Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West: Tracing the Emergence of Medieval Europe
Daniel G. König
Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015, ISBN: 9780198737193; 448pp.; Price: £75.00
University of York
Date accessed: 31 May, 2023
The Andalusian jurist Abū Bakr al-Ṭurṭūshī (d. 1126) was once asked whether or not it was permissible to eat cheese imported into Alexandria from the Christian territories along the northern coastline of the Mediterranean. The question clearly intrigued al-Ṭurṭūshī, since he went to considerable lengths to research the subject before issuing his final response. Naturally, he checked the principal textual sources for Islamic law and for relevant legal precedents, but he also interviewed those he could find who had witnessed the production of cheese in these lands and the conditions in which it was transported across the sea to Muslim lands. This is one of the many examples offered in Daniel König’s new book (at pp. 11–12, 99) to demonstrate the serious interest shown by many Muslim scholars from around the Mediterranean and even beyond in the customs as well as the social, economic, religious and political conditions of those living in the Latin-Christian world.
It is in demonstrating this widespread interest shown by Arabic-Islamic scholars – that is scholars who were both Muslim and wrote in Arabic – in the Latin-Christian world, both its contemporary and past societies, that König’s book can be considered a real success. Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West, following on from Nizar Hermes’ 2012 study (1), clearly shows both that there was interest among Muslim scholars in several aspects of Latin-Christian history and that such interest could go beyond a desire simply to denigrate or stereotype Latin-Christian societies. The preface and first chapter of König’s book actually set up an even more ambitious aim than this, with the author declaring that this is not a cultural or social history (p. v), but rather a historiographical one, tracing ‘if and how the notion of a Latin-Christian sphere emerged in an Arabic-Islamic scholarly tradition that accumulated data over the centuries in reaction to important geopolitical developments and resulting social processes’ (p. vi). The principal objective of the book is to draw out a ‘double process of “emergence”’: the recognition by Muslims of Latin-Christian Europe’s development towards being an active player on a global scale by the 15th century and the emergence of Latin-Christian Europe as a discernable phenomenon in Arabic-Islamic sources (p. 1).
König sets out to achieve this through three introductory chapters followed by five chapters dealing with specific case studies of Arabic-Islamic writing on particular issues concerning Latin-Christian societies and their histories. In the first chapter (pp. 1–26), König offers a historiographical overview and introduces his study’s approach. In particular, he emphasises the problems inherent in looking for a single Arabic-Islamic perception of Latin-Christian Europe. He also suggests that modern historians should not always be so quick to see the religious identities of Arabic-Islamic scholars as the main driving force behind their depictions of their non-Muslim neighbours. Instead, he seeks to downplay the overwhelming focus on the ‘ideological overtones’ of Arabic-Islamic works about non-Muslim western Europeans and suggests that many of these scholars’ perceptions were ‘charaterized by the wish to understand particular historical, geographical, or social phenomena’ (p. 25). The second chapter (pp. 27–71) then offers an interesting and thoughtful overview of how Muslims could come by information about the Latin-Christian West and how the availability of access to such information shifted over the medieval period between the seventh and 15th centuries. This is a very well researched chapter that provides food for thought on a range of issues, including the extent to which Muslims around the Mediterranean were able to work with languages other than Arabic (pp. 64–8). König also offers here (at pp. 69–70) an important reminder that the authors who wrote our extant sources were often at the end of very long and complex chains of transmission and so can only be considered representative of one part of a broader picture of Arabic-Islamic views of the Latin-Christian West. Chapter three (pp. 72–113) then follows on from this observation and discusses how these scholars went about composing discussions of the Latin-Christian Europeans based on the information they had at their disposal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the role of Andalusians in transmitting and shaping such material in the period before Latin-Christian expansion into the eastern Mediterranean from the late 11th century onwards is seen as important (pp. 77–80). As König himself notes (p. 112), his aim in this chapter is to consider the factors other than ideological reasons why Arabic-Islamic scholars may not always have had accurate, up-to-date information about the Latin-Christian West and how they might misinterpret that material they did have.
