Before Europe: The Christian West in the Annals of Medieval Islam

Arafat Razzaque reviews Daniel König’s Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West: Tracing the Emergence of Medieval Europe

Daniel G. König, Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West: Tracing the Emergence of Medieval Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv + 436. $125.

In 1961, nearly two decades before the stir of Edward Said’s Orientalism, the renowned Oxford medievalist Sir Richard W. Southern was invited by the Harvard history department to deliver a series of three lectures published subsequently as Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages. Attention to Islam was perhaps an outgrowth of Southern’s lifelong fascination with what he called “scholastic humanism,” the intellectual tide in twelfth-century Europe that partly flowed out of Arabic science and philosophy. But more profoundly, this interest in Islam had to do with the very making of the West, a historical question to which Southern was keenly attuned. His lectures presented a schematic account of what had once been the singular embodiment of Europe’s identity crisis, and memorably declared: “The existence of Islam was the most far-reaching problem in medieval Christendom.” But by the sixteenth century, he argued, “the Islamic question” had become largely passé, not so much because it was resolved, but rather that with a wider view of the world beyond, Islam no longer seemed like the challenge it had before. And so from Edward Gibbon’s armchair in the eighteenth century, the menace of “Arabs or Saracens” was just a distant memory, its morale mainly a cautionary tale for a now self-assured Europe; the Qur’an being taught from the pulpits of Oxford was a hypothetical that Gibbon could indulge with wry amusement. We have no way of knowing how this vision of modern history might have changed had Southern lived just another decade into the twenty-first century. He died in 2001, leaving his mark as one of the most accomplished British historians of his generation.

Southern’s book was not the first on its subject, but a mid-century landmark in a long tradition of scholarship on medieval Western perceptions of Islam. Edward Said made use of it in Orientalism, lauding it as “elegant” and “brilliant.” Henceforth, whether to be challenged or supported, Said’s thesis itself would inevitably drive much of the field, in which the new classic is John Tolan’s Saracens (2002) and which has yielded such insightful works as Thomas Burman’s Reading the Qurʾān in Latin Christendom (2007). The impressions created by Southern and Said have now been greatly complicated. But faced with this growing body of literature, one may rightly wonder: what about the reverse—how did medieval Muslims think of the Christian West? This is the question pursued at length in Daniel König’s imposing new book, Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West. It follows previous English monographs on this subject by Bernard Lewis, Carole Hillenbrand, Nadia El Cheikh, Nabil Matar and most recently Nizar Hermes, whose book, The [European] Other in Medieval Arabic Literature and Culture (2012) has critically examined representations of the West in Arabic literature and poetry of the ninth through twelfth centuries.

On the other hand, the key to appreciating König’s project is the book’s subtitle: Tracing the Emergence of Medieval Europe, which echoes its original title, “The Emergence of Latin-Christian Europe: Arabic-Islamic Perspectives,” changed by the publisher for marketing reasons as the author notes in a post-publication letter. König takes a clear interest in the historical formation of Europe, and wrote his doctoral thesis on the Christianization of the post-Roman West. This second book adopts a view “from the outside,” an opportunity spurred by his dual training in Latin and Arabic. But König also points to our larger context that sets the stage, noting how ideas about Europe tend to shape contemporary discourses involving Muslims, whether in “the West” or in “the Islamic world.” Close historical analysis, however, helps tease out the contingency and development of these broad categories. In this regard, König’s study comes on the heels of Brian Catlos’s masterful monograph, Muslims of Medieval Latin Christendom (2014), which reveals in stunning detail how the image of a self-contained medieval Europe without any Muslims is basically a myth.

In fact, as König asserts in his opening chapter on methodology, it proves difficult to use a single, coherent term for Europe before there really was one (or after it had once been, prior to the medieval break up—that is if one sees its progenitor in the Roman Empire, except that also included North Africa and the Near East). Setting aside the eastern Byzantine world as its own distinct entity, even König’s “Latin Christendom” is admittedly a label of convenience: while the Roman legacy and the Church among other things had a standardizing effect, these forces were uneven at different times and places. The result was an “elusive multiplicity” of societies when viewed by outsiders. But so too was the Arabo-Islamic sphere remarkably heterogeneous, representing in König’s estimation nothing short of “uncountable” views held by many different people across a vast world stretching from Spain to Central Asia. As such, he argues, any straightforward claim to document the essence or entirety of how medieval Muslims saw Europe is misguided, if not futile.

