By Bernard Lewis, 217 pages, Oxford University Press, Oxford University Press, USD 16.95.
“Yet despite this perception of non-Byzantine Europe as an outer wilderness of barbarism and unbelief, there was at the time an awareness that the Europeans, even the western Europeans, were not simple barbarians like the other neighbors of Islam in the east and in the south. They were, after all, followers of a real religion, superseded but resting on an authentic revelation and thus vastly superior to the polytheists and idolaters whom the Muslims encountered in other regions.”
The West and Islam are more closely intertwined than either side would care to admit, and as Lewis' above words indicate, the two civilizations have had a unique relationship with each other. The West, formerly the Christian West or Christendom, feared and fought Islam (as in the medieval Reconquista of Islamic Spain and Portugal) in a way that it never did Buddhist lands or the New World.
The opening essay of the collection of writings by the famous American scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, makes this its central heint. Though an academic, Lewis manages in the forty pages of this chapter to describe in simple terms the panorama of European-Islamic history.
Lewis writes as historian, sociologist, economist, and political theorist, as in the following words: “It is not uncommon for an economy to be stimulated by the commercial impact of another, more active and technologically more advanced society. What is special in the European impact on the lands of Islam, especially in the Middle East, is that on both sides the agents and beneficiaries of the resulting economic change were aliens. The outsiders were of course Europeans.”
Another essay, “Translation from Arabic,” gives us a sense of Arabic's importance, which until the Renaissance, he notes, had been the most translated language in the world. In addition to being a scriptural language, it was the medium for law, philosophy, literature, commerce, and science for millions of people: “It was thus the equivalent in the medieval Islamic world of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew in the West, as well as of the literary vernaculars until until the beginnings of the modern period.”
Islam and the West helps us Westerners look critically at ourselves and at how we have thought about and treated others: In one medieval story, “the Christian poet endeavors to give his readers ... some idea of the Saracen religion. According to this vision, the Saracens [Muslims] worshiped a trinity consisting of three persons: Muhammad, the founder of their religion, and two others, both of them devils, Apollin and Tervagant. To us this seems comic, and we are amused by medieval man unable to conceive of religion or indeed of anything else except in his own image. Since Christendom worshiped its founder in association with two other entities, the Saracens also had to worship their founder, and he too had to be one of a trinity, with two demons co-opted to make up the number.”
Lewis makes the important point in this essay and throughout the book that we Westerners are still looking at the Islamic world this way—still seeing in them some image of ourselves.