Desktop version

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



In the many discussions that contributed to the present study, various interlocutors aired the assumption that the Arabic-Islamic world knew more about India than about Latin-Christian Europe.

To bolster this hypothesis, one could highlight that medieval Arabic-Islamic scholarship produced an extremely dense, informative, and balanced monograph on contemporary India, but never a comparable monograph on the ‘Frankish’ sphere.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] Al-Blrnnl’s (d. c.442/1050) extraordinary description of India was completed in 421/1030 in the orbit of a Ghaznavid court intent on tightening and extending its control over the northern parts of the subcontinent.45 It features an elaborate examination of Sanskrit sources, some of which al-Blrunl had translated himself, supplemented by conversations with Hindu pundits whom al-Blrunl had met personally. The work consists of eighty substantial chapters and testifies to the author’s effort to provide a truly scholarly, that is, impartial view on the religious life, philosophy, literature, metrology, geography, cosmography, astronomy, manners, customs, and festivals of contemporary India.46 The present study has shown that Arabic-Islamic scholars produced a large number of records on the Latin- Christian sphere. However, there exists no single Arabic-Islamic text on Latin- Christian Europe that can rival al-Blrunl’s comprehensive description of India.

Al-Blrunl’s scholarly output contains practically no information on the western dimension of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths, the Franks, or the pope. But why should an eleventh-century Arabic-Islamic scholar from Central Asia have been interested in phenomena of the ‘Far West’?47 Does not the fact that India features in western Muslim scholarship of the same period corroborate that India effectively played a more important role in Arabic-Islamic consciousness than medieval Western Europe? In his history of scientific achievements, the Andalusian scholar Said al-Andalusi (d. 462/1070) mentions the Indians (al-Hind) as the first among the scientifically productive peoples, but ignores the peoples of medieval Western Europe.48 An entire chapter on India in the work of the Andalusian scholar al-Bakri (d. 487/1094) clearly suggests that India, the ‘realm of wisdom’ (mamlakat al-hikma) in al-Bakri’s words/9 enjoyed a much higher reputation among Arabic- Islamic scholars than Latin-Christian Europe did.

India certainly occupied a different position in the information landscape that shaped the formation and evolution of medieval Arabic-Islamic scholarship. As a cultural orbit with its own literary, scientific, and philosophical tradition, India was much older than the ‘start-up culture’ of early medieval Western Europe that could not be praised for its ancient traditions and wisdom.5° As opposed to medieval Western Europe, India was also much nearer to the Arabic-Islamic sphere of origin—in time and in space. References to Indian swords can already be found in pre-Islamic poetry of the sixth century^1 references to Roman or post-Roman Europe cannot.52 Before the expanding Muslims ventured into the western Mediterranean in the seventh century, Byzantium seems to have obstructed the Arabs’ gaze to the west53 to a greater extent than Sassanid Persia and the Indian Ocean blocked their gaze to the east.54 Thus, India was already part of the Arabic-Islamic horizon when Muslim troops set out to establish themselves in the West, carrying their Middle Eastern world-view to the Atlantic and the Cantabrian Sea. This world-view was cherished and continuously bolstered by new arrivals and imports from the east. In the early phase of Muslim establishment in the West, Andalusians went to the Middle East in search of knowledge, not vice versa. The flow of information went from east to west, not from west to east.55 This may explain why, in the eleventh century, the Andalusian scholars Sa id al-Andalusi and al-Bakri dealt with India in their works.

Although returning conquerors and Andalusian travellers to the Middle East brought along some knowledge about the Latin West,5fi it took Middle Eastern scholars some time to acquire substantial information about the Muslim West and its neighbours. As we have seen, works of the tenth century written by scholars such as Ibn Rustah, al-Mas'udi, and Ibn Hawqal, feature a noticeable increase of information in terms of quantity and qualityTh From the twelfth century onwards, the period of the crusader onslaught and Western economic expansion, Middle Eastern scholars active in Syria and Egypt, such as Ibn al-Athir and al-Qalqashandi, engaged intellectually with the Latin West again to find out more about the many different kinds of ‘Franks’ infesting the eastern Mediterranean—among other things by turning to the documentation of the Muslim West.58 Such information was not available to the eleventh-century Central Asian scholar al-Biruni who, writing before the age of Latin-Christian expansionism in a region unaffected by Western European affairs, knew almost nothing about the Muslim West and its Christian neighbours.

