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A Focus on ‘Muslim’ Stereotypes

Most studies that evaluate Arabic-Islamic perceptions of medieval Europe on a larger scale fail to reflect upon the methodological difficulties of assessing the pertinence of specific patterns of perception extracted from a limited number of sources. Distinguished international scholars have had no qualms to reduce a large and differentiated range of Arabic-Islamic perceptions to a single basic pattern which is often subsumed under the keywords ‘ignorance’, ‘indifference’, and ‘arrogance’.

  • 1°° Martinez-Gros, ‘Trace’ (2000), pp. 202—16; Martinez-Gros, ‘L’histoire’ (2007), pp. 77—86; Konig, ‘Christianisation’ (2009), pp. 431—71; Branco, Storie (2009); Konig, ‘Perception(s)’ (2010), pp. 18—42; Konig, ‘Historiographers’ (2012), pp. 427^5.
  • 101 Guidi, ‘L’Europa’ (1909), pp. 263—9; Lewis, ‘Discovery’ (1957), pp. 409—62; Ashtor, ‘Cosa’ (1969), pp. 453—79; Lewis, ‘Perceptions’ (1986), pp. 36-8; Al-Azmeh, ‘Barbarians’ (1992), pp. 3—18; Khalidi, ‘Views’ (1995), pp. 31—42; Thabit, ‘Views’ (1996), pp. 73—81; Viguera Moli'ns, ‘Percepcion’ (1997), pp. 49—70; Waardenburg, ‘L’Europe’ (1999), pp. 103—28; Viguera Moli'ns, ‘Textos’ (2006), pp. 199—214; Ducene, ‘Sources’ (2012), pp. 121—33.

Ю2 Abu-Lughod, Rediscovery (1963); Lewis, Discovery (1982/2001); Yared, Travellers (1996); Afaya, LOccident (1997); Afaya, al-gharb (2000); Raouf, LEurope (2000); Nouryeh, Views (2005); Matar, Europe (2009); Ziyada, tatawwur (1983/2010).

юз Hermes, Other (2012). al-Kilani, Urubba (2004).

105 al-Azma, al-Arab (1991); Ibrahim, ralam (2001), vol. 1.

Ignazio Guidi (1909) decried the lack of knowledge allegedly characteristic of Arabic-Islamic geography in the period before the twelfth century.106 Bernard Lewis (1957) stated that ‘the medieval iron curtain . . . between Islam and Christendom’ ultimately impeded processes of cultural exchange between both spheres, to the effect that Arabic-Islamic scholars generally held a condescending view of Europeans.107 Francesco Gabrieli (1962) claimed that Arabic-Islamic sources of the crusading period displayed

indifference, caused by a sense of superiority and contempt, which the Muslims always showed, except on a few occasions, for the western world, its history and culture throughout the Middle Ages.108

After analysing works of Arabic-Islamic geographers from the ninth and tenth centuries, Eliyahu Ashtor (1969) concluded that, in view of the lack of commodities Western Europe was able to offer, relations had been too insignificant to merit documentation.^9 Karl Jahn (1976) claimed that the intransigence of two religious spheres must be held responsible for the indifference and arrogance towards the other, attitudes manifest in the mutual documentation of both cultural spheres.110 Andre Miquel (1978) believed that Europe was only poorly known before the year 1000.111 George Makdisi (1981) took for granted that ‘Islam cared little for what was going on in the West’, and spoke of ‘its indifference to a lesser developed culture’.n2 In 1982, Bernard Lewis then published probably the most influential work on the topic entitled The Muslim Discovery of Europe. Translated into several European languages, it elicited reactions from various sides and probably proffers the most elaborate explanatory model so far. Although Nizar Hermes has only recently summarized and criticized Lewis’ hypotheses,n3 a detailed description of this work seems necessary at the starting point of the present study.

The monograph in question reiterates the position formulated by Lewis in his earlier homonymous article (1957). In the article, Lewis dealt with several Arabic- Islamic treatises of geo- and ethnography as well as a handful of historiographical works pertaining to the period between the ninth and the fourteenth century. Although he acknowledged a ‘gradual extension of knowledge’,n4 Lewis arrived at the conclusion that the medieval Muslim world hardly knew anything about Western Europe. In his monograph of 1982, Lewis introduced a large quantity of new, mainly Ottoman sources to prove his argument, and concluded that, only in the course of the nineteenth century,

the pace, scale, and range of the Muslim discovery of Europe were radically transformed . . . and the discovery assumed an entirely new character.lls

  • 106 Guidi, ‘L’Europa’ (1909), p. 263: ‘La conoscenza che i geografi arabi anteriori al Edrisi hanno avuto dell’Europa occidentale cristiana e veramente minima e appena credibile in un popolo che gia dal principio dell’viii secolo avea esteso le sue conquiste fin sulla Spagna.’
  • 107 Lewis, ‘Discovery’ (1957), p. 411. 1°8 Gabrieli, ‘Historiography’ (1962), p. 98.
  • 109 Ashtor, ‘Cosa’ (1969), pp. 453—79. 110 Jahn, ‘Abendland’ (1976), p. 1.
  • 111 Miquel, ‘L’Europe’ (1978), pp. 65—81. n2 Makdisi, Rise (1981), p. 286.
  • 113 Hermes, Other (2012), pp. 1—10. n4 Lewis, ‘Discovery’ (1957), p. 410.
  • 115 Lewis, Discovery (1982/2001), p. 303.

