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Under Eastern Eyes

The Muslim Discovery of Europe

by Bernard Lewis
Norton, 350 pp., $19.95

What makes people of one cultural and religious tradition want to know about the systems of other societies? Or, rather, what makes them want this knowledge sufficiently to overcome the difficulties of language, distance, hostility, danger, and lack of immediate rewards in seeking it? The answer everyone would like to give is that the interest of the subject in itself is sufficiently great to reward all the necessary labor. But this answer does not seem to fit many of the known facts about the efforts of Muslims and Europeans to find out about the rival society with which they shared a common frontier of two or three thousand miles for more than a millennium. What did they want to know about each other? What did they want not to know? How far did they succeed?

In this book, Professor Lewis seeks to answer these questions from the Muslim side. He was prompted to write it when he observed that, while much had been written about the discovery of Islam by Europeans, there was no connected account of the parallel process of Muslim discovery of Europe. He has now provided one with precision and authority; his book is full of rare and exact information. No doubt, many more details can be added, but it is hard to believe that the general picture will be greatly altered by any future work. The only major gap in the book’s completeness lies in the period of the last hundred years. Effectively, the present volume ends in about 1840, in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The more recent dominance of Western technology and political ideology, with its contradictory effects on Muslim views of the West, still awaits a historian.

The book covers every side of Muslim life in its bearing on attitudes to Europe, and an extraordinarily wide range of Muslim historians, geographers, diplomats, administrators, and writers on trade and government is used to complete the picture. The only sources of information that are neglected are the writings of Western travelers, who sometimes have illuminating comments on Muslim attitudes to themselves. No doubt these are omitted because they are well known. What we are given is a remarkable collection of new information, which will be of deep interest to students of European history, and they may give some salutary shocks to politicians concerned with world affairs. Too often history misleads politicians by making them think that remedies that would have been successful in the past if applied early enough will provide the answer to present problems. The list of distinguished politicians who have fallen into this trap as a result of this knowledge of history is a long one. But the readers of this book will not join them. They will learn that there are no remedies—at best only delays and mitigations—for the uncontrollable forces that have their origins in the ingrained beliefs and habits of any society. They may also learn why liberal views of the world, the result of many centuries of gradual modification in European society, are unlikely to take root in Islamic societies, and why revolutions are more likely to succeed than reforms.

The book, as its title states, is chiefly concerned with Muslim views of Europe. But the comparable, and often contrasting, story of European views of Islam is never far from the surface. Indeed, without this continually implied and often explicit comparison, the story would be very monotonous. For over a thousand years—until the first symptoms of a great change in European-Muslim relations in the mid-eighteenth century—the main ingredients of the Muslim view of Europe were ignorance, indifference, contempt, prejudice, and misunderstanding. Many of the incidental details that supported these attitudes are lively, and some are hilarious; and a good many of the expressions of disgust and amazement are well deserved. Muslim visitors to Europe might not understand the theology, politics, customs, or moral history of the West, but they could recognize dirt, medical and judicial brutality, wanton women and smelly men when they came on them, and they could describe them with verve and accuracy.

When Europeans first came in direct contact with Muslims, they were amazed by the modesty of the women: believing, as they did, in the sexual license of the men, they had expected to find a flamboyant sexuality in the women. They were disappointed. Muslims, by contrast, on making contact with Europeans were amazed at the amount of exposure of Western women, and at the freedoms with which they were allowed by their husbands to converse with other men. The antics of Western women were a never-ending source of interest.

Still, the catalogue of these features of Western society by Muslim observers palls after a time. The European view of Islam is not perhaps more accurate, and it is certainly not more favorable, but it is more varied and it reflects a different background and different processes of thought. The views of both sides tell us more about the eyes of the beholders than about the things they saw; and it is the contrast between the beholders that makes the whole subject important.

Muslims had more intellectual and psychological obstacles to learning about European Christians than Europeans had in learning about Islam. There were various reasons for this. In the first place, Islam is essentially a political religion in the sense that it embraces the whole of society, providing it with its law, its military aims, its rules of life, its social order, all complete, human and divine, in a single Revelation. Islam sprang into existence in a single moment, prepared at once to impose itself on the world. It thought it owed nothing to other societies, and that all other societies existed on a lower level than Islam in every respect. They had no message for Islam of any value.

