Home Geography Arabic-Islamic views of the Latin West : tracing the emergence of medieval Europe
Scholarship and Language Skills
Western European languages do not seem to have constituted the primary field of interest of Arabic-Islamic scholars. In spite of the diffusion of the term ‘Latin’ from the tenth century onwards, many of them continued to use an inconsistent terminology and failed to differentiate clearly between Latin, Greek, and different medieval Western European vernaculars. In the entire period of study, no Arabic- Islamic scholar, not even the Andalusian scholar Ibn H azm, dealt with either Latin or a contemporary Western European vernacular in a way comparable to Guillelmus de Luna, the translator of Ibn Rushd/Averroes in thirteenth-century Naples, who explained the intricacies of Arabic verbs and other grammatical phenomena. 15° Thus, linguistic barriers count among the most important impediments to the acquisition of information on Latin-Christian Europe at the hands of Arabic- Islamic scholars. This said, it seems necessary to reflect on the reasons for this failure to acquire linguistic competence.
According to Lewis, interest in other languages was not necessary in an Arabic- Islamic world lacking interest in the Latin West, ‘where Arabic was the sole language of religion, commerce, and culture’^1 and where ‘knowledge of foreign languages was not an esteemed qualification’.^2 If they did not make use of the linguistic skills of religious minorities, Muslims communicated with the help of the pan-Mediterranean pidgin called ‘lingua franca’.i53
The following chapters will hardly corroborate that the Arabic-Islamic world lacked interest in the Latin West. Moreover, this world was far from monolingual. Religious minorities retained their liturgical languages. Apart from Persians, Berbers, Kurds, Turks, etc., even ‘Galicians’ and ‘Franks’ left their imprint on Arabic, as Ibn Khaldun commented with regards to the ‘corruption’ of Andalusian Arabic.^4 Finally, an earlier chapter has listed evidence for Muslims actively involved in sophisticated forms of cross-lingual transmission, e.g. the translation of legal and scientific texts.155
Lewis is certainly correct in highlighting that Arabic-Islamic scholars failed to acquire much information on other languages. However, this scholarly focus on one single language is not characteristic of the Arabic-Islamic world alone. Richard Bul- liet has pointed out that intellectual endeavours in the medieval Arabic-Islamic and Latin-Christian world were mainly carried out by ‘bodies of religious specialists’ dedicated ‘to a single language of religion—Latin in Europe, Arabic in North Africa and the Middle East’. Whereas daily life could involve the use of several languages and dialects, literary education was not necessarily monolingual, but certainly dominated by one literary language.^6 Lewis, in turn, not only maintains that Western Europeans exhibited a particular interest in alien cultures,^7 but also asserts that, because of their Hebrew, Greek, and Latin religious heritage, Europeans were:
accustomed from an early stage to the necessity of studying and mastering difficult languages other than their own vernaculars and, more than that, of recognizing that there were external sources of wisdom written in foreign languages, access to which involved learning themT8
As opposed to Lewis, Bulliet does not account for the fact that Arabic-Islamic scholars neglected to learn Latin whereas many Latin-Christian scholars began to study Arabic from the twelfth century onwards. However, it would be too simple to claim that the rise of Arabic studies in Western Europe was due to a general Western European disposition to study foreign languages. Rather, Western European interest in Arabic had been stimulated in different ways.^9
One important motivation to study Arabic was to receive access to intellectual resources that had come into existence thanks to the translation of Greek and Syriac texts into Arabic between the eighth and the tenth century and the subsequent development of this heritage at the hand of Arabic-Islamic scholars. Stephen of Antioch (fl. 1127), who produced a Latin translation of Dioscorides’ pharmacological treatise after comparing Greek and Arabic versions, is only one among the many Latin-Christian scholars who exhibited interest in this scientific heritage.     However, other motivations also nourished this quest for knowledge. At the end of the eleventh or the beginning of the twelfth century, Ibn Abdun from Seville complained about Jews and Christians who translated scientific books from Arabic only to present them to their co-religionists as their own.m Adelard of Bath (d. c.1152), in turn, wrote a dialogue in which he tries to convince his nephew of the merits of Arabic scholarship. In this treatise, he bitterly complains about an intellectual environment that only accepted older authorities. For this reason, Adelard claims, he used other authorities to express his own thoughts. Considering the context of this statement, Adelard seems to have used Arabic-Islamic works of scholarship to propose ideas potentially provocative to contemporary academia.162 Thus, Latin-Christian scholars of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries employed Arabic skills not only to acquire knowledge, but also to leave a mark in their respective intellectual environment.
Christianity’s intellectual struggle with its rival Islam provided another important motivation to promote the study of Arabic. Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, commissioned the Latin translation of the Qur’an in 1141, explaining:
because the Latins, and especially contemporaries . . . , were only proficient in their own language they had been born in, they could not recognize the nature of so much error and were unable to counter it. 163
For this reason, he turned to
those proficient in the Arabic language, from which the deadly virus emerged to infect more than half of the worldQ4
and asked them to translate the Qur’an. In this context, he composed the treatise Contra sectam Saracenorum, hoping that it would be translated into Arabic.
In this way, a Latin work, translated into another language, will maybe help others,
whom the lifewinning grace would like to win for God.16s
The idea that Arabic skills would be helpful to spread the Christian faith was then promoted considerably by Raimundus Lullus (d. c.1316)166 and found institutional expression in the plan, envisaged at the council of Vienne (1311_12), to create chairs for the teaching of Oriental languages in Rome, Paris, Oxford, Bologna, and Salamanca.167
Arabic-Islamic scholars failed to develop comparable motivations to study Latin. The Latins sought the intellectual resources at their disposal, not vice versa. To an Arabic-Islamic world imbued with Greek science in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, geography, medicine, etc., the medieval Latin-Christian world still had little to offer.168 Unlike Orosius’ Latin history of the world, writings on Christian theology or treatises that dealt with the agricultural, political, and historical specificities of Christian societies were hardly able to arouse Arabic-Islamic scholarly curiosity, aside from the fact that they were probably difficult to acquire in manuscript form. Moreover, medieval Arabic-Islamic theologians, although prolific as authors of treatises on jihad and the merits of Islam over Christianity,W9 never seem to have developed the idea of penetrating Christian territory with the help of missionaries. Thus, unlike their high and late medieval Latin-Christian colleagues, Arabic-Islamic scholars moved in an environment that failed to stimulate proficiency in the other sphere’s languages. This also set them apart from other professional groups in the Islamic world who depended on such skills to facilitate economic, diplomatic, and other forms of relations.m Claiming that the entire Arabic-Islamic world lacked interest in European languages neither explains the existence of Muslim linguistic mediators nor why the so-called ‘lingua franca’, widely diffused in the early modern Mediterranean, predominantly consists of Romance words.m
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