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The Truth About Muslims

1.

Sometime in the early 1140s a scholar from northern Italy made an arduous crossing of the Alps and the Pyrenees and eventually arrived in the newly reconquered Spanish town of Toledo. There Gerard of Cremona was given the position of canon at the cathedral, formerly the Friday Mosque, which had recently been seized from the town’s Muslims.

Before the rise of Islam, Toledo had been the capital city of Visigothic Spain, and its capture by Alfonso VI of Castile was an important moment in the Christian reconquista of the land known to Islam as al-Andalus. Many of the Muslims of the city had, however, chosen to stay on under Castilian rule, and among them was a scholar named Ghalib the Mozarab. It is not known how Gerard and Ghalib met and became friends, but soon after Gerard’s arrival the two began to cooperate on a series of translations from Toledo’s Arabic library, which had survived the looting of the conquering Christians.

As Richard Fletcher points out in The Cross and the Crescent: Christianity and Islam from Muhammad to the Reformation, Gerard and Ghalib’s mode of translation was not one that would be regarded as ideal by modern scholars. Ghalib rendered the classical Arabic of the texts into Castilian Spanish, which Gerard then translated into Latin. Since many of the texts were Greek classics that had themselves arrived in Arabic via Syriac, there was much room for error. But the system seems to have worked. In the course of the next half-century, Ghalib and Gerard translated no fewer than eighty-eight Arabic works of astronomy, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, and logic, branches of learning that underpinned the great revival of scholarship in Europe sometimes referred to as the Twelfth-Century Renaissance.

Other translations from the Arabic during this period filled European libraries with a richness of learning impossible even to imagine a century before: they included editions of Aristotle, Euclid, Plato, and Ptolemy, commentaries by Avicenna (Ibn Sina), and astrological texts by al-Khwarizmi, encyclopedias of astronomy, illustrated accounts of chess, and guides to precious stones and their medicinal qualities.

It was a crucial but sometimes forgotten moment in the development of Western civilization: the revival of medieval European learning by a wholesale transfusion of scholarship from the Islamic world. It was probably through Islamic Spain that such basic facets of Western civilization as paper, ideas of courtly love, algebra, and the abacus passed into Europe. Meanwhile the pointed arch and Greco-Arab (or Unani, from the Arabic word for Greek/Ionian) medicine arrived in Christendom by way of Salerno and Sicily, where the Norman king Roger II—known as the “Baptized Sultan”—was commissioning the Tunisian scholar al-Idrisi to produce an encyclopedic work of geography.

Some scholars go further. Professor George Makdisi of Harvard has argued convincingly for a major Islamic contribution to the emergence of the first universities in the medieval West, showing how terms such as having “fellows” holding a “chair,” or students “reading” a subject and obtaining “degrees,” as well as practices such as inaugural lectures and academic robes, can all be traced back to Islamic concepts and practices. Indeed the idea of a university in the modern sense—a place of learning where students congregate to study a wide variety of subjects under a number of teachers—is generally regarded as an Arab innovation developed at the al-Azhar university in Cairo. As Makdisi has demonstrated, it was in cities bordering the Islamic world—Salerno, Naples, Bologna, Montpellier, and Paris—that first developed universities in Christendom, the idea spreading northward from there.1

The tortuous and complex relationship of Western Christendom and the world of Islam has provoked a wide variety of responses from historians. Some, such as the great medievalist Sir Steven Runciman, take the view (as he wrote at the end of his magisterial three-volume history of the Crusades) that “our civilization has grown” out of “the long sequence of interaction and fusion between Orient and Occident.”2 Runciman believed that the Crusades should be understood less as an attempt to reconquer the Christian heartlands lost to Islam than as the last of the barbarian invasions. The real heirs of Roman civilization were not the chain-mailed knights of the rural West, but the sophisticated Byzantines of Constantinople and the cultivated Arab caliphate of Damascus, both of whom had preserved the Hellenized urban civilization of the antique Mediterranean long after it was destroyed in Europe.

