Book Review: The Muslim Discovery of Europe (1982) by Bernard Lewis

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on May 7, 2015


With the triumph of relativism and the current economic woes of the West, the sense that Western civilization is unique and in some respects—to use an old-fashioned word—better than the alternatives, and worth defending and exporting, is waning. But Bernard Lewis’ The Muslim Discovery of Europe suggests a longer view in which Europe, while containing all the faults of previous civilizations, has been one of the few to begin the process of correcting those faults, and has corrected many more than any other civilization.

One feature of European civilization that stands out as unique is curiosity.

After the advent of Islam in the early seventh century, its armies conquered the Christian Middle East and Christian North Africa, held parts of southern France even after the famous battle of Tours/Poitiers up to the mid-eighth century, Sicily and large parts of southern Italy until the late eleventh century, and much of Iberia until 1492, and even when that advance in the west was stopped, a new advance had already begun in the east through Anatolia with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Christendom managed to reverse some Islamic conquests in the fifteenth century, for example expelling the Tatars from Russia, but the Ottoman Caliphate continued its march into Europe, twice besieging Vienna, until Sobieski arrived on Sept. 11, 1683, to break the second siege, after which the long retreat and decline of the Ottoman Empire began.

In all of that time, Muslims showed almost no interest in their infidel subjects, neither their languages nor history, nor even any interest in the Christian world as a competitor. As Lewis points out, however, to ask about Muslim disinterest is to ask the wrong question: “the Muslims … were being normal”. For most civilizations there is concern only with their own world and little or none for the barbarians beyond their borders. This sense was especially acute and noticeable in Islam. For a long time Islam had the much richer historiography, because for Muslims history is the working out of god’s plan for mankind. But because Islam’s ultimate triumph had been preordained by god, there was no point in learning the fine differences between Europe’s barbarous hordes, who would soon either submit to Muslim rule or be destroyed.

Europe’s unusual curiosity has evoked not just incomprehension but suspicion. Edward Said recycled the term “orientalist” as an epithet for those Westerners who display an interest in “the Orient,” who are said to be the enablers of colonialism and exploitation. But it is difficult to tell where dishonesty ended and ignorance began in Said’s thesis. For example: French universities began teaching Oriental languages, principally Arabic, in the early sixteenth century; France’s first imperial expedition into an Arab country was at the end of the eighteenth century—two-and-a-half centuries later. Either the orientalists were extremely prescient or the imperialists extremely laggard. (Lewis mentions putting this case to a postmodernist, who congratulated him on having “discerned … the deeper currents of the historic process”. As Lewis says, “There are some kinds of nonsense that are beyond parody”.)

One of the defining themes of the Islamic world that Lewis elucidates is that—from political tolerance and economic dynamism to warfare, science, medicine, and art—the Islamic world was initially superior to the West, but refused to adapt, so gradually fell behind. The sense of stasis and stagnation in the Ottoman Empire, the last and greatest of the Muslim Empires, is inescapable.

One example Lewis gives is medicine. A Twelfth century Muslim physician attended the residence of a Crusader Baron in one of the Christian principalities in what is now Syria to treat a man with an abscess and a woman with a mental disorder. The physician made a poultice for the man and altered the diet and living conditions of the woman, significantly helping both.

Then a Frankish physician came to them and said to them: “This man knows nothing about how to treat them!” Then he said to the knight: “Which do you prefer, to live with one leg or to die with two?” and the knight said: “To live with one.” Then the physician said: “Bring me a strong knight and a sharp axe,” and they brought them. … [H]e put the sick man’s leg on a wooden block and said to the knight: “Strike his leg with the axe and cut it off with one blow!” Then … he struck one blow, but the leg was not severed; then he struck a second blow, and the marrow of the leg spurted out, and the man died at once.

The physician then turned to the woman, and said: “This woman has a devil in her head who has fallen in love with her. Shave her hair off.” So they shaved her head, and she began once again to eat their usual diet, with garlic and mustard and such like. Her disorder got worse, and he said: “The devil has entered her head.” Then he took a razor, incised a cross on her head and pulled off the skin in the middle until the bone of the skull appeared; this he rubbed with salt, and the woman died forthwith.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, however, Europe pulled ahead of the Islamic world in the realm of medical science. The Jews driven from Europe in the wake of the Reconquista and some Christian renegades brought some additional details to the Ottoman realm—in the mid-seventeenth century the Ottomans were especially pleased with advice on how to treat Firengi, the Frankish disease (syphilis)—but right up until the 1830s the Ottomans relied on the medicine of Galen (a second-century Greek physician) and Avicenna (an eleventh-century Persian polymath). There was no attempt to keep up with medical advances—no knowledge even that they were occurring—and medical work in the Ottoman Empire consisted of compilations, adaptations, and interpretations of the corpus of classical Islamic work.

