Dealing with Fragmentary Records

For various reasons addressed in Chapters 2 and 9, the extant Arabic-Islamic records on Latin-Christian Europe only reflect a fraction of what Muslims from al-Andalus to Central Asia actually perceived in the period between the seventh and the fifteenth century.

One reason for this is that records often did not survive, as the following example shows. For the thirteenth century, we know of twenty-six Latin letters written by several popes to various Muslim rulers, as well as nine Latin translations of letters addressed to a pope by a Muslim ruler from the Arabic-Islamic sphere. We can oppose this to one preserved Arabic original of a letter to the pope as well as two references to written correspondence with a pope in works of Arabic-Islamic scholarship^ To reconstruct the Muslim perceptions involved it is obviously not sufficient to restrict analysis to Arabic-Islamic source material.

The example throws light on the role played by archives. The papacy seems to have disposed of better facilities for storing records than all Muslim rulers around the Mediterranean taken together. It is not clear why the latter failed to conserve papal letters. They may have fallen prey to destruction or may have been lost due to the disorder and neglect of government archives. The systematic destruction of documents in the Islamic world is mainly recorded in connection with religious or political texts written by Muslims regarded as heterodox.83 However, a fatwa issued by the Maghrebian jurisconsult Abu 'Abd Allah b. Marzuq (d. 842/1439) proves that documents from the Christian world were destroyed occasionally, in this case for economic reasons: he discusses whether it is legitimate to wash and re-use ‘Christian’ paper or parchment (al-waraq/al-kaghid al-rumi) .84

Scarcity of contemporary evidence raises problems of interpretation. In the context of cross-cultural history, doubts arise as soon as only one side recorded facts, as in the case of the envoys exchanged by Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid around 800—only recorded in Latin-Christian sources,85 or the embassy sent by Bertha of Tuscany to the caliph al-Muktafi in 293/906—only recorded in Arabic-Islamic sources.86 Although it is legitimate to question the authenticity of such material, it is often impossible to arrive at a conclusion. In these as in other cases, various obstacles of transmission and reception may have been responsible for the lack of records on the one or the other side. Information may have circulated in certain environments but failed to be written down for want of an author. The scholarly works that form the basis of the study at hand mainly reflect the knowledge and opinions of well-educated literate elites who may have lacked access to data available in other social circles. Even if they had access to such data, linguistic hurdles, problems of analysis, interpretation, etc. could result in omissions and distortions.

Since various hazards of transmission may be responsible for the fragmentary state of the extant Arabic-Islamic records on the Latin-Christian sphere, it is of utmost importance to understand how the extant records came into being and to discuss if they can serve as representative evidence to reconstruct an overriding ‘Muslim’ world-view. On these grounds, Chapters 2 and 3 feature a presentation of existing channels of transmission as well as a detailed analysis of how Arabic- Islamic authors acquired and processed information.

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