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



These general features should not obliterate that the production of records on the Latin-Christian world was a dynamic process subject to important chronological fluctuations and regional variants. These variations can be clearly correlated with the specific conditions of scholarly productivity, the opening, and closing of relevant channels of transmission, as well as important geopolitical changes.

Although it is not possible to rule out that a Roman Empire of western origin played a role in the collective memory not only of eastern Christian communities but also of those Arab groups who would turn to Islam in the course of the seventh century, it is certain that the pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arab world had little and unsystematic knowledge of the ancient, late antique, and early medieval Latin West.

The earliest historiographic and geographic records on the Latin West were produced in the Middle East of the eighth to tenth centuries, mainly in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. When the dust, whirled up by the Arabic-Islamic subjection of the Middle East, had settled, the establishment of an Arabic-Islamic system of rule and administration was accompanied by the emergence of the intellectual resources and infrastructures necessary to record data about the non-Muslim world. In this period, a self-centred, unsystematic and, in this sense, largely ahistorical approach to the past gave way to the systematic study of human society past and present. Rising scholarly interest in the Graeco-Syriac heritage and intensive interaction with various representatives of eastern Christianity acquainted Middle Eastern Muslim scholars with Ptolemaic geography and historical data about the ancient polities that had preceded Islam, in particular Sassanid Persia and Byzantium. The fact that Muslim scholarship now featured a number of non-Arabs and maintained contact with non-Muslim scholars promoted the transmission, reception, and assimilation of this data. Middle Eastern Christian scholars of various denominations, such as those read and frequented by al-Mas'udl,36 were able to provide a wider historical perspective and furnished Arabic-Islamic scholars with data on the Roman Empire and its western extension as well as on ecclesiastical history during the time of the early patriarchs and the great ecumenical councils of Late Antiquity.

Information carriers from the recently conquered territories in the West found listeners in the Middle East where Arabic-Islamic scholars put down the earliest impressions of the Latin West in writing. These impressions mainly derived from superficial observation and interaction with the people encountered on various Mediterranean islands, the Iberian Peninsula, and in southern France. The early Middle Eastern records on the Visigoths and the Franks provide examples for the

36 al-Mas'udi, al-tanbih, ed. de Goeje, pp. 154—5, trans. Carra de Vaux, pp. 212—13.

meagre quantity and quality of the data acquired via these early channels of transmission. In the following two centuries, infrequent economic contact and the rare exchange of diplomatic envoys provided further specks of information about the contemporary Latin-Christian sphere. Thanks to these relations, which often took place in the contact zones created by the expansion, Middle Eastern scholars in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq received further information about the Christian parts of the Iberian Peninsula, the Frankish realm, and the Apennine Peninsula with its maritime cities and Frankish and Langobard overlords.

In the Muslim West, the production of records on Latin-Christian Europe was slightly delayed. In spite of regular relations with the northern shores of the Mediterranean with its predominantly Christian population, North-African sources of the early Middle Ages are scarce and remain silent on Latin-Christian Europe. The Iberian Peninsula had been subjected to Muslim rule around three-quarters of a century later than the Fertile Crescent. It had been invaded by rivalling Arab and Berber forces, who established rule in a territory that lay far away from the Arabic- Islamic heartlands. All this amounted to the expenditure of much energy and postponed the formation of local intellectual resources and infrastructures. Initially, these early infrastructures depended on the human resources and the intellectual backing of the Islamic heartlands. These remained the focus of scholarly attention for more than a century. However, when an independent scholarly infrastructure and regional identity emerged in the course of the ninth and early tenth centuries, Muslim al-Andalus emerged as one of the prime centres of documentation. Now Andalusian historiography and ethnography could fully measure up to its Middle Eastern counterpart. Up to date and full of fresh information, including new Arabic terminology for Roman and Latin-Christian phenomena, Andalusian scholarship of the tenth and eleventh centuries represents the first apogee in the overall production of Arabic-Islamic records on Latin-Christian Europe before the outbreak of the crusades. Aided by important compilations such as the kitab Hurushiyush, Andalusian scholars systematically acquired data on the Roman, Visi- gothic, and Christian history of the Iberian Peninsula and the western Mediterranean while recording substantial information about contemporary affairs, i.e. their contacts with Norsemen, the western and eastern Frankish realm, several Slavic and other eastern peoples, as well as inhabitants of the Apennine Peninsula such as the people of Rome, the pope, and the Amalfitans.