In a reduced form, this grand scheme of explanation also features in articles that address a larger public.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] Evoked anew in the introduction to his book What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (2002), it bolstered Lewis’ argument that knowledge about the Islamic world had enabled Western Europeans from the Early Modern Age onwards to develop strategies and methods that served to dominate the Muslim world in the long run. Because the medieval Islamic world had underestimated Western Europe’s capacities to develop in the fields of technology, economy, administration, and science, it was taken by surprise when it was steamrolled by European economic, military, and political expansionism in the modern period.U7 By declaring medieval and early modern Muslim arrogance, indifference, and ignorance to be one of several reasons for a current crisis of the Islamic world,ns Lewis defined the medieval period as the starting point of a development with unprecedented consequences. Rarely are the effects of medieval phenomena on our contemporary world appreciated to such an extent.

In his writings, Lewis made efforts to explain the Islamic world’s alleged lack of interest in Europe. First, Lewis pointed to the Islamic world’s self-sufficiency. Muslims of the medieval period possessed their ‘own internal lines of communication by land and sea’U9 and lacked compelling reasons to concern themselves with Europe. Following the religion of an Arab prophet, reading their scriptures in Arabic, and visiting places of pilgrimage on the Arabian Peninsula, Muslims had no religious interest in Europe comparable to the religious interest of European Christians in the Middle East. 12° Second, Lewis highlighted the importance of certain mental barriers: Muslims perceived Western Europeans primarily in religious terms, regarding them as followers of a superseded and essentially inferior religion.121 Third, Lewis emphasized the lack of incentives for Muslims to concern themselves with early medieval Western Europe. In the economical, technical, and intellectual sphere, this region did not have much to offer.m

When Islam was still expanding and receptive, Christian Europe flattered Muslim

pride with the spectacle of a culture that was visibly and palpably inferior.^3

Being a region of essentially one religion, one ‘race’, and, in the most parts, one culture, Lewis purported, medieval Western Europe seemed a very monotonous place to medieval Muslims accustomed to living in a civilization characterized by a variety of ethnic groups, creeds, costumes, and cultures. Europe’s disposition to uniformity, its inability to accommodate any deviation from established norms as well as the ‘ferocious intolerance’ of European rulers and peoples, impeded the establishment of resident Muslim communities in medieval Western Europe.m Since Muslims had to dispense with the basic amenities of Muslim religious life such as mosques, bathhouses, ritually purified food, etc., even visiting was difficult.

Consequently, Muslim rulers mainly charged their Jewish or Christian subjects with travel to Europe, if necessary.m

In view of all this, Muslims ‘could afford to despise the barbarous and impoverished infidel in the cold and miserable lands of the north’ and to cherish ‘the conviction of the immeasurable and immutable superiority of their own civilisation to all others’ for a certain period. By the end of the Middle Ages, this point of view ‘was becoming dangerously obsolete’, when Western European expansionism profoundly changed the relationship between both spheres.^6 At this point, however, ‘Islam was crystallised in its ways of thought and behaviour, and had become impervious to external stimuli—especially from the millenary adversary in the WestW7 Within the Islamic world, the ‘intellectual struggle of theologians and philosophers’ had ended in an ‘overwhelming and enduring victory of the first over the second’. Additionally, social developments had impeded the formation of a powerful Muslim bourgeoisie that would have been able to challenge military, bureaucratic, and religious elites, the ‘consequences of which can be seen in every aspect of Muslim social and intellectual history’.m All this confirmed the Muslim world’s

belief in its own self-sufficiency and superiority as the one repository of the true faith and—which for Muslims meant the same thing—of the civilized way of life. It required centuries of defeat and retreat before Muslims were ready to modify this vision of the world and of their place in it, and to look to the Christian West with something other than contempt.^9

