Hardy scholars and travellers

Western scholarship on Islam has long been under a cloud

Benedikt Koehler

Western scholarship on Islam has come under a cloud. According to Edward Said’s Orientalism, Western scholars have looked at Islam through a distorting lens of hostility, and as this bias compromised their scholarship from the outset Western scholarship unwittingly revealed more about attitudes in the West than it did about Islam. Europeans before the crusades, to be sure, had not bothered even to translate the Koran and after the crusades for a very long time ignored Islam altogether. And, going by the title of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations, a mental mould cast during the Crusades has not broken even today. However, as Alexander Bevilacqua shows, if personal agendas framed Western engagement with Islam, these bore no resemblance to the attitudes Said imputed to them. The Republic of Arabic Letters backtracks to the emergence of modern Islamic scholarship in the 17th century and finds no guilty secrets lurking at the origin of modern academic engagement with Islam and the East. Bevilacqua offers many surprising discoveries. One of them is that robust modern scholarship on Islam was shaped in an ostensibly improbable source, namely the Vatican.

The pioneers of modern Islamic study excelled as scholars, diplomats, and explorers, but for all that, were often denied recognition. The Roman friar who translated the Koran, Lodovico Marracci, had the pope’s backing for his undertaking, but Marracci spent less time on translating the Koran than on getting his translation into print, because he needed the bureaucracy of the Vatican to grant him permission to publish and such permission was not forthcoming. But he persisted, and after the Latin version appeared in 1698, George Sale translated the Koran into English in 1734. Meanwhile in Paris, Barthélemy d’Herbelot and Antoine Galland in 1697 exhibited the secular culture of Islam in the Bibliothèque Orientale, an encyclopaedia that contained 8,000 entries drawn from original, often hitherto unpublished Islamic sources. The energy of Galland was boundless — he went on to showcase Arabic belles lettres by producing the first translation of One Thousand and One Nights, using a manuscript he had acquired on one of his tours abroad.

Scholars of Galland’s generation were often indefatigable travellers and book collectors: Galland (1646-1715) spent some 15 years in Ottoman realms; Edward Pococke (1604-1691) six years in Aleppo; Jacob Golius (1596-1667) seven years in Morocco and the Levant. Their book-shopping sprees were vitally important for kick-starting Western scholarship on Islam, because in Europe libraries at the time were new and their holdings still small: the Vatican library had been founded in 1475, Thomas Bodley had started a library in Oxford in 1598. Library holdings of Arabic books were accordingly modest and unless a library received gifts, such as Archbishop William Laud’s donation of 147 Arabic books to the Bodleian, additions had to be acquired abroad. The scholar-travellers of the 17th century returned with books that opened up gateways for other scholars to follow, but if immersion in Islamic culture was a pathway to scholastic laurels it was by no means necessarily one to stipends and status. Johann Jacob Reiske (1716-1774) caught the eye of the King of Saxony for having translated the Sayings of Ali, works of Abulfeda, and much else besides, and was promised a pension which, however, was never paid out in full. The Cambridge professor of Arabic Simon Ockley (1678-1720) had an income that fell short of his family’s needs and he did time in a debtor’s prison (which had a bright side, he claimed, insofar as there nobody interfered with his work). A common characteristic of early scholars of Islam was a combination of humility and stamina.
As the 17th century gave way to the Enlightenment, the character of scholarship of Islam changed: translators and explorers yielded to savants and philosophes. Where Islamic scholarship had once focused on improving knowledge about texts and events, it now moved to interpreting what those texts and events had to tell Europeans and what were the inferences that could be drawn from them: the East became a foil for the West. In 1721, Charles Louis de Montesquieu published a fictional correspondence by a Persian visiting France and observing the French way of life, the Lettres Persanes. This was a huge success, and from then on, histories of the East refracted reflections on the West. When Voltaire (1694-1778) and Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) discussed the import of Muhammad for the emergence of a new faith, their readers took this is a cue — the subtext was that Christianity, like Islam, by analogy likewise might have had an origin that was historical rather than divine. If historians of this era added little to the European stock of knowledge on Islam, their sceptical stance against organised religion in any form was in sympathy with the inclinations of a wider reading public.

The impact of Enlightenment historians was formative, albeit counterintuitive: Marracci and Sale, devout Christians, had encouraged the study of Islam on its own terms; Voltaire and Gibbon, sceptics against organised religion generally, fed a tacit bias against all things Islamic. The unintended consequence of Enlightenment historiography of Islam was to stifle inquiry that had been embarked upon by Catholics and Protestants alike, namely into links between all three Abrahamic religions. For example, Lodovico Marracci had raised the question as to the extent of Judaic elements in Islam; such a query had to wait until 1833 when the German rabbi Abraham Geiger made it the subject of a prize-winning essay; Henry Stubbe (1632-1676) pointed out that Islamic monotheism was in defiance of Catholic Trinitarianism; and Unitarians and Socinians reflected on the evocation of Sura 112 (“Say, God is one God . . .”) which proved, they felt, that opposition to Catholicism had deep roots.

If the West’s exploration of Islam in the 17th and 18th centuries was a story of fits and starts, of progress and regress, then, as Bevilacqua shows, it seems it is ever thus. Scholarship of the 17th century has stood the test of time: the translations by George Sale and Antoine Galland have been superseded only recently; the Bibliothèque Orientale was the only one of its kind until the Encyclopaedia of Islam began publication in 1913. Moreover, the pace of publishing Islamic scholarship today is no faster than it was then — if anything, it has slowed. Some works by Marracci, Reiske and Eusèbe Renaudot still languish in manuscript form, many Muslim classics — to name but a few, Ibn Khaldun, Al Masudi, and Al Hariri — even now have been translated only in part into English. It is indicative of the West’s tortuous engagement with Islam that the foundation of European scholarship on Islam had to wait until now to be uncovered; it is all the more creditable that Bevilacqua has cleared the ground to build on it.

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