Into the Unknown
The subjection of regions ranging from the Iberian Peninsula to Central Asia expanded the Arabs’ geographic horizon, not only of those directly involved. For the first time, a significant number of Arabs was active in the western Mediterranean. They created channels that facilitated the transmission of information about these areas to the heartlands of Islam. It is thus in the seventh and early eighth centuries that Western Europe, first and foremost the Iberian Peninsula, fully came into view.
Reconstructing this process of discovery is fraught with difficulties. Contemporary Arabic-Islamic texts are scarce and difficult to interpret. The earliest extant accounts describing the Arabic-Islamic expansion to the west were written in the ninth century. This makes it necessary to countercheck the assertions made by these later sources against Latin-Christian sources from the age of expansion.
These Latin-Christian sources not only portray the ‘Saracens’ as an active historical force that destroyed the established order of the Mediterranean world, but also allow to trace how the Arabic-Islamic expansion drew nearer and nearer, until it eventually reached the Latin-Christian sphere. The acts of the Lateran council of 64 9 as well as Byzantine accusations directed against pope Martin I. (sed. 649-53) of having collaborated with ‘Saracens’ show that Italian bishops were well aware of the Arabs as a new geopolitical force. The earliest version of the so-called Chronicle of Fredegar, finished in 658,95 refers to the Muslim conquest of Alexandria, Egypt, and parts of North Africa under the year 641.96 A possible reference to the Muslim presence in the western Mediterranean can be found in the acts of the seventeenth council of Toledo (694) that accused the Jews of the Visi- gothic kingdom of having conspired with their brethren from overseas to fight against the Christians.97 In a chapter dedicated to the papacy of Gregory II (sed. 715-31), the Liberpontificalis mentions the ‘Saracen’ invasion of Spain and proffers details on the earliest Muslim attacks on the Frankish kingdom.98 How the expansion intruded on the minds of Latin Christians can be traced in the works of the Northumbrian monk Beda Venerabilis (d. 735).99 His earlier works, written in 702-03, do not mention the expansion.100 The works written two to three decades later then clearly refer to the ‘Saracen’ danger,m mention their destruction of Carthage,i02 the rescue of Augustine’s relics from their attacks on Sardinia^3 and (1889/1965), pp. 15—17; Ullmann, Geschichte (1978), p. 56; Rotter, Abendland (1986), pp. 182—94; Brandes, ‘Krisenbewaltigung’ (1998), pp. 159—77.
i°° Beda Venerabilis, De locis sanctis, ed. Fraipoint (CCL 175), praefatio, p. 247. References to Umayyad Syria in cap. IV,2, p. 260, are based on the report of the Frankish bishop Arculf who visited Palestine in 679-82 and whose travel account was recorded around 688 by Adamnanus, De locis sanctis, ed. Bieler (CCL 175), lib. I, cap. I,14, p. 186; cap. IX,11—16, pp. 193—4, cf. Rotter, Abendland (1986), pp. 11—12. Beda Venerabilis, Chronica minora, ed. Mommsen (MGH AA 13), § 279—91, pp. 310—17, likewise fails to mention the expansion. The phrase ‘Africa restaurata est imperio Romano- rum’ in § 288, p. 315, is inflated to ‘sed et provincia Africa subiugata est Romano imperio, quae fuerat tenta a Sarracenis, ipsa quoque Carthagine ab eis capta et destructa’ in the later Chronica maiora, ed. Mommsen (MGH AA 13), § 586, p. 315. This suggests that Beda knew about events in the western Mediterranean fairly early but did not ascribe importance to them before the European continent became a focus of the expansion.
i°i Beda Venerabilis, Inprincipium Genesis usque ad natiuitatem Isaac, ed. Jones (CCL 118A), cap. IV,16, p. 201, is an adaptation of Hieronymus, Liber quaestionum hebraicarum in Genesim, ed. de Lagarde (CCL 72), cap. 16, p. 26.
i°2 Beda Venerabilis, Chronica maiora, ed. Mommsen (MGH AA 13), § 563, p. 315.
i°3 Ibid., § 592, pp. 320—1.
their threat to Gaul, portraying them as ‘a most terrible plague’.       Letters from the 730s and 740s show that news about the Saracen threat had spread among the clergy active in central Europe.w5 Thus, Latin sources written in different parts of Western Europe up to the first half of the eighth century show how an initially inconspicuous people from the Mediterranean periphery began to impinge on the minds and affairs of Western Europe’s inhabitants. It is against this background that we must evaluate passages in later Arabic-Islamic sources that depict the expansion to the West as a process of discovery.
