How Has Islamic Orthodoxy Changed Over Time?

Elias Muhanna in The Nation:

ScreenHunter_1581 Dec. 24 13.08The medieval English allegorical poem Piers Plowman described the birth of Islam as the result of a clever hoax. Muhammad, it asserted, was a former Christian who had made a failed attempt to become pope and then set off for Syria to mislead the innocents. He tamed a turtledove and taught it to eat grains of wheat placed in his ear. In a scene reminiscent of the enchantment of Melampus, the Greek oracle who was granted the ability to understand animal speech when his ears were licked by snakes, Piers’s Muhammad mesmerized audiences by having the bird fly down during the course of his preaching and appear to whisper in his ear. Staging a moment of revelation from God, the false prophet led men to misbelief by “wiles of his wit and a whit dowve.”

In the centuries following Muhammad’s death in 632, many Christians like William Langland, the author of Piers Plowman, sought to make sense of Islam in the terms and symbols of their own faith. Was it just another schismatic sect led by a great here­siarch, as Dante portrayed it in his Divine Comedy? Or was it an ancient form of chivalry, a Saracen code of ethics? Did Muhammad’s followers think him a god? The figure of the prophet-as-trickster found in Piers Plowman was not the most outlandish attempt to explain the origins of Islam. Medieval French chansons de gestes attributed a welter of fantastical qualities to the cult of “Mahom,” including a pantheon of minor deities superimposed from Roman mythology.

More here. [Thanks to Zain Alam.]