This underscores König’s main critique of existing scholarship, dominated by what he calls the “paradigm of ignorance” and a common claim that until the age of European colonialism, Muslims were largely indifferent to or even ignorant of the western world. König’s painstaking inventory of the substantial data on the Latin West recorded in Arabic sources proves otherwise. While numerous scholars, including the distinguished Arabist George Makdisi, have reiterated the cliché about medieval Islamic apathy towards the West, the primary target of König’s criticism is the recently turned centenarian Bernard Lewis, whose works remain a staple of the popular press. Lewis’s first foray into this topic, an article on “The Muslim Discovery of Europe” (1957), was written at the height of the Cold War and postulated a “medieval iron curtain” between Islam and Christendom that restricted cultural exchange to a minimum. Expanding on this thesis, he published a book of the same title in 1982, reissued on the eve of 9/11, to be followed soon by What Went Wrong? Lewis argues in the original essay, and repeats verbatim twenty five years later in the book, that the medieval Islamic world’s relative economic, technological and intellectual superiority meant it “could afford to despise the barbarous and impoverished infidel in the cold and miserable lands of the north.” But it is religion that seems to provide a most basic explanatory force for Lewis, even to the point of accounting for Europeans’ allegedly greater cultural curiosity and interest in foreign languages: the Bible tied them to the Holy Land and therefore to the Semitic philology. Effectively, the implication went, if Muslims discovered Europe, it was only because Europeans discovered them first!

To be sure, Lewis knows well how much the Arabs drew from the ancient Greek, Syriac, Persian, and Indian traditions, and he especially highlights the translation movement of the ninth and tenth centuries that witnessed a voluminous Islamic engagement with Hellenistic philosophy, the full significance of which for global intellectual history is still being detailed. Lewis mentions nothing, however, of the Sanskrit to Persian translations sponsored by the Mughals in early modern India, a subject of considerable attention recently in South Asian studies. Such blind spots, I suspect, explain his belief that after an initial openness, Islam became “impervious to external stimuli.” König’s research actually leads to an opposite contention, that later Arabic historians were generally better informed about Europe, thanks to the cumulative aggregation of sources by their predecessors. König acknowledges the erudition behind Lewis’s work and even agrees with it occasionally, stating for instance that “to an Arabic-Islamic world imbued with Greek science…the medieval Latin-Christian world still had little to offer.” But like many of Lewis’s critics including most famously Said, it is the overall narrative he popularized that König decries, and he lists a dozen recent scholars and commentators that still use it to tell a flawed story of civilizational difference: a self-centered, monochromatic Muslim world versus an inherently more open-minded West. Worse still, Lewis himself appears to have encouraged looking to the pre-modern past in order to understand Islamic worldviews today—as if Muslims can only ever see through medieval eyes.

König decidedly turns away from the study of stereotypes, emphasizing instead the underlying factors at play in the making of “a highly differentiated range of ‘Muslim’ perceptions.” The book adopts a macro-historical view, covering nearly a millennium (7th–15th centuries), of the circumstances that determined how scholars writing in Arabic at various locations came to know what they did about the Latin West. König proposes the term “information landscape,” outlined in his second chapter, to describe this ever-changing complex of factors, which include: language and modes of communication, wars and imperial expansion, diplomacy, Mediterranean trade, pilgrimage, migration, and so on. For ancient Arabs, the Roman provinces of Egypt and Syria seemed to mark the horizons of the world they knew, and the far west came into view only with the Islamic conquests. Al-Andalus (i.e. Muslim Spain) became the crucial conduit for knowledge about Latin Christendom. Arabic geographers inherited from Ptolemy the term Europe (Urūfa) for the continent, though it would be rarely used.

Especially momentous in the Arabic reception of Western knowledge was the Kitāb Hurūshiyūsh (The Book of Orosius), an adaptation of Historiae adversus paganos (History Against the Pagans), the universal history by Paulus Orosius written in 417 CE upon the request of Saint Augustine as a companion to his City of God. The modified Arabic version incorporates bits of other Latin texts, including by Isidore of Seville (d. 636), and updates the chronicle to the Muslim invasion of Iberia in 711. It was likely produced in the tenth-century Umayyad court of Córdoba by Christian and Muslim collaborators, and has the earliest known Arabic words for Latin and even an ethnonym al-Laṭīniyyūn, “the Latins.” The translation became a major source on European history for later Islamic scholarship. With regard to the Arabic Orosius, König’s book coincides with the publication of Christian Sahner’s outstanding article, “From Augustine to Islam” (2013). Sahner looks closely at the text’s single surviving manuscript, a fourteenth-century copy now at Columbia University, and reads it as an active Islamic rehabilitation of church history, in which “sharīʿa” refers to the law of Christianity and Orosius’s pagan adversaries are described as “the people of jāhilīya” (ignorance), the Muslim term for pre-Islamic Arabs. Thus, while Lewis once regarded the Kitāb Hurūshiyūsh as simply the exception to a rueful lack of Latin to Arabic translations, we can now see it as a revealing window onto the overlapping epistemic grounds between two competing religious traditions in the making.