Muslim belief holds that while the Qur’an is the final and perfect word of god, in the early days of Islam there was a rule, ijtihad, independent judgment, by which some answers had to be winnowed out by scholars, theologians, and jurists to resolve questions of theology and the Holy Law that were not immediately evident. A large body of theology and jurisprudence was built up, but the process petered-out: eventually all the questions are answered, or can be answered by an interpretation of what already exists. In the tradition, “the gate of ijtihad was closed,” and further exercise of independent thought was forbidden: “All the answers were already there, and all that was needed was to follow and obey.” Lewis draws a parallel with the advance of Islamic science: after an early period of innovation and discovery, the gate of ijtihad closed and science became a matter of compilation and repetition.

The whole framing of the question of epistemology was different between Christendom and Islamdom. The West came to see doubt as the beginning, not the end, of knowledge. For Muslims, bida, innovation/novelty, was always assumed to be bad unless it could be proven otherwise, but over time this hardened and bida came to have the same connotation in Islam as heresy in Christendom. Where the West saw knowledge gradually increasing over time, the Islamic concept was that perfect answers had been given and movement away was a pollution of the truth.

“The basic ideas of forming, testing, and, if necessary, abandoning hypotheses remained alien” in the Islamic world, Lewis notes: the “corpus of eternal verities” could be “acquired, accumulated, transmitted, interpreted, and applied, but not modified or transformed.” The Western methods of inquiry and experimentation were excluded from entry into Islamdom, even if some of the technology to which it gave rise might (after due consideration) be admitted.

The contact between Islamdom and the West was remarkably slight. Almost the only classes of people to cross the medieval “iron curtain” were diplomats, merchants, Jews, and Christian monks and pilgrims. The fourteenth century imposition in Europe of forty-day quarantine in the wake of the Black Death, which applied even to Muslim diplomats, had a profound impact in keeping the two worlds separate. But this was not the driving force in preventing Muslims visiting the West.

Muslims were averse to being in infidel-run lands at all, and it was incumbent on infidels who converted to make hijra. It was only after the Christian reconquests of the fifteenth century that consideration had to be given to Muslims living under infidel rule. The consensus was that Muslim tyranny was better than Christian justice—not least because infidel justice might be a temptation to apostasy. Fortunately for the Muslim jurists, justice was rarely on offer from Christian governments, which persecuted and/or directly expelled Muslim inhabitants.

Only in the sixteenth century, with the Ottomans Empire at the height of their power, did anything like ambassadors begin to be exchanged between the two worlds, but European ambassadors in Istanbul were largely dealt with by non-Muslim Ottoman subjects—dealing with infidels was considered an unclean task best left to other infidels—and only in the late eighteenth century would the Ottomans send resident ambassadors to the West, and they were always non-Muslims or recent converts.

There was one other category of person whom the Muslim Empire had to dispatch to Christendom: spies. There was the notable case of Prince Jem, whom the Porte sent a secret agent to track. But the Christians were in every way better situated for espionage. Ideologically, there was not the religious distaste that Muslims felt for infidels, so Christians could mingle among Muslims with greater ease. Logistically, because Christians mostly travelled to the East rather than the other way around, and there was no quarantine, there were more effective covers—trade missions and the like. There were also native communities in Islamic lands, namely the Christians, who could be drawn upon as sympathizers by Europe; the only time the Muslims had anything like this was the Jews of sixteenth century Spain. The Ottomans seem to have tried to use seamen at certain points as agents, and Christian renegades were also important. But Ottomans espionage was ultimately on a “small and ineffectual scale as contrasted with Christian activities in Islam.”

One of the main interactions between Europe and Islam was the slave trade.

In the seventeenth century, with Europe finally—after exhausting itself in the wars of religion—adopting a measure of tolerance for deviant Christians and even Jews, the refugee flow began to reverse course and flow from East to West. There was one exception: pirates. In the first decade of the seventeenth century, England, Spain, and the Netherlands composed their differences, and cracked down on their own pirates, who were no longer useful for harrying the enemy and instead a menace to public commerce and security. These pirates sacrificed their faith for their trade and put themselves at the service of the Barbary States—the independent Kingdom of Morocco, and the principalities of Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripolitania under nominal Ottoman rule—bringing with them advanced shipping.