Others have seen relations between Islam and Christianity as being basically adversarial, a long-drawn-out conflict between the two rival civilizations of East and West. As Gibbon famously observed of the Frankish victory at the Battle of Tours in 732 AD, which halted the Arab advance into Europe,

A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the Rock of Gibraltar to the banks of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland: the Rhine is not more impassable than the Nile or the Euphrates, and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.3

Of the books under review, Richard Fletcher’s The Cross and the Crescent broadly belongs to Runciman’s camp, and emphasizes the fact that Muslim– Christian relations, while plagued with ignorance, mutual misunderstandings, and long periods of outright aggression, have never just been a story of conflict. Instead he shows how medieval Western civilization was profoundly cross-fertilized by the learning and literature of Islam.

Bernard Lewis, by contrast, sees the relationship of Islam and Christianity in more confrontational terms. His latest work, From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, is a diverse collection of essays written over more than half a century. Underlying most of them, however, is the assumption that there are two fixed and opposed forces at work in the history of the Mediterranean world: on one hand Western civilization, which he envisages as a Judeo-Christian block; and on the other hand, quite distinct, an often hostile Islamic world hellbent on the conquest and conversion of the West. As he writes in one essay, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,”

The struggle between these rival systems has now lasted for some fourteen centuries. It began with the advent of Islam, in the seventh century, and has continued virtually to the present day. It has consisted of a long series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests.

It was this essay that contained the phrase “the clash of civilizations,” later borrowed by Samuel Huntington for his controversial Foreign Affairs article and book.4

Lewis’s trenchant views have made him a number of enemies, notably the late Edward Said, who wrote in Orientalism that Lewis’s work “purports to be liberal objective scholarship but is in reality very close to being propaganda against his subject.”5 In the aftermath of the Islamist attacks on America, Lewis’s reputation has, however, undergone something of a revival. Not only have two of his books—What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam—been major US best sellers, Lewis’s ideas have largely formed the intellectual foundations for the neoconservative view of the Muslim world. Lewis has addressed the White House, and Dick Cheney and Richard Perle have both been named as disciples.

A series of prominent polemical pieces in The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, reprinted in this collection, gives an idea of the sort of advice Lewis would have offered his fans in the White House. For Lewis used the attack on the World Trade Center to encourage the US to attack Saddam Hussein, implicitly making a link between the al-Qaeda operation and the secular Iraqi Baathist regime, while assuring the administration that they would be feted by the populace who “look to us for help and liberation” and thanked by other Muslim governments whose secret “dearest wish” was an American invasion to remove and replace Saddam.

Lewis has had such a profound influence that according to the The Wall Street Journal, “the Lewis doctrine, in effect, had become US policy.” If that policy has now been shown to be fundamentally flawed and based on a set of wholly erroneous assumptions, it follows that for all his scholarship, Lewis’s understanding of the subtleties of the contemporary Islamic world is, in some respects at least, dangerously defective.

2.

Richard Fletcher is a historian of early medieval Europe. He is particularly interested in relations between Christians and Muslims in Moorish Spain, about which he has written two books, one of which, The Quest for El Cid, won both the Los Angeles Times History Prize and Britain’s Wolfson Prize. The Cross and the Crescent is, if anything, even better than his Cid book: a work of judicious compression and effortless erudition. Beautifully written, often witty, and eminently readable, it is as good an introduction as I have read to the history of medieval Islam and its relations with the Christian world.

Throughout, Fletcher highlights points of contact between the two worlds. He emphasizes how the Prophet Muhammad did not think he was “founding a new religion,” so much as bringing “the fullness of divine revelation, partially granted to earlier prophets such as Abraham, Moses or Jesus, to the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula.” After all, Islam accepts much of the Old and New Testaments and obeys the Mosaic laws about circumcision and ablutions, while the Koran calls Christians the “nearest in love” to Muslims, whom it instructs in Surah 29 to

dispute not with the People of the Book [that is, Jews and Christians] save in the most courteous manner…and say, “We believe in what has been sent down to us and what has been sent down to you; our God and your God is one, and to him we have surrendered.”

Fletcher also stresses the degree to which the Muslim armies were welcomed as liberators by the Syriac and Coptic Christians, who had suffered discrimination under the strictly Orthodox Byzantines:

To the persecuted Monophysite Christians of Syria and Egypt, Muslims could be presented as deliverers. The same could be said of the persecuted Jews…. Released from the bondage of Constantinopolitan persecution they flourished as never before, generating in the process a rich spiritual literature in hymns, prayers, sermons and devotional work.

