Was Marco Polo an 'Islamophobe'?

by Raymond Ibrahim

Pajamas Media

If the same exact criticisms being made against Islam today were also made centuries ago, is it reasonable to dismiss them all as “Islamophobic”— that is, as “unfounded fear of and hostility towards Islam,” as the Council on American Islamic Relationswould have it?

This is the question I often ask myself whenever I read pre-modern writings on Islam. Take that elementary schoolbook hero, Marco Polo and his famous memoirs, for example. By today’s standards, the 13th century Venetian merchant would be denounced as a rabid “Islamophobe.” For me, however, his writings contain a far more important lesson — one in continuity — and deserve closer scrutiny.

Before examining Polo’s observations, it should be noted that his anthropological accounts are, by and large, objective. Unlikesimplistic explanations that portray him as a prototypical “Orientalist” with an axe to grind against the “Other” — specifically non-whites and non-Christians — in fact, Polo occasionally portrayed the few Christians he encountered in a negative light (such as those of the island of Socotra) and frequently praised non-Christians, including Muslims.

For example, he hails the Brahmins of India as being “most honorable,” possessing a “hatred for cheating or of taking the goods of other persons. They are likewise remarkable for the virtue of being satisfied with the possession of one wife (p.298).” He refers to one Muslim leader as governing “with justice” (p.317) and another who “showed himself [to be] a very good lord, and made himself beloved by everybody (p.332).”

That said, Polo clearly had no problem being blunt about Islam (political correctness being nonexistent in the Middle Ages). Whereas he praised the Brahmins for their “hatred for cheating or of taking the goods of other persons,” regarding the Muslims of Tauris, (modern day Iraq), he wrote:

According to their doctrine, whatever is stolen or plundered from others of a different faith, is properly taken, and the theft is no crime; whilst those who suffer death or injury by the hands of Christians, are considered as martyrs. If, therefore, they were not prohibited and restrained by the powers who now govern them, they would commit many outrages. These principles are common to all Saracens (p.63).

In fact, based on the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s numerous raiding expeditions, plundering infidels is quite standard in Islam and treated regularly in legal manuals; the Koran has an entire chapter dedicated to and named after plunder (Surat al-Anfal). As for being a martyr simply by dying at the hands of the infidel enemy, this too has ample support in Islam’s texts and enjoys consensus among the ulema. The authoritative Hans Wehr Arabic-English Dictionary translates shahid (martyr) as “one killed in battle with infidels.”

A more telling anecdote follows: According to Polo, a certain “Achmath” (probably “Ahmed”), one of the few Muslims to have had great influence over Kublai Khan, habitually abused the largely non-Muslim subject peoples without the Khan’s knowledge: he put to death anyone he pleased, robbed them of their possessions, and, most notoriously, he and his sons regularly raped and coerced into concubinage countless women. Due to Achmath’s many atrocities, he was eventually assassinated. When the Khan later discovered the extent of Achmath’s crimes, his

attention [went] to the doctrines of the Sect of the Saracens [i.e., Islam], which excuse every crime, yea, even murder itself, when committed on such as are not of their religion. And seeing that this doctrine had led the accursed Achmath and his sons to act as they did without any sense of guilt, the Khan was led to entertain the greatest disgust and abomination for it. So he summoned the Saracens and prohibited their doing many things which their religion enjoined (p.173).

Of course, crimes against non-Muslim infidels have a doctrinal base and fall within the legal jurisdiction of jihad and its attendant institutions (e.g., dhimma status): war upon and death for non-subjugated infidels is a Koranic mandate (e.g., 8:39, 9:5, 9:29); the sub-human treatment of infidel slaves, particularly women, or, in the Koran’s language, “what your right hand possesses,” is well codified. Little wonder that Muslims like this Achmath — or today’s terrorists — can act “without any sense of guilt.”

(It is significant to note that, in both of Polo’s block quotes above, he criticizes Muslim doctrine — not so much Muslim peoples. In other words, he allows for what would today be called “moderate” Muslims, as shown by his aforementioned praise for individual Muslim leaders.)

Polo also confirms that Muslim leaders have long relied on Muhammad’s account of a lusty paradise to lure young men into becoming “martyrs.” He recounts how the Shia assassins dedicated their lives to assassinating and terrorizing their opponents simply to enter into “paradise, where every species of sensual gratification should be found, in the society of beautiful nymphs” (p.78). (It is further interesting to note that the assassin leader took into his service men primarily between the ages of 12-20 — not unlike Osama bin Laden’s position that Muslim men aged 15-25 are most suited for jihad and martyrdom: The Al Qaeda Reader, p.267.)

Other “Islamophobic” allusions are scattered throughout Polo’s account: the caliph of Baghdad’s “daily thoughts were employed on the means of converting to his religion [Islam] those who resided within his dominions, or, upon their refusal, in forming pretences for putting them to death” (p.59); and Muslims “utterly detest the Christians” (p.316), perhaps in accordance to Koran 60:4 — still cited by today’s Islamists as mandating permanent hatred for non-Muslims.

Here, then, is the problem: If today it is “Islamophobic,” that is, irrational, to claim that Islam advocates war against and subjugation for infidels, permitting the latter to be abused, plundered, and enslaved in the process — what does one make of the fact that, some 700 years ago, the same exact claims were made by our Venetian traveler? Indeed, what does one make of the fact that, centuries before and after Polo, a diverse host of writers — including John of Damascus (d.749) Theophanes the chronicler (d.818), Francis of Assisi (d.1226), Joinville the crusader (d.13th century), and Manuel the Byzantine emperor (d.1425) — all made the same “Islamophobic” observations about Islam? (The latter’s writings, when merely quoted by the pope, caused an uproar in the Muslim world.) This, of course, is to say nothing of the countless Muslim ulema who regularly affirm that Islam teaches war, subjugation, slavery, and plunder vis-a-vis the infidel, tracing it back to the words of the Koran and Muhammad.

In short, the word “Islamophobia” is a ruse — also permitted in Islam under the doctrine of taqiyya — meant to paralyze all discussion concerning Muslim doctrine; and it has been successful: the United Nations has already presided over a conference titled “Confronting Islamophobia” and a Council of Europe summit condemned “Islamophobia.” Moreover, the influential Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) regularly lambasts the specter of Islamophobia, calling it the “worst form of terrorism,” and publishing two reports on the phenomenon.

Yet, in a classic twist of irony, the opening assertion of the OIC’s first report — “Islamophobia has existed since the time of inception of Islam” — contradicts its entire argument, for it begs the following question: How can something, in this case “unfounded fear of and hostility towards Islam” — to use CAIR’s definition of Islamophobia — be a constant aspect of Islam’s fourteen-hundred year history, and yet still be regarded as “unfounded”?

Raymond Ibrahim is associate director of the Middle East Forum, author of The Al Qaeda Reader, and guest lecturer at the National Defense Intelligence College.