According to Lewis, an open attitude towards Europeans was not prevalent in the Islamic world. Direct contact with Western European residents in the Islamic world was regarded as ‘a dirty and dangerous business and best left to other infi- dels’.[7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] Muslims writing on Europe were neither moved by anthropological nor by historical curiosity. Remarks on social phenomena in European societies were mainly motivated by ‘interest in the strange and wonderful’.ш Pointing to the ‘striking contrast’ between the degree of Muslim and Western European curiosity in the other’s culture and civilization, Lewis asserted that Western Europe had developed an interest in Islamic religion and civilization relatively early.132 Unlike Islamic civilization, where Arabic was the principal language used in all domains of everyday life, Western European peoples had always been forced to learn different languages, not only to facilitate inner-European communication but also to access their religious and political heritage. Consequently, they were more open to studying the Arabic language and the civilization that came with it. 133 Whereas Muslims had no religious interest in Europe, European Christians professed a religion of Middle Eastern origin. Their sacred texts dealt with events in Middle

Eastern lands, thus inciting European Christians to closely observe and frequently visit this region.[13] [14] [15] [16] Whereas Muslims regarded Christianity as a superseded faith not worth studying, European Christians regarded Islamic civilization as ‘a double threat of both conquest and conversion’ and consequently began to acquire knowledge about the Islamic rival. As soon as Christian Europe became aware of the intellectual achievements of Islamic civilization, the study of the latter was not restricted to polemical purposes anymore but served to gain access to advanced knowledge. When by the end of the Middle Ages both motives had lost force, the intellectual curiosity of the Renaissance and the philological scholarship of the humanist tradition provided further impetus for the study of Islamic civilization.135 Lewis even went as far as asserting that it

was a peculiarity of the European and one can, indeed, be more specific, of the Western European during a certain period in his history, to exhibit this kind of interest in alien cultures to which he has no visible or ascertainable relationship.^6

Focusing on the causes of large-scale historical developments (never an easy task!), Lewis’ explanatory model certainly merits consideration. Since for a long time Lewis’ book was the only monograph available on the subject in a European language, The Muslim Discovery of Europe received an overwhelming reception among those interested in historical or contemporary relations between Western Europe and the Islamic world. Historians working on various periods, political scientists, sociologists, journalists, those commenting on issues of international security as well as many others have had recourse to Lewis’ explanatory model. In many cases, they lacked Lewis’ language skills as well as his vast knowledge of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman sources and history. Stripping his hypotheses of their nuances, they diffused and fortified the image of a Muslim civilization too arrogant and self-centred to notice what was happening in Europe, while emphasizing Western Europe’s ‘curiosity’ and ‘open-mindedness’ towards the Islamic world. 1З7 However, Lewis and his theory have also been fiercely attacked, e.g. by Edward Said:

For unrestrained anti-intellectualism, unencumbered by critical self consciousness, no one has quite achieved the sublime confidence of Bernard Lewis. His almost purely political exploits require more time to mention than they are worth. In a series of articles and one particularly weak book—The Muslim Discovery of Europe—Lewis has been busy responding to my argument, insisting that the western quest for knowledge about other societies is unique, that it is motivated by pure curiosity, and that, in contrast, Muslims were neither able nor interested in getting knowledge about Europe, as if knowledge about Europe was the only acceptable criterion for true knowledge.

Lewis’s arguments are presented as emanating exclusively from the scholar’s apolitical impartiality, whereas he has become a widely rated authority for anti-Islamic, anti- Arab, Zionist, and Cold War crusades, all of them underwritten by a zealotry covered with a veneer of urbanity that has very little in common with the “science” and learning Lewis purports to be upholding.[17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25] [26] [27]

Less vehement and polemic, others have criticized Lewis’ essentialist, generalizing, and normative approach to the Islamic world^9 as well as his tendency to restate the same hypotheses without considering recent research^40 On a political level, Lewis is credited with having revived the image of Islam’s cultural inferiority and of exaggerating the dangers of jihad^ even for having actively supported the Bush administration’s war against Iraq in 2003.142 Other scholars have simply questioned the above-mentioned theories without providing the macro-historical alternative proposed by the study at hand.143

Publications post-dating The Muslim Discovery of Europe often display a strong penchant for focusing on stereotypes of Europe and Europeans in medieval Arabic- Islamic sources. In a monograph on the development of ‘the Islamic perception’ (al-nazra al-islamiyya) of Europe, Khalid Ziyada (1983) distinguished between a ‘traditional’ Islamic perception of Europe (al-nazra al-taqlldiyya) dominant in the medieval period, and a ‘modern’ perception (al-nazra al-hadltha) that developed significantly only from the late Middle Ages onwards. 144 Aziz al-Azmeh (1991/1992) highlighted the dominance of such stereotypes in several publications in Arabic and English. 145 According to Abdullah Thabit (1996), medieval Arabic-Islamic sources betray a lack of interest in Europe and are full of misconceptions, biases, and fantasies about the latter.Albeit more nuanced, Marfa Jesus Viguera Molins (1997) highlighted the conformity of recorded Arabic- Islamic perceptions with established literary conventions. 147 In her study on ‘Islamic perspectives’ of the crusades, Carole Hillenbrand (1999) focused on ethnic and religious stereotypes, highlighting

the longevity and unchanging nature of the negative perceptions of the peoples of western Europe which can be found at least from the tenth century in Islamic