By conquest Islam had spread its law and doctrine throughout the world, and for Muslim believers it was likely—certain even—that the process would be continued by further conquest until final triumph was achieved. The mystery for Muslims was why the victorious advance had been halted before it had covered the whole earth. Only God could know the answer, and in God’s good time the conquest would be continued until all was won. Meanwhile, the holy war might be suspended or only intermittently prosecuted, but it could never be renounced. What was needed to bring about the final victory was not more books or more study of the outsiders, but more arms, more resolution, a more determined adhesion to the Law of Islam, and above all obedience to the will of God.

The Muslim understanding of the world outside Islam must be placed in this context. The insignificance of any contribution that the non-Islamic world could make to Islam greatly limited the scope of useful inquiry into the various natures of the outsiders. Before Islam existed, there had indeed been learned men, chiefly Greeks, who made discoveries in science and philosophy which needed to be appropriated by Islam. To carry out this task by discovering texts, and translating and commenting on them, was the earliest and most important of all Islamic intellectual efforts in relation to the outside world. When this had been completed—by the twelfth century AD at latest—there was little more that Islam could learn from outsiders. Everything worth knowing about man in society could be drawn from Islam alone.

Yet despite the insignificance of the outside world, there were some matters of human interest about their neighbors that Muslims needed to know for the purposes of trade, war, and diplomacy. The linguistic needs of trade could be supplied by jabbering foreigners; but diplomatic missions required a certain amount of knowledge of the people concerned. The large amount of apparently futile concentration on correct forms of address—that is, on formulae which would neither compromise the claims of Islam nor expose emissaries to danger or ridicule—is a reflection of this need. The draftsman who composed the following form of address to Queen Elizabeth I might congratulate himself on a job well done: Elizabeth, “Glory of the virtuous followers of Jesus, elder of the revered ladies of the Christian community, moderator of the affairs of the Nazarene sect,…Queen of the land of England, may her end be blissful [i.e., may she die a Muslim].”

These words imply a considerable knowledge of the Queen’s position, and this knowledge is discreetly manipulated to keep within the straight and narrow way between truth and falsehood, between flattery and insult. These carefully contrived formulae are an index of the importance of diplomacy at a time when England was becoming important as a source of naval supplies in an increasingly critical military situation. Europe was beginning to draw ahead in the arts of war, and the growing recognition of this fact gradually transformed Islamic relations with Europe, and created for the first time an urge to know more about Europeans and their ideas. Ottoman scholars and diplomats in the sixteenth century were remarkably quick to recognize the growing threat of European military superiority and worldwide expansion, and to suggest ways of meeting the new danger. There is evidence of considerable contact with England as a source of supply of tin for gun-casting, and of weapons and gun-powder; plans were considered for joint action against Spain; and the exploitation of divisions among Europeans was one of the aims of Ottoman diplomacy.

Professor Lewis provides many indications of Europe’s utter insignificance in Muslim eyes before this shift in the balance of power. A telling example is the scholarly classification of the nations of the world by Said ibn Ahmed, Kadi of Toledo, in AD 1068. He divided the inhabitants of the world into two classes: the nations that had made a contribution to knowledge, and those that had not. The first class included Indians, Persians, Chaldees, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Arabs, and Jews; the second class comprised all the rest. In this second class, he picked out only the Turks and Chinese as being more noble than the others. The remainder, including the inhabitants of Europe, were more like beasts than men. There are many oddities in his list, but none more striking than the complete indifference to the barbarians of the North of a deeply learned man living on the frontier of western Christendom in a town which was to be captured by the Christian barbarians within a few years. When this happened, Toledo—hitherto so inert in spreading news of Europe—became the main center for the dissemination of Arabic learning throughout Europe.

This brings us back to the central problem: why did the barbarians, who came so low in the Muslim scale of learning, do better in studying Islam than Muslims in studying Europe? The first thing to say about this is that we must not exaggerate the degree of superiority. Europeans had several of the same limitations in studying Islam as the Muslims in studying Europe. Their range of understanding was limited by practical ends, by violent prejudices, by much willful ignorance, and a strong conviction of their own superiority. But, having said this, we have to add that each of these limitations was expressed in a less debilitating form than we find in Islam. The practical ends of Europe were more extensive than those of Islam, partly because Europe needed the goods which came from Muslim countries more than Islam needed the goods of Europe, but mainly because the practical purposes of Europe extended to the conversion, or at least the refutation, of Islamic claims. It was this religious difference which mainly distinguished the efforts of the two rival societies in their study of each other.