The documentary disequilibrium between east and west sketched out in the preceding paragraphs is not a consistent feature of medieval Arabic-Islamic scholarship. We have at our disposal several writings in which the world from Western Europe to the Indian subcontinent appears as a (comparatively) balanced whole. This is not

  • It is only in the late Middle Ages, in the works of Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Khaldun, tarikh, ed. Zakkar and Shahada, vol. 1, p. 633, that Arabic-Islamic scholarship acknowledges significant intellectual (in this case ‘philosophical’) activity in the Latin West. See Chapter 3.3.2. for Ibn Khaldun’s comment.
  • 51 Cf. Abel, Sammlung (1891), p. 160 (Index entry muhannad). 52 See Chapter 2.1.2.
  • 53 Cf. Ibn Khaldun, tarikh, ed. Zakkar and Shahada, vol. 6, p. 140: ‘al-'Arab yawma’idhin lam yakunu ya'rifun al-Faranj, wa-ma qatalu fi l-Sham illa l-Rum, fa-zannu annahum hum al-ghalibun 'ala umam al-nasraniyya fa-inna Hiraql huwa malik al-nasraniyya kulliha fa-ghallabu ism al-Rum 'ala jami' umam al-nasraniyya’; Ibn-Khaldoun, Histoire des Berberes, trans. de Slane, vol. 1, p. 208. See Chapters
  • 2.1.2., 5.1.1., 6.1.
  • 54 Cf. Crone, Trade (2004), pp. 41—2, 46—9. 55 See Chapters 2.2.1. and 3.1.
  • 56 See Chapters 5.1. and 6.1. 57 See Chapters 5.2.1., 6.2., 7.2.1., 8.2.3., and 8.3.1.
  • 58 See Chapters 5.3.1., 6.4.2. to 6.5.2., 7.3., and 8.

only valid for the works of western Muslim scholars such as the above-mentioned al-Bakrl who had access to western and eastern sources of information. While variegated data on the Indian subcontinent travelled to the west for the above-mentioned reasons, information on the Latin-Christian sphere acquired in the various contact zones, and then in direct contact with Latin Christians in the eastern Mediterranean, increasingly found its way into Middle Eastern works of Arabic-Islamic scholarship.59 Middle Eastern historiographers of the ninth and the early tenth centuries still dedicated a significantly larger portion of their works to eastern rather than to western affairs.[7] [8] [9] [10] Al-Mas'udl (d. 345/956), however, whose descriptions of the Roman Empire, the Galician, Frankish, and Langobard spheres have been subject to scrutiny in this study, equitably dealt with both Western Europe and the Indian subcontinent.61 As we have seen, Ibn al-Athir’s (d. 630/1233) al-kamil f l-tarikh, i.e. The Complete History, features manifold data about the western dimension of the Roman Empire, the best account of Visigothic history in pre-modern Arabic-Islamic historiography, masses of data on the Franks including a theory on their rise to power, several references to the papacy, and minute descriptions of the Latin-Christian takeover in Sicily, the Iberian Peninsula, and the crusader Middle East. At the same time, his work contains ample information—in the form of annalistic entries, not necessarily on the religious culture and traditions of the Hindus, but on the history of Hindu-Muslim encounters.62

Stretching from the Iberian Peninsula in the west to northwestern India in the east and thus lying in and between Western Europe and India, the medieval Arabic-Islamic world of scholarship inevitably produced records on both spheres. While this remains true, the functioning of this trans-regional information landscape defies simple explanations. By juxtaposing a Central Asian scholar’s lack of information on Western Europe and a contemporary Andalusian scholar’s knowledge on India, we have shown that the geographical position of an author at the eastern or the western extremity of the Arabic-Islamic sphere cannot solely be held responsible for what this author knew about India or the Latin West respectively. Medieval Arabic-Islamic scholarship also built on different foundations and followed a different ‘rhythm’ with regards to the production of records on each sphere. India—the older and more established cultural orbit—was present from an early period onwards. It was also nearer to the early centres of Islamic culture in the Middle East that laid the foundations of Arabic-Islamic scholarship in the east and the west, to the effect that Arabic-Islamic scholars in al-Andalus treated information on India as part of their cultural heritage. The emerging orbit of medieval Western Europe, in turn, slowly settling down after a period of struggling with post-Roman transformations, was far removed from the Middle Eastern Islamic heartlands and had no influence on the formation of Arabic-Islamic scholarship. It only became relevant after the Muslim expansion to the west, increasing its impact as a result of intensifying relations and, in particular, of high and late medieval