Recent excavations by the Jerusalem-based archaeologist Michele Piccirillo have dramatically underlined this point. They have shown that the conquest of Byzantine Palestine and Transjordan by the Arabs resulted in an almost unparalleled burst of church-building and the construction of some remarkable Hellenistic mosaics, implying that under the rule of the Umayyad caliphs of Damascus religious practice was freer and the economy flourishing.6

Early Byzantine writers, including the most subtle theologian of the early church, Saint John Damascene, assumed that Islam was merely a heterodox form of Christianity. This perception is particularly fascinating since Saint John had grown up in the Umayyad court of Damascus—the hub of the young Islamic world—where his father was chancellor, and he was an intimate friend of the future Caliph al-Yazid. In his old age, John took the habit at the desert monastery of Mar Saba, where he began work on his great masterpiece, a refutation of heresies entitled The Fount of Knowledge. The book contains a precise critique of Islam, the first written by a Christian, which John regarded as closely related to the heterodox Christian doctrine of Nestorianism. This was a kinship that both the Muslims and the Nestorians were aware of. In 649 a Nestorian bishop wrote: “These Arabs fight not against our Christian religion; nay, rather they defend our faith, they revere our priests and saints, and they make gifts to our churches.”7

Throughout the medieval period, Christians and Muslims continued to meet as much in the business of trade and scholarship as they did on the battlefield. The tolerant and pluralistic civilization of Muslim al-Andalus allowed a particularly fruitful interaction. A revealing moment highlighted by Fletcher was when, in 949, a Byzantine embassy presented the court of Cordoba with the works of the Greek physician Dioscorides:

There were no scholars in Spain who knew Greek, so an appeal was sent back to Constantinople in answer to which a learned Greek monk named Nicholas was sent to Spain in 951. A Muslim scholar from Sicily with a knowledge of Greek was also found. Together these two expounded the text to a group of Spanish scholars. This group was a most interesting one. It included native Andalusian Islamic scholars such as Ibn Juljul, who later composed a commentary on Dioscorides; a distinguished Jewish physician and courtier, Hasday ibn Shaprut; and a Mozarabic bishop Recemund of Elvira [who had been sent as the Caliph’s ambassador to the German Emperor Otto I], who was himself the author of the so-called Calendar of Córdoba, a work containing much agronomical and botanical information. It was a truly international and interdenominational gathering of scholars.
Throughout the Crusades, the Venetians and other Italian trading cities kept up a profitable trade with their Muslim counterparts, resulting in a great many Arabic words surviving in Venetian dialect and a profound Islamic influence on Venetian architecture.8 Even Christian clerics who cohabited with Muslims in the Crusader kingdoms came to realize that as much bound them together as separated them. As William of Tripoli reported from Acre in 1272: “Though their beliefs are wrapped up in many lies and decorated with fictions, yet it now manifestly appears that they are near to the Christian faith and not far from the path of salvation.” At the same time the Muslim traveler Ibn Jubayr noted that despite the military struggles for control of Palestine, “yet Muslims and Christian travellers will come and go between them without interference.”

There was of course no shortage of travelers on both sides who could see no good in the infidels among whom they were obliged to mingle, and deep tensions often existed between Muslim rulers and the diverse religious communities living under their capricious thumb. By modern standards Christians and Jews under Muslim rule—the dhimmi—were treated as second-class citizens. But there was at least a kind of pluralist equilibrium (what Spanish historians have called convivencia, or “living together”) which had no parallel in Christendom and which in Spain was lost soon after the completion of the Christian reconquista. On taking Grenada on January 2, 1492, the Catholic kings expelled the Moors and Jews, and let loose the Inquisition on those—the New Christians—who had converted. There was a similar pattern in Sicily. After a fruitful period of tolerant coexistence under the Norman kings, the Muslims were later given a blunt choice of transportation or conversion.

3.

Bernard Lewis’s collection of fifty-one essays, From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, can be read as an account of the end of an affair: Lewis’s growing irritation with a culture and a people that once thrilled and fascinated him. The book’s contents range from erudite lectures and specialist scholarly essays to light belles-lettres and some stridently polemical journalism. Over the years, however, one can see Lewis’s enthusiasm for matters Muslim slowly but steadily giving way, from the late 1950s onward, to an increasingly negative, disillusioned, and occasionally contemptuous tone. From Babel to Dragomans certainly highlights the complexity of Lewis’s strange love-hate relationship with the Islamic world he has studied since 1933.