On one point here I differ from Professor Lewis. If I understand him correctly, he thinks that Christendom and Islam had roughly similar obstacles and lack of success in understanding each other until the Renaissance, and that Europe then made a great leap forward unmatched by Islam or any other society. In his own words, “It was not until Renaissance and post-Renaissance Europe that a human society for the first time developed the sophistication, the detachment and above all the curiosity to study and appreciate the cultures of alien and even hostile societies.” As an illustration of this, and of what he calls “the boundless intellectual curiosity unleashed by the Renaissance,” he cites the case of William Bedwell (1561-1632), “the first major English Arabist,” who founded a tradition of patient, scholarly, unprejudiced, and widely ranging study of the language, literature, and history of Islam.

In making this strong contrast between medieval and Renaissance Europe, I think there is a double error: first, in underestimating the permanent features that distinguish the European attitude to Islam from the Muslim attitude to Europe; and second, in overestimating the extent of the leap forward in Europe in the sixteenth century. No doubt, Bedwell and his successors like Edward Pococke did admirable work, but all these men worked within a medieval tradition, though with better intellectual tools and wider opportunities. Their aims were predominantly practical, concerned with commerce and diplomacy, and with the task of refuting or converting Islam and adding to the armory of Christian apologetic by studying the languages of Biblical lands. There is here no boundless intellectual curiosity, simply the traditional program of practical and religious usefulness. The plan of setting up professorships in Arabic, in which Archbishop Laud, a medieval conciliarist if ever there was one, took a leading part, was a medieval aspiration going back to the thirteenth century. It had been formally recognized as a weapon of Christian argument by the Council of Vienne as early as 1312. The renewal of this enterprise in the sixteenth century is the true context for the work of Bedwell and Pococke.

The different place of religion in their practical aims chiefly distinguishes the European from the Muslim attempt to understand their neighbors. Basically the difference was that, whereas Islam despised Christendom, Christendom feared Islam. Islam had nothing to fear from Christian doctrine because it had superseded it; and it had little to fear from Christian arms because, except for the very brief period when the Crusades were successful, it had attacked Christendom with success from the seventh to the seventeenth century.

By contrast, Christendom had everything to fear. It feared the military might of Islam. But above all it feared Islam as a mysterious interruption in the divine plan of salvation offered to all mankind. What Islam was, was unclear to the Europeans. Probably either a heresy or a schism. These were familiar features of Christendom, always dangerous because frequently attractive. It was necessary therefore to study Islam in order to refute it. Hence the Koran was translated in the twelfth century. Hence, too, the study of Arabic became part of the program of medieval Christendom. Contrariwise, there was no translation of the Bible for Muslim purposes until Christian missionary societies undertook this thankless task in the early nineteenth century; and it was only the need for Muslims to study European military and naval techniques that brought the first signs of a desire to study a European language.

Professor Lewis notes reproachfully that “the Christian attitude toward Islam was far more bigoted and intolerant than that of the Muslims to Christianity.” But it should be added that the reasons for this intolerance, namely hatred of any kind of heresy or schism and the fear of Islam’s strength, are the reasons also why Europeans were more interested in the nature of Islam than Muslim in the nature of Christendom. It is easy to feel tolerant (and Muslim tolerance is purely one of feeling, not of ideology) where there is contempt without fear. The intolerance of Christendom is a measure of the intellectual and physical danger implicit in Islam. Fear braces the mind; disdain relaxes. Muslims despised neighboring societies; Europeans kept their disdain for their social inferiors.

Islam learned to fear, and also to respect, Europe in the eighteenth century. It was at this moment that Europe began to present a military threat and a secular face to the world. In Professor Lewis’s words:

Secularism as such had, of course, no special attraction for Muslims, quite the reverse; but an ideology which was non-Christian could be considered by Muslims with a detachment that 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.

Here we can observe the fundamental difference between the two societies. Europe learned to study Islam chiefly because its religion was a threat to Christianity; Islam learned to study Europe only when religion could be excluded from consideration. If we look forward another hundred and fifty years, no doubt the cause of the present Islamic reaction against Western ideas is the discovery that religion cannot be excluded from consideration in encounters with those ideas. Europe became secularized as a result of a long process of religious development, and its secularism—which was ultimately a rejection of its own religious foundation—could not be exported without attacking the religious foundations of other societies. In the words attributed to the Prophet Muhammed, which Professor Lewis quotes, “whoever imitates a people becomes one of them.” The unfolding of this theme after 1840 deserves another volume, and no one is better qualified to write it than the author of this distinguished work.

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