The Ottoman Empire was deeply infused with the religious obligation of jihad, the duty to spread the faith by removing whatever obstacles were in the way (holy war) until all the world was ruled by Islam. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, the sultans understood that this mission was on pause, and the Empire would have to make its way in a world of other powers, some of whom might even be “friendly” (note: not allies; the Ottomans never did seen any Christian power in such terms.)

But the Barbary corsairs maintained the old-style jihad. The peak of the “naval jihad,” the taking of ghanima (war booty), Western property and citizens, was the in the mid-seventeenth century, with raids as far away as Britain, Iceland, and Ireland, where the entire village of Baltimore was carried off. In addition to the taking of slaves, who were put to work or sold at open markets, the Barbary States gained some income by signing treaties with European States where tribute was paid in advance to have the corsairs desist, but as the Moroccan ambassador to Spain put it, “peace is no more than writing on water,” and these treaties were always broken and larger bribes demanded from the European powers for a renewal of the treaty. This piracy declined over time, as the ships got worn and the supply of renegades from Europe dried up, and a final end was put to it by the United States in 1815. By that time, more than million Europeans had been taken into slavery.

(It is very noticeable that when Europeans were released from Ottoman captivity, they became “celebrities” and their countrymen clamoured to hear details of the alien world into which they had been taken. Ottoman diplomats didn’t even begin writing reports until the eighteenth century, when they were looking for best-practices to copy, and even then they were stylized and superficial. Ottoman diplomatic missions to Europe were so unimportant prior to that that we only know about them from European records.)

The Islamic slave trade is one of the curious omissions of the modern discussion about Islam. Europe had enslaved some Africans in the fifteenth century, and the Atlantic slave trade began in the first years of the sixteenth century, lasting until 1833 when Britain forcibly repressed the trade (at large cost, incidentally). Around eleven million black Africans are believed to have been abducted in this period. The Islamic enslavement of Europeans is often omitted from this discussion, but so is the Islamic enslavement of Africans, which began in the eighth century and continued right up to the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s. The Islamic slave trade not only included many more black African slaves—nearly twenty million—but was woven into the society in a way whose only analogue in the Western world is the antebellum American South.

Moreover, many Muslim-majority States did not abolish slavery until well into the twentieth century, and even to the present day in States like Sudan and Mauritania, which only made slavery formally illegal in 1981, the practice continues in various forms.

Thus, when demagogues like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad condemn the West for the past crimes of slavery, it is reliant for its effect on Western masochism. Yes, the West is guilty of slavery—as is every civilization on earth. The difference is that Westerners were the first to name slavery as an evil, and to not only stop it among themselves, but to stop others—at a personal cost.

The question of what went wrong had been present among the Ottoman elite since at least the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699), when for the first time the Ottomans had to formally concede ground. But this was in the Balkans, at the outer reaches of the Empire, and some victories at the beginning of the eighteenth century were taken by some as signs that the minimal reforms—focussed on the military—had worked, and all was well. By the late eighteenth century this was untenable: the crushing defeat to Russia, ratified in the 1774 Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, gave enormous territorial and economic concessions in the Caucasus and Pale of Settlement, and then there was Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 1783.

The loss of Crimea was different to previous territorial losses; this was the loss of an old territory, inhabited by Muslim peoples since at least the thirteenth century when the Mongols had conquered the peninsula and mingled with the Turks to produce the Tatars. Though the Turks fought back as the Russians conquered and settled these areas, the Porte was defeated by 1792.

The most devastating loss, however, was France’s conquest of Egypt in 1798, and then the British driving them out in 1801. Bad enough that the infidels could enter the Muslim heartlands at will; even worse that only other infidels could get them out. Scholars date this as the beginning of the modern era in the Islamic world: it was the point at which it became clear to Muslims at every level that something had gone wrong. The follow-up question—how to put it right—can only have two answers: more tradition or more modernization. That debate has gone on in various forms ever since, and the West has been an inescapable part of it—as a spur to modernization, both as a model and as a threat, and as the foil for the reactionaries who hold out the West as an example of decadence to be avoided.

The idea that Muslims would accept the notions of a superseded and incomplete form of god’s revelation was “too absurd to contemplate,” but the French Revolution reached out as a new and seductive ideology: secularism. Secularism was universal and applicable to Muslims without the taint of Christianity, the Islamic world’s “Other”. Europe’s intellectual disruptions—the Renaissance, Reformation, scientific revolution, and the Enlightenment—had “passed without effect in the Islamic world, without even being noticed”. But the French revolution intruded directly.

