The Muslim Discovery of Europe
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.