At his best, Lewis can be witty, playful, and polymathically erudite. The title piece is a short history of interpreters and translation from the Book of Genesis to the United Nations, stopping off en route in the company of Pliny, Plutarch, “Bertha the daughter of Lothar, queen of Franja,” various Ottoman sultans, Ibsen, Hans Christian Andersen, and Ismail Kadare. A wonderful piece on “Middle East Feasts,” published in these pages, gives him full opportunity to show off his astonishing linguistic range and we learn the reason why, for example, the American fowl we call a turkey is known as hindi (Indian) in Turkish and in Arabic as either dik habashi (the Ethiopian bird) or dik rumi (the bird from Rum, i.e., Byzantium): “All these words simply mean something strange and exotic from a far and unknown place.”

Compared to the sophistication of such pieces, Lewis’s recent newspaper polemics read with much less subtlety, as he trenchantly argues for invasions and the toppling of unappealing regimes, and implies that the only languages “they” understand is brute force. The Muslim world, he generalizes at several points, does not respect weakness and believes “that the Americans have gone soft.” Across the Islamic world, Lewis argues, people are praying for the US to liberate them from their tyrannical governments: “One is often told that if we succeed in overthrowing the regimes of what President Bush has rightly called the ‘Axis of Evil,’ the scenes of rejoicing in their cities would even exceed those that followed the liberation of Kabul.” It is here that Said’s charge of Lewis acting as a propagandist against his subject rings most true.

In several places Lewis argues that Islamic hostility to America has less to do with American foreign policy in the Muslim world, notably American support for Israel, than a generalized Islamic “envy” and “rage” directed against its ancient cultural rival. This he claims derives from “a feeling of humiliation—a growing awareness, among the heirs of an old, proud, and long dominant civilization, of having been overtaken, overborne, and overwhelmed by those whom they regarded as their inferiors.”

The idea that the Islamic world has been humiliated by a West it once despised and ignored, and that it has never come to terms with this reversal, is a thesis that links Lewis’s historical work and his journalism, and has come to form his central theme. For a thousand years, argues Lewis, Islam was technologically superior to Christendom and dominated its Christian neighbors; but since the failure of the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683, the Muslim world has been in retreat. Militarily, economically, and scientifically it was soon eclipsed by its Christian rivals. Failure led first to a profound humiliation, then an aggressive hatred of the West:

This is no less than a clash of civilizations—the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.

It is a thesis that Lewis first formed in his Muslim Discovery of Europe (1982) and developed with a more contemporary spin in The Crisis of Islam and What Went Wrong? (2002). The idea reappears in various guises in no fewer than five essays in From Babel to Dragomans.9

Lewis believes that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in particular there was a crucial and fatal failure of curiosity about development in Europe. In the conclusion to The Muslim Discovery of Europe, Lewis contrasts the situation in Britain and Ottoman Turkey during this period:

The first chair of Arabic in England was founded by Sir Thomas Adams at Cambridge University in 1633. There, and in similar centers in other west European countries, a great effort of creative scholarship was devoted to the ancient and medieval languages, literatures, and cultures of the region…. All this is in striking contrast to the almost total lack of inter-est displayed by Middle East-erners in the languages, cultures, and religions of Europe…. The record…shows that, until the latter part of the eighteenth century, [the information compiled by the Ottoman state about Europe] was usually superficial, often inaccurate, and almost always out of date.

Lewis mentions a few exceptions to this conclusion and he adds that there were some changes in the eighteenth century, such as the adoption of European-style diplomacy and military techniques. But he argues that it was only in the early nineteenth century that there was substantial change in Muslim attitudes. In an essay entitled “On Occidentalism and Orientalism” Lewis writes:

By the beginning of the 19th century, Muslims, first in Turkey and then elsewhere, were becoming aware of the changed balance, not only of power but also of knowledge, between Christendom and Islam, and, for the first time, thought it worth the effort to learn European languages…. It is not until well into the 19th century that we find any attempt in any of the languages of the Middle East to produce grammars or dictionaries which would enable speakers of those languages to learn a Western language. And when it did happen, it was due largely to the initiative of those two detested intruders, the imperialist and the missionary. This is surely a striking contrast [to the situation in Europe] and it has prompted many to ask the question: why were the Muslims so uninterested?

