Feb 3, 2006

Marco Polo on Islam

I read Marco Polo's travels a while back, and I'll be presenting my thoughts on it in 3 blog articles. In the first one, I talk about Marco Polo and Islamic World.

Marco Polo visited many countries, from Russia to China to Yemen. His narration of the Muslim cities he passed through was especially interesting, because he gives the Christian European Medieval perspective on Islamic Society. It’s not how “Muslims saw themselves”, but how “Christian Minorities and Europeans saw Muslims”: a look of mostly fear, misunderstanding, and hate. (look for old accurate translations – the new ones are often made ‘politically correct’).

Since Macro stayed with the "Christian minority" of Muslim cities, he had very interesting stories to tell. A summary of one of the funniest (chapter VIII):

In Baghdad, while the Christian minority was repairing a church, they used a big black round stone to hold the main pole. Later on they found out that the stone actually belongs to a Mosque, and Muslims were very mad and wanted the stone back. The Christians couldn’t take it out, since it would demolish the church, and refused to give it up. They all went to the Abbasyd Khalif to solve the quarrel.

The Khalif ruled that the stone must be returned. Muslims cheered up, and chrsitians didn’t know what to do. This is when this poor mystic Christian sage showed up, and said he would do it. In front of the Khalif, this sage, using the power of prayer, was able to lift the church, replace the stone, and then put it back again. Upon witnessing this "miracle”, the Khalif embraced Christianity, but kept it a secret. And to the last day of his life, the Khalif wore a Cross underneath his garment.

This story reminds me of Muslims claiming that King Edward of England in the 14th century was a Muslim in hiding, or that the Native Indians of America were originally Muslims. Even if all these stories are true, they had no impact on the progress of History!

Another very funny passage by Marco was about Eastern Muslims. As is known, Islam spread very quickly in the area between Iraq and India. Marco provides his own "explanation" of this phenomenon:

In (chapter IX), he says that those people, who have always been outlaws (thieves), became Muslim because Islam allowed them to raid Caravans as long as the latter were not Muslim.

In other areas in the book Marco continues to present Islam as a false, bad, and at times evil religion. He never mentions anything positive about Islam or Muslims, which makes me think ... how can somebody who lived amongst a people for so long still have such stereotypical and suspecious image of them? ... maybe the book has been edited by the Catholic church at the time (or was written with the church's censorship in mind) to make it sound so Islamophobic. I don't know, but it's an interesting question.

(Marco Polo presenting his book to the Church)


  1. Or he wrote it this way to please the church and get awarded for some "bling bling!"

    History is full of people who forged research and history itself for wealth and power.

    Even today, it is in the shape of PHD theses since many are sponsored and paid by a person or an organisation. And no one can remove the factor of "interest" in such situations.

  2. an interesting question indeed.

    thanks for the post, i actually knew very little of marco polo. except for the poolside game.

  3. Agreed, Hasan. It's either the "bling bling" award, or the "not-burn-you-alive" award;-)

    Naseem, you are welcome:-)
    But I have to say that the most interesting part of Marco's book is his journey in China and working for the Great Kublai Khan. Very fascinating culture indeed.

  4. whether this man is islamophobic or not, i cant tell from these short paragraphs. but let me tell you that though i have lived my total life in the arab world, sometimes even i am islamophobic WHEN IT COMES TO CERTAIN people. why? because simply: some people can't grasp in their head that we are in the 21st century.. and WHILE islam was liberating in its time, it was SOMEONE's duty to continuously interpret its applications into modernity. unfortunately, MEN. yes i will boldly say MEN. especially saudi arabian men, found it convenient to keep islam in the old days. so that they can be kings in their houses.. just as crimes were commited in the names of other religions, oppression was and is practiced in the name of islam. Now, in order to fight this: we are to stare this problem in the face and admit that there is a problem. because the only way to solve it is admit we have it! HOW? there is hope in the new generation.i know the new generations of arabs will be more active in HUMAN rights and women's rights. and we will see more people embracing the true spirit of islam.


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