Latin-Christian expansionism. Notwithstanding, it would be too simple to claim that, in terms of quantity and quality, Arabic-Islamic records on India and medieval Western Europe became on a par in this later period. Once again, we have to consider that Arabic-Islamic scholarly production featured important regional variants, which have been sketched out in the preceding subchapter with regard to its documentation of the Latin West. Concerning India, late medieval Andalusian scholarship with its focus on the Iberian Peninsula was certainly not able to measure up with its Mamluk counterpart. Issues of genre and individual scholarly predilections should not be neglected either. Although the late medieval Muslim West displayed a tendency to produce works of a regional scope, it also brought forth the universal history of Ibn Khaldun as well as two important works of geography by Ibn Sa'ld and al-Himyarl that consider both western and eastern locations.

India and medieval Western Europe play a different role in Arabic-Islamic records, not because ‘the Islamic world’ held a radically different attitude towards one of these cultural orbits. The Arabic-Islamic sphere may have been inspired by Indian philosophy, astronomy and, last not least, mathematics, thus introducing an entirely new and revolutionary numerical system to the Euromediterranean.[11] Arabic-Islamic scholars may have received access to a greater number of works translated from Sanskrit, Persian, and Greek to Arabic than from Latin, they may have written one monograph on India and none on the Franks. These observations, however, do not validate simplistic generalizations that aim to reduce a multiplicity of complex and evolving networks of transmission and reception to a hierarchy of civilizations allegedly characteristic of a ‘Muslim’ world-view. In view of the many factors that conditioned the flow of information and the production of records, it seems doubtful whether the effort to measure the quantity and quality of data at the disposal of an intellectual elite dispersed in an area ranging from the Iberian Peninsula to Central Asia and a time frame of eight centuries can really produce relevant results. Playing off India against Europe, it seems, beguiles the investigating scholar into judging the extant records rather than understanding when, where, how, and why they came into being.

A detailed comparison of the Arabic-Islamic documentation on India and on medieval Western Europe still awaits investigation. In view of the results obtained in the present study, we can assume that Arabic-Islamic records will have neither covered the entire Indian subcontinent nor all periods and aspects of the subcontinent’s history and culture(s). The information landscape that provided the necessary connections between multifaceted India and the multifarious sphere of Arabic-Islamic scholarship will have been as complex, the resulting records as fragmentary, and biased, as those treated in the preceding pages. Regardless of the results of such a thorough comparative analysis, there can be no doubt that Western Europe played an increasingly important role in medieval Arabic-Islamic collective awareness and memory. This considered, it seems worthwhile to attempt another form of comparison by opposing how medieval Latin-Christian Europe and the Arabic-Islamic sphere recorded each other mutually.

Historical records are always fragmentary, historians of every age forced to piece together shreds of biased source material. In the field of research on cross-cultural perceptions, a historian working on Latin sources is confronted with many problems also faced by the scholar dealing with Arabic-Islamic records: the so-called ‘Germanic’ world of Antiquity has to be reconstructed via Roman sources that provide brief and highly biased glimpses into what was happening beyond the empire’s northern borders.[12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] Non-Christian cults and practices in medieval Europe are mainly described in Latin-Christian sources that use well-established topoi to relegate emphatically such religious activities to the realm of superstition and demon-worship.65 Before the ninth century, there existed almost no written records from Scandinavia apart from short Runic texts.66 Longer documents were mainly produced by Latin-Christian authors who either both lived in adjacent regions and envisioned the region’s Christianization^7 or by their more distant colleagues who focused on the negative impact of Viking raids on their immediate environment.68 In line with earlier Christian records on non-Christians, these Latin-Christian authors failed to record much data about pre-Christian religiosity, which they generally denigrated.169

