Book Review: The Muslim Discovery of Europe

The Muslim Discovery of Europe by Bernard Lewis is quite an interesting book, giving a view of history from the side of Muslims.

As I read this book I couldn't shake the feeling that history was already written, set into motion by events that happened long ago. On the other hand, maybe we can learn from the past as well.

The main thesis of the book is that Muslims simply didn't care about Europe. They were not interested in Europe and did not see Europeans as more than a bunch of native barbarians. This point is repeated over and over again through many examples. I was a bit disappointed, though, that Lewis didn't mention some meetings between Muslims and Europeans that I've read about elsewhere on the net, such as the connections between the Muslims and the Russ.

Reading through the book, the Muslim attitude to Europe seems quite logical and in fact is very much comparable to the attitude of the West towards Africa, or the rest of the world. Unlike the Muslim world which did not seem interested in the least in Europe, there are Westerners who learn about Africa, but most Westerners have no idea about the political systems there, the languages, the different tribes.

Lewis goes into explaining the slave trade, mostly of Turks and Slavs. Again, it fits in with European behavior after the discovery of the new world. Muslims might not be innocent on this point, but Europeans had no problem enslaving the 'other' either. Lewis mentions how the slave trade was first run by Europeans, until the Muslims conquered up to the Slavic areas and could get their slaves on their own. He also mentions the slave raids by the Barbary Pirates which he says was more of a Jihad than slave trade, though he doesn't mention that the far northern raids in England and Iceland were actually led by a Dutch Muslim convert.

Besides supplying the Muslims with slaves, the Europeans also supplied the Muslims with weapons. Despite attempts to stop the arms and technology trade, the lure of money was too much and the Europeans continued to sell arms, for the price of endangering themselves. It seems to me that we haven't learned from history on this point.

Ironically, it was Europe's intolerance and the Muslims' (comparable) openness that kicked off European exploration and prevented Muslims from understanding what was happening in Europe. Muslims didn't need to travel to Europe to meet Christians or Jews or many other foreigners. The Muslim lands were relatively safe and open for visitors, something which couldn't be said for Europe.

Following the Black Plague in the 14th century Europe insulated itself even further by instituting quarantine stations. Coming to Europe to 'explore' was simply not as easy as going out. It was easier for both Muslims and Europeans to have the situation as it was - Europeans come to visit Muslims and not the other way around. It would later give the Europeans a major advantage.

Lewis explains that Muslims assumed that others saw the world like they did, which is another lesson of history that I think most of us haven't learned yet. Since they saw everything in the prism of religion they assumed that the Christians did so as well. When addressing heads of state in Europe they stressed the leader's Christianity over their national affiliation. In fact, the Muslim leaders did not see themselves as the leaders of Morocco, the Ottoman or Persian empire, but rather as the leader of the 'Muslim lands'. When Muslims visited Europe they saw themselves as Muslims not as coming from a certain empire. It was the Europeans who put an emphasis on nationality.

The Muslims' view of Europe was colored by religion. They saw the Christians as backwards not only because they were, but because it logically followed from the fact that they were following an older unenlightened version of religion. In a way, it might be similar to the way Europeans felt the need to oppress Jews, as a living example of how God had forsaken them. Lewis also points out that Muslims used the term 'infidel' and 'House of War' almost exclusively for Christian Europeans. Everybody else was either idolaters, or did not pose much of a threat.

Muslims did not understand the different political systems in Europe and did not really care much about them. Compared with the Muslim empires, which had three languages, Europe seemed like a host of different tribes and different countries. A visiting Turk in Austria did notice the connection between Turkish and German, since they're both Indo-European languages, but there was no research into these things. Learning other languages was considered degrading, especially with the religious attachment to Arabic, and Muslims therefore put no emphasis on it. Translators were usually taken from the non-Muslim populations.

An interesting observations by Lewis is that though science flourished at first, Muslims soon lost the idea of scientific methodology. They could not understand the process of discovery and experimentation. For them, the truth was already written and it was just a matter of understanding it. Even in later ages, Muslim historians wrote about the history of early Christianity as if that's all there was to it, not bothering to follow up on the developments since. Lewis compares it to the process of religious thought, where the 'gates of ijtihad', ie independent thinking, were closed.

Lewis gives it a historical explanation. Europeans were lucky and had three major events happen at the same time: the discovery of the New World, the beginning of the Renaissance, and the stirrings of Reformation. By the Muslims on the other hand, the discovery of new worlds came several centuries before their own renaissance, and it was not accompanied by a religious reformation.

To me it seems like there was almost a continuity. Europeans picked up while the Muslims were nearing the end of their Golden Age. Europeans started translating manuscripts already in the 12th century, leading up to the age of Enlightenment.

Christianity and Islam are both missionary religions, with a zeal to prove that they are the one and true religion. It seems to me that the difference between the two is that Christianity succeeded in its goal: Christians have ruled over most of the world and missionaries had been sent out everywhere. It is therefore hard to talk about what would have happened if, or to point out that Christians today are not as missionary as they once were. Of course, they're either secular or know that Christianity had reached everywhere. I have met several 'regular' Christians who have told me quite earnestly that one day I will believe in Jesus, and I am therefore not sure at all that the Christian missionary zeal had died down.

Thanks again to those of my readers who have helped me buy books through the Amazon Gift Certificate service. I truly appreciate your gift and support.

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