By then it was too late: during the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the colonial West imposed itself by force on Muslim countries from the Middle East to Indonesia, “a new era in which the Muslim discovery of Europe was forced, massive, and, for the most part, painful.”10

Lewis emphasizes that until the nineteenth century there was little question of Muslims going to study in Europe. As he writes in the essay “Europe and Islam”: “The question of travel for study did not arise, since clearly there was nothing to be learnt from the benighted infidels of the outer wilderness.” Again and again, Lewis returns to his idea that the awareness of Muslims that they belonged “to the most advanced and enlightened civilization in the world” led to the lack of a spirit of inquiry that might otherwise have propelled them to explore the non-Muslim world:

Few Muslims travelled voluntarily to the lands of the infidels. Even the involuntary travellers, the many captives taken in the endless wars by land and sea, had nothing to say after their ransom and return, and perhaps no one to listen…. A few notes and fragments…constitute almost the whole of the Muslim travel literature in Europe….

Such a view was tenable when there was only vague awareness of what Islamic libraries actually contained, but discoveries over the last thirty years have shown that this apparent lacuna was more the result of lack of archival research on the part of Lewis and other scholars than any failing by Muslim writers. Lewis’s findings, while always well argued, now appear somewhat dated. It is true that the Muslim world fell behind the West, and that (as Fletcher nicely puts it) the “cultural suppleness [and] adaptability” shown by the early Muslim states that absorbed the learning of Byzantium and ancient Persia “seemed to run out in later epochs”; but it is not true that the reason for this was a lofty disdain or a generalized hatred for the West, or that Muslims failed to take an intense and often enthusiastic interest in developments there.

Perhaps the best counterblast to this central strand of Lewis’s thought are three remarkable books by Nabil Matar, a Christian Palestinian scholar based at the Florida Institute of Technology who has spent the last three decades digging away in archives across the Islamic world.

The first two, Islam in Britain, 1558–1685 (1998) and Turk, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery (1999), show the degree to which people from the Islamic and Christian world mixed and intermingled during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while the most recent, In the Lands of the Christians: Arabic Travel Writing in the Seventeenth Century (2003), directly counters Lewis’s idea that Muslim interest in the West really began in earnest in the nineteenth century.11 Here a succession of previously unknown seventeenth-century travel narratives unfold in English translation, with Arab writer after writer describing his intense interest in and excitement with Western science, literature, music, politics, and even opera. As Matar emphasizes in his introduction:

The writings in this volume reveal [that] travelers, envoys, ambassadors, traders, and clerics were eager to ask questions about bilad al-nasara (“Lands of the Christians”] and to record their answers—and then turn their impressions into documents. They all wrote with precision and perspicacity, producing the most detailed and empirically based information about the way in which non-Europeans viewed Europeans in the early modern period. No other non-Christian people—neither the American Indians nor the sub-Saharan Africans nor the Asiatics—left behind as extensive a description of the Europeans and of the bilad al-nasara, both in the European as well as the American continents, as did the Arabic writers.

Recent research in Indian Muslim and Iranian archives has revealed a similarly inquisitive fascination with the developments in the West in the early modern period.12

4.

Matar’s work is full of surprises for anyone who believes that Christian– Muslim relations have always been confrontational. In Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery, we learn for example that in 1603, Ahmad al-Mansur, the King of Morocco, was making a proposal to his English ally, Queen Elizabeth I. The idea was a simple one: that England was to help the Moors colonize America.

The King proposed that Moroccan and English troops, using English ships, should together attack the Spanish colonies in America, expel their hated Spanish enemies, and then “possesse” the land and keep it “under our [joint] dominion for ever.” There was a catch, however. Might it not be more sensible, suggested the King, that most of the future colonists should be Moroccan rather than English?

Those of your countrie doe not fynde themselfes fitt to endure the extremetie of heat there…, where our men endure it very well by reason that heat hurtes them not.

After due consideration, the Moroccan offer was not taken up by Her Majesty.

