Europe through Arab Eyes, 1578-1727

June 4, 2009

'You surprise us,' they told him. 'You know languages, read books, travel through the cities and the regions of the world, and yet you are a Muslim!'"

These words are taken from a conversation Ahmad Ibn Qasim, an ambassador to Paris in 1612, had with some French men and women. Clearly it says much about the image of Arabs and Muslims in the eyes of Euro-Christians of the era. But what was the image of Europe and Europeans in the eyes of Arabs in the period 1578-17? Nabil Matar's book is an attempt to answer this question.

There is no doubt that relations between Muslims and Christians have held a distinctive position in Muslim jurisprudence and historical literature. This can be seen in the Koran, in prophetic traditions, in fatwas and in the practical applications of caliphs and Muslim jurists. The degree of concern expressed in Muslim law indicates the perceived role of Islam in building solid relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in and out of the Muslim state. Its importance is evident in debates among Muslim jurists in the past and in the present.

Unfortunately, the Crusade campaigns to the east and the occupation of Islamic Jerusalem in 1099 created a negative image of Christians and the West in general in the minds of Muslims and Arabs. This image, as Matar illustrates in this outstanding work, did not change for quite a long time. Muslims and Arabs in the Maghrib (contemporary Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) labelled the Christian forces coming from Europe to do battle as the worshippers of the cross, the people of the cross, the polytheists and the parties of unbelief.

For Arabs in the Maghrib, those "crusaders" were seen as unwelcome intruders who wreaked havoc in the Mediterranean region and drove normal life into chaos. Conversely, the local Christians of the Ottoman Empire were perceived as citizens of the state (Dhimmis) and different from Euro-Christians; indeed, they were seen as the genuine followers of Jesus. This perception is confirmed by the tolerant way that Moroccan Arabs treated local Christians.

Matar also provides historical evidence to show that the Muslims of the Maghrib and the Mashriq (the east) were keen to establish good relationships with Euro-Christians through trade and royal marriages, even during wars. Muslim rulers used to insist, for example, that their ambassadors provide detailed information about the political institutions, innovations and religious culture of host countries to better learn about their allies and foes.

What makes Matar's work a particularly interesting and often witty read is that it conveys the image of the Euro-Christians, their lands, their rulers, courts and communities, as seen in sources including the written and oral reports, letters and testimonies of the captives, ambassadors and asylum seekers (for example, Prince Fakhr al-Din) who travelled to Christian lands from 1578 to 17.

Most of this literature is translated from Arabic into English for the first time, offering fascinating insights. Particularly interesting is that the accounts provided by numerous Arab and Muslim eyewitnesses varied in their attitudes towards Euro-Christians from amicability and admiration to anger and vituperation. For Ibn Qasim, for example, the journey to Christendom confirmed his sense of allegiance to Islam. The new lands helped him to understand himself not just as a Moroccan but also as a Muslim supported by the Ottoman sultan. In contrast, Prince Fakhr al-Din had a completely different experience with Christians, and eventually converted to Christianity at the end of his life.

This book fills a huge gap in our understanding of the history of that period. What is presently available in abundance in Western libraries, via literature on Islam, Muslims and the Orient in general, is a resolutely Orientalist depiction of the East.

Instead, Matar presents us with a mirror image of Euro-Christians and argues that there was a greater degree of Muslim interest in Europe than has been previously thought. This is a study that breaks new ground in our understanding of the way Arabs were looking at Euro-Christians, and it is as ambitious and original as the title suggests.

Europe through Arab Eyes, 1578-17 is a highly rewarding study. It is well researched and clearly written, and makes an important contribution towards understanding the history of the Middle East during the period under study. Matar's work should be read with care and attention as it holds within its folds a great amount of historical knowledge that should interest not only those in the field of history, but also many other readers, both academics and the non-academic general public.

Europe through Arab Eyes, 1578-17

By Nabil Matar. Columbia University Press 344pp, £32.50. ISBN 9780231141949. Published 25 November 2008

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