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Response to Review of Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West: Tracing the Emergence of Medieval Europe

In his very thoughtful review of Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West, which I would like to acknowledge gratefully, Harry Munt has raised some very interesting points. These, I believe, merit a reply because the issues under debate here might be of interest to those who continue working on the question how the Arabic-Islamic sphere documented neighbouring areas populated by non-Muslims.

Munt first highlights that I mainly considered Arabic-Islamic source material on what he calls ‘recognizable topics’. This selection was made deliberately, since my primary aim was to provide an insight into how Arabic-Islamic scholars depicted phenomena which are generally considered constitutive of medieval Western European history by Latin medievalists. My initial aim of demonstrating to Latin medievalists that Arabic-Islamic sources have far more to offer on medieval Christian Europe than a few crude stereotypes and denigratory statements, and actually proffer viewpoints that may be of interest to everyone wishing to understand the history of medieval Christian Europe, made me collect as much Arabic-Islamic material on the Latin West as possible, even though I cannot claim to have considered every relevant work or even found every existing passage on the Latin West. The task of establishing relations between the different elements of this material made me focus on grand processes of reception rather than on the individual circumstances of producing narratives. As not to overcharge the book, the additional task of differentiating on a micro-historical level had to be left to other scholars.

My approach was thus decidedly macro-historical and did not do justice to the individual motivations to write about the Latin West. It would certainly seem worthwhile to put some effort into analysing these motivations in more detail, not necessarily by focusing on one single author or a small group of authors, but by collecting and juxtaposing a large number of different individual motivations. This would show, how many different factors had an impact on why and how a certain author wrote on a specific subject, and would detract attention from such explicit, well-known and much-cited texts as Usāma b. Munqidh’s kitāb al-iʿtibār, a work all too often regarded as epitomizing Arabic-Islamic perceptions of the Latin West.

In spite of the fact that Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West does not do justice to these individual motivations of writing on the Latin West, I am firmly convinced, however, that its macro-historical approach can provide insights which the micro-historical analysis would not have produced, the main insight being that the emergence and development of a body of (in this case linguistically and religiously defined) literature on the surrounding world takes place within a larger geopolitical framework, defined here in terms of an ‘information landscape’. The original title ‘The Emergence of Latin-Christian Europe: Arabic-Islamic Perspectives’, not accepted by the publisher for marketing reasons, would have probably conveyed the gist of the general argument in a better way.

In addition, Munt remarks that the ʿajāʾib wa-gharāʾib, i.e. the ‘wonders and marvels’ of the Latin West are not represented and dealt with adequately, wondering where I would find a place for this kind of material in my information-exchange model. It is true that the study lacks a thorough discussion of such literary phenomena and should have taken a more explicit stance on this topic. Notwithstanding, I am convinced that I have not provided a distorted view of what Arabic-Islamic scholars knew about the history and societies of the Latin West, this being the main focus of the study. Legendary and miraculous elements do indeed constitute an element of Arabic-Islamic descriptions of the Latin West. However, they are not as frequent as one generally assumes. They appear in clearly restricted contexts, which are so few in number that they can be listed here. Legendary and miraculous elements generally feature in connection with descriptions of (a) the pre-Islamic history and the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, (b) the city of Rome, (c) the early medieval British Isles, (d) the early medieval far north and (e) early medieval central-eastern Europe. They form part of Arabic-Islamic descriptions of the Latin West, but cannot be considered a defining feature of such descriptions. This raises several questions. First, why are legendary and miraculous elements generally mentioned in connection with these specific early medieval regions? Second, why do these legendary and miraculous continue to feature in later works of Arabic-Islamic scholarship? Third, how do these legendary and miraculous relate to highly factual descriptions produced by contemporary or later Arabic-Islamic authors?

