• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Muslims on Medieval Europe

Talking of Europe to a European would have been irrelevant for much of Western history. Not because the occidental peoples didn’t have important layered identities but because the term only reared its head as a signifier against both the Orthodox East and Islam rather late in the day. This was a long slow process that began with the Carolingians, crescendoed with the crusades and settled into platitude with fifteenth-century screeds against the oncoming Turk. Europe had become the western half of Christendom, pointedly the portion that could staunch the Ottoman flood.

During these centuries (and arguably since) the idea that Europa (or the fair “Orphah” [full-maned lass] as she was known in several Semitic tongues) might have been relevant to their identity would have been laughable. The daughter of the Phoenician ruler of Tyre who was abducted by Zeus, who bore him three sons, and whose brother Cadmus founded Thebes and taught Greeks the alphabet, might have been relevant to the Greeks in a Lycurgian or Solon-esque manner but to Germanics the whole thing was immaterial.

For their part, the Arabs would have agreed. Though they had some acquaintance with “Europe” (usually rendered “arufa”) – the toponym appears in al-Khwarizmi’s adaptation of Ptolemy’s Geography and is mentioned in passing by others – it was ultimately a poetic or fusty academic term not dissimilar to “Albion” in British history.

A more solid, less wraith-like notion in the Arab mind was the Roman empire in the West, which was either designated as an ex-Roman realm or incorporated into Constantinople’s “Rum.” The tenth-century geographer al-Istakhri claimed its boundaries extended from the “[Atlantic] Ocean to Constantinople, from Ifranjah [Frank land] to Rumiuah [Rome] and as far as the land of the Slavs.”[1] Whether placed under Byzantine sovereignty, Frankish dominion or an ex-Roman status they were acknowledged as a worthy enemy.

Perhaps it was their status as descended from Japheth, son of Noah, which placed them in the second tier in the hierarchy of peoples (the descendants of Shem being the first). Or the fact that, like the Persians, they had once been very powerful. Or that they shared the powerful “Melkite” rite with the Eastern Romans. Or that Muslims were already predisposed to appreciate Christians, first, thanks to Mohammad’s announcement that Muslims were enjoined to protect them as ahl al-dhimmah (the protected folk) and, secondly, because the Arabs were rather fond of their indigenous Christians, the nasara.

This fondness is most obvious in the writings of the twelfth-century Ibn Jubayr who had no qualms about praising these Christians as being the most hospitable he’d encountered and that “if this is the manner in which the nasara treats the opponents of their religion, what would you say of the treatment that Muslims give one another?”[2] Not that the nasara record was spotless. There are rather severe passages in the Qur’an (9:30) for instance which inform believers that

The Jews say, "Ezra is the son of Allah "; and the Christians say, "The Messiah is the son of Allah." That is their statement from their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved [before them]. May Allah destroy them; how are they deluded? Indeed, Arab historiography had the potential to call the Europeans ajam (non-Arabic speaking barbarians) when appropriate though it usually preferred to bunch them as Christians or outline their particular ethnic groups. The Slavs were saqalibah, the Britons and Scandinavians were al-majus (originally meaning “Magi”), the Galicians were renowned as jalaliqah, and the Franks were ifranj. The last were the least liked by Arabs who painted them as thuggish simpletons, a people who lacked either the sophistication and creativity of the Eastern Romans or the home-spun qualities of the nasara. They were found wanting in sexual jealousy or a sense of propriety, they were rough in their comportment and perplexingly settled disagreements via duels. Al-Masdudi described them as polity of northern warriors whose capital was at Barizah (Paris). Al-Bakri, meanwhile, noted that the West consisted of a group of nations who followed the orthodox (malkaniyyah) rite, though he strangely appended the Alans (al-lan) – perhaps he had a very antiquated history to hand – as well as Gog and Magog (Ya’juj wa-Ma’juj). He also mentioned the anqilish (English) who he claimed lived on a cold island in well-planned cities (with strong walls). Some entries are odd because of what they omitted. Ibn Rustah, for instance, wrote the following about Venice, a city built on a lagoon:

“A village called bunqis [Venice] is located on a flat land resembling a desert. It possesses neither other cities nor villages and their houses are all built of wood. They are Christians in whose land you may travel the distance of twenty days… until you reach rumiyah [Rome].”[3]

Others are eccentric because of what they included. Ibn Rustah, for example, claimed Rome’s river banks and bridged were paved with brass. He also observed that St Peter’s had over six hundred bejeweled crosses. Furthermore, twelfth-century al-Zuhri mentioned a church there called

“The church of gold. Thus named for its twenty columns of gold and twenty of silver… In its dome is a magnetic stone that … can keep the chandeliers suspended between heaven and earth.”[4] Al-Bakri added that these Romans once dominated the West and persecuted the bearded Christians from the East. This, however, turns out to be an excuse for an excursus on why the Romans aren’t bearded. Apparently part of the torture the Romans inflicted upon the converts was to “shave their heads and their beards.” But “when the truth of the [Christian] message came through to us [Romans], we shaved our beards as an act of contrition.”[5]

Perhaps one of the most colourful accounts on the British Isles emerges from the pen of al-Idrisi who reckoned the island of Inqiltarah [England] resembled the head of an ostrich. It was, he wrote, a prosperous and populous land but its weather was one great relentless winter and its island separated from the continent by a “rough sea, ugly in colour, very deep, endlessly dark with huge waves and storms… Those who are able to sail on it are known as the Inkilisyin [English].”[6] The Britons were a very similar people though they were characterized by greater ignorance and a coarser disposition to the English. Worse, the Irish had no cities because the civilized ones among them had traded in amber and coloured stones until enmity befell them and each city destroyed the other.

Interestingly, as Arabs accrued more knowledge on the West its corpus tended to glide from a position of mystification and vague half-truths to accurate knowledge and greater hostility. As conflicts in Iberia intensified, for example, the Almoravids took to inscribing a legend on their golden coins that proclaimed

“Whoso seeks a religion other than Islam, it shall not be accepted of him and in the hereafter he shall be among the losers” (Sura 3:79).

In short, the West lost its whimsical nuance in Arabic literature and ossified as the dar al-kufr (realm of infidel) or dar al-harb (realm of war), a place to be conquered, not examined. An attitude that was barely to change until the Tulip and Tanzimat periods of the Ottoman state.

[1] Al-Istakhri 70-71.

[2] Ibn Jubayr 260-261.

[3] Ibn Rustah 128.

[4] Al-Zuhri 233.

[5] Al-Bakri 205-206.

[6] Al-Idrisi 859.

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