Ramon Llull – The First Missionary to the Muslim World

Ramon Llull – The First Missionary to the Muslim World

Eugene Stock, 19th-century editorial secretary of the Church Missionary Society, called him “the first and perhaps the greatest missionary to the Mohammedans,” adding that “there is no more heroic figure in the history of Christendom.”[1]

            If the second sentence might be contested, the first one is correct, at least in the centuries before the last. Samuel Zwemer, known as “the Apostle to Islam,” wrote Llull’s first complete biography, praising him for his “self-sacrificial love.”[2]

Llull’s Early Life

Llull was born around 1235 at Palma de Mallorca, one of the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea off of Spain. Those islands were then part of the province of Catalonia, a region with an ancient people who spoke a distinct language (hence the Catalan spelling of his name). They also hosted a mixed population of Christians and Muslims, as about half of Spain was still under Muslim rule.

            Born in an affluent family, Llull married young and earned a position in the court of King James II of Aragon, where he lived a profligate life. An able wordsmith, he wrote on warfare and horsemanship, as well as works of poetry – the first known works of poetry in Catalan. In fact, he became the most popular poet of his age in Spain. One of his poems, “Lo Desconort” (Despair), show his deep unsatisfaction with his life of pleasures.

            Convicted by a sermon at a Franciscan church in Palma, he made a definite break with his dissolute life when a vision of a disapproving Christ stopped him from writing a love poem to a woman who had rejected him. After some time of penance, he understood that Christ had forgiven him and decided to devote his whole life to him.

Ahead of His Times

            He retired to a Franciscan monastery in Mont de Roda, Spain, where he stayed for nine years, until he felt called to preach the gospel to the Muslims. That was the year 1275. At least seven major crusades had been already fought, mostly unsuccessfully. But while the Muslims had seen the Christians’ zeal to reconquer the lands they considered holy, had they really heard the gospel?

            There are some instances of Christians bringing the gospel to Muslim rulers (most famously, John of Damascus in the seventh century, Patriarch Timothy I in the eighth and Francis of Assisi during the fifth crusade), but those were the exceptions rather than the rule. Llull was convinced of the need for a sustained mission to the Muslims.

            “I see many knights going to the Holy Land beyond the seas and thinking that they can acquire it by force of arms,” he wrote; “but in the end all are destroyed before they attain that which they think to have. Whence 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.”[3]

            As a Secular Franciscan, Llull appealed to popes, kings, and princes to sponsor the opening of a school where missionaries could study Arabic, the Quran, and other subjects that would help them to relate to the Muslims. In this, and in his belief that Christianity is a rational religion to be presented as such and that Christians must start a conversation with Muslims by sharing their common ground, he was ahead of his times, and few people shared his passion.

            He first achieved his goal in 1276, when King James II allowed him to open a monastery in Mallorca for the training of missionaries to Islam. Pope Nicholas IV embraced a similar vision in 1292, in the university he founded in Monpellier. Finally, in 1311, the Council of Vienne ordered the creation of chairs of Hebrew, Arabic, and Chaldean at the universities of Bologna, Oxford, Paris, and Salamanca.

Missionary Work

Wanting to put his methods into practice, Llull left for Tunis in 1291. This decision was not easy, and he backed out as the ship was about to leave. His inner conflict between what he recognized as God’s calling and his doubts and fears was so intense that his body was overtaken by a high fever. By the time he recovered, however, he was once again determined to reach Tunis, and left at the first opportunity.

            In Tunis, he invited the Moslem intellectuals to a debate. He said he had studied both religions and was willing to discuss them with them. If they could convince him of the superiority of Islam, he said, he was willing to convert.

            Many took up the challenge, and spent the first part of the debate listing the advantages of their religion. Llull responded by pointing out some weaknesses of Islam: for example, a lack of harmony between God’s attributes, such as love and greatness. While Muslims would state that God possesses an attribute of love, this love pales in comparison with the love of God who became man and died for sinners. In Christ, love and greatness have their full and most harmonious expression. (Interestingly, it was this fullness of love in Christ that, in recent times, convinced Gambian historian Lamin Sanneh of the superiority of Christianity, leading to his conversion).

            The efficacy of Llull’s arguments became particularly evident when they were denounced as dangerous. Llull was thrown into a dungeon, but was later freed through the intercession of a Muslim ruler who admired his devotion. The government then placed him on a ship to Genova and warned him that he would be stoned to death if he dared to return. But he managed to escape, and kept on his mission until he was ready to leave on his own terms.

            Over the next few years, he made more missionary trips along the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, and he was again imprisoned and deported. The last one was in 1314, when he, then 79, traveled to Béjaïa, in modern-time Algeria, where he had already gained some converts. This was, however, his last missionary trip, because in 1315 an angry crowd of Muslims dragged him outside the city and stoned him. Some say he died immediately. According to others, some merchants from Genova took him back to Mallorca, where he died.

            Today, one of his thoughts is often repeated: “He who loves not, lives not; he who lives by the Life cannot die.”[4]

[1] Samuel Zwemer, Raymond Lull, First Missionary to the Moslems, xxi

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 52-53

[4] Ibid., 45


Simonetta Carr