Against this backdrop, Arabic-Islamic records seem no less or no more fragmentary or biased than those produced by the Romans or their Latin-Christian contemporaries. Like their Roman and Latin-Christian colleagues, Arabic-Islamic scholars, describing societies beyond their own cultural orbit, wrote from a position of mental and geographic distance about an area that differed in terms of language, religion, as well as social and political organization. Consequently, the fragmentary state and bias of the extant records is not remarkable as such. However, Roman and Latin-Christian records on other (non-Muslim) societies are used neither to describe the overall character of the recording civilization as arrogant or condescending, nor to interpret perceived geopolitical disequilibria of our own times/0 This obviously has to do with the fact that the ideological demarcations between ‘Romans’ and ‘barbarians’, as well as between ‘Christians’ and ‘pagans’ are only of historical relevance, whereas those between ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’ have not yet ceased to exist.

In the period under investigation, there is no reason to believe that Western Europeans exhibited an interest in other cultures that can be classified as extraor?dinary or peculiar to what one historian called the ‘European mind’.[19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] Medieval Latin-Christian records on the Arabic-Islamic sphere are as fragmentary and as prone to ideological othering, if not more so, as Arabic-Islamic records on the Latin-Christian sphere. The monumental works on medieval Western European perceptions of Islam written by Norman Daniel, Richard Southern, Philippe Senac, Benjamin Kedar, and John Tolan prove sufficiently that the negative portrayal of Muslims and their religion occupies a preponderant place in medieval Latin-Christian sources.72 However, until very recently, scholarly preoccupation with the Latin-Christian portrayal of Islam as the religious Other has obliterated that Latin-Christian texts also feature a large quantity of material on trouble-free Christian-Muslim interaction and correlated images/3 This focus on highly ideological records has also pushed into the background that Latin-Christian scholars took a long time not only to investigate Islam systematically/4 but also to record data on the history and functioning of Arabic-Islamic societies that did not focus on Islam, its founding figure Muhammad, or instances of direct interaction.

Before the twelfth century, only very few Latin-Christian works dedicate substantial passages to the internal affairs of the Arabic-Islamic sphere. Two rather exceptional Hispano-Latin chronicles written around the middle of the eighth century feature some data on Muhammad, the Umayyad rulers of the nascent Islamic Empire, even the Abbasid revolution and, of course, the Muslim invasion and early governors of al-Andalus.75 In the ninth century, Anastasius Bibliothecarius (d. 879) provided his readers with a Latin version of Theophanes’ (d. 818) chronicle and thus made a Byzantine perspective on Muhammad, the early caliphs, the Umayyads, and the Abbasids accessible to readers in the Latin West/6 This data was then used by the southern Italian historiographer Landolfus Sagax in his tenth- or eleventh-century Historia Romana.[25] Other Latin-Christian works written between the eighth and the early twelfth century in all parts of Western Europe contain data about confrontations and interaction with the ‘Saracens’, but largely fail to provide information on the Arabic-Islamic sphere itself.78

Only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, did authors such as Peter the Venerable (d. 1156)/9 William of Tyre (d. 1186),8° Jacques de Vitry (d. c.1240),8i and William of Tripolis (d. after 1273)82 begin dedicating substantial passages and even entire chapters to Arabic-Islamic history. Rodrigo Jimenez de Rada (d. 1270), archbishop of Toledo, then produced his Historia Arabum, a Latin-Christian work of historiography largely based on Arabic sources and ‘the only extant text from the Latin Middle Ages that treats the history of a Muslim society in monographic form’.83 In the fourteenth century, this work was flanked by several Portuguese and Castilian translations or paraphrases of Ahmad b. Muhammad al-Razi’s akhbar muluk al-Andalus.84 In Western Europe, these works stand at the beginning of the systematic occupation with, not only Islam, but with the history of the Arabic- Islamic sphere.85 It is conspicuous that these beginnings fall into the period of Latin-Christian expansionism and that their authors were all, in one way or another, part of the machinery of military and missionary expansion.