As shown, Arabic-Islamic tradition dealing with the pre-expansionist era features predictions of conquest that do not intimate any real knowledge about regions in the western Mediterranean. The same tradition credits the Muslim elites of the age of expansion with a growing amount of knowledge about the Iberian Peninsula and adjacent regions. In connection with the North African campaign of 'Amr b. al-'As, the military commander and conqueror of Egypt active around Tripoli in the year 22/642, the second caliph 'Umar (ruled 13_23/634—44) allegedly received notice of treaties between the ‘master of al-Andalus’ ( sahib al-Andalus) and the ‘people of North Africa’ (ahlIfnqiya)^6 The Iberian Peninsula seems to have drawn nearer in the reign of his successor 'Uthman (ruled 23—35/644—56) when 'Abd Allah b. 'Amr b. al-'As allegedly came across a giant knight made of copper that blocked the passage to al-Andalus and to what lay behind it.W7 According to a letter quoted by Sayf b. 'Umar al-Tamlml (d. c.180/802), 'Uthman promised two of his commanders great spiritual and worldly rewards if they found a way to conquer Constantinople by land via al-Andalus.io® If this letter is to be taken at face value, 'Uthman knew that the Iberian Peninsula and the Byzantine Empire were joined by land, but underestimated the connecting landmass.
Ibn 'Abd al-Hakam (d. 257/871) implies that the forces conquering North Africa did not always know where they were going. He relates that the Muslim commander 'Uqba b. Nafi' asked representatives of a Berber tribe, recently subdued by Muslim forces around 46/666, what lay behind the territory inhabited by them. They informed him about the existence of several cities on the North African coast.109 Al-Bakri (d. 487/1094) recounts that the conquerors sought to acquire historical information about the origins of Carthage.no
Diplomatic efforts seem to have been necessary to convince those back home about the feasibility of certain actions in newly conquered territory. Occasionally drawing on contemporary testimonies,         the later chronicle akhbar majmua reports that the Muslim commander Musa b. Nusayr wrote to the Umayyad caliph al-Walid (ruled 86-96/705-15) before setting out across the Straits of Gibraltar. Convinced that crossing the straits involved a lengthy sea voyage, al-Walid accused Musa of exposing the Muslims to the dangers of the sea in his response. Musa informed the caliph that the Iberian coastline could be seen from North Africa, a fact, of which the caliph seems to have been unaware.m
The chronicle akhbar majmua also mentions guides who directed Muslim forces through the Iberian Peninsula and collaborators who provided information on weak points in the Visigothic defence, possible lines of approach as well as the peninsula’s topography.113 Geographical knowledge seems to have been acquired systematically when the initial phase of conquest was over. The chronicle reports that the caliph 'Umar b. Abd al-AzIz (ruled 99-101/717-20) ordered the Andalusian governor al-Samh (ruled 100-02/719-21) to produce a topographical description of the Iberian Peninsula—an order doubtlessly preparing measures to extract fiscal revenues from the peninsula’s population.n4 Having gathered information about the status of the different territorial acquisitions/^ the latter sent a description of Cordoba to the caliph.116
The peninsula’s conquest entailed acquaintance with the Frankish orbit. Known as ‘lands of the Franks’ (bilad al-Ifranja, bilad al-Faranj) in Arabic-Islamic sources up to the late Middle Ages, this region was named after the people first encountered there by the Muslims at the beginning of the eighth century.U7 It took Arabic-Islamic scholars around two centuries to lay hands on an alternative regional toponym. The term ‘Gaul’ (Ghalliya, Ghalish) is not attested until the first Arabic version of Western Roman history, a restructured translation of Orosius’ Historiae adversus paganos, was produced at the end of the ninth or the beginning of the tenth century.118 This suggests that the region ruled by the Franks only received an Arabic name in the course of expansion/!®
According to later Arabic-Islamic tradition, the conquerors regarded the land- mass opening to the northeast with respect. Musa b. Nusayr is said to have encountered a statue in the border zone to the Frankish territory which held a sign warning the ‘sons of Ishmael’ to not go any farther. For this reason, Musa abandoned his plan of finding a way connecting al-Andalus with the Orient by exploring what one text defines as the ‘outermost regions’ (al-ghaya).      From the 720s onwards, Andalusian governors such as al-Samh ventured to raid and occupy parts of the Frankish realm.m
Regions lying farther north or east such as the British Isles, the Slavic world, and Scandinavia do not appear in the earliest ninth-century accounts of the expansion to the West,m even though they are mentioned in contemporary Arabic-Islamic works based on Ptolemaic geography.123 By reproducing whatever information had become available to them on the subject, later authors specializing on the era of expansion faithfully reflected the limited but expanding world-view of a bygone period^24
It is difficult to render judgement on the authenticity of anecdotal material taken from sources written down generations after actual events. Notwithstanding, many details seem plausible. Later Arabic-Islamic records confirm what Latin records from the period of expansion suggest—that the expansion to the West entailed a discovery of Western Europe which took place step by step and transformed a vague notion of regions in the far west into tangible images of new neighbours.