Within the framework of this reply, I am not able to proffer extensive explanations. I believe, however, that the following hypotheses, spelt out partly in the study, can claim some validity: it is my impression that, in connection with the Latin West, legendary and miraculous elements generally appear if the respective author (a) lacked sources of information on a specific phenomenon and was thus dependent either on outdated material or on circulating stories, or (b) transmitted these stories – even in case of doubt – because they formed part of the literary tradition he drew back on, a literary tradition also valued for its moralizing, paraenetic, but also entertaining features. One could cite Ibn al-Athīr in this context, who criticized those who believed that historical traditions (tawārīkh) either served the elucidation of the sayings and deeds of the Prophet (aḥādīth) or evening entertainment (asmār), but nothing more.(1a)  

It is conspicuous that the copper knight guarding al-Andalus (Ibn Khurdādhbah and others, see p. 42), the sleeping idol guarding ‘the city of Britain’ (Ibn Rustah, see p. 277), northmen venerating fire and marrying their sisters (Ibn Diḥya, see pp. 107–8), the papal tradition of shaving the hair of Saint Peter every year (Ibn Rustah, see p. 239), the wonders of Rome (Ibn Khurdādhbah and others, see pp. 233–4) etc. all feature in descriptions of early medieval contexts, i.e. contexts in which Muslims were becoming involved with the Iberian Peninsula, the British Isles, the North and Rome for the first time. As soon as Arabic-Islamic sources begin reporting on later phenomena, e.g. al-Andalus after the Muslim invasion, the British Isles and Scandinavia in the high Middle Ages (al-Idrīsī, Ibn Saʿīd, Ibn al-Khaṭīb, see ch. 8), high and late medieval Rome (al-Idrīsī, Ibn al-Khaṭīb, see ch. 8), recently acquired information on these regions is never legendary. If legendary and miraculous elements remain, they generally pertain from an earlier source and have been copied, as in the example of al-Qazwīnī who seems to depict central European phenomena of his own period, but actually draws back on textual material at least two centuries old (see p. 109).

There are several possible reasons why these legendary and miraculous continue to feature in later works of Arabic-Islamic scholarship. In some cases, and regardless of the fact if they believed them or not, earlier scholars may have made up for the lack of informants and concrete data by drawing back on circulating stories, often of a legendary nature. I have argued that this is the case with early medieval Italy, hardly documented in Arabic-Islamic works because a nearby intellectual centre capable of documenting what was happening there was lacking in this early period (see p. 53, ch. 7.1.1–7.1.2). Later scholars often repeated these stories, either because they did not dispose of alternative information or because they paid their respect to older literature as conscientious transmitters of moralizing, paraenetic or entertaining traditions. In chapters 3.3–3.5., I have pointed to the fact that some scholars chose to engage critically with such traditions while others merely accepted and reproduced them – this is a feature of scholarship that exists until today. These varieties show once again that we are not dealing with a homogeneous group of Arabic-Islamic scholars, but with a large range of different people, each with a different background, aim and approach.

This brings us to the question, how these legendary and miraculous accounts relate to highly factual descriptions produced by contemporary or later Arabic-Islamic authors? Scholars such as al-Yaʿqūbī, Ṣāʿid al-Andalusī, al-Idrīsī, Ibn al-Athīr, Ibn Saʿīd, Abū l-Fidāʾ, Ibn Khaldūn and al-Qalqashandī, just to name a few, largely dispensed with such material and recorded rather factual (but not necessarily ‘correct’) information. One might argue that this has to do, not only with the individual worldview, outlook and approach of each scholar – al-Masʿūdī occasionally favouring legendary elements, Ibn Khaldūn criticizing him for doing so – but also with the respective genre. Universal histories, treatises on the history of science, strictly geographical works tended to omit legendary and miraculous narratives, while books on routes and realms, mixed genres of ethno-, geo- and historiography such as al-Masʿūdī’s murūj al-dhahab, or cosmological writings such as al-Qazwīnī’s āthār al-bilād, tended to include them. However, such a rule cannot be strictly applied. Again, we must note a large variety, not only among different authors, but also within the work of one individual author: Ibn Khurdādhbah’s kitāb al-masālik wa-l-mamālik provides highly positivist information such as concrete distances between different places on the one hand and then turns quite fantastic as soon as he describes Rome. One cannot overstress this variety: ajāʾib wa-gharāʾib do not constitute a defining feature of Arabic-Islamic depictions of the Latin West, but only one among many different elements, and certainly not the most dominant one.

