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13.08.05, Hermes, The [European] Other in Medieval Arabic Literature and Culture

13.08.05, Hermes, The [European] Other in Medieval Arabic Literature and Culture

In this important book, which is based on his PhD dissertation, Nizar Hermes explores the depiction of Europeans in medieval Arabic texts. In the process he draws attention to the corpus of works by writers from both the eastern and western Muslim world that describe Europe, and in doing so proposes a valuable re-assessment of what these works tell us about Muslim attitudes to Europe and its inhabitants during the period under discussion.

In the Introduction to his work, Hermes lays out his intentions clearly. He seeks to refute the contention of other scholars (principally Bernard Lewis) that Muslims of the period lacked the intellectual curiosity that would have led them to study Europe and its denizens, or even each other (2). At the same time, he avoids aligning himself with Said's theories of Orientalism, criticizing Said himself for his neglect of the narratives of Self and Other that may be found in the Arabic sources. Ultimately, Hermes sees both Lewis and Said as too bound up in their own theories to be able to engage with what was actually a complex relationship that existed between Europe and the Muslim world at the time (5-6). Hermes seeks, then, to provide a corrective to the prevailing (though not universally) scholarly image of Muslim views of Europeans in the ninth to twelfth centuries, re-assessing the medieval sources to show that Muslim writers, in fact, were curious about Europe and its peoples, and demonstrated this curiosity in their works. In addition, they developed their own approach in their depictions of the European Other, which Hermes calls Ifranjalism (after Ifranja, the term used by Muslims of both the period and the present day to refer to Europeans), coining this term as an Islamicate counterpart to "Orientalism" that is preferable to the term "Occidentalism," which carries political overtones of anti-Westernism and anti-Americanism (8-9).

Hermes then proceeds to explore his subject on a thematic basis, devoting each chapter to a particular topic and within this examining the works of particular writers as individual cases. Thus Chapter 1 discusses the translation movement of the eighth and ninth centuries, which saw texts from Greek, Persian and Indian cultures translated into Arabic to enable Arabic-speaking scholars to gain access to the knowledge contained in their pages. Hermes also devotes attention to Muslim scholars who were sufficiently motivated by their intellectual interests to travel for the purpose of study, and who have fortunately left us accounts of their observations. Particular examples whom he considers include al-Mas'udi (d. 896), who travelled widely in the Middle East, Europe, India, China and Africa, and al-Biruni (d. 1050), who spent twenty years in India. Hermes then focuses in particular on the description of China and India left by the merchant Sulayman al-Tajir, which is found in the Silsilat al-Tawarikh (Chain of Histories) of the anthologist al-Sirafi (d. 950).

Chapter 2 is concerned with depictions of Europe. After discussing early references to the region in Arabic literature, Hermes focuses on two case studies. For the first, he returns to al-Mas'udi, and in particular seeks to re-assess the famous passage from al-Mas'udi's geographical work Kitab al-Tanbih wa-l-Ishraf (The Book of Warning and Supervision), in which the peoples of northern Europe, in particular the Franks and Slavs, are depicted as blue-skinned, red-haired brutes, a passage that has been seen by other scholars as representing an example of a stereotyped view of these peoples among Muslim writers. Hermes argues that by including this description al-Mas'udi was in fact drawing on Classical precedents of northern barbaroi, but in the process meant to refer to "the Hyperboreans and the Rhipaens of Ptolemy" (47-50). Given that al-Mas'udi explicitly names the Franks and Slavs in his account of the northern peoples, this argument is difficult to accept, and this reviewer would suggest that al-Mas'udi was deliberately misrepresenting the peoples in question here, seeking to entertain his listeners and emphasize the superiority of Muslim civilization, rather than to present a factual account. As Hermes goes on to note, al-Mas'udi provides further, more believable details about both the Slavs and the Franks, as well as other European peoples, in his other geographical work, Muruj al-Dhahab wa-Ma'adin al-Jawhar (The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems). Hermes does not seem to be aware that the Tanbih was written after the Muruj, and hence we can assume that al-Mas'udi's blue-skinned brutes represent a literary construct created for ulterior motives rather than a deterioration of the author's knowledge of the northerners.

