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A Re-evaluation of Arabic-Islamic Records on Latin-Christian Europe

The present study wished to provide an antithesis to a dominant explanatory model that tried to make sense of the extant Arabic-Islamic records on Latin-Christian Europe. Scholars adhering to this model started from the assumption that, due to a characteristic sense of superiority in terms of religion and civilization, the medieval Islamic world regarded the non-Muslim societies of Europe with disdain. This supposedly resulted in a general lack of interest in their affairs, which then served to explain the fragmentary state and the distortions characteristic of the Arabic- Islamic records in question. Discarding these premises and focusing on the factors that conditioned the flow of information from one sphere to the other, the study at hand sought to understand why and how the extant records came into being and how they evolved over the centuries.


The extant records on Latin-Christian Europe were produced by scholars of different geographic, ethnic, and social backgrounds, who were religiously affiliated to Islam, and whose education had taught them to express their views in Arabic. These scholars represent a small percentage of the entire population that inhabited the Arabic-Islamic sphere and only one among several Arabic-Islamic milieus involved in relations with Latin Christians. In consequence, their writings do not conserve the entire knowledge about Latin-Christian Europe available in the Arabic-Islamic world of the seventh to the fifteenth centuries. The extant records contain a selection of contemporary modes of perception. These had survived the hazards of transmission thanks to having passed through the filter of selecting and structuring minds who fitted them into the moulds of pre-structured literary genres. Notwithstanding, the extant records represent one of the most important keys to reconstruct medieval Arabic-Islamic perceptions of the Latin-Christian sphere.

On the one hand, one could argue that Arabic-Islamic scholars knew more about the Latin-Christian world than their lesser educated contemporaries did. They were intellectually trained, and, thanks to the social position and career that often went with such training, had access to oral and written sources of knowledge not available to the lesser educated. Their interest in recording the past and present of their own world and everything that touched it, made them sensitive to new information from the peripheries of the Islamic world. Moreover, their access to an increasingly large scholarly tradition opened up past horizons, layers of data that would have been lost, had its transmission depended solely on the aural and oral memory.

On the other hand, their education also represented an obstacle. Although many scholars travelled or even engaged in commercial pursuits, they stood—from a social and intellectual point of view—at the cultural core, not the periphery of Arabic-Islamic civilization. Trained in one language and absorbed in the fields of knowledge that had grown around the Islamic tradition of divine revelation, these scholars were not necessarily prone to look beyond the confines of a conceptualized world-view acquired during years of meticulous study. Their intellectual training aimed at breeding minds rooted in traditions of utmost significance for Muslim collective identity. It could result in the unquestioned acceptance and the repetitive reproduction of older patterns of thought as well as a highly biased suspicion of everything that questioned or contradicted inherited modes of perception and interpretation.

However, neither the first nor the second description does justice to those who actually represented this segment of medieval Arabic-Islamic culture. Between these two poles, we find a large variety of individual approaches. Those engaged in recording facets of Latin-Christian Europe described multifarious phenomena from different angles of vision.

An author from the early period of Arabic-Islamic expansion had much less information at his disposal than an author from the fourteenth century who could look back on approximately seven centuries of shared history. An author who lived and died in Central Asia of the eleventh century was naturally better informed about India than his contemporary Andalusian colleague, but lacked the latter’s knowledge about the western extension of the Roman Empire, the Visigothic past of al-Andalus, and the neighbouring Frankish sphere. A traveller who added personal ethnographic observations to his theoretical knowledge of geography saw things from a different perspective than a chancery secretary with access to specimens of official diplomatic correspondence stored in government archives. The lucky scholar stumbled upon an original document containing comparatively recent information on the Frankish sphere. His later bookish colleague only reproduced century-old data acquired by earlier scholars. Those more involved with and more open-minded vis-a-vis the non-Muslim sphere were generally better informed than their peers who wrote from a larger (mental) distance. Some authors described the whole world, others focused on their region of origin. Some were simply more interested in Hellenistic religious philosophy or the feats of pre-Islamic Persian kings than in the Visigothic history of the Iberian Peninsula. Some haphazardly pieced together a hotchpotch of uncorrelated data stemming from various periods of acquisition without giving further thought to the topic at hand. Others systematically reviewed and discussed what had been written by their earlier peers and tried to correlate this written tradition with fresh information at their disposal. In some cases, data was continuously acquired over the centuries, enriching successive

Arabic-Islamic accounts. In other cases, data was lost or became irrelevant to later generations. In all cases, the approach to a certain topic changed over time, with the effect that terminologies and concepts used hitherto acquired a new overall context and meaning.

Considering the many variants to be noted, there was not much room for a uniform and coherent ‘Muslim’ world-view: the large variety of individual approaches and their dependence on the respective historical context prove that neither Islam nor the multifaceted mental world that goes with it provide a comprehensive explanation for the general nature of Arabic-Islamic scholarly records on the Latin- Christian sphere.

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