König’s steadfast concern with conditions of knowledge has a distinct resonance with Southern’s Western Views of Islam, which speaks eloquently of “the ignorance of confined space” or relative isolation, versus “the ignorance of triumphant imagination” as in myths and fantasies. Certainly, geographic distance or other limits to communication matter in any analysis of cross-cultural history. The so-called Arab sack of Rome in 846, for instance, which looms large in the Latin record and even larger in modern perception, was not even a footnote in Islamic history, in spite of copious Arabic descriptions of the city’s grandeur and prosperity. But the chronicling of history and the mental image of another culture, while not unrelated, may be subject to somewhat different dynamics. Though Said relied on him to trace a grotesque medieval heritage of Orientalism, Southern had actually dismissed the need to dwell much on European legends about “Mahomet,” such as in the epic Song of Roland. For Southern, those literary representations “belong less to the history of Western thought about Islam than to the history of the Western imagination.” Likewise, König is not concerned with the imaginary among medieval Muslims, and the kinds of poetic or even polemical texts that would most interest a social or cultural historian. He does not entirely ignore medieval polemics, but insists that given a wide cultural gulf and the many actual conflicts, they seem far fewer than one should expect—a point that even Hermes seems to concede in his own conclusion.

Rather than overt expressions of ideology, König’s focus is primarily on historiography: the immense corpus of medieval Arabic historical and geographic writings by numerous authors ranging from al-Yaʿqūbī (d. ca. 905) in the ʿAbbāsid East, and al-Idrīsī (d. 1165) in Norman Sicily, to Ibn al-Khaṭīb (d. 1375) in Spain and Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) in North Africa. Of course, we owe these sources mostly to a certain class of people, and König treats the implications of this fact in his third chapter, “Scholars at Work.” The academic training and professional concerns of medieval scholars facilitated specialized knowledge but also defined their interests. For example, in his classic manual for secretaries, the Mamluk chancery official al-Qalqashandī (d. 1418) engaged in a lengthy discussion on the appropriate formal titles to be used in addressing letters to the pope, correcting a predecessor’s suggested analogy with the Mongol Ilkhan because the latter was a political and not religious authority. Other Muslims meanwhile regarded the pope as the “imam” or “caliph” of the Christians. König argues that scholars were in fact often at a disadvantage: located primarily in the intellectual milieu of urban centers, the educated elite were typically at some remove from those in the peripheries and border zones most in contact with the outside—such as again those Saracen raiders of southern Italy who became a major headache to Pope John VIII in the 870s, but went unnoticed in Arabic historiography.

Even so, the history of encounters and exchange is full of surprises. In 940, the bishop Godemar of Girona presented a list of Frankish kings to the future caliph al-Ḥakam II in Córdoba, and within just seven years the information made its way to Egypt and into the writings of the prolific al-Masʿūdī (d. 956). König also suggests possible clues to otherwise unmentioned events: the tragic story of a Mediterranean shipwreck related by the Egyptian scholar Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam (d. 871) has a striking resemblance to the account in papal chronicles of the “miraculous” Saracen defeat in 849, a triumph enshrined at the Vatican by Raphael’s fresco, the Battle of Ostia. In other words, sometimes medieval historians had scraps of information that they could not situate in a proper context, but which nevertheless complicates our assumptions about their total ignorance of certain facts. Furthermore, they were often being judicious about what to report: when describing the marvels of Rome, the great Syrian geographer-historian and freed Greek slave Yāqūt (d. 1229) apologizes to his readers for omitting and abbreviating details that seemed too mythical to him.

The bulk of König’s monograph comprises a series of five case studies surveying what Arabic sources have to say on select aspects of medieval European history: the Roman Empire in the west; the Visigoths of pre-Islamic Spain; the Franks; the papacy in Rome; and lastly, the Latin-Christian expansions, including the Crusades and the Iberian Reconquista. These chapters comb through an enormous body of material and attempt to synthesize an array of often tedious but occasionally fascinating historical details. Clearly inspired by the studies of ethnogenesis that dominate the field of late antiquity, König shows a persistent concern with terminology, documenting the various ethnonyms and toponyms that appear throughout his sources. A multi-page table presents the remarkable Arabic lists of obscure Visigothic kings. König’s analysis frequently involves attempting to reconcile or to make sense of chronological minutiae, or confusing Arabic versions of proper names from the Latin West. At times, the book may feel almost like a catalogue of shortcomings, of what medieval Muslims failed to grasp as measured against our established history of Europe. But it is interesting to realize that a similar process of reconciling names and dates was a challenge for medieval historians, too. Thus in his discussion of the Roman emperor Diocletian, Ibn Khaldūn writes: “It seems that the ruler called Dīqlādyānūs by Ibn al-ʿAmīd is the one Orosius calls Diyūqāryān, because what is related afterwards is very similar although the names differ.” Similarly, al-Masʿūdī may have felt lost trying to keep track of the ubiquitous names Charles (Qarlūh) and Louis (Ludhwīq) in Frankish history, and remarks with terrific deadpan that “these two names are repeatedly borne by their kings.” In a particularly amusing case of misunderstanding in early Arabic sources, the native population of Iberia was said to have originated in the Persian city of Isfahan, based on a false etymology of the word Hispani. The error was soon dispelled especially by Andalusi historians through their detailed accounts of the Goths (al-Qūṭ).

Arguably the most significant ethnonym in this discussion is “Franks” (al-Ifranj/al-Faranj), which became the root word for “foreigner” in several languages across the Muslim world to this day. However, its usage in Arabic evolved over time, and contrary to a common assumption as also betrayed by Nizar Hermes’s theory of Ifranjalism (Occidentalism), König argues that the term never quite achieved unanimity as a blanket reference to all the people of Western Europe. While contemporary Arabic witnesses to Latin-Christian expansionism do clearly identify it as a primarily Frankish enterprise, they were still able to recognize the multiple origins of Crusaders. The West was a rather diverse place, and medieval Muslim scholars knew that the English, Burgundians, French, Aragonese, Catalans, Genoese, Venetians, Hungarians, Slavs, and so on were different peoples and different polities.

The account emerging from König’s study evokes the pithy opening statement of R.W. Southern’s first and best-known book, The Making of the Middle Ages (1953): “It is easy to forget that the idea of the unity of Western civilization with which we are familiar arises from a radical simplification of the past.” Wary of such simplifications, König concludes his book on precisely the same note, observing that the identity of Latin-Christian Europe remains elusive, its uniformity only “partly medieval, partly imposed on the medieval period by scholarship.” Indeed, the significance of König’s contribution lies in the fact that Arabic-Islamic Views was written not for the sake of understanding medieval Muslim attitudes towards a European Other, but as an effort to map through their writings an external perspective on the formation of Europe. The result is a variegated “mosaic-like” picture that may prove unsatisfying to readers left craving an overarching interpretation, perhaps even some further attention to ideas and ideologies—in the manner that, for example, Sahner charts through the Arabic Orosius a subtle but sure “watershed” between Christian and Islamic views of the late antique past. But König feels, rightly, that we have been too often ready to offer grand narratives without taking full stock of the empirical evidence. His methodical effort to amass as much relevant data as possible somewhat resembles that of Michael McCormick’s monumental Origins of the European Economy (2001), which posed the definitive challenge to Henri Pirenne’s Mohammed and Charlemagne (1937), that classic hypothesis on Europe as a historical byproduct of the rise of Islam that had instigated a vital debate for several generations of medievalists in the twentieth century.

Is it possible, then, to write a history of Europe using only Arabic sources? König’s answer is still a resounding yes, albeit with a caveat. He recognizes in medieval Muslim historians an impressive ability to trace the roots of Latin Christendom in the Roman Empire, follow the rise of the Franks, and record the development of the many kingdoms that made up the western world of the High Middle Ages. At least by the late-medieval period, they “undoubtedly” had the notion of a distinct Latin-Christian sphere. But if their writings ultimately lack the sense of a coherent, uniform entity called Europe when viewed from the outside, then it was just “as vague and imprecise as their ‘Latin-Christian’ contemporaries’ sense of cohesion.” Hence König’s apparent conviction that it would be a mistake to see a painting where there is necessarily a mosaic, regardless of whatever form or finery we find in it. Thus in some ways subverting our expectations, Daniel König presents a basic theoretical argument to scholars invested in the recurring question of Christian-Muslim relations: “the Other” as an analytical category ultimately has its limits, and cannot necessarily explain every human encounter in the history of cross-cultural perceptions.

Arafat A. Razzaque is a PhD candidate in the joint program in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. He specializes in medieval Islamic history, and is currently finishing his dissertation on ideas about gossip, sin, and social reputation in Abbasid Baghdad around the ninth and tenth centuries, as reflected in biographical records and the tradition of speech ethics (adab al-lisān) in early Islamic piety.

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