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



Arabic-Islamic scholars produced records on Latin-Christian Europe within a greater framework of transmission and reception. The objective of the present chapter has been to discuss the many, not necessarily ideological factors that influenced when, where, and how records came into being and to point to the various obstacles of transmission and reception.

In this context, it is important to consider that the absorbtive capacities of the Arabic-Islamic sphere varied with regards to time and space. Producing records on the Latin-Christian sphere became possible as soon as the Middle Eastern heartlands of Islam used the necessary intellectual resources at their disposal. Within emerging institutions of patronage and learning, early Arabic-Islamic scholars in the Middle East developed methods of historical enquiry, recorded Islam’s foundation narrative, and gained access to older geographical and historiographical material. Only then were they able to enquire about what lay beyond the Muslim community. These processes were delayed in the western territories that came under Muslim rule more than half a century later than the Middle East and only developed a sufficient degree of cultural autonomy in the course of the eighth and ninth centuries. Consequently, the initial contribution of the Muslim West to recording material on the Latin West was rather small. This disequilibrium between east and west largely accounts for the lack of contemporary Arabic-Islamic records on the early medieval Latin West. Only when the new geopolitical order brought about by the Arabic-Islamic expansion reached a certain degree of stability around the end of the ninth century, was the groundwork laid for a more thorough documentation of the northwestern hemisphere. Notwithstanding, records were mainly produced in the well-protected urban centres of Islamic culture, not in the volatile border zones to the Latin-Christian sphere. Al-Andalus holds a special position because its Christian population had access to the Latin-Christian heritage, because it witnessed the relative stability of Umayyad rule in the ninth and tenth centuries, and because it represents the only border zone up to the crusading period that featured

  • 3°° Ibn Habib, tarikh, ed. Aguade, § 397, p. 138; al-Ya qubl, tarikh, ed. al-Muhanna, vol. 2, p. 207; Carra de Vaux (Ma^oudi, Livre de Vavertissement, trans. Carra de Vaux, p. 429) believes that the ethnonym ‘Ghutash’ used by al-Mas ud! (al-tanbih, ed. de Goeje, p. 332) applies to the Goths, but does not consider that it is never used in the few passages on Gothic history in al-Masudis work.
  • 3°! al-Mas udi, muruj, ed./trans. Pellat, § 474, p. 226 (AR), p. 171 (FR); § 701, p. 25 (AR), p. 263 (FR). This plural is created in the same way as the plural of the Arabic word for ‘pupil’ (sgl. tilmidh, pl. talamidha), see Fischer, Grammatik (1987), § 96, p. 56.

centres of Islamic scholarly activity. The shift of border zones in response to Latin-Christian expansionism then increased the direct involvement of scholarly centres of production in North Africa and the Middle East.

In this evolving geopolitical landscape, many factors influenced how much and what kind of data was available to Arabic-Islamic scholars. Even if they did make use of large quantities of data on the Latin-Christian orbit, there were still several obstacles to overcome. Linguistic barriers were mainly surmounted with the aid of oral intermediaries and a handful of translations. Apart from the occasional exception, Arabic-Islamic scholars used non-Muslim sources without apparent ideological qualms. To reconstruct the pre-Islamic past, they were dependent on collective memories, archives, and computational systems of dating that reached back to the period before the rise of Islam. To record what happened in the contemporary Latin West, Arabic-Islamic scholars mainly depended on what was reported to them by a large variety of Muslim and non-Muslim informants, to a lesser degree on their own experience.

Having acquired data, Arabic-Islamic scholars faced the challenge of comprehending, contextualizing, evaluating, and interpreting the latter. This involved dealing with legendary, doubtful, or contradictory material, understanding foreign terminology and concepts, contextualizing peoples, persons, and events, and, finally, presenting this data in an organized form and in accordance with the dictates of genre and literary conventions. In view of these difficulties, Arabic-Islamic scholars occasionally failed to contextualize, misunderstood, or over-interpreted their sources. How all this influenced their understanding of certain facets of the Latin-Christian sphere will be shown in the following case studies.

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