Such a proposal might seem extraordinary today, but at the time it clearly raised few eyebrows. After all, as Matar points out, the English were close allies of both the Moroccans and their overlords, the Ottomans—indeed the Pope regarded Elizabeth as “a confederate with the Turks.” The English might have their reservations about Islam, but these were nothing compared to their hatred and fear of “Popery.”13 As well as treaties of trade and friendship this alliance led to several joint expeditions, such as an Anglo-Moroccan attack on Cadiz in 1596. It also led to a great movement of people between the two worlds. Elizabethan London had a burgeoning Muslim community, which encompassed a large party of Turkish ex-prisoners, some Moorish craftsmen, a number of wealthy Turkish merchants, and a “Moorish solicitor,” as well as “Albion Blackamore,” the Turkish “Rope-daunser.”

If there was a small but confident Muslim community in London, then larger numbers of Englishmen could be found living across the Ottoman Empire, as Matar shows in Islam in Britain, 1558–1685. British travelers regularly brought back tales of their compatriots who had “crossed over” and were now prospering in Ottoman service: one of the most powerful Ottoman eunuchs during the sixteenth century, Hasan Aga, was the former Samson Rowlie from Great Yarmouth, while in Algeria the “Moorish Kings Executioner” turned out to be a former butcher from Exeter called “Absalom” (Abd-es-Salaam).14 When Charles II sent Captain Hamilton to ransom some Englishmen enslaved on the Barbary Coast, his mission was unsuccessful because they all refused to return: the men had all converted to Islam and were now “partaking of the prosperous Successe of the Turks,” living in a style to which they could not possibly have aspired back home. The frustrated Hamilton was forced to return empty-handed: “They are tempted to forsake their God for the love of Turkish women,” he wrote in his report. “Such ladies are,” he added, “generally very beautiful.”

There is a serious point underlying such anecdotes, for they show that throughout history, Muslims and Christians have traded, studied, negotiated, and loved across the porous frontiers of religious differences. Probe relations between the two civilizations at any period of history, and you find that the neat civilizational blocks imagined by writers such as Bernard Lewis or Samuel Huntington soon dissolve. It is true that just as there have been some strands of Christian thinking that have always been deeply hostile to Islam, so within Islam there have been schools of thought that have always harbored a deep hostility toward Christians, Jews, and other non-Islamic religions and civilizations, notably the Wahhabi and Salafi schools dominant in modern Saudi Arabia. Until this century, however, the Wahhabis were a theological movement of only localized significance and were widely regarded by most Muslims as an alien sect bordering on infidelity—kufr. It is the oil wealth of modern Saudi Arabia that has allowed the Wahhabis to spread their narrow-minded and intolerant brand of Islam, notably by the funding of extremist Wahhabi, Salafi, and Deobandi madrasas across the Islamic world since the mid-1970s, with the disastrous results we see today.

What is most interesting about the early modern cases described by Matar, is how the tolerant and pluralistic brand of Islam dominant at the time overpowered foreigners as often by its power of attraction as by the sword. Indeed the English ambassador Sir Thomas Shirley pointed out that the more time Englishmen spent in the East, the closer they moved toward adopting the manners of the Muslims: “conuersation with infidelles doeth mutch corrupte,” he wrote. “Many wylde youthes of all nationes …in euerye 3 yeere that they staye in Turkye they loose one article of theyre faythe.” In 1606 even the British consul in Egypt, Benjamin Bishop, converted and promptly disappeared from the records. It was a similar situation in India where up until the mid-nineteenth century substantial numbers of Britons were taking on aspects of Mughal culture, marrying Mughal women, and converting to Islam.15

In one matter, however, Matar demonstrates something that will surprise no one: that English cooking, then as now, left much to be desired. For while English society was thrilled to taste Turkish cooking when the Ottoman ambassador presided over a feast à la Turkeska at his residence, the Moors proved rather less impressed by English fare. This emerges from the story of one unfortunate English captive who was captured in a sea battle and taken to Algiers, where he was put to work as a cook. This proved a mistake for everyone involved. Unused to the exotic ingredients of the region, the Englishman found himself producing such “mad sauces, and such strange Ragoux that every one took me for a Cook of the Antipodes.” Worse was the reaction of his master. He declared that the food “hath the most loathsom taste,” and ordered that the cook should be given “ten Bastonadoes” and returned to the slavemarket. As far as the King was concerned, the English, it seems, made better galley slaves than gourmets.

  1. 1

    George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh University Press, 1981) and The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West (Edinburgh University Press, 1990). See also Hugh Goddard, A History of Christian-Muslim Relations (Edinburgh University Press, 2000).