Legendary elements in depictions of the pre-Islamic and early Islamic history of the Iberian Peninsula provide a good example, also for fluctuations in their appearance. A copper knight guarding the Iberian Peninsula is only mentioned in connection with the earliest Muslim conquerors approaching the Iberian Peninsula, but disappears completely as soon as the later history of al-Andalus is treated. The narrative element originated in a period when Arabic-Islamic knowledge about the Iberian Peninsula was extremely limited. It was, of course, repeated in later works, but not in all: it does not feature in the histories of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and other historiographers of the tenth and later centuries who provide biased, but nonetheless factual depictions of the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. Notwithstanding, legendary elements seem to have regained currency in depictions of pre-Islamic Iberian history written after the twelfth century. At the end of my chapter on the Visigoths (ch. 5.3.2–5.4), I tried to provide an explanation: it claims that legendary and miraculous depictions of the pre-Islamic Iberian Peninsula either appear in early Middle Eastern Arabic-Islamic texts on the early period of the invasion that depended on the scarce and imprecise information furnished by Muslim conquerors returning to the east, or feature in later Western Muslim depictions of the history of al-Andalus written in a period when the ideological climate of the reconquista seems to have led to a considerable decrease of interest in and a lack of scholarly investment into the pre-Islamic history of the Iberian Peninsula as well as to a considerable appreciation of local legends of doubtful authenticity. In this case, it seems, legendary elements were introduced when other information was not available, regaining currency when a particular ideological climate favoured a lack of engagement with pre-Islamic material of Latin origin. This material, however, had dominated depictions written in the late tenth and 11th centuries, i.e. a period characterized by a firmly established regional Andalusian identity not yet threatened by the reconquista.

As I have discussed extensively in my introduction, most scholarly attempts to summarize Arabic-Islamic depictions of the Latin West focus on stereotypical and exoticising source material, and explain such features by pointing to a typically ‘Muslim’ or ‘medieval’ world-view, emphasizing in both cases that contemporary descriptions of regions outside the respective author’s direct circle of vision are either characterized by long-cherished stereotypes, or by what Bernard Lewis called the ‘interest in the strange and wonderful’.(2a) Two recent publications show that this way of dealing with allegedly ‘Muslim’ worldviews cannot be relegated to an older generation of scholarship. In an effort to summarize how Muslims regarded medieval Europe, these works quote al-Masʿūdī’s depiction of the northern sphere (al-rubʿ al-shamālī, concretely linked to al-Ifranj and al-Ṣaqāliba) as being intellectually inferior to the temperate zones for climatic reasons, a quote which clearly builds on the Arabic-Islamic reception of ancient Greek ethnography and geography and is clearly linked to those parts of the northern hemisphere marked by an extremely harsh climate. One author uses this quote to demonstrate that al-Masʿūdī’s statement ‘confirmed his sense of religious and cultural superiority’ (3a), without considering that, in spite of his theories, al-Masʿūdī also regarded the contemporary Frankish realm as a highly organized and urbanized society (see p. 211). The other author uses the same quote to demonstrate how barbarous medieval European Christianity was in comparison to the much more developed Islamic Middle East, claiming that al-Masʿūdī’s assessment ‘betrayed a grasp of astronomy – if not, of meteorology – that was well beyond that of his subjects, the crusading [sic!] Franks’ (4a), failing to consider in this context that a tenth-century Arabic-Islamic scholar could not yet have written on the crusaders. Both evaluations are characterized by blatant generalizations and show that, once again, judgement on how Arabic-Islamic scholars viewed the Latin West has been passed too quickly.

The material I collected and analysed in Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West should not only encourage future scholars on the subject to consider ‘how information about non-Muslims outside the Islamic sphere became available to Muslim scholars’, as Munt states, but also to be more careful with regards to generalizations about how entire cultural spheres regarded their neighbours. Brian Catlos has made a first and, I believe, very successful effort at conceptualizing the simultaneous existence of different modes of perception by distinguishing between an ecumenic, a corporate and a local mode of perception.(5a) Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West has provided further additions by focusing on the emergence and development of a body of scholarly literature within a shifting geopolitical framework and by focusing on what historically, geographically and ethnographically interested intellectuals in the Arabic-Islamic sphere actually knew about a neighbouring orbit. The fact that ʿajāʾib wa-gharāʾib are not the most adequate means to encapsulate and transmit knowledge, may explain why they were of secondary importance in this study. Ibn Khaldūn underscored that the writing of history

‘requires numerous sources and much varied knowledge. It also requires a good speculative mind and thoroughness, which lead the historian to the truth and keep him from slips and errors. If he trusts historical information in its plain transmitted form and has no clear knowledge of the principles resulting from the custom, the fundamental facts of politics, the nature of civilization, or the conditions governing human social organization, and if, furthermore, he does not evaluate remote or ancient material through comparison with near or contemporary material, he often cannot avoid stumbling and slipping and deviating from the path of truth.’(6a)

