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Chivalry of the Night and Day

Chivalry in Christianity and Islam

Mahmoud Shelton

A Christian eyewitness to the rise of Islam characterized the Muslims in a significant way: “They are cavaliers in the day and monks in the night.” Knights belong to the day because it reveals the field of action, and the apparent distinctions between opponents as well as between the lover and beloved; it is the domain of movement, and so of love in the sense of Dante: “Love which moves the sun and the other stars.” Monks belong to the night because it has the quality of stillness; it allows contemplation and knowledge of hidden things, and is the domain of union. While there are no monks in Islam, there is Sufism, which preserves esoteric knowledge and the methods for its realization.

N. C. Wyeth, Wikimedia Commons

Knighthood As a Spiritual Path
Although Christianity and Islam both include dimensions of love and knowledge, Christianity may be understood to have a “diurnal” orientation, with its solar calendar and Spring festival of Easter, and a corresponding emphasis on love. Islam, with its lunar calendar, emphasizes knowledge. Despite this orientation, the historical Jesus was not a horseman, unlike the Prophet of Islam; and in Islam, even the nocturnal festival commemorating the Night Journey and Ascension has a marked knightly aspect, since the Prophet, who is called the Beloved of God, undertook his supernatural movement by means of a heavenly horse. For such reasons, to quote Titus Burkhardt, “knighthood as a spiritual path is organically inherent in Islam; it emerges from Christianity only indirectly.1”  Still, the models of knighthood mentioned in the Qur’an – the Companions of the Cave or Seven Sleepers, Joshua, and Abraham the “Father of Knights” –  belonged both to Islam and Christianity.

Knighthood as a spiritual path is known is Islam as futuwwah, and developed under the guidance of Sufism. In the “Age of Chivalry” of the Christian West, when Courtly Love contrasted with a growing devotion to the Virgin Mary, a “new knighthood” was born under the patronage of Christian esoterism. Inaugurated by the Templars, this development united the action of the cavalier with the knowledge of the monk. During this age, even when outwardly in opposition, the knights of Islam and Christianity shared an ideal for which the most adequate word in English is “chivalry.” The Arthurian literature of the Grail Quest was shaped by this ideal, and within this Christian genre traces of Islamic esoterism may be found. More apparent is the dependence of the Divine Comedy upon Islamic accounts of the Night Journey and Ascension, even while Dante’s allegiance was to the Templars.

Chivalry is really a kind of balance. While love should be the cause of every action, chivalry balances knightly action with the spiritual knowledge of the reality of things. As if to declare this balance of “day and night,” the banner of the Templars was piebald. Christian and Muslim knights shared veneration for the sword as an emblem of chivalry. Its importance in the traditions of futuwwah is revealed in the key expression: “There is no knight if not `Ali; there is no sword if not Dhul-Fiqar.” Yet with time the Order of the Knights Templar was forcibly disbanded, and the Age of Chivalry came to an end. In East and West, the rise of firearms signaled the waning of the need for the knightly arts. What remains of chivalry if the instruments of its arts are no longer of any use?

Swords, Successors, and the Spiritual Authority
Nevertheless, the traditions of chivalry carried on for centuries. Sufi orders passed on the ritual objects and practices of futuwwah; even the whirling movements of the Mevlevi Order may be traced to the dances of warriors. Masters of these orders retained the authority to gird the caliph with the Sword of Osman upon his accession. In the Christian West, orders of knighthood patterned on the Templars were widespread, with some – the Knights of Christ in particular – having a more direct link to the Templars than others. Yet these successors came to be more courtly than spiritual, echoing the transformation of “Christendom” into the nations of Europe. Another development in the West during this transformation was the rise of swordsmanship as a study in itself and apart from the battlefield. This study seems to have its beginnings in Spain, where the finest blades had long been forged during the alternation of Muslim and Christian rule. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of its seminal figures, the “First Inventor of the Science of Arms” Don Jeronimo de Carranza, was a commander of the Knights of Christ.

There is no doubt that many chivalric customs were perpetuated in the evolving practices of swordsmanship, but perhaps most essential was the survival of the sword itself as a living instrument of balanced action and knowledge. This balance in fencing was personified in its patron saint, the “solar” Archangel Michael, whose emblems were precisely the sword and the scales. Remarkably, Islamic esoterism assimilates the function of the Archangel to that of Abraham, the “Father of Knights.” In the last years of the Ottoman Empire, fencers demonstrated this art before the caliph, who so valued this classical swordsmanship that he issued an Imperial order mandating its continued practice.

It is of interest to recall that in the Arthurian literature, the father of the Christian Parzival and Muslim Feirefiz – who were destined to meet at the Grail - served the caliph, the “supreme power on Earth.”2  Indeed, futuwwah doctrine establishes its reality as indissolubly bound not only to Sufism, but to the caliphate. In Sufism, caliph is another name of the qutb or supreme spiritual authority; however, the apparent caliph is usually but a representative of the real authority whose role is hidden. The sun may seem to rule the day, but its movement must still be balanced by the pole or qutb star, just like the other stars. The need for this real authority is found in Dante’s reference to the Dux, and also at the core of those legends concerning the “Sleeping Emperor” of the Age of Chivalry.  The last caliph at the end of time is the Seal of Futuwwah, and he and the sword are “brothers.” Arthur with his sword is the Once and Future King. The return of this authority is nothing other than a return to balance, and chivalry is essential to it.

Mahmoud Shelton studied at the University of Edinburgh before taking a degree in Medieval Studies at Stanford University. He has traveled in search of Hermeticism's legacy from the Western Mediterranean to the Far East. Shelton is the author of Alchemy in Middle Earth: The Significance of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, is a contributor to The Royal Book of Spiritual Chivalry, and has numerous magazine articles to his credit.

Read more about Mahmoud Shelton

  1. Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, translated by J. Peter Hobson, Westerham: World of Islam Festival Publishing Company, 1976, page 115.

  2. See Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival, trans. Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage (New York: Vintage Books,1961), p. 9, where the caliph is referred to as "The Baruch."

17 October 2008

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chivalry, Abraham, Muhammad, Templar, knighthood, Our Sacred Heritage, sword, Jesus, futuwwah, Dante, Arthur,
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