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Home arrow Geography arrow Arabic-Islamic views of the Latin West : tracing the emergence of medieval Europe


The categories ‘Arabic-Islamic’ and ‘Latin-Christian’ suggest that it is possible to operate with clearly defined ‘subjects’ and ‘objects’ of perception that correspond to self-contained and static cultural orbits prone to produce uniform sensations in the minds of outsiders. This is not the case: the terms ‘Arabic-Islamic’ and ‘Latin-Christian’ can only serve as terminological tools to circumscribe permeable cultural spheres subject to constant change.


In the context of this study, the Arabic-Islamic sphere represents a pool of uncountable perceptions held and formulated in Arabic by individuals who pledged allegiance to Islam in its existing variants. In most cases, the latter were members of societies subject to the rule of Muslim elites and the corresponding social, political, and juridical framework.

Soon after Muhammad had proclaimed the message of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula between 610 and 10/632, expanding Muslim elites began to establish a new order in an area ranging from the Iberian Peninsula in the West to Central Asia in the East. This constituted a considerable step for an Arab world that, up to the first half of the seventh century, had been more or less confined to the Middle East.

The expansion was accompanied by the emergence of an Islamic scholarly culture that increasingly put down its intellectual endeavours in writing. Arabic script and literature developed in such a significant way that Arabic became one of the leading vehicles of thought in the post-Roman period. Soon various scholarly genres served to record the world-view of an intellectual elite of Islamic faith in Arabic.

Initially, Islamic scholarly culture built on Arab lore and a selective approach to the Judaeo-Christian heritage. Then the expansion opened up new intellectual horizons. Forced or negotiated submission on the one hand, conversion on the other hand led to the incorporation of individuals, groups, and entire societies into the growing Islamic orbit. Their integration entailed the assimilation of customs, traditions as well as practical and theoretical knowledge on the part of a Muslim world that became increasingly heterogeneous as regards its ethnic and cultural composition.

The vast area from the Iberian Peninsula to Central Asia went through several processes of regional reconfiguration under the auspices of elites professing different variants of Islam. However, many existing cultural and economic links were maintained thanks to a common framework of Islamic social organization and Arabic as a supra-regional vehicle of communication. In spite of regional and milieu-dependent variants, religion and language contributed to establishing certain juridical, political, economical, social, and intellectual standards that existed throughout the pre-Ottoman Islamic world. Both constitute the markers of a cultural sphere and literary production defined here as ‘Arabic-Islamic’.

Applied to the scholarly circles that stand at the centre of this enquiry, the ascription ‘Arabic-Islamic’ denotes intellectuals of diverse ethnic origin who professed Islam and recorded their ideas in Arabic, thus being heirs to and representatives of a specific, but highly variegated religious and literary tradition. They have to be distinguished from exponents of other written traditions such as Muslim scholars writing in Persian, Christian scholars writing in Arabic, Greek, Latin, etc. or Jewish scholars writing in Hebrew or Arabic. They also have to be distinguished from Muslims who were not able to or interested in expressing their cultural heritage in writing. Although Arabic-Islamic scholars epitomize two core elements of the pre-modern Muslim world, it is methodologically unsound to regard each written record produced by a Muslim in Arabic as the manifestation of an overriding ‘Muslim’ attitude towards the non-Muslim world. Various factors influenced what a scholar knew and wrote. The macro-historical approach chosen here precluded dealing with each scholar or text in detail. However, the study will r epeatedly distinguish between Arabic-Islamic scholarly milieus in the Muslim

West, i.e. al-Andalus, the Maghreb, and Ifrlqiya, and the Middle East, i.e. the area from Egypt to Iran.

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