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VARIABLES OF TRANSMISSION AND RECEPTION

Mental barriers resulting from a specific interpretation of the divine certainly cannot account for the variants of transmission, reception, and assimilation that came to the fore in each case study.

Loosely speaking, Arabic-Islamic scholars accessed the history of the Roman West in retrospect, working their way back from Byzantium to republican Rome. Visigothic history aroused their curiosity only after the emergence of a regional identity in Muslim al-Andalus, but lost appeal in the face of the expanding Iberian Christians’ claim to the Visigothic heritage. Thanks to the Franks’ early medieval expansion and to the later involvement of groups from this expanded territorial base in various Mediterranean enterprises, the ethnonym ‘Franks’ became coterminous with ‘Western Europeans’ or ‘Latin Christians’ in many Arabic-Islamic texts of Middle Eastern, to a much lesser degree in those of western Muslim origin. Eastern Christian recollections of Late Antiquity, contacts in the border zones, finally the papacy’s endorsement and active support of Latin-Christian expansionism provided Arabic-Islamic scholars with a fair idea of the history of the Roman bishopric. The reinforced presence of Latin Christians in the Mediterranean from the eleventh century onwards supplied fresh information on a sociopolitical landscape that had evolved considerably in the past few centuries.

In view of these variants of transmission, reception, and assimilation, it seems legitimate to downplay the role played by (religious) ideology and to highlight that various non-ideological factors influenced the flow of information from medieval Western Europe to the Arabic-Islamic world.

Both spheres were certainly not separated by the ‘medieval iron curtain’ advocated by Lewis.[1] Connectivity varied with regard to time, space, and social milieu. As compared to the heyday of a Mediterranean-based Roman Empire, connectivity was rather low in the sixth century and only regained momentum in the wake of the Arabic-Islamic expansion. Although temporarily disrupting existing networks of mobility and exchange, the Arabic-Islamic expansion gave rise to a new Mediterranean order. It brought together two spheres that had emerged in relative isolation from each other in the preceding one or two centuries. Already during the expansion, but even more so when the geopolitical situation had calmed down, both spheres began to interact. From then on, connectivity was generally high and expressed itself in innumerable contacts, a high degree of mobility and exchange, as well as important processes of entanglement and even hybridization. As a matter of course, connectivity was lower in the respective peripheries and higher in contact zones. In the period under investigation, the latter shifted in response to the geopolitical changes caused by later manifestations of Arabic-Islamic and, in particular, of Latin-Christian expansionism.

Despite the destruction that went with it, expansionism from both sides had the effect of augmenting rather than of decreasing the degree of connectivity. Expansionism certainly created and diffused images of a hostile ‘Other’ and fostered a bipolar world-view cultivated during regular military, religious, and normative confrontations of the two spheres. Both had emerged from the debris of empire. Both were keen on asserting a newfound identity in physical and ideological, i.e. religious terms. Both maintained an economy that also fed on the material riches gained through raids and conquest. This, however, is only one side of a much more differentiated reality, which also featured actors involved in peaceful relations and the resulting exchange of objects and ideas. Moreover, expansionism also gave rise to an important production of records about the Other—on both sides.

In the Arabic-Islamic sphere, several preparatory developments were necessary for this production to begin. Scholarly productivity necessitated the emergence of a social group dedicated to scholarly pursuits in Arabic. This group developed the necessary methods, procedures, and genres of scholarly enquiry. A written culture in Arabic as well as the accompanying intellectual infrastructures came into being in the two centuries after the appearance of Islam and reached early maturity only in the late Umayyad and early Abbasid era, when Islam had become synonymous with an imperial culture that had surmounted the limitations formerly imposed by concepts of Arab ethnicity. Only when Arabic was written by proponents of this well-established and self-confident imperial Islamic culture, did it become possible to dedicate a higher degree of attention to the surrounding non-Muslim world and to direct intellectual efforts towards its documentation.

