European Culture and Islam

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Since the rise of Islam in the seventh century there has been continuous interaction between Europe and the Islamic world, often with profound implications on either side. Deepest and with greatest effect has been the interaction between Europe and Islam in the Middle East and North Africa, that is, Arab Islam. The new Arab-Islamic state, established in the 640s and 650s, included major areas that had been conquered from the East Roman (Byzantine) empire. Many aspects of Byzantine culture and custom were absorbed into the nascent Islamic culture, including administrative and legal practices. Over a longer term, the Hellenistic philosophical heritage played a major role in the development of Islamic philosophy, and its gnostic tradition in Islamic mysticism. Through both official and unofficial translation projects, major Greek works of philosophy and science became available in Arabic, laying the foundation of a flourishing of the sciences, including mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, in Arabic.

Arab-Islamic civilization in turn made a major contribution to the development of European Christian civilization a few centuries later. The main routes for this transfer were Sicily and Spain. The influence of Islamic art and architecture on the early Renaissance is often quite explicit, as in many of the well-known churches and palaces of Florence and other Italian cities. Likewise, the impact of the Spanish Islamic philosophers, above all Ibn Rushd (Averroes), on Thomas Aquinas, is widely acknowledged. It is also the case that much of the Greek philosophical tradition, in particular that of Aristotle, was for a long time known primarily through the Arabic versions of the texts. It has been suggested that the influence goes much deeper. Especially via the Norman connections, from Sicily to northern France and England, and through Italian networks, the patterns and structures of learning, of the organization of institutions, and of professional development were transmitted from the Mediterranean Islamic world into western Christendom. So it is suggested that the earliest universities in Europe, such as Bologna, Paris, and Oxford, were founded on Islamic models. Similarly, many of the financial instruments and techniques of long-distance trade, which became so important in the early development of European capitalism, were borrowed from Middle Eastern models. The Crusades, by contrast, appear to have brought into Europe primarily certain military techniques.

Over the following centuries, cultural exchange both ways was diminished. The Ottomans very quickly adopted some of the new military technologies of Europe, especially artillery, while Europe during the eighteenth century developed a fascination with things "oriental" in the arts and crafts. The globalization of European trade combined with the industrial revolution firmly moved the initiative into European hands. At the same time the encounter between Europe and Islam spread beyond the Mediterranean into South and South-East Asia and into sub-Saharan Africa. The imperial expansion was the context for the adoption of "curious" elements of Islamic culture into European culture, but Islamic cultures came under an all-pervading European impact. Initially, this impact was mainly economic. As the industrial revolution gathered pace, so European industrial exports began to replace the products of local craftsmen, and the colonized economies became suppliers of raw materials. Egypt was a good example of this process as it switched its agriculture from producing food to producing raw cotton during the first few decades of the nineteenth century. When Egypt took control of Syria in the 1830s and cut import duties, the finished cotton goods produced in the mills of England from Egyptian cotton replaced the locally produced crafts of the Syrian cities.

But European ideas also started attracting the urban intellectual and professional classes of the Islamic world. Initially the attraction was limited to individuals, but as states began to restructure on European patterns, either because they came under European rule, as in India, Indonesia, or Algeria, or because they sought to meet the European political challenge, as in the Ottoman empire, Egypt, and Persia, they also built up new education systems to produce the kind of manpower they needed. By the end of the nineteenth century there were a number of European-style universities and many more secondary schools. The early attractions of the social and political ideas of the French revolution were supplemented by the end of the nineteenth century by many of the nationalist philosophical ideas that had been developed in Germany. These ideas were being circulated ever more widely among a growing urban middle-class and literate population through newspapers, a new literature of poetry, histories, essays, and political pamphlets.

The early precursors of national movements can be found throughout the Islamic world by the beginning of the twentieth century. Their ideas often combined elements of European ideas with Islamic ones, and many times used Islamic terms to express European ideas. During the 1930s, a growing sense of disillusion with European models could be discerned. The European ideas of liberty and democracy were not being extended to the colonies, so many intellectuals began to look for their ideas in Islamic traditions, the most radical formulating explicit and complete rejections of anything European. This trend was strengthened in response to the establishment of Israel in 1948, perceived as an imposed foreign body, and even more so after the Israeli victory in 1967, after which the Islamic trends gradually moved center-stage.

However, throughout the twentieth century the continuing impact of a globalizing economy appeared irresistible. Declining agriculture and the growth of industry and services led to a massive movement of populations from the countryside to the large cities. A small proportion of that movement took the form of migration to European cities. The impact on Islam of this urbanization—and with it the growth of education and literacy—is difficult to underestimate, and the impact is similar whether in Islamic cities or in European cities. The traditional synthesis of Islamic practices and local customs finds it very difficult to function in the modern urban environment. Many have responded to this by rebelling against modernity or withdrawing from participation in it, providing some of the Islamist political movements much of their support. On the other hand, many younger people have started using their newly gained educational resources to challenge the traditions of the older generation. They seek to separate local custom from the core of Islamic expectations and principles, placing themselves on a collision course with many of their parents' generation. A number of Islamic intellectuals have recognized this and have become prominent participants in a rethinking of Islamic law and theology that has a large audience both in Europe and the Islamic world.

A Seljuk manuscript of Aristotle and students appears in the volume one color insert.

See alsoAndalus, al- ; Balkans, Islam in the ; Europe, Islam in .


Daniel, Norman. Islam and the West: The Making of an Image. Oxford