het huis van de moskee (2005) Eng. trans. The House of the Mosque

Al-Aswany, Alaa’, The Yacoubian Building (Egypt, 2002)

Alsanea, Rajaa (and Marilyn Booth), Girls of Riyadh (Saudi Arabia, 2007)

Hamid, Mohsin, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (US, 2007)

Hosseini, Khaled, The Kite-Runner (US, 2003)

Kahf, Mohja, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf: A novel (US, 2006)

Maalouf, Amin, The Crusades through Arab Eyes (historical essay; France, 1984)

Mahfouz, Naguib, Children of Gebelawi (Egypt, 1959)

Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley (US, 1965)

Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A memoir in books (US, 2003)

Pamuk, Orhan, Snow (Turkey, 2002)

Rushdie, Salman, Midnight’s Children (UK, 1981)

Salih, Tayeb, Season of Migration to the North (Sudan, 1966)

Seierstad, Asne (and Ingrid Christopherson), The Bookseller of Kabul (Norway, 2003)

Shamsie, Kamila, Broken Verses (UK [?], 2003)


Heard around the world …

coming soon

Around Groningen …

coming soon

Elsewhere in the Netherlands 

In Europe …


       Rome (some views of the Catholic Church)


this is another text.

Jerusalem, summer 2008, by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Arabic reads “revolt until victory”. taken by Clare Wilde

Teatime Talks


Prof. Leemhuis (RUG, Religious Studies) is emeritus professor of Islamic Studies, director of the Qasr Dakhleh Project and former director of the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo. In his talk on Friday 27 May, he gave a presentation on  how letters between a son and his divorced mother that were found in the rubble of a collapsed house in al-Qasr, a city in the Dakhla Oasis, provide insights into the daily life of a late 19th-century Egyptian family.




Online Resources with Related Content

The Religion Factor is a blog for reflection on Religion as an element of Public life, coordinated by the Centre for Religion, Conflict and Public Domain at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen.

The Islamic Monthly is a US-based current affairs platform that engages a range of issues.