The five chapters of case studies on particular issues then follow; in the first four cases, developments in Arabic-Islamic scholars’ understandings of a particular issue is charted over the seventh–15th centuries. In line with the interest shown in the first three chapters on reducing the attention paid to ideological reasons for developments in the material used and discussed, König tends to focus in these chapters on developments and discrepancies in the availability of information to scholars from the Muslim world writing on these particular topics. The first of the case studies (pp. 114–49) deals with the history of the Roman Empire and the second (pp. 150–88) with the history of the Visigoths who ruled the Iberian Peninsula before its conquest by Muslim armies from 711. The next two case studies then move from Arabic-Islamic scholars’ views of what they would probably have seen as pre-Islamic history to the ways they discussed the history of more contemporary issues, the Franks (pp. 189–230) and then the institution of the papacy (pp. 231–67). Each of these chapters is very well researched and offers a wealth of material from the main primary sources on each issue. The chapter on the Franks offers a particularly interesting analysis of the varying uses of the term ‘Frank’ (Ar. firanj, ifranj) in Arabic-Islamic sources and especially (at pp. 221–25) on the rising awareness of France as a distinct kingdom. The analysis in these chapters of the patterns of availability of information to Arabic-Islamic scholars interested in these topics is generally convincing, although I suppose I could not help but think that all the evidence in the chapter on the papacy does really suggest, pace König, that Arabic-Islamic scholars do on the whole seem to have displayed a relative ‘lack of curiosity for the papal office’ (p. 265). The final case study chapter (pp. 268–322) is a little different from the other four and looks at how Latin-Christian expansion around the Mediterranean from the 11th century onwards led to more precise knowledge being available to Arabic-Islamic scholars about the details of Latin-Christian history, politics and geography. Although there is some discussion (at pp. 268–71) of the ‘trauma’ evidenced in some Arabic-Islamic responses to this expansion, the focus is again primarily on the expanding opportunities it presented for communication and transfer of information about Latin-Christian Europe into the Islamic Mediterranean world.
The final chapter (pp. 323–47) offers some concluding thoughts on all this material. König returns here to his argument that there was clearly ‘not much room for a uniform and coherent “Muslim” world-view’ (p. 325) when it came to Latin-Christian Europe. Although recognising that there were preconceptions about non-Muslims and the inhabitants of Europe that were expressed in much Arabic-Islamic scholarship, he also argues strongly here again that ‘Latin-Christian societies and their members were not only subject to “othering” in religious terms, but were often simply regarded as alternative manifestations of human life and its social and political organization’ (pp. 327–8). There is a very brief comparative section (at pp. 336–43) comparing Arabic-Islamic information about Europe with that about India and then with Latin-Christian information about the Islamic world, which leads König to conclude that there was a close connection between ‘imperializing culture, expansionism, and the systematic production of records’ (p. 343). Right at the end of this final chapter (pp. 343–7), König returns to one of the key questions posed right at the start of the book and concludes that Arabic-Islamic scholars did indeed develop the idea of Latin Christendom as a coherent sphere, albeit in an appropriately vague and imprecise way.
König’s main success lies in undermining earlier arguments that Muslim scholars largely treated non-Muslim societies with disdain and were generally uninterested in their affairs. His alternative approach, focusing on developments that affected flows of information from the Latin-Christian to the Arabic-Islamic world, does demonstrate clearly that religious ideologies were only one factor among a great many that affected how Muslim scholars wrote about their Christian European neighbours. He also shows that sometimes Muslim scholars could get very interested in certain aspects of Latin-Christian history, society and culture.
