- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: W&N (16 Nov. 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1842121952
- ISBN-13: 978-1842121955
- Product Dimensions: 15.7 x 2.4 x 23.6 cm
- Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 179,400 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Muslim Discovery Of Europe Paperback – 16 Nov 2000
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'The book covers every side of Muslim life . . . a remarkable collection of new information, which will be of deep interest to students of European history' R.W. Southern, NEW YORK REVIEW
From the Publisher
No one writes about Muslim history with greater authority, or intelligence, or literary charm than Professor Bernard Lewis Hugh Trevor-Roper, Sunday TimesSee all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
First and foremost, Lewis is an exemplary scholar of Middle-Eastern history, a polyglot, and a far greater intellectual than Huntington. He also attracted the wrath of the late Edward Said, who, in response to Lewis's post 9-11 book "What Went Wrong?", accused him of 'rehashing and recycling tired Orientalist half (or less than half) truths'. Said's use of the term 'Orientalism' in the late 1970s, has been challenged by many critics of both left and right, as being an oversimplistic theory of intellectual history and a barrier to asking deeper questions and exploring more nuanced perspectives. This book is a brilliant account charting the inevitable separation of outlook that occurred between God fearing Christians and Muslims of the Middle Ages, and the later cultural dissonations that occured from the Reformation and on past the Enlightenment.
Said's labelling of Lewis as an 'Orientalist' (a nebulous form of academic mudslinging) lacks nuance and in my view is wholly wrong. To quote from Lewis's introduction: 'Much has been written in recent years about the discovery of Islam by Europe. In most of these discussions, however, the Muslim has appeared as the silent and passive victim.Read more ›
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Lewis explores how the "medieval iron curtain" between Christendom and Islam gradually broke down (to the extent that it did) between the Crusades and the middle of the 19th century, underscoring the Muslim world's changing views of Europe. From Islam's early days up through the Ottoman zenith in the 16th century, Islamic civilization was unquestionably more brilliant than its European counterpart. So Muslims didn't find much reason to be interested in the West. While Europe's Roman forbears might be worth a glance, the average Middle Easterner's image of a European before 1800 was the one (perhaps mythic) symbolized by the filthy Austrian soldiers who, in a 17th-century assault on Budapest (then an Ottoman city), turned an immaculate Turkish bath-house into a horse stable and then washed themselves in their animals' urine. With some justification, Muslim scholars reasoned that Europe had no important ideas and no important literature: the most noteworthy European writer of the Middle Ages, after all, was St. Thomas Aquinas, whose books obviously didn't have anything interesting to say to Muslims. Consequently, for centuries, educated Muslims thought it was a waste of time to learn about Europe. As late as the 18th century, Ottoman officialdom was still referring to Europeans -- in government documents -- with nifty little derogatory jingles like "Ingiliz dinsiz" (Englishman without religion), "Fransiz jansiz" (soulless Frenchman), and "Engurus menhus" (inauspicious Hungarian), not to mention the standard and official use of the term "infidel" (kafr). In a way, though, their ignorance is surprising only in hindsight.
By 1800, all this had changed. Napoleon's Egyptian campaign (1798) initiated a new wave of European imperialism that over the 19th century, and for the first time since the Crusades, would establish Europeans in positions of direct or indirect power in significant parts of the Middle East. Muslims saw up-close how far Europeans had left them in the lurch: militarily, scientifically, politically, and economically. Rulers recognized that "modernizing" (that is, Europeanizing) their societies was imperative if they were going to prevent foreigners from eventually taking over (some did anyway). The 20th-century implications of these changes were huge: the struggle between tradition and Westernization was (and is) one of the keynotes of modern Middle East history.
Lewis ventures far beyond wars and politics and addresses every aspect of the subject: in fact, politics figures into very little of the book directly. Chapter 3, for example, is entirely about language and translation, examining what Muslims thought and knew about European languages and literature on the eve of their "discovery" of Europe. Other chapters explore what Muslims who traveled to Europe thought about this formerly bizarre and exotic destination and the impact made on Muslims by Europeans who traveled in the Middle East. There are also sections on the economy, the reception of European culture, religion, the military, etc.
Again, Lewis' style is extremely fluid and this is a book that everybody can enjoy.