  2. 2

    Sir Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, Volume 3: The Kingdom of Acre (Cambridge University Press, 1955), p. 480.

  3. 3

    Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, edited by J.B. Bury (Wildside, 2004), Vol. 6, Chapter 52:16.

  4. 4

    Lewis in fact first coined the phrase in an article about Suez published in 1957, and has reused it intermittently ever since.

  5. 5

    Edward Said, Orientalism (Pantheon, 1978), p. 316. These pages played host to a celebrated exchange between Lewis and Said in 1982.

  6. 6

    See Michele Piccirillo, “The Christians in Palestine During a Time of Transition: 7th–9th Centuries,” in The Christian Heritage in the Holy Land, edited by Anthony O’Mahony (Scorpion Cavendish, 1995). See also Piccirillo’s The Mosaics of Jordan (Amman: American Center of Oriental Research, 1993), which illustrates some of the remarkable “Byzantine” floor mosaics he excavated. Those constructed during the Umayyad period show, surprisingly, such Hellenistic subjects as satyrs with flutes leading Christianized Bacchic processions while angelic cupids swoop above orange trees. Similar tendencies can be found in the mosaics of the Umayyad winter palace in Jericho built by Caliph Hisham el Malik. There is an interview with Piccirillo in my book From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East (Holt, 1997).

  7. 7

    Margaret Smith, Studies in Early Mysticism in the Near and Middle East (Oneworld, 1995), p. 120.

  8. 8

    The Islamic influence on Venice has recently received magnificent treatment from the Cambridge art historian Deborah Howard in her book Venice and the East (Yale University Press, 2000), reviewed in these pages by Hugh Honour, The New York Review, November 7, 2002. As well as showing the profound Islamic influence on buildings such as the Doges’ palace and the Palazzo Ducale, she also describes Arab influence on Venetian painting, town planning, domestic architecture, jewelry, and speech.

  9. 9

    See the essays “Europe and Islam” (for example, pp. 125–126): “Ottoman awareness of Christian Europe was …still very limited…. Of the intellectual life of Europe, virtually nothing was known…. The failure to take Vienna in 1683…marked a major turning point…”; “Islam and the West” (for example, p. 210): “While European travellers to the East…had already produced a considerable literature, there was nothing comparable on the Muslim side”; “The Roots of Muslim Rage” (for example, p. 328): “a feeling of humiliation—a growing awareness…of having been overtaken”; “Targeted by a History of Hatred” (for example, p. 375): “For many centuries Islam was the greatest civilization on Earth…. And then everything changed…”; and “On Occidentalism and Orientalism” (for example, pp. 433–434).

  10. 10

    Lewis, The Muslim Discovery of Europe (Norton, 1982), p. 12.

  11. 11

    In the essay “Europe and Islam,” Lewis dates “the first influential Arab account of a European country” to the years following 1831 (From Babel to Dragomans, p. 128).

  12. 12

    For early modern Indian Muslim interest in and knowledge of the West, see Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s fascinating “Connected Histories: Notes Towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 31, No. 3 (July 1997), pp. 735–762. Also good is Gulfishan Khan, Indian Muslim Perceptions of the West During the Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 1998). Michael Fisher has edited an edition of Dean Mahomet’s eighteenth-century account of his journey from India to Europe which, remarkably, he wrote in English. Fisher is currently working on publishing for the first time the voluminous corpus of Mughal travel accounts. For Iran see Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, “Modernity Heterotopia and Homeless Texts,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, Vol. 18, No. 2 (1998), and his Refashioning Iran: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and Historiography (Palgrave, 2001). For recent work on intimate Ottoman relations with Europe, see Daniel Goffman, Britons in the Ottoman Empire 1642–1660 (University of Washington Press, 1998) and Philip Mansel, Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, 1453– 1924 (St. Martin’s, 1996).

  13. 13

    Rivalry among Christians was always a powerful factor leading to alliances and arrangements between Muslims and Christian states. Just before the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the Orthodox monks refused to agree to submit to the papacy in return for military aid against the Ottomans. As the Byzantine dignitary Lucas Notaras famously observed: “It is better to see in the city the power of the Turkish turban than that of the Latin tiara.”

  14. 14

    For English captives in North Africa, see also Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600– 1850 (Pantheon, 2003) and Robert C. Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500–1800 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

  15. 15

    This is explored in depth in my White Mughals (Viking, 2003).

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