All of this, combined with the impressive breadth of research employed in support of these arguments, makes Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West an important book. The following thoughts raised in response to the arguments and approach offered in König’s book are not intended to undermine that achievement, but rather simply to raise some issues for discussion. The main thought that occurred while reading this book was that, without wishing to return to arguments that Muslim scholars only treated Latin-Christian Europeans with disinterest and disdain, their preconceptions and concerns do perhaps need to be a bigger part of the story. After all, few nowadays presumably would doubt that although medieval Muslim historians and geographers, writing about any topic, were dependent on the kinds of information and sources to which they had access, the final shape of their works and narratives was also determined by how they chose to select and then present that material. Despite König’s frequent recognition of this point, the overall impression often gained reading this work is that Arabic-Islamic material about the Latin-Christian West was primarily determined by the ease of access to information. This can only be a part of the story.
In the discussion of the Arabic-Islamic versions of the history of the Roman empire, for example, it is surely significant that some authors such as al-Masʿūdī (d. 956) who wrote relatively detailed accounts of Latin-Christian societies were adamant that the Islamic caliphate was a more legitimate heir to the ancient world than the Christian Byzantine empire, let alone the successor kingdoms of western Europe and the Mediterranean.(2) There are plenty of examples offered by König of Muslim scholars who went to considerable lengths to actively acquire information about Latin-Christian societies: think of the case of al-Ṭurṭūshī with which this review began. Such examples surely suggest that at least some other scholars could also have found out more information if they had wanted to. Furthermore, al-Ṭurṭūshī’s interest in northern Mediterranean cheese was not, as König recognises, driven by a simple interest in dairy products. He was a Muslim legal scholar who was asked specifically about whether the importation and consumption of this product was in line with Islamic dietary and purity regulations. Al-Ṭurṭūshī’s fatwa is a nice example of expanded opportunities for the exchange of information from the northern to the southern side of the Mediterranean in the early 12th century; it is also a reminder that it was Muslim scholars’ own concerns that drove their interest in utilising such opportunities.
Sometimes it is very hard to know whether arguments made by Arabic-Islamic scholars about Latin-Christians is based on actual information they obtained or shaped with particular concerns in mind. A good example comes in the sermons on jihad delivered by the Damascene preacher ʿAlī ibn Ṭāhir al-Sulamī (d. 1106) in response to the success of the First Crusade. Al-Sulamī makes a point about how the Latin-Christian invaders were motivated specifically by thoughts of holy war.(3) On one level, this could be taken as an example of the increased access brought about by the Crusades for Syrian scholars to pick up information about Latin-Christians: al-Sulamī is referring to what we today call crusading. On another, however, it is very clear that al-Sulamī is using this point to urge his listeners to undertake their own holy war against the Latin-Christian invaders: if even infidels can get themselves worked up for the cause of holy war, why can the true believers not do the same to resist them? If we read the passage in the latter way, then it is not actually necessary for al-Sulamī to have known anything at all about the motivations of the first crusaders. Staying with the era of the Crusader States, a related point can be made using Usāma ibn Munqidh’s (d. 1188) discussion of the character of the ‘Franks’ in his Kitāb al-Iʿtibār.(4) König seems keen to underplay any significance we might attribute to Usāma’s famously sensational depiction of Latin-Christian social, religious, legal and medical customs (p. 271), and that is fair enough, but there remains an important point to be made here. Usāma, in light of information obtained over the course of his travels, presumably could have offered any number of anecdotes of ‘Franks’ behaving in ways his Muslim audience could have considered boringly normal. That he did not is another clear reminder that opportunities for information exchange alone cannot explain everything that is going on in Arabic-Islamic accounts of the Latin-Christian West.