The wealth of material on the Latin West to be found in Arabic-Islamic sources shows that Ibn Khaldūn was not the only Arabic-Islamic scholar to take the task of writing history and of documenting contemporary neighbouring societies seriously. The unexplainable and the miraculous made up an important part of pre-modern world-views (as they do today), and there is no use in exaggerating the ‘rationality’ of the medieval Arabic-Islamic sphere, as is often done in publications that try to highlight what some people call the golden age of Islam (7a), an age that brought forward quite a large number of highly rational and innovative thinkers and administrators nonetheless. But there is no doubt either, that medieval Islam did not only produce narrow-minded ideologues keen on stereotyping and denigrating everything that did not conform to their religiously preconceived world-view.

Could these Arabic-Islamic scholars have known more about the Latin West? I wonder. Munt pointed to the examples of al-Ṭurṭūshī and Usāma b. Munqidh to prove that Arabic-Islamic scholars were not necessarily interested in acquiring or documenting more information about the Latin West than they actually needed to fulfil their respective objective of either counselling or of entertaining their contemporaries. In the context of Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West, however, the jurisconsult and the literate noble warrior were cited to provide an insight into the large range of sources and genres recording the impact of Latin-Christian societies on the Arabic-Islamic sphere (see pp. 11–12, 271). Their works thus served to highlight the variety of existing records, but cannot necessarily be regarded as representative of what I described as an ‘intellectualized scholarly meta-level of perception’ (see p. 71). Such a ‘mode of perception’ is rather represented by al-Yaʿqūbī, al-Masʿūdī, al-Bīrūnī, Ibn al-Athīr, Ibn Khaldūn and others who all have to be credited with a much higher amount of investigatory curiosity for non-Muslim societies, past and/or contemporary.

On a micro-historical level, I would argue that certain individuals could have invested more energy into acquiring information about the Latin West, if they had wanted to, others, if they had been able to, depending on their individual circumstances. The latter defy generalization as I have argued in my conclusion (see ch. 9.1.). On a macro-historical level, I would underscore once again that geopolitical changes influence how an intellectual elite records and depicts what seems to lie beyond and what has an impact on its world – here I believe my comparative essay (see ch. 9.5.) can provide some impetus for reflection, superficial as it may be. In any case, I would always argue against stereotypization and generalization. It is time to stop looking for the all-in-one-formula that purports to explain the ‘essence’ of Islam and Muslim thought. Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West does not claim to proffer this formula, but to explain one particular aspect of how Latin-Christian Europe was documented in the neighbouring Arabic-Islamic sphere. As the book argues repeatedly (esp. ch. 2.3.), the written remnants of scholarly activity compiled in Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West only allow us to see the tip of the iceberg: as soon as we enter into the details of historical interaction between the Latin-Christian and the Arabic-Islamic spheres, thereby taking into account what Latin, Greek and other sources report about several centuries of contact, exchange, hybridization, conflict etc., we cannot but admit that many, many people must have known, thought and perceived a lot more than the written output of Arabic-Islamic scholars allows us to see.


  1. Ibn al-Athīr, al-kāmil fī l-tārīkh, ed. Carolus Tornberg, (12 vols, Leiden, 1866), i, pp. 7–8.Back to (1a)
  2. Bernard Lewis, The Muslim Discovery of Europe (New York, NY, 2001), p. 280.Back to (2a)
  3. John Tolan, Gilles Veinstein, Henry Laurens, Europe and the Islamic World: A History (Princeton, NJ, 2013), p. 16.Back to (3a)
  4. Jonathan Lyons, The House of Wisdom. How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization (London, 2009) p. 15.Back to (4a)
  5. Brian A. Catlos, Muslims of Medieval Latin Christendom, c. 1050–1614 (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 525–7.Back to (5a)
  6. Ibn Khaldūn, tārīkh, ed. Suhayl Zakkār und Khalīl Shaḥāda, (8 vols, Beirut, 2005), i, p. 13; translated in: Ibn Khaldūn, The Muqaddimah. An Introduction to History, transl. Franz Rosenthal, abbreviated by N. J. Dawood (Princeton, NJ,1969), p. 11.Back to (6a)
  7. E.g. Jim Al-Khalili, The House of Wisdom. How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance (New York, NY, 2011).Back to (7a)