This development took place slightly later in the Muslim West. It had come under Muslim control later than the Middle East and was more distant to the original centres of cultural production. Scholars writing in the early centuries of Islam were mainly stationed in the Middle East and not in the contact zones connecting Western Europe with the Islamic world, i.e. the Iberian and the Apennine Peninsulas, zones still subject to conquest, raids, and Muslim settlement. Only when al-Andalus and Sicily had firmly come under Muslim control in the ninth century, did Arabic-Islamic scholars become truly active in areas adjacent to the Christian societies of Western Europe. The regional lack of intellectual resources in the early medieval Muslim West can be held accountable for the general dearth of records on the Latin West in the period between the seventh and the ninth century. It also accounts for the fact that the earliest Arabic-Islamic records on Western Europe were produced in Egypt, Syria, or Iraq of the eighth to the early tenth century. A systematic production of records on Western Europe in the Muslim West only took place from the tenth century onwards. The acquired data then often travelled to the Middle East via various channels of transmission.

Reaching its first apogee in the late eleventh century, the military and economic expansion of Western Europe intensified the flow of information. By acquainting Muslims living outside the previously relevant contact zones with representatives of Western European societies, it increased the overall chances for direct exchange.

From this period onwards, Arabic-Islamic scholars in the West and the East continuously reported contact with the Christian societies of Western Europe.

Arabic-Islamic scholars occupied a specific place within the relevant chains of transmission and reception. Even if they lived and wrote in a contact zone and maintained links with the Christian population in their environment, they were not the prime group responsible for interaction with the Latin-Christian sphere. As opposed to translators, interpreters, merchants, mariners, etc., they often stood in the second rank with regard to direct communication. In spite of notable exceptions,34 many a scholar remained dependent on second-hand information.

Language constituted one formidable barrier for the representatives of a scholarly tradition that had grown accustomed to thinking, reading, and writing in Arabic.35 Although many Arabic-Islamic scholars may have grown up in another language, non-Arabic languages only rarely played a role in their intellectual training and endeavours outside the Persian sphere. A number of early Arabic-Islamic scholars participated, directly or indirectly, in the so-called Graeco-Syriac-Arabic translation movement and were able to deal with Greek words, maybe even with entire Greek texts. The occasional Western Muslim scholar reproduced Romance words in his writings and was even able to speak a Romance dialect. However, most Arabic-Islamic scholars had no systematic knowledge of foreign, including Western European languages. Lacking linguistic skills, they had no direct access to primary sources from the Latin-Christian sphere. In the period under investigation, this was not compensated by translation: in quantity and quality, the translation of Latin texts was never able to measure up to the earlier translations from Greek (via Syriac) to Arabic.

In view of all this, the main contribution of Arabic-Islamic scholars to the history of relations between the Latin-Christian and the Arabic-Islamic sphere lies in the collection, compilation, and evaluation of data acquired by others. More often than not, long chains of transmission separated an eyewitness or original source of information from the respective Arabic-Islamic author. Moreover, Arabic-Islamic scholars had serious problems, not only of acquiring but also of contextualizing and evaluating the available data about Western Europe. This explains many distortions in Arabic-Islamic texts from the entire period under investigation. The occasional creative explanation of certain phenomena cannot counterbalance the long list of ‘lacunae’ and misunderstandings.

Dependent on others for information, often lacking the necessary background knowledge and confronted with the challenge of explaining foreign phenomena in terms comprehensible to their audience, Arabic-Islamic scholars contributed to the distortion of data when assimilating, contextualizing, interpreting, and presenting information about medieval Western Europe. In this way, they played an important role in creating a distinct Arabic-Islamic perspective of the Latin-Christian sphere. The use of the generic term ‘Franks’ for the majority of Western Europeans, the treatment of the Punic Wars as a part of the Maghreb’s regional history, or the definition of the pope as the Christians’ ‘imam or ‘caliph’ serve as examples for such [2]

34 Listed in Chapter 3.3.2.

a specifically Arabic-Islamic reading of phenomena relevant to the history of Western Europe.

  • [1] Lewis, ‘Discovery’ (1957), p. 411.
  • [2] Cf. Chejne, Language (1969), pp. 14—15.
 
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