From Egypt France published the region’s first newspapers, spreading its revolutionary propaganda. Finally the Ottomans saw the need to understand Europe, if only to counter it. The French were “recalling the form of government of the ancient Greeks and installing a regime of liberty,” the Ottoman chief secretary noted, and this was a mortal threat to the Ottoman realm, spreading among its population “evil intentions in their minds”.

Despite knowledge of Europe’s recent history and military intelligence becoming an existential question, “An eighteenth-century Ottoman knew as much of the states and nations of Europe as a nineteenth-century European about the tribes and peoples of Africa—and regarded them with the same slightly amused disdain,” Lewis notes. Even by the end of the eighteenth century, Ottoman accounts of Europe, distinctly advanced over what came before, didn’t amount to anything very substantial.

In the nineteenth century the pace, scale, and range of the Muslim discovery of Europe was “radically transformed”. There were important local reformers like Egypt’s ruler, Muhammad Ali, whom the Turkish sultan, Mahmud II, imitated in many things, but by that time influence of the West was brought direct as the imperial tide turned, which led both to the West spreading its ideas and Islamic leaders looking for ways to use Western methods to strengthen themselves to resist Western domination. Even Iran’s insular rulers looked West, if only as a hedge against the extension of the Napoleonic Wars and Russia’s advances.

For the first time, knowledge of foreign languages became not only admissible but desirable in Ottoman lands. The translation movement, stopped in the tenth century, recommenced. Young Muslims were even placed under foreign teachers, first in their own countries and then students went to Europe—something that would have been seen as grotesque before this. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the number of Muslims who understood a European language was still remarkably small, and many were converts, but they were beginning to form an important group. The translation office became as important as the army and the palace in socio-economic advancement.

In addition to the movements of people, there were now many new areas of contact: schools, regiments, books, newspapers, government offices, businesses, and all of this was transmitted by the introduction of modern media—printing presses, newspapers, and book publishing. By these means, the Muslim world was made increasingly aware of Europe’s expanding power. The old attitude of disdain and disinterest gave way among some elements of the Muslim elite, and they finally turned to Europe if not in admiration then with respect and not a little fear. Europe had to be understood, and in some respects imitated. This modernizing/Westernizing school had had the upper-hand “almost until our own time,” Lewis concluded. This book was published just as the modernizing trend was reversing.

The traditionalists had always been physically powerful in the world of Islam and theologically on the firmer footing. A saying of the prophet, “whoever imitates a people becomes one of them,” was frequently quoted by the religious reactionaries to shut out the West and shut down the Islamic modernizers who wanted to import Western methods.

Islam’s early expansion brought it into contact with Europe, India, and China, and Islam had its renaissance through the recovery of Greek and, to a lesser-extent, Persian learning. But where Europe’s discovery of the New World coincided with the beginning of the Renaissance and the Reformation, the Muslim expansion was out of sync with its renaissance and produced no religious reformation—rather to the contrary. Islam’s reactionaries had an “overwhelming and enduring victory”. Where the bourgeois, the merchant class, would grow and eventually assert its vision in Europe, which required an environment hospitable to innovation, the Islamic military, bureaucratic, and religious elites would hold on to the State and the schools, shaping the entire social and intellectual history of the Muslim world.

Concurrent with the West starting to seriously impact the Muslim world internally in the eighteen century, a challenger to the Ottoman Empire arose, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, whose Wahhabi movement fed into the Salafist stream that thought the answers to Islamdom’s problems were in returning to the ways of al-salaf al-salih (the pious ancestors), the first three generations of Muslims. It is from these intellectual currents and the Islamist movement that emerged in the 1920s with the Muslim Brotherhood that the modern phenomenon of holy warriorism emerges. It should be emphasized: these movements always focussed far more on other Muslims than they did on the West; it was the internal apostate not the external unbeliever that the Muslim militants sought to destroy, whether by re-education or violence. The West would be caught in the crossfire of this Muslim civil war, and would belatedly realize it on Sept. 11, 2001.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Muslim Discovery of Europe (1982) by Bernard Lewis

  1. Monk of Damascus

    Interesting article, but do cut out the infidel nonsense, it doesn’t exist in Islamic theology. The correct word your looking for is Kaffir=Unbeliever.


    1. KyleWOrton Post author

      Glad you got something from it. “Infidel” is the word Lewis uses. I’m well aware that “kaffir” is the generally used word on the Muslim side (and that it came to be synonymous with Christians. Official Ottoman documents often referred to “kaffirs and Jews”.) Doesn’t seem an intensely stringent objection, if I’m totally honest.


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