Friday, June 26, 2009

Islam, Europe, and History: Across The Frontiers

The traditional stories told by Europe of its own past and its encounters with the Islamic world are driven by a form of proxy politics that denies the reality of cross-fertilisation. But scholars are discovering new currents that open this intimate relationship to fresh interpretation, says Martin Rose.
Martin Rose is director of the British Council in Canada. He established the council's Pontignano Conference and its in-house think-tank on cultural relations, Counterpoint. He is also director of the British Council's Our Shared Europe project, which sets out to demonstrate that Muslims are an integral part of Europe's past, present and future.

It is generally accepted that we unconsciously airbrush and tweak our memories, for consistency and for comfort. A recent researcher went further, and suggested that we do this in order to manage the future. "We remember bits and pieces of our experiences and then reconstruct them to create plausible, but not necessarily accurate, accounts of what happened. Such structures make sense ... if one of the main functions of memory is to shuffle scraps of the past in novel ways to project possible futures" (Jessica Marshall, "Future Recall", New Scientist, 24-30 March 2007). Our collective memory seems to operate in the same sort of way - shuffling scraps of the past in novel ways, to project possible futures. It is not necessarily dishonest at all, but if we are clear about the future we want, we may very well shuffle the past, albeit subconsciously, to map a path to that future.

Both the traditional western account of western civilisation, and the traditional Muslim account of Islamic civilisation are teleological, subtly retro-fitted histories that aspire to explain us all in their own terms, whether of "modernity" or of God's final dispensation. Whether these two histories will fertilise, or continue to antagonise, one another is one of the great questions of our time.

The answer, like the answer to many difficult questions, is probably both. The very short recorded history of modern mankind (12,000 years since the dawn of the Holocene, a little less since the Neolithic "revolution", and perhaps 5,000 since the invention of writing) is for the most part a shared, relatively undifferentiated Eurasian history. The histories of Islam and of Christendom are tail-pieces - 2,000 years and 1,400 years respectively - to a long, common past that stretches back far beyond that. Yet it is upon this relatively recent divergence that we focus, despite the fact that even then the cultural and the religious differentiations are those between near neighbours - cousins - of the same family. This is what Freud called "the narcissism of small differences", the directing of negative feelings towards those most like us, and the minute attention to the small areas of differentiation. Back, in other words, to defining ourselves against others - by what we are not - in the all too familiar binary pattern of black and white, green and orange, blue and green, red and white, blue and red, black and green ... and all the other pairings of parties, football teams, sects, chariot-factions and armies that litter history.

So the history of Europe has for the most part been written to demonstrate how we got where we are today, and represents a systematic reworking of the past to justify and explain the present. This doesn't make it some kind of all-enveloping malign conspiracy (though historiography has its share of those), just a product of the human mind. Humans need to explain themselves to themselves, and on the whole they find it difficult to imagine a history that didn't end up with them where they are now. From there it is a short leap to inevitability. There is a compelling tendency to make a coherent narrative that takes us from "the beginning" to "now" in a plausible progression: a narrative that takes us out of the realm of chance.

For modern Europe that narrative is so familiar that we often forget that it is a matter of craft and choice. It goes something like this: the origins of "us" are in ancient Greece, in the moment of genius in 5th-century Athens that provided the wellspring of European thought. The trail leads on through Rome and its emperors, grafting onto this stock the new faith of Christianity, and its adoption as the state religion of the empire; the barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome.

At this point culture goes underground, a small flame nursed by the church in remote monasteries, only to re-surface as the first coherent polities emerge from the "dark ages". We reach an apogee in the high middle ages, in a galaxy of cathedrals, sacred art and confidence. In the 12th century we see an early intellectual Renaissance, harbinger of a the real thing a couple of centuries later, and then European thought explodes once again in an effervescence of creativity fertilised by rediscovered Greek learning, leading on inexorably to the desacralised individualism of the Enlightenment and what we call "modernity". Then Europe takes modernity to the world in the age of imperial expansion, building by diligent commerce the vast bedrock of capital that still sustains it and delivering its values and its ways of thinking to the unenlightened world - which then, in fits and starts, becomes "modern" too.

Along the way there is a small by-pass built into the story (there are others, of course, too, but this one concerns us). In order for the story to work, the wisdom of Athens, and of the Hellenistic culture that expanded upon it, needed a safe berth during the European dark ages when the Europeans were clearly making a pretty poor fist of keeping the flame alive. The new, vigorous and open-minded civilisation of Islam provided that haven, absorbing translations and translators of large quantities of Greek philosophy and science into its own mainstream, where it formed an important element in the high culture of Abbasid Baghdad and of the kingdoms of al-Andalus, to name only the two most obvious.

The great reluctance

Or did it? What is interesting is the great reluctance in modern Europe, at a popular level at least, to imagine that these cultured Arabs, Persians and Berbers read and internalised the Greek literature that they had translated. It is almost as though their role was simply to pass it on, unexamined, like the courier who sews a secret dispatch into the hem of his cloak and later hands it over, unopened, to its recipient. That the wisdom of the Greeks could have been just as fertilising to classical Arab and Islamic culture as it was to be to European culture, is apparently hard to accept: by the time Europe began to have large-scale encounters with Muslim states and Islamic institutions, it had already settled into the stance of unassailable superiority which has continued ever since.

