Discover more from Avdullah
On Duels of the Old Ages, and How to Bring Them Back
In the Pagan, Islamic, and Christian worlds
I watched The Last Duel the other day. It was a well-made movie and quite faithful to the actual historical account - one might not even believe that it went exactly that way in the battle if they didn’t know better, which was indeed perceived by the writers of the time to be that intense and cinematic. It depicted the story of Sir Jean de Carrouges, a French knight who challenged his former friend to a duel to the death because the latter was accused of raping his wife. The movie focused more on the relationships between the characters and the power of perspective rather than the duel itself and its merits, but that part which was deemed minor in the film is what stuck with me at the end. In the first scene where he requests the duel from King Charles VI, he says:
“One of us has lied, let us let God decide […] God will spare those who tell the truth, and the truth will prevail. I am not afraid.”
Which made me realize, many in the modern age have forgotten the genuine purpose of a duel to the death, at the height of its practice. To many today, it’s brushed off in their minds as the ancient, barbarian tradition. That it’s a mindless custom unfitting of the modern age, where disputes are dealt with civilly and in peace under the “law”. This is a gross misunderstanding, and antithetical to man’s nature which requires physical confrontation and conflict for true fulfillment. At its most meritorious it was a religious experience, a trial one excavates from the tomb of man’s carnal nature to maintain one’s honor or even just to prove something. As much as Carrouges initiated that duel because he wanted to tear apart the man that violated his wife, he also did so with the genuine belief that by risking his life so brazenly God would reward his courage with victory. And not just his own victory, but that of truth and justice. It was a trade he made with God: ‘I get my revenge against the criminal that wronged me, You get to show your servants the extents of your justice in this world, with me as your instrument.’
Each culture has its own dueling rituals because dueling is a universal part of the male experience, one direly lost in the modern-day. So how did others across earth view and experience the art of the duel?
Nordic Peoples - The Holmgang
“Then Thorir spoke for all to hear: ‘I haven't gotten to the last of my offers yet, Gumund, for Iknow that you have a lot more against me than just the marks on Thorir Akraskegg's goats; I know that you blame me alone for saying what many say, though others are no less implicated, namely that I have called you an effeminate pervert. I now wish to test whether that is true or not, so I am challenging you to single combat to be held in three days on the islet in Oxar Riverwhere duels used to be fought. Let the two of us do battle according to the ancient laws.’” - Ljósvetninga Saga
The holmgang is the most primitive and lawless version of the duel before it was outlawed. Unlike the Christians, the Nordic peoples that practiced the holmgang did not see it as a means of bringing about the judgment of their gods - but rather an exercise of their abilities to preserve and prove their honor, address legal issues, or come to the aid of a family member through physical means. It was a pragmatic culture, where might made right whether you liked it or not. There was no means of moralizing your way out of trouble as a man if you quarreled with another. Refusing or bailing on a holmgang was seen as even more dishonorable than losing one. If you failed to appear at a duel, you were declared Níðingr, a man without honor or status. This became rare as anyone declared Níðingr would be completely cut off from his family, friends, and society. You might as well have fought, no matter how petty or minor the squabble was, since even being dead was preferable to such a fate.
But then as it became more widespread in Iceland for example, which was a newer settlement for the Viking peoples away from a more centralized hierarchy, the holmgang started to be abused by anyone for just about any reason. Men of peak physical prowess would go around challenging other men for their land or women. In Hrolf Gautreksson: a Viking Romance, a part of the Gautrek saga, a berserker once went and ‘asked’ for a man’s sister to become his concubine. He was refused, and thus made the challenge of combat. This was seen as more honorable and accepted than say, just killing the man and taking his woman outright.
There were also no restrictions based on class. A peasant man had the freedom to challenge stronger, richer men to a holmgang if he so desired - but it also meant a skilled warrior could go around beating and killing weaker men to amass a large fortune. There was little honor in this, but no pushback against it until it was formally outlawed many years later with the coming of Christianity.
Medieval Christian Europe: Trial by Combat, and Judicial Dueling
Today, most people’s only conception of dueling in medieval Europe comes from the trials by combat they saw on Game of Thrones. In George R.R. Martin’s adaptation of a variety of old European customs, he remained faithful in including the justifications I described above; that dueling had evolved from mere dispute-settling and might to a religious experience. Winning meant God favored you and your cause over your opponent’s, and vice versa.
The origin of the “Trial by Combat” was a known custom of the Germanic peoples. It became widespread in almost all of Europe in different variations, and unlike the Holmgang was state-sanctioned and in the context of bringing justice for a crime. There was still the custom of men challenging each other to duels, but it was much stricter. You could only duel those in the same social and military class as yourself. If someone of a lesser rank insulted you in some way, it was up to your subordinates to avenge you. However, each European nation eventually outlawed it between the 15th and 19th centuries because too many men were killing each other.
Thus comes the main criticism that I see, whenever someone like myself suggests that we should return to a form of physical combat to settle major disputes between men, that too many men dying is attributable to the tradition of the duel itself, rather than the reality that it is straying from its true spirit. It’s an ironic point, but the genuine purpose of the duel is to reduce violence. If you walked around as a man knowing that chimping at your fellow man could result in a conflict where your life was on the line - with the alternative being the destruction of your honor and reputation - you would naturally not chimp as much.