Knowledge acquired in the West was transmitted to the Middle East relatively early. In tenth-century Egypt, al-Mas'Udi was able to make use of a Frankish chronicle acquired in al-Andalus only seven years earlier.[1] [2] The observations of Middle Eastern travellers, e.g. Ibn Hawqal’s on SicilyA8 seconded the flow of data from west to east. Between the eleventh and the early twelfth century, this flow of information seems to have thinned out. The disruptions that characterized the Middle East at this time, i.e. the establishment of Turkoman groups in Anatolia and Greater Syria as well as the first crusade, can probably be held responsible for the scarcity of Middle Eastern sources on the Latin-Christian sphere in this period. Confronted with regional turmoil, Middle Eastern scholarship presumably displayed diminished absorptive capacities with regard to information from the far west. However, at the latest from the middle of the twelfth century onwards, as soon as the first impact of the crusading movement had been digested and new political forces, i.e. the Zangid and Ayyubid dynasties, had assumed leadership, Middle Eastern scholarship systematically began to produce records on the Latin- Christian presence in the Middle East. The crusades brought Latin-Christian sources of information nearer to Middle Eastern Arabic-Islamic scholars and provided them with a large quantity of new information, e.g. about the crusaders’ fighting techniques, their dealings with the Muslims and, eventually, their character and customs. Soon Arabic-Islamic scholars did not content themselves with recording what happened in their Middle Eastern environment. They also began to display curiosity for the crusaders’ sphere of origin. The understanding that Christian forces were pressing upon the Muslim world in Sicily, al-Andalus, and the Middle East gave rise to a theoretical conception of Latin-Christian, alias ‘Frankish’ expansionism. At the same time, closer observation of these ‘Franks’ revealed that they were made up of various different groups. Arabic-Islamic scholars clearly understood that Pisans, Genoese, Venetians, Hungarians, Germans, English, Burgundians, French, Aragonese, or Catalans, etc. differed from each other with regard to their ethnonym, their region of origin, their political organization, their economic capacities, as well as their interaction with Muslim powers.

In the Middle East, new information was either acquired through direct contact with the military, political, and commercial representatives of Western European powers or via the scholarly literature of al-Andalus. The latter’s merits were increasingly acknowledged in Middle Eastern works of this period, e.g. in the histories of Ibn al-Athir and al-Dhahabl.[3] Vice versa, the Muslim West received news about Middle Eastern affairs. Eastern rulers informed their western peers about recent events, e.g. the death of Frederick Barbarossa.[4] [5] Andalusian travellers to the east such as Ibn Jubayr reported their impressions of crusader rule back home/1 while Andalusian scholars such as Ibn Sa'id made use of data on the crusades collected by their Middle Eastern colleagues.42 Trans-regional interaction within the Islamic orbit repeatedly facilitated the transmission of data about the Latin-Christian world from one part of the Arabic-Islamic world to the other.

Notwithstanding, Middle Eastern and Western Muslim perspectives clearly differed from each other. Middle Eastern scholars of the early twelfth to the early fourteenth centuries had less knowledge about the Iberian Peninsula and were prone to define its Christian peoples as ‘Franks’. Andalusian and North African scholars, in turn, refrained from imposing the ethnonym ‘Franks’ on Iberian Christians and clearly differentiated between the various powers of the Iberian Peninsula, but were considerably less informed about Middle Eastern affairs.

Due to the fact that the high and late medieval Mediterranean basin was swarming with Latin Christians, al-Andalus lost its pre-eminent position as the most important centre for the production of records on the Latin-Christian sphere. This is also due to the tendency displayed by Andalusian scholars of this period to focus on the affairs of al-Andalus and to mention only those parts of Latin Christendom that impinged directly upon Andalusian affairs. When Umayyad al-Andalus disintegrated in the early eleventh century, it gave way to a cluster of comparatively weak ta fa-states in perpetual rivalry. Two North African invasions, first by the Almoravids in the late eleventh, then by the Almohads in the twelfth century, could not prevent that al-Andalus slowly but surely succumbed to the military pressure exerted by the expanding Christian North. Muslim regional identity was increasingly faced with the danger of extinction. As a consequence, knowledge about the peninsula’s Roman and Visigothic past, thoroughly mastered by Andalusian scholars of the tenth and the eleventh century, almost sunk into oblivion. Later works of Andalusian Arabic-Islamic historiography restrict themselves to the history and affairs of Muslim al-Andalus. When they deal with Christians, they focus on the emergence and the rise of the peninsula’s more recent polities and tend to impose the rather imprecise ethnonym ‘al-Rum’ on the peninsula’s Christians past and present.

The Christian onslaught on Muslim al-Andalus also affected scholarly production in North Africa. The steady trickle of Andalusian emigrants rose to a torrent of refugees in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This had the effect of transmitting large quantities of information about Andalusian affairs to North Africa.[6] Consequently, North African scholars from the thirteenth century onwards such as Ibn 'Idharl and Ibn Khaldun increasingly regarded the history of Muslim al-Anda- lus and its relations to the neighbouring Christians as their domain.