And so it should probably not surprise us to see the editorial pages of French and even American newspapers discussing whether Aristotle was first translated in Muslim Toledo or, as the French historian Sylvain Gouguenheim has recently maintained, at Christian Mont St-Michel (see Sylvain Gouguenheim, Aristote au mont Saint-Michel [Seuil, 2008]). Would that this were a sign of a growing popular interest in mediæval intellectual history, but I'm afraid it isn't: it is (or has become, in the hands of the bloggers and polemicists) an attempt to minimise the Arab contribution to the Renaissance of the 12th century, and so to the European intellectual story and to "modernity". Gouguenheim's book is now being translated into English, and will undoubtedly fuel another round of "told-you-so" devaluation of Muslim histories and Islamic cultures. It is instructive to look at the websites on which the book is enthusiastically discussed: for the most part they are not sites specialising in scholarly intellectual history.

Similar ding-dong battles about "Islamic science" seem all too often to resolve into attempts to show that the original contribution of Islamic scientists has been wildly exaggerated - that the Greeks did the real thinking and their genius then passed undigested through the gut of the mediæval Islamic world to emerge ready for use by Renaissance thinkers, unsullied by any further originality. Indeed, it sometimes seems that a lot of what is written about Islamic civilisation, particularly by non-specialists, is devoted simply to demoting it from its position of having provided the high culture of the mediæval Mediterranean, almost as though refusing to admit its achievements a thousand years ago will somehow invalidate the claims to economic and social parity of Turkish, Moroccan, Pakistani and Somali Europeans today.

Beyond the Eurocentric past

So we should probably read much of this historical argument as proxy politics. It's an odd sort of politics, but it tries to strip today's Muslims in Europe of their place - however collateral it may be - in the creation of Europe and the modern European mind. It is true that this claim would be hard to maintain if it was made simply in the name of farmers from Mirpur settled in Bradford, or from Sylhet settled in Brick Lane. But it isn't: it is made by Muslims, speaking as Muslims, as small shareholders in the great civilisational and religious enterprise of Islam. As Muslims, Mirpuris and Sylhetis, Moroccans and Anatolians can all hold their heads higher. They are, after all, distant heirs of what Claudio Lange described like this: "in the 11th century, Islamic civilisation, together with the Byzantine, Chinese and Indian civilisations, established the First World of the time, while Western Europe embodied the Third."

There has been much written about the need to rethink the writing of world history. Jack Goody describes the aim of his book The Theft of History as "to show how Europe has not simply neglected or underplayed the history of the rest of the world, as a consequence of which it has misinterpreted its own history, but also how it has imposed historical concepts and periods that have aggravated our understanding of Asia in a way that is significant for the future as well as for the past." He is one of several scholars who have addressed the need to escape from the selective and inadequate narratives of the Eurocentric past, and to understand much more clearly the intimate linkages that have always existed between European and Asian cultures and histories.

Others (like Margaret Meserve) have re-examined the late mediæval and Renaissance construction of western historical thinking about the Turks;5 or (like Ian Almond) the intricate networks of alliances throughout European history that have belied the old chestnut of wholly hostile civilisations, by placing Muslim and Christian on the same side; yet others (like George Saliba) have patiently unravelled the history and meaning of the transmission of scientific ideas from east to west, and the part played in that transmission by Muslim scientists. Others have written sympathetic revisionist histories of Islam in Europe, like David Levering Lewis's God's Crucible. Nabil Matar has chronicled the engagement of Muslim Arabs with Christians across the cultural frontier. And Richard Bulliet has made a persuasive case for rethinking the history of the Mediterranean basin up to about 1550 as that of an "Islamo-Christian" civilisation. There are many more.

The intimate tides

It is interesting to note how much of this work post-dates 2001. Scholars had been toiling in this vineyard before that year, of course, but 9/11 and the intellectual fallout from it have given huge impetus to attempts to stop the two civilisations (or if we follow Richard Bulliet, the two halves of one civilisation) being forced into escalating antagonism by what I called a moment ago the "evil twins" - the two malign narratives that coil round each other like a double helix. It is no doubt sometimes exaggerated - that's the way with revisionism - but when we get past the competitive and often fruitless claims about which culture discovered, recognised, invented, translated what first, we can discern a powerful attempt to demonstrate what every rational instinct tells us must be the case: that two great civilisations living in proximity for a millennium and a half, trading, fighting, abusing and studying each other, forming glittering syncretic micro-cultures like those of Muslim Spain and Norman Sicily, and occupying opposite shores of the same body of water - cannot be hermetically separated from each other. Indeed, the opposite seems very likely to be true: that constant commerce and intellectual intercourse across the cultural frontier meant that significant elements of what formed the modern European mind came from, or through, the Muslim east.


This is an extract from the third Zaki Badawi Memorial Lecture, delivered on 5 June 2009. The lecture is established and sponsored by the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS). It is being jointly published by the AMSS and the British Council. The announcement of the date of publication and how to obtain a copy will be made on the AMSS website and the British Council's Our Shared Europe website.

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