Home Geography Arabic-Islamic views of the Latin West : tracing the emergence of medieval Europe
Gathering Data on Contemporary Affairs
To produce records on the contemporary Latin-Christian sphere, Arabic-Islamic scholars made use of data that had travelled great geographical distances and had traversed various linguistic, ethnic, religious, and social milieus. This distance was more easily overcome in regions bordering on the Latin-Christian sphere. Ibn Sa'ld al-Maghribi (d. 685/1286), for example, clearly distinguishes between places ‘rarely mentioned among us’ (khamilat al-dhikr dndana) and places that were ‘well-known’ (mashhura). He counts localities in the far north and secluded spaces in the interior of Croatia among the former^9 Mediterranean towns such as      
Genoa, Pisa, Naples, Montpellier, and Brindisi among the latter.210 In regions adjacent to each other, information travelled easily, if only in the form of rumours. Many things were certainly ‘heard’ in the border zones to Latin Christendom.211 Writing either in Ifriqiya or in Egypt, Ibn Khaldun (d. 808/1406) commented:
It has also reached us now that the philosophical sciences are greatly cultivated in the lands of the Franks belonging to the territory of Rome and along the adjacent northern shore. It is said that they form part of the curriculum again, and are taught in numerous classes. Expositions of them are said to be comprehensive, the people who know them abundant, and the students of them very many. But God knows better what exists there.212
Direct contact between the Latin-Christian and the Arabic-Islamic sphere was not lacking, but did not necessarily involve the active presence of Arabic-Islamic intellectuals^3 The distinction between sedentary and bookish scholars on the one hand, travelling informants on the other hand2i4, is too simple and fails to do justice to the many scholars who travelled extensively for the sake of pious, educational, commercial, or other reasons, mainly within but also at the fringes of the Islamic world.215 Particularly from the twelfth century onwards, a certain number of authors made direct contact with the Latin-Christian sphere and ventured to lay down their impressions in writing.216
In some cases, Arabic-Islamic scholars were able to lay their hands on textual material pertaining directly from the Latin-Christian world—the Frankish chron- al-Rum mudun kathira lam tashtahir indana li-budiha anna’; Abu l-Fida’, taqwim, ed. Reinaud and de Slane, p. 202, on the lands of Germany: ‘mujamat al-asma’ khamilat al-dhikr indana’.
Noces (1995), pp. 261-78.
icle cited by al-Mas'udi in 336/947,217 the kitab Hurushiyush used by several Arabic-Islamic scholars from the tenth century onwards,2i8 the travel account written by Ibrahim b. Ya'qub al-Isra’ili as cited by al-Bakri, al-'Udhrl, and al-QazwInI,2i9 or the summary of Castilian chronicles related to Ibn al-Khan b (d. 776/1375) by the Jewish scholar and Castilian ambassador to Granada, Yusuf b. Waqar.220 The documents included in al-Qalqashandi’s (d. 821/1418) manual for chancery secretaries prove that scholars active in the chanceries of Muslim rulers had access to the latter’s official correspondence with Latin-Christian rulers as well as to treaties concluded with them.221
In most other cases, Arabic-Islamic scholars relied on others for information. The latter travelled via intermediaries, often Muslims who had been in, or near, Latin-Christian territories. Muslim conquerors returning to the Middle East reported on the downfall of the Visigothic kingdom.222 The envoy possibly sent to a northern Viking court from ninth-century al-Andalus reported what he had seen to his contemporary, Tammam b. 'Alqama (d. 283/896), whose writings furnished the basis for the only account of this episode in the work of Ibn Dihya (d. 63 3/123 5).223 Asked to pass judgment on the lawfulness of importing Christian cheese, the Maliki jurisconsult al-Turmshl (d. 520/1126) interviewed Muslims from Sicily and al-Andalus who had observed its production and transport.224 The geographer Yaqut (d. 626/1229) questioned a group of blond and fair-skinned H anafi Muslims in Aleppo and found out that they lived in the realm of a Frankish people called ‘al-Hunkar’.225 The jurisconsult al-Wansharisi (d. 914/1508) reproduced the critical comments of Muslim refugees from al-Andalus who glorified their living-conditions under Latin-Christian rule when faced with the challenges of making a living in North Africa.226
In other cases, non-Muslims took on the role of transmitters. Monks who stayed in Rome for a year figure as informants in the city’s description by Ibn al-Faqih (d. after 2 8 9-90/901-02).227 Travelling Jewish merchants seem to have briefed           
Ibn Khurdadhbah (d. c.300/911) about trading routes that included a Frankish court.228 Harun b. Yahya, probably a Christian Arab in Byzantine captivity, described Rome to Ibn Rustah (d. after 3 00/9 1 3).229 Yaqut (d. 626/1229) mentions merchants, a Jewish traveller, and an undefined group of travellers from Baghdad as sources on the city of Rome.230 A Genoese dependant of the Mamluk amir Bahadur al-Muizzi called Bilban provided al-'Umari (d. 749/1349) with several pages of data about the political landscape of Latin-Christian Europe.231 Captives and slaves, as mentioned in Ibn Khaldun’s (d. 808/1406) comment on the ‘discovery’ of the Canaries at the hands of the ‘Franks’, also transmitted information.232
Although Arabic-Islamic scholars had potential access to a wide range of information carriers, their records on Latin-Christian Europe remain fragmentary. This has prompted many scholars to assume that the majority of Arabic-Islamic geographers and historiographers saw no need in understanding what happened north of the Mediterranean.233 Indeed, some Arabic-Islamic scholars may have felt such a lack of curiosity. The geographer al-Muqaddasi (d. after 380/990) openly refused to deal with the non-Islamic worlds4 Considering that all other Arabic-Islamic universal historiographers dealt with the Romans, one wonders why the multivolume historical oeuvre of Ibn Kathir (d. 774/1373) lacks a chapter on Roman history.235 However, we should also take into account that Arabic-Islamic scholars did not have unrestricted access to data. As we have seen, each scholar tapped different channels and thus acquired different kinds of information. Their geographical location, their access to transregional networks, their professional contacts, and the time of writing affected what Arabic-Islamic scholars were able to write about the Latin-Christian sphere. The mosaic-like character of Arabic-Islamic records on medieval Western Europe results from this variety of context-dependent perspectives. 
|< Prev||CONTENTS||Next >|