König’s own selection of material emphasises those cases where Muslim scholars discussed recognisable topics such as the history of the Roman empire, of the Visigoths and so on, but largely removes from view other instances in which our extant Arabic texts focus on what they often call the ʿajāʾib wa-gharāʾib, ‘wonders and marvels’, of the Latin-Christian West. Just as medieval Latin-Christian writers could create ‘oneiric horizons’ in the world of the Indian Ocean, so too could Muslim writers in the lands of the Latin-Christian West.(5) Nicola Clarke has demonstrated in some detail the ways in which Muslim writers from Baghdad to al-Andalus itself portrayed the Iberian Peninsula at the time of the invasion of 711 as the home of talismanic idols, enchanted cities and even giant, man-eating ants.(6) It is not clear where König would find a place for this kind of material in his information-exchange model for the development of Arabic-Islamic views of the Latin-Christian West.
With these points in mind, I wonder if we should not think a bit more seriously about differences in the kind of information presented and the uses to which that information is put between texts written in different genres. There are, of course, important overlaps in the kinds of material presented in works of history and geography, for example, but it is surely important to consider more seriously the varieties of ways in which narratives are built out of that material. There are now a number of important studies of Arabic-Islamic historiography and geography writing and the arguments and ideas presented in these studies are worth bearing in mind more seriously when evaluating the material such works contain on the Latin-Christian West.(7) If nothing else, these studies would warn us to hesitate in referring to the activities of Muslim scholars writing about the Latin-Christian West as ‘documentation’, the ‘production of records’ and even ‘a systematic production of records’ (p. 329; my emphasis added). Virtually all of the sources analysed by König are literary and narrative in character and so the use of these terms to describe the activity behind their compilation needs to be justified a bit more thoroughly.
None of these thoughts, however, should detract from the importance and achievement of this book. They merely suggest that there is still room for further investigation of this topic. Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West will be a key resource for future scholars interested in medieval Muslims’ views of their non-Muslim neighbours. In particular, no-one will now be able to work on such topics without treating seriously the question of how information about non-Muslims outside the Islamic world could become available to Muslim scholars and how that availability of information had an important role to play in the ways in which their views were formed.
- N. Hermes, The [European] Other in Medieval Arabic Literature and Culture: Ninth–Twelfth Century ad (New York, NY, 2012).Back to (1)
- D. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ʿAbbāsid Society (2nd–4th/8th–10th Centuries) (London, 1998), pp. 83–95.Back to (2)
- ʿAlī ibn Ṭāhir al-Sulamī, The Book of the Jihad of ʿAli ibn Tahir al-Sulami (d. 1106): Text, Translation and Commentary, ed. and trans. N. Christie (Farnham, 2015), pp. 43 [Ar.]/206–7 [Eng.].Back to (3)
- Usāma ibn Munqidh, The Book of Contemplation: Islam and the Crusades, trans. P.M. Cobb (London, 2008), esp. pp. 144–54.Back to (4)
- J. Le Goff, ‘The Medieval West and the Indian Ocean: an oneiric horizon’, in his Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages, trans. A. Goldhammer (Chicago, IL, 1980), pp. 189–200.Back to (5)
- N. Clarke, The Muslim Conquest of Iberia: Medieval Arabic Narratives (London, 2012), pp. 69–83.Back to (6)
- For just two examples (neither of which is cited in König’s bibliography), see C. F. Robinson, Islamic Historiography (Cambridge, 2003); and Z. Antrim, Routes and Realms: The Power of Place in the Early Islamic World (New York, NY, 2012).Back to (7)
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.
- Ibn al-Athīr, al-kāmil fī l-tārīkh, ed. Carolus Tornberg, (12 vols, Leiden, 1866), i, pp. 7–8.Back to (1a)
- Bernard Lewis, The Muslim Discovery of Europe (New York, NY, 2001), p. 280.Back to (2a)
- John Tolan, Gilles Veinstein, Henry Laurens, Europe and the Islamic World: A History (Princeton, NJ, 2013), p. 16.Back to (3a)
- Jonathan Lyons, The House of Wisdom. How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization (London, 2009) p. 15.Back to (4a)
- Brian A. Catlos, Muslims of Medieval Latin Christendom, c. 1050–1614 (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 525–7.Back to (5a)
- 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)
- 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)