Hermes' second case study in this chapter is of the great Andalusian scholar al-Bakri (d. 1094). Al-Bakri provides an account of Europe that is even more detailed than that of al-Mas'udi's Muruj, though with a strong focus on Andalusian affairs and concerns. Chapter 3 continues with further case studies, but looking further north, principally through the eyes of prisoners of war, travelers and ambassadors. Hermes discusses in particular the description of Rome by the ninth-century prisoner-of-war Harun ibn Yahya; the ambassador Ibn Fadlan's tenth-century accounts of the Oghuz, Petchenegs, Bashkirs, Volga Bulghars and Kievan Rus Vikings (for the last of which he has become famous in both prose fiction and film); the interactions of the diplomat al-Jayyani (al-Ghazal, d. 864) with Vikings in Iberia and northern Europe; and the eastern European travels of the merchant Ibrahim ibn Ya'qub (d. 999) and the scholar Abu Hamid al-Gharnati (d. 1169), the last of whom has left us the first Muslim account of skiing (126)!

Chapter 4 shifts our focus to poetry, beginning with an assessment of works by Muslim poets written in response to the Byzantines. These include poems by Abu Firas al-Hamadani (d. 968), which use standard themes and motifs of Classical Arabic poetry to depict his sufferings as a prisoner-of-war in the hands of the Byzantine enemy, his longing for release, vehement satire of his captors and warnings to his fellow Muslims of the danger of future attacks from them. Hermes then discusses the fierce poetic responses of Abu Bakr al-Qaffal (d. 976) and Ibn Hazm (d. 1064) to al-Qasida al-Mal'una (the Cursed Ode), a poetic attack on Islam and the Muslims sent by the Byzantine Emperor Nicephoras Phocas (r. 963-969) to the caliph al-Muti' (r. 946-74). He then moves on to Muslim poetry written about the crusaders in the twelfth century, with a particular focus on the rather mixed impression given by the Zangid court poet Ibn al-Qaysarani (d. 1154), who when not writing in support of the military jihad against the European invaders wrote about the attractions of their womenfolk.

In concluding his work, Hermes notes the multifaceted nature of Muslim relations with the Europeans. Religion was for most the indisputable marker of identity; the non-Muslim nature of the Europeans marked them as irrefutably Other. Nevertheless, the writers whom he has discussed saw beyond such a simplistic, bipartite, us-and-them division of humanity, remarking on both the good and bad qualities of the peoples of the region. Certain themes arose repeatedly; they were often stereotyped as unhygienic and sexually-loose, for example. However, the Muslim writers also expressed a curiosity about the peoples of Europe that led to a more nuanced appreciation of their good qualities, even though their non-Muslim faiths rendered them ultimately inferior to the Muslims.

In addition to detailed endnotes and a bibliography, Hermes provides a useful appendix with the Arabic texts of the poems quoted in his work, enabling scholars who read Arabic to consult them in the original language.

In addition to occasionally questionable readings of the historical sources, such as the example from al-Mas'udi's Tanbih noted above, this reviewer had some other concerns about the approach of this study. Hermes maintains that he is deliberately making use of "non-religious Arabic prose and poetic texts" (xiii). While it is, of course, possible to see some texts by medieval writers as being more or less "religious" than others, in both Europe and the Middle East the majority of educated people had received their education through religious institutions, and most writers hence approached their subjects from a religious point of view. It is not surprising, then, that, as noted above, Islam is the marker of Self from Other in these writings, and the critical stereotypes of Europeans that are seen most commonly (lack of hygiene and inappropriate sexual behavior) also have strong religiously moral overtones. It is not clear what Hermes seeks to gain from excluding "religious" literature from his study, when it is certainly not possible to exclude the religions of his writers from their works. Hermes also exaggerates from time to time, for example describing the Muslim texts that deal with Europe and the Europeans as a "forgotten corpus" (7). These texts have been known to and used by scholars of Islam for decades, and in many cases for well over a century, and he is not the first to question the "willful ignorance thesis" of Lewis.

However, such reservations should not be seen as detracting from the overall worth of Hermes' book. In gathering together and re-interrogating the major accounts of Europe and its inhabitants from the Islamicate literature of the ninth to twelfth centuries he has drawn attention to these valuable texts, opened up new questions about how they should be understood and interpreted, and provided an important refutation of the assertion that the writers of the Muslim states were not interested in Europe, and for this he is to be commended. This book will hence be invaluable to scholars, students and interested laypersons seeking to gain a better understanding of how Europe was seen from the Islamic world.