Yet, despite death not being a strict requirement of the duel in many cultures after antiquity, all the nations that outlawed it did so because too many brave young men were dying for futile reasons. Men it seemed, lost control over the fundamental rule to dueling; that you couldn’t invoke it for stupid reasons. But who decides which reasons are good enough to deem duel-worthy and which aren’t? This depends on each culture, but no matter it always seemed to degenerate in some way. Almost as if with the fall of a culture, this noble masculine practice goes down with it. Will it ever rise again?
Duels among the Muslims - The Mubarizun
Ah, finally something in my wheelhouse. The rules of mutual combat in Islam and throughout Muslim history are so different from the European that it might not even qualify as a duel - to write about it in detail would require an entirely separate post. But to those who skipped to this point, I’m sorry to tell you this - There was no practice of dueling in Muslim civilian life. Not in the time of the Prophet (PBUH), and not in any of the successive caliphates. It’s a cultural difference that comes down to the oriental nature of the Muslims themselves, showing a fascinating difference in nature that can’t be understated.
The summary when it comes to Islamic duels is this: they can only be done in war, and against non-Muslims. If you’re challenged to a duel by a non-Muslim, it is mustahab (You’re rewarded if you do it, but it is not required) to accept it. Asking a non-Muslim for a duel is neither encouraged nor discouraged as it is highly contextual. It is recommended only for the strong in body, and not for the weak who are not confident in themselves (for them it might as well be haram. Seriously, don’t embarrass yourself and us).
Imam Al-Shafi’i was once asked about duels in battle, and his reply was such:
“I don’t see a problem with duels. Know that duels during wars, and accepting the invitation to it, is the way of the heroes, it is the badge of honor for the brave men, and it has been their pride during Islam and before.”
Then the question arises: why have so many other cultures, mainly in Europe and America, had no issue with duels arising in civilian life for centuries - yet the Muslims saw no need for it. Even the Ottoman caliphate which was the last the Muslims had, the only records of duels found are those against non-Muslims.
I don’t have a source on this, but it stands to reason the elimination of blood feuds by the Prophet (PBUH) helped prevent civilian duels to arise. As many of you remember from the Seerah, this is what he opened his farewell sermon with:
“Verily your blood, your property are as sacred and inviolable as the sacredness of this day of yours, in this month of yours, in this town of yours. Behold! Everything pertaining to the Days of Ignorance is under my feet completely abolished. Abolished are also the blood-feuds of the Days of Ignorance.”
Blood feuds refer generally to the act of taking revenge for the blood spilled in your family/tribe, which went as far as eliminating bloodlines as the cycle of revenge often went. Blood holds life, and thus the blood of man is sacred and can not be spilled without divine reason. Therefore, it makes sense that the Semitic peoples would be unfavorable to spilling blood amongst one another so easily - as the faith they share is metaphysically more important than relations of blood. Such, even someone taking justice would do so with the law and community and not by risking his life when there is no need.
Even as I say all this, I wonder why we can’t have supervised duels that are scheduled and sanctioned. The innovation of boxing and other combat sports has made it so that two men can brutalize each other in as safe a manner as possible - so why not allow it legally? You’ll have those who claim that “we don’t have time for such stupid ideas”. Well, many men already do it in some form. Boys in school agree to go in the parking lot or the gym to fight (or used to? Do kids these days just make Tiktoks about each other?). Men still fight each other constantly in the streets of cities, but it’s not done in the gentlemanly manner of the duel. This adds to my hypothesis that I alluded to about Medieval Europe: in order to have duels done for correct and just reasons, you need to have a high society that allows men the space to settle such disputes physically. You can’t have police-supervised fisticuffs dueling, as there is in Texas for example, if your police are too busy responding to calls about homeless and crackheads (which they won’t even do anything). It is not the “savage” practice you once thought it was when you realize many impulsive murders and manslaughters today could be avoided if men knew they had an avenue to challenge each other physically without such a ridiculous risk of death. And don’t get me started on the idea that you can take away all of the men’s guns and STILL expect them not to fight in this way.
What we do now in fact, is degenerate. The introduction of firearms destroyed the eugenic nature of the duel enough (they’re called an ‘equalizer’ for a reason), but even when we aren’t killing each other by these tragic and deceptive means we’re being passive-aggressive BITCHES who get into the styles of conflicts school girls get into. Some of you may remember my tweets on this, but it’s the hill I’ll always die on: the only way to stop something like bullying in schools, which traumatizes and creates future deranged criminals of thousands of children a year, can only be solved by allowing these children (mostly boys) to fight back without consequence and allowed praise even. Instead, we have the gynocratic school system of “civility” that extends into versions of almost all parts of civilian life.
Maybe in the future, we’ll see a return to dueling in some form. Perhaps as BAP fantasizes of, and as do l, we get something like the shield in Dune that makes fighting between men eugenic again and the strongest can craft their own glory once more. Above all, it would free up a lot of room for the Mr. Cleans of the future to rid us of certain “types” that have been plaguing us for some time now. You get what I mean (don’t tell me if you do).