‘Islam’ and ‘the West’ in ‘the Middle Ages’

The difficulty of summarizing divergent phenomena under such terms as ‘Arabic- Islamic’ and ‘Latin-Christian’ raises the question why it is necessary to use these categories at all.

Studies on perception are grounded in the dichotomy of observer and observed. It is impossible to analyse perception without recurring to categories of alterity, and there can be no doubt that such categories existed in the period under investigation. Consequently, scholarly discourse on cross-cultural perception regularly uses the categories ‘Islam’ or ‘Muslim’ on the one side, ‘the West’, ‘Latin Christendom’, or ‘medieval Europe’ on the other sided9 Recent scholarship has made great efforts to represent the complex, multilateral character of cross-cultural relations more adequately by putting emphasis on phenomena such as ‘connectivity’, ‘hybridity’, and ‘transculturality’d0 In agreement with this line of approach, the study at hand does not intend to reduce the issue of cross-cultural perception to the bipolar opposition of ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’. However, in need of operative categories that mark its affiliation to previous scholarly discourse, it cannot wholly dispense with such categories, the more so as our digital era of scholarship increasingly relies on tags and keywords.

An important field of research that also uses the keywords ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’ deals with the medieval ‘rise of Europe’. Specialists on early medieval history have highlighted processes of fragmentation and reconfiguration that led from a Mediterranean-based Roman Empire to the emergence of three dominant cultural spheres generally defined as Byzantium, Islam, and the Latin West.21 Specialists of the late Middle Ages have called attention to the medieval developments that laid the groundwork for Western European expansion beyond the Euromediterranean sphere.22 Both approaches deal with the ‘emergence’ of medieval Europe from an internal perspective. As opposed to this, the present study provides an external point of view on how Western Europe evolved in the period under investigation, i.e. the perspective of scholarly literature, written in Arabic by Muslims in the period approximately between the seventh and the fifteenth century.

A last word on categories concerns the use of the term ‘medieval’. Tarif Khalidi put forward several well-founded arguments that question whether it is legitimate to apply this term to the Islamic world of the seventh to fifteenth centuries, not in the least because the classifications ‘ancient’, ‘medieval’, and ‘modern’ in contemporary Arabic historiography are undoubtedly a product of European colonialism.23 It seems justified to use different systems of periodization as long as one deals with ‘European’ or ‘Islamic’ history separately, but as soon as they feature in a single study of macro-historical dimensions there is no alternative to finding a system and terminology of periodization that applies to both spheres. Latin-Christian Europe and the Arabic-Islamic sphere both emerged thanks to the late antique fragmentation of the Roman Empire.24 From this perspective, employing a single term for the period from the fragmentation of the Roman Empire to the period when the fall of Byzantium and the ‘discovery’ of the Americas considerably changed the geopolitical landscape of the Euromediterranean, seems legitimate. Although the term ‘medieval’ carries strong ideological connotations, historians of the European Middle Ages have largely accepted its deficiencies for the simple reason that they need a term to structure time.25 As an alternative to creating a neologism with other deficiencies, it seems adequate to approach the question of periodization pragmatically and to use the term for the period and areas covered by the study at hand.

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