However, probably because of its political fragmentation and constant political turmoil between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, the Maghreb with Ifriqiya only constituted a documentary centre of secondary importance. Mamluk Egypt represents the focal point of scholarly culture and the prime centre of documentation in this late period. Its attractiveness even for western Muslim scholars is exemplified by Ibn Khaldun’s move from the Maghreb to Egypt at the end of the fourteenth century and is probably due to the stability of this polity in the late Middle Ages. Mamluk Egypt was neither subject to the onslaught of Christian forces, as was al-Andalus, nor to the political fragmentation characteristic of the Maghreb and Ifriqiya. Thanks to the Mamluks’ prestigious victory against the Mongols in the Battle of Ayn Jalut in 658/1260, Egypt had been spared the ravages and political upheavals produced by the arrival of Turkoman and Mongol groups in Iran, Iraq, Anatolia, Syria, and Palestine. The Mamluks’ destruction of the last crusader stronghold in Acre in 1291 endowed Egypt’s rulers with further power and prestige. An attractive transit region for trade, administered by highly sophisticated government machinery, Mamluk Egypt maintained a great number of commercial and political contacts with the Latin West. The immigration of Western Muslim scholars, as well as regular contact with a Latin-Christian sphere maintaining important insular and commercial outposts in the eastern Mediterranean, provided scholars in Mamluk Egypt with data and documents dealing with Latin-Christian activities in an area ranging from the Iberian Peninsula to the Black Sea. Mamluk scholarship of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries was able to bring many strands together. Various manuals for chancery secretaries show that a certain familiarity with Roman, Visigothic, and Frankish history as transmitted by older Arabic-Islamic literature went hand in hand with knowledge about the contemporary European powers active in the Mediterranean: a secretary working in the Mamluk administration was expected to be knowledgeable about the history of relations, bilateral agreements, and forms of address relevant to the maintenance of diplomatic and economic contacts. Thus, scholars active in Mam- luk Egypt of this period displayed an understanding of Latin-Christian history from Roman times up to the fifteenth century.

Neither Arabic-Islamic centres of documentation nor channels of transmission remained stable throughout the period under investigation. Scholarly activity required a minimum of social stability and a large amount of material and immaterial resources. Channels of transmission opened and closed in reaction to geopolitical and social changes, changes that favoured the establishment of relations, provided the necessary requirements for peaceful cohabitation and interaction, or, vice versa, destroyed existing networks of exchange on a regional or local level. Expansionism provided conquerors and conquered with new data on the respective ‘Other’ and created direct links that, under favourable circumstances, became channels of transmission. But it could also perturb or even destroy pre-existing local intellectual infrastructures, e.g. by reducing available resources or by provoking the flight of intellectual elites.

Depending on the period, the quantity and quality of records differed considerably from region to region. In the first three centuries of the hijra, the Middle East produced more records for the sole reason that it had at its disposal better infrastructure and more intellectual resources than the Muslim West. In the ensuing period predating the crusades, al-Andalus took the lead because of its closer connections with Latin-Christian societies. From the twelfth century onwards, al-Andalus as well as the Middle East both produced records on Latin Christians in their immediate environment. North Africa, so far rather silent, became a centre of documentation of increasing importance thanks to North African engagement in al-Andalus and the indirect impact of the Reconquista on North Africa. In the late Middle Ages, Mamluk Egypt represented a stronghold of stability and intellectual activity in an Islamic world assaulted from many sides. It was able to retain this position until the Ottomans took over great parts of the Arabic-Islamic world in the sixteenth century, establishing a new centre of transmission and reception in Constantinople/Istanbul.

Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West

  • [1] al-Mas'udi, muruj, ed./trans. Pellat, § 912, p. 146 (AR), p. 344 (FR).
  • [2] Ibn Hawqal, surat al-ard, ed. Kramers, pp. 110, 129, 201—3.
  • [3] Ibn al-Athir, al-kdmil, ed. Tornberg, vol. 4, AH 92, pp. 439—40 (Leiden), p. 556 (Beirut);al-Dhahabi, tarikh, ed. Tadmuri, vol. 32, AH 478, pp. 24—5.
  • [4] Saladin to the Almohad ruler Ya'qub b. Yusuf, in Abu Shama, al-rawdatayn, ed./trans. de Mey-nard (RHC hist. or. 4), pp. 491, 494.
  • [5] Ibn Jubayr, rihla, s. ed. 42 Ibn Sa'id, al-jughrafiya, ed. al-'Arabi, p. 199.
  • [6] Cf. Latham, ‘Study’ (1957), pp. 203-49; Talbi, ‘Contacts’ (1973), pp. 84—8.
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