'Abd Allah Ibrahim (2001) underscored that the medieval dar al-islam was self-centred, lacked substantial information on Europe, and consequently constructed sombre and dreary images of the north.[28] [29] Jacques Waardenburg (2003) asserted that medieval Muslims ‘had a virtually total lack of interest in Western Europe’.^0 Nabil Matar (2009) presented the large spectrum of Maghrebian approaches to early modern Europe in a very nuanced manner but reiterated the cliche of a medieval Arabic-Islamic world ignorant of what was happening beyond the northern shores of the Mediterranean.151 In spite of having taken a slightly new turn, many researchers have continued to nurture the paradigm of ignorance.

  • [1] Lewis, ‘Right’ (2003). m Lewis, Wrong (2003), pp. 3—4, 7—8.
  • [2] 118 Lewis, Discovery (1982/2001), pp. 168—78, for alternative theories.
  • [3] 119 Lewis, ‘Discovery’ (1957), pp. 411. 12° Lewis, Discovery (1982/2001), pp. 8—9.
  • [4] 121 Lewis, ‘Discovery’ (1957), p. 415; Lewis, Discovery (1982/2001), p. 302.
  • [5] 122 Ibid., pp. 91, 299—300. 123 Lewis, ‘Discovery’ (1957), p. 415.
  • [6] 124 Lewis, Discovery (1982/2001), p. 298.
  • [7] Ibid., pp. 91—2.
  • [8] Lewis, ‘Discovery’ (1957), pp. 411, 415—16; quoted again in Lewis, Discovery (1982/2001),
  • [9] pp. 299-301.
  • [10] 127 Lewis, ‘Discovery’ (1957), p. 415. 128 Lewis, Discovery (1982/2001), pp. 301-2.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 301. 130 Ibid., p. 105. 131 Ibid., p. 280.
  • [12] 132 Ibid., pp. 6-9, 80 (quote), 81. 133 Ibid., p. 298.
  • [13] Ibid., pp. 8—9. 135 Ibid., pp. 6—7. 1З6 Ibid., p. 9.
  • [14] 137 Kramer, ‘Lewis’ (1999), pp. 719—20; Morgan, Mongols (1987), pp. 194—5; Schwartz, ‘Introduction’ (1994), p. 6; Nieuwenhuijze, Paradise (1997), p. 304; Crosby, Measure (1997), p. 3; Tolanand Josserand, Relations (2000), pp. 192—3; Cardini, Europe (2001), p. ix; Waardenburg, Muslims
  • [15] (2003), pp. 152—3; Gockenjan, ‘Legende’ (2003), pp. 233—6; Pipes, Path (2003), pp. 76—82; Turner,
  • [16] ‘Gewaltraume’ (2005), pp. 227—8; Stolting, ‘Definition’ (2001), p. 153; Morray, ‘Franks’ (2006),p. 268; Gaukroger, Emergence (2006), p. 55 n. 32; Angenendt, Toleranz (2007), p. 435.
  • [17] Said, ‘Orientalism’ (2000), pp. 204—5.
  • [18] Gerber, Law (1999), p. 91; al-Azm, ‘Thinking’ (2002), pp. 126—7; Friedmann, Tolerance(2003), p. 56 n. 5; Ulbrich, ‘Man’ (2006), p. 95 n. 50; Arkoun, Humanisme (2005), p. 101.
  • [19] Dabashi, Post-Orientalism (2009), p. 105 n. 204.
  • [20] Bischof, Politik (2000), p. 99.
  • [21] Tibi, Predicament (2009), p. 344 n. 20; Lemann, ‘Order’ (2003), p. 262.
  • [22] Matar, Lands (2003), p. xiv; Aydin, Politics (2007), p. 15; Grabar, Constructing (2006), p. 412.
  • [23] Ziyada, tatawwur (1983/2010), chs I, II, IV.
  • [24] al-'Azma, al-Arab (1991); Al-Azmeh, ‘Barbarians’ (1992); Al-Azmeh, ‘Enemies’ (1992).
  • [25] Thabit, ‘Views’ (1996), p. 79. Viguera Molins, ‘Percepcion’ (1997), pp. 65—6.
  • [26] 148 Hillenbrand, Crusades (2000), pp. 257 (quote), 257—327, esp. 267—71. Leclercq, Portraits
  • [27] (2010), thoroughly analysed these stereotypes in a comparative study.
  • [28] Ibrahim, 'alam (2001), pp. 13, 241. 150 Waardenburg, Muslims (2003), pp. 152—3.
  • [29] 151 Matar, Europe (2009), p. 6.
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