Commentary Magazine

The Muslim Discovery of Europe, by Bernard Lewis

Islam vs. Christianity

The Muslim Discovery of Europe.
by Bernard Lewis.
Norton. 350 pp. $19.95.

Bernard Lewis has probably done more to foster Western understanding of the Islamic world in our day than any other contemporary scholar. His Arabs in History is a minor classic, his Emergence of Modern Turkey is the standard authority on the subject, while his contributions to the historiography of medieval and modern Islam, not least in his capacity as co-editor of the monumental second edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam, stand as testimony to the formidable range and depth of his learning. He is that rarity in a technological age, a true polymath—or perhaps in his case, a polyhistor. Not only is he in easy command of a dozen languages, Oriental and European, but he also possesses considerable knowledge of a diversity of subjects.

It would be difficult to call to mind anyone so well equipped as he to illuminate the theme of his latest book, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, which, as its title suggests, is a survey of relations between the Muslim and Christian worlds from the rise of Islam in the 7th century to the eclipse of its political, military, and economic fortunes in the 18th, viewed not from the familiar standpoint of Europe but from that of the Muslim peoples to the south and east. The focus of the book is on the high Middle Ages and the early modern era. Among the many topics treated are religious rivalry, social and cultural contacts, war and diplomacy, science, literature, economics, and, not least, the art of translation and the function of intermediaries.

The record is one of almost unrelieved misunderstanding and hostility between the two worlds. Leaving to one side Christian Europe’s share of responsibility for the persistence of this condition of mutual antagonism, it is clear from what Lewis writes that the condition was virtually assured from the outset by the Muslim interpretation of God’s will and the destiny He had ordained for humanity at large. To the pious Muslim the world appeared as divided into two entities—the dar al-Islam, or the House of Islam, which embraced all the lands in which Muslims lived, and the dar al-Harb, or the House of War, in which resided the rest of mankind. (The European geographical classification of countries, nations, and boundaries was not a Muslim perception. Not until the 19th century did Muslim governments begin to entertain the concept of defining sovereignty in territorial terms.) According to Islamic law, between the dar al-Islam and the dar al-Harb there could exist only a state of unremitting warfare, which would not cease until all mankind had embraced Islam and submitted to the will of God, as revealed to the last and greatest of His prophets, Muhammad.



What this dogma signified for the course of Muslim-Christian relations in the thousand years following the Prophet’s death is explained by Lewis in one of the many striking passages in his book:

The Muslim doctrine of successive revelations culminating in the final mission of Muhammad led the Muslim to reject Christianity as an earlier and imperfect form of something which he, himself, possessed in its final, perfect form, and to discount Christian thought and Christian civilization accordingly. After the initial impact of eastern Christianity on Islam in its earliest period, Christian influences, even from the high civilization of Byzantium, were reduced to a minimum. Later, by the time that the advance of Christendom and the retreat of Islam had created a new relationship, Islam was crystallized in its ways of thought and behavior and had become impervious to external stimuli, especially those coming from the millennial adversary in the West.

From this conviction of the immutability of God’s purpose, and the divinely appointed role of the Muslim community in accomplishing it, it was but a short step in the Muslim consciousness to disdaining the European peoples as infidel barbarians, unworthy of notice except as objects of prey. Even the Ottoman Turks, who, as Lewis emphasizes, were the champions sans pareils of Islam and who expanded and defended the frontiers of Islam against Christendom for five long centuries, felt it unnecessary for the greater part of that time to display more than an infrequent flicker of interest in anything other than the military attainments of their adversaries. The general Muslim opinion of Europeans during the Middle Ages was that expressed by an 11th-century qadi (judge) in Muslim Spain, whom Lewis quotes:

[They] are more like beasts than like men. For those of them who live furthest to the north, between the last of the seven climates and the limits of the inhabited world, the excessive distance of the sun in relation to the zenith line makes the air cold and the sky cloudy. Their temperaments are therefore frigid, their humors raw, their bellies gross, their color pale, their hair long and lank. Thus they lack keenness of understanding and clarity of intelligence, and are overcome by ignorance and apathy, lack of discernment and stupidity. . . .

So much for the Scandinavians. The Germans did not fare much better. A Muslim visitor to Schleswig in the 10th century remarked of it: “The town has few good things or blessings. Their food consists chiefly of fish, which is plentiful. When children are born to any of them, he throws them into the sea to save the expense.” There was, perhaps, a shade more regard for the French, though it was limited to their prowess in warfare and, as with other European countries, to the wealth they produced. Toward European civilization as such the true believer professed only indifference. Even the borrowings in the early centuries of Islam from the legacies of Greece and Rome were limited to translations of philosophical, medical, and scientific treatises. The literature and art of classical antiquity were dismissed as irrelevant. Intercourse between the two worlds was kept up by Europeans, who journeyed to the Muslim lands in search of trade. Over the course of time permanent European merchant communities were established in most of the major towns of the Ottoman empire. As trade, diplomacy, and war made communication in one another’s languages unavoidable, it was the Europeans who undertook the task of learning Arabic, Turkish, and Persian. As a consequence, while the study of Oriental languages blossomed in European universities from the late 16th century onward, nothing remotely comparable occurred in the centers of Islamic learning.



At the root of everything, of course, lay the conflict of religions. What emerges unmistakably from the numerous, mainly Ottoman, sources quoted by Lewis is that while the Turks were prepared to tolerate Christians and Jews living under their rule, they exhibited toward Christendom itself perhaps even greater abhorrence and hostility than that which Christian Europe evinced toward. Islam. Yet, odious though every aspect of Christendom appeared in Muslim eyes, the resurgence of European power at the end of the Middle Ages could not be ignored. Europe began to press inward upon the dar al-Islam from the north, while encircling it, with the discovery of the sea route to India, from the south. But perhaps the event which dealt the severest blow to Muslim complacency was the French Revolution, which initiated the spread of a secular philosophy posing a greater threat to Islamic verities than Christendom had ever done. The fear generated in the Sublime Porte (“the Threshold of the Nest of Felicity,” as a 16th-century Turkish author mellifluously phrased it) is reflected in a splendid diatribe against the heretical ideas of the Enlightenment embodied in a proclamation issued by the Ottoman sultan to his subjects in 1798. It began, “The French nation (may God devastate their dwellings and abase their banners, for they are tyrannical infidels and dissident evildoers),” and went on to excoriate the rulers of revolutionary France for denying the validity of the Koran and the Scriptures and for filling the minds of men with depraved and ludicrous notions about equality and liberty.

Islam’s long sleep had been broken, and the awakening was to be a painful one. Yet as Lewis points out, though secularism as such was repugnant to the Muslim mind, “an ideology that was non-Christian could be considered by Muslims with a detachment which was not possible for doctrines tainted with a rival religion. In such a secular or, rather, religiously neutral ideology, Muslims might even hope to find the talisman that would give them the secrets of Western knowledge and progress without endangering their own traditions and way of life.”

The judgment is in keeping with the humane and judicious spirit which informs the whole of Bernard Lewis’s book. While he dispassionately anatomizes for us the mixture of bewilderment and contempt with which the Muslim world viewed Europe for more than a thousand years, at the same time he impels us toward a sympathetic understanding of the Muslim predicament at the close of that era, as the triumph of the infidel barbarians seemed to mock the Creator’s grand design for mankind. His book is a delight to read. He writes with grace, clarity, and wit, and flatters our comprehension by wearing his wealth of learning lightly. Would that there were more modern historians of the Middle East like him.

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