The Muslim world eventually "discovered" Europe, but it was more of a rude awakening than a discovery. This book also states early on what is clear in many history texts, but that tends to be forgotten by overly-sympathetic Western voices: Islam started as an eminently warrior religion, conquering places where Christianity had been established for centuries, like North Africa (Saint Augustine was from Hippo, which is Carthage), and the always improperly named Palestine area. The Muslim conquerors did not go sword in hand to those places to convert idolatrers, and they certainly did not go to Spain because the Visigothic kingdoms were atheist. Eminent historians, like the late Steven Runciman in "History of the Crusades" (3 volumes), and popular programs, like the BBC-A&E "Crusades," can badly serve their readers and viewers by blaming only Europeans for the Crusades, stating that these started in 1096 with the Cristian invasion of Syria, and ended in 1291 with the fall of the last Christian stronghold, Acre. Bur Professor Lewis knows better: the Muslim-Christian confrontation, with ups and downs, years of ferocity and years of coexistence, started when the Muslims broke out of the Arabian Peninsula to conquer the world in the name of Islam, taking the fight to Christianity in North Africa and the Levant and then to Europe itself, invading the Iberian Peninsula and France. They attacked Byzantium for centuries, until the newly-converted Muslim Turks overwhelmed the empire and this collapsed in 1453. After that, Europe was invaded again and it took the Europeans more than 250 years to remove the threat of Islamic conquest from their midst. Since this book deals with the Muslim attitude towards Europe, we get a better picture than the simplistic approach that, unfortunately, Runciman and the BBC program present of bad Christians, good Muslims. In this area, I highly recommend John Riley-Smith's work, as editor, of the "Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades," and Malcolm Billings' "The Cross and the Cescent: a history of the Crusades." Lewis is not interested in good or bad: he presents the Muslims through their own (meagre) documents on Europe, and for us, used to self-criticism and to be very severe critics of Western Culture's shortcomings, it is refreshing and indeed necessary to realize that prejudice is not exclusive of the West. Willful ignorance of others because those others are different was very much at home in the House of Islam.
Professor Lewis divides his book into 12 chapters, such as Contact and Impact, The Muslim View of the World, Muslim Scholarship about the West, etc. My only complaint is that many original texts are mentioned but not quoted as much as I would have wanted to. However, the Notes section makes clear that the author has reviewed all the texts that he refers to, many of which are unique manuscripts. I have written before that to read just a couple of Professor Lewis' books is to realize that he realy knows his subject: his sources go beyond traditional European scholarship to the original documents in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. What some readers might consider "bias," I see as letting the Muslims speak for themselves. It is true the the Europeans were were no more enlightened than the Muslims for a long time, but the European stirrings of the 11th and 12th centuries had no parallel in the Islamic world, and the Muslim decision to ignore the Renaissance was a sovereign and fateful one. Preofessor Lewis knows the people and the culture, and he admires what is to be admired (and as a magnificent incentive you should check "Islam, Art and Architecture," edited by Hattstein and Delius). But he does not fail the serious student, nor the serious reader, by sparing us the critical analysis of a society born in conquest, used to military victories and imperial attitudes, that sees itself --suddenly, as it happens-- left behind by those it despised for so long as weaklings and infidels. A quote from the Ottoman author Evliya Çelebi, regarding Austrians and their lack of martial qualities, could very well describe the general attitude of Muslims who should have known better about Europe, and explains in part today's anger and frustration in that region of the world, confronted with a rather dismal present but preceded by a glorious, if self-satisfied, past. The quote appears on page 155: "They [the Austrians] are just like Jews," Çelebi writes. "They have no stomach for a fight." Oh, how the world has changed!
Throughout Lewis shows the strange duality of the Islamic regimes and culture. In some ways tolerant of Christianity and Judaism (although more dismissive and contemptuous than is commonly realized), Islamic culture became incapable of making the next leap forward into a more secular, rationale society.
Here Lewis traces the perception of writers, scientists, diplomats and traders from the Ottoman empire through their letters, edicts and other writings. It is an amazing eye opener for those unfamiliar with non-western perceptions. Lewis shows a culture that is first progressive, then increasingly unable to come to grips with either the West or its science and technology. What was progressive becomes eventually, under the latter Ottomans, the definition of decay and backwardness.
This is great historical writing in some ways as important, though not as revisionist, as Eric Wolfe's "Europe and the Peoples Without a History". Highly illuminating and highly recommended.
The book has a great deal of information, primarily what was written by Muslims about Europe. The most striking feature is that Muslims' knowledge of (and apparent interest in) Europe was surprising sparse and poorly-informed up until the nineteenth century.
Professor Lewis discusses several reasons for this, including:
a) initially Islam was on the rise, with Europe being barbarous (the Dark Ages), hence strong feelings of cultural superiority;
b) Europe was Christian, which was viewed as a superceded religion, and the primary enemy of Islam, and hence offering little of interest;
c) Supremacy of theology in Islamic intellectual life discouraging "innovation", which became equated with heresy; and
d) Lack of Muslim communities in Europe, due both to Christian intolerance and Muslim desire to live in an Islamic state.
Only after the heavy Ottoman defeats of the late 18th century did the Ottomans start to shift their position and begin to acknowledge that there was a lot to learn from Europe. Even then the process was slow, hesitant (even back-tracking) and limited.
I found the book interesting, with a lot of information. However I thought it rather dry - I kept waiting for a section which brought it all together and and gave the "so what" factor. For me, the book would have been significantly improved by more discourse on what this all meant - hence only 3 stars.
It is not written chronologically, as other reviewers have commented, but this didn't bother me, personally. Prof. Lewis gives real insight into a variety of Islamic views of the west. I could not ignore that for the majority of the 1000 years covered, there was just as much intolerance and arrogance exhibited by Muslims as there was by Westerners. I was hoping to find a few more positive sketches of the historical contact between east and west.
Prof. Lewis writes with skill and an authoriatative voice, and I saw no reason to believe that his conclusions were false or misleading. Many of the numerous sources he uses are amazing as well. A great book that offers a fresh view of Western history and Westerners, as well as Muslim history. It is also difficult to not apply what is read here to the current world situation. A great book.