It almost seems as if the Arabic-Islamic and the Latin-Christian spheres switched roles in the course of the period under investigation. Part of an imperializing Arabic- Islamic culture, Muslim scholars of the ninth to the eleventh centuries produced works of geography and ethnography of outstanding quality, but from the eleventh or the twelfth century onwards, were relegated to the position of chroniclers of Latin-Christian expansionism. Vice versa, Latin-Christian scholars of the eighth to the tenth centuries wrote as victims and chroniclers of Arabic-Islamic expansionism. After the first victories in the eleventh century, they produced the occasional triumphant text on defeated Saracens.86 Now that they had become part of a more self-secure and imperializing culture with sufficient resources, they began occupying themselves systematically with the ‘Saracen’ Other in terms of religion, history, and society.

If the link between imperializing culture, expansionism, and the systematic production of records is as close as suggested, it would explain why, in the early modern era, Western Europe systematically pursued the study of Islam, the Arabic-Islamic heritage, as well as the history of North Africa and the Middle East whereas—this is the classical picture—Arab intellectuals only began producing records on Western Europe again in noticeable quantity and quality when the jump to ‘modernity’ and the will to free the Arab world from the ‘imperialist yoke’ made intellectuals look to Europe for inspiration in the nineteenth century as part of the so-called nahda- movement.[26] [27] [28] [29] [30] [31] [32] However, Nabil Matar’s recent study of Maghrebian writings on Western Europe in the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries,88 Jocelyne Dakhlias analysis of the large-scale diffusion of the early modern lingua franca among Muslim populations in the Mediterranean^9 Bernard Heyberger’s and Carsten Walbiner’s volume on ‘Lebanese’ perceptions of Europeans^0 as well as Wolfgang Kaiser’s and Claudia Moatti’s collection of studies on various forms of mobility in the Mediterranean^1 etc. should warn us not to over-simplify matters and to assume that Arabic-Islamic populations of the period post-1500 and pre-1800 were completely ignorant of inner-European affairs.

In sum, a comparative approach certainly suggests that the production of records on the other cultural sphere was as closely linked to questions of resources, infrastructure, and the geopolitical balance of power as to religious ideology, the latter constituting only one among several factors in an issue of much greater complexity.

  • [1] See Chapter 1.2.2. on the role played by Rashid al-Dins history of the Franks in the discussionof this issue.
  • [2] Bosworth, ‘Biruni’ (1990), pp. 274—6.
  • [3] 46 al-Blrunl, tahqiq, ed./trans. Sachau, p. 5 (AR), p. 7 (EN).
  • [4] 47 al-Blrunl, al-athar, ed./trans. Sachau.
  • [5] Sa id al-Andalusi, tabaqat al-umam, ed. Shaykhu, pp. 7—8.
  • [6] al-Bakri, al-masalik, ed. van Leeuwen and Ferre, § 355, p. 241.
  • [7] See Chapters 3.2.2., 4.2.2., 5.2.3., 6.2.1., and 7.2.2.
  • [8] Cf. the works written by al-Baladhuri, al-Yaqubl, and al-Tabari.
  • [9] His passages on India are conveniently compiled in Al-Mas udl, Religion, trans. Hasan.
  • [10] Conveniently compiled, although badly translated, in Ibn al-Athir, Religion, trans. Hasan.
  • [11] Cf. Sezgin, Numerals (2007).
  • [12] Pohl, Germanen (2004), pp. 1—6, 51—8.
  • [13] Harmening, Superstitio (1979); Padberg, Christianisierung (1998), pp. 188—90.
  • [14] Wood, ‘Accounts’ (2007), pp. 60—5.
  • [15] Scior, Eigene (2002), pp. 96—8, 103—35, 200—4, 285—7; Fraesdorf, Norden (2005); Foerster,Vergleich (2009), pp. 32—42.
  • [16] Coupland, ‘Rod’ (1991), pp. 535—54; Dumville, ‘Images’ (2002), pp. 250—63; Foerster, Vergleich (2009), pp. 24—32.
  • [17] Staats, ‘Geist’ (1991), pp. 7—31; Sondergaard, ‘Edge’ (2001), pp. 51—71; Fraesdorf, ‘Power’(2002), pp. 309—22; Wood, ‘Frontier’ (2008), pp. 230—48; Foerster, Vergleich (2009), pp. 57—72.
  • [18] See Chapter 1.3.2.
  • [19] Roberts, History (2007), p. 536 (quote); Lewis, Discovery (1982/2001), p. 9.
  • [20] 72 Daniel, Islam (2009); Southern, Views (1962); Senac, LOccident (2000); Kedar, Crusade (1988);Tolan, Saracens (2002); Tolan, Sons (2008). Cf. the entries on Latin-Christian authors in Thomas andMallett (eds), Relations, vol. 4 (2012).
  • [21] Konig, ‘Perceptions’ (2012), pp. 26—8. Cf. Skottki, ‘Perceptions’ (2011), pp. 107—34. That earlymedieval perceptions of ‘Saracens’ were more differentiated has already been highlighted by Goetz,‘Sarazenen’ (2009), pp. 64—6.
  • [22] A point underscored by d’Alverny, ‘Connaissance’ (1965), pp. 577—602; Konig, ‘Perceptions’ (2012), pp. 26-8.
  • [23] Continuatio Byzantia-Arabica, ed. Mommsen (MGH AA 11), pp. 334-69 = Chronica Byzantia-Arabica, ed. Gil, pp. 7-14; Continuatio Hispana, ed. Mommsen (MGH AA 11), pp. 334-69 =Chronica Muzarabica, ed. Gil, pp. 15-54; Wolf, ‘Views’ (1986), pp. 281-93; Wolf, ‘Lives’ (1990),pp. 89-101.
  • [24] 76 Anastasius Bibliothecarius, Historica Ecclesiastica, ed. Bekker, a. 622, p. 164 (death ofMuhammad); a. 651, p. 173 (Battle of Sifftn); a. 739, pp. 226-7 (Abbasid revolution); p. 281 (Christian refugees from Syria and Palestine to Cyprus). On Theophanes’ original sources, see Brandes, ‘Islam’ (2009), pp. 313—44.
  • [25] Landolfus Sagax, Historia Romana, ed. Crivelucci, vol. 2, lib. 20, cap. 58, pp. 132-3 (death ofMuhammad); lib. 20, cap. 68, pp. 138-9 (accession to power of Muawiya); lib. 21, cap. 7, p. 144(Battle of Sifftn); lib. 24, cap. 25, pp. 218-19 (Abbasid revolution); lib. 26, cap. 40, p. 287 (Christianrefugees from Syria and Palestine to Cyprus); cf. Klueting, ‘Machometus’ (2008), p. 294.
  • [26] Tomiche, ‘nahda’ (1993), pp. 9 0 0—3 . 88 Matar, Europe (2009).
  • [27] 89 Dakhlia, Lingua (2008), p. 17; Dakhlia, ‘Histoire’ (2010), pp. 21—7.
  • [28] 90 Heyberger and Walbiner (eds), Europeens (2002).
  • [29] 91 Kaiser, ‘Kaufleute’ (1997), pp. 11—31; Moatti (ed.), Mobilite (2005); Kaiser and Moatti (eds),
  • [30] Gens (2007); Kaiser, Moatti and Pebarthe (eds), Monde (2009).
  • [31] 92 Konig, ‘Historiographers’ (2012), pp. 427—46.
  • [32] Ibn Khurdadhbah, al-masalik, ed. de Goeje, p. 155. The text is reproduced by Ibn al-Faqih,mukhtasar, ed. de Goeje, p. 6; al-Hamdani, sifat jazirat al-Arab, ed. Muller, vol. 1, p. 32, trans. inMiquel, Geographie (2001), vol. 2,1, pp. 34—5. Ibn Khurdadhbah, al-masalik, ed. de Goeje, p. 3, refersto Ptolemy, as does al-Hamdani, sifat jazirat al-Arab, ed. Muller, vol. 1, who also uses the alternativeterm ‘Celto-Galatia’ (Qaltughalatiyyd) in the passage cited above.
Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >

Related topics