Book Review: “Raymond Lull” by Samuel Zwemer (1902)

“First Missionary to the Muslims (d.1315)”

Image result for raymund lull zwemerWhile I read a brief sketch of Raymond Lull’s life several years ago in Ruth Tucker’s From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, I had all but forgotten about the man until I came across this wonderfully thorough biography which hits the highlights of Lull’s long life and martyrdom. Although written more than a century ago, this biography by Samuel Zwemer is a fast-paced, well-organized, and thoroughly engaging history of Raymund Lull’s work and of life in Europe in the centuries between the Dark Ages and the Reformation.

Zwemer begins by describing “the political, intellectual, moral, and religious condition of Europe in the days of Raymund Lull” (7) before introducing the young Lull as nothing more than a steward and knight who loved to party and was the most loved erotic poet in Spain. How could such a man become a philosophical Crusader in Muslim lands? As Lull grew dissatisfied with his life of sin and witnessed a life-altering vision of Christ, he converted from his sensual lifestyle and became a monk in a Franciscan monastery. (24) From this point on, Lull—gifted in far more than mere linguistics and philosophy, but also alchemy, astrology, and many other budding sciences of the day—began his lifework, which Zwemer categorizes into three areas: “he devised a philosophical or educational system for persuading non-Christians of the truth of Christianity; he established missionary colleges; and he himself went and preached to the Moslems, sealing his witness with martyrdom” (37) at the ripe old age of 84.

I could relate many of the topics which Zwemer dregs up from Lull’s life, but most important to me are the following: Lull’s role as a forerunner to the Protestant Reformation, Lull’s tactics in reaching the Muslim world with the Gospel, and Lull’s effect on missions in general.

First, Lull proved to be a fairly important figure in the centuries leading up to the Protestant Reformation. When describing Lull’s conversion, Zwemer quotes Frederic Perry Noble: “His new birth, be it noted, sprang from a passion for Jesus. Lull’s faith was not sacramental, but personal and vital, more Catholic than Roman.” (29) Then, while some estimate his writings to have surpassed 4,000 books (!), his writings were condemned by the persnickety leaders of the Inquisition, for which Zwemer calls him “a Protestant at heart.” (42) Noble calls him “the Moody of the thirteenth century,” and another biographer “compares him to Luther and calls him a reformer before the Reformation.” (61) All in all, it’s up to us Protestants to reclaim the man from his Franciscan cloth and declare him one of our own, committed to the propagation of the Gospel of Christ, whether the current Pope agrees with it or not!

Second, Lull was keenly aware not only of Islam’s theological weaknesses, but also of Christianity’s powerful love which could overcome them. These were the years of the bloody Crusades in which Christians had already murdered an untold number of Muslims in the name of Jesus, and such thoughts sickened Raymund Lull. He wrote in a prayer: “I see many knights going to the Holy Land beyond the seas and thinking that they can acquire it by force of arms…it seems to me that the conquest of the Holy Land ought not to be attempted except in the way in which Thou and Thine apostles acquired it, namely, by love and prayers, and the pouring out of tears and of blood.” (32) What he realized at the time was that Islam had grown by the power of its philosophy, so he had to meet them and challenge them on their playing field, not his (37), with the pen and not the sword. For example, he would sometimes invite Muslims to a debate over doctrine, where he would emphasize Islam’s two weakest points: the “lack of love in the being of Allah, and lack of harmony in His attributes.” (50) On other occasions, he would introduce the Ten Commandments as God’s perfect Law, and then show them from their own Scriptures how Mohammad had violated each and every one! (56)

Third, Lull left a major imprint on the world of missions long before William Carey ever stepped foot in India. He showed a deep, Christian love for the Jews as well as the Muslims and committed much of his writings to teaching others how to do the same. While some of his philosophical techniques seem a bit unorthodox to us today—the giant wheel of thought, for example—they were top-notch scientific methods of systematizing philosophy in his day. He was a genius in many fields, and he brought that genius into the realm of missions. He petitioned several Popes to organize monasteries dedicated to linguistic education for the sake of reaching the heathens with the Gospel, at one point writing that “monks of holy lives and great wisdom should form institutions in order to learn various languages and to be able to preach to unbelievers.” (41)

Raymund Lull was a dedicated follower of Christ, willing to kick against tradition and the Church when they stood in the way of propagating the Gospel message to the most despised races of the world. Samuel Zwemer’s treatment of his life is fantastic, and I hope I can read more from him someday. At the end of the book, Zwemer summarizes Lull’s work and challenges his readers of the earliest 20th Century to contemplate how well they fare when compared with Lull in reaching the Muslims. I think we need to consider his words to be as pertinent today as they were 115 years ago:

There was a thousand-fold more enthusiasm in the Dark Ages to wrest an empty sepulcher from the [Muslims] than there is in our day to bring them the knowledge of a living Savior. Six hundred years after Raymund Lull, we are still “playing at missions” as far as Mohammedanism is concerned. For there are more mosques in Jerusalem than there are missionaries in all Arabia; and more millions of Moslems unreached in China than the number of missionary societies that work for Moslems in the whole world…Out of every 100 souls in the world 16 are followers of Mohammed…The story of [Lull’s] life and labors for Moslems in the dark ages is a challenge of faith to us who live in the light of the twentieth century to follow in the footsteps of Raymund Lull and win the whole Mohammedan world for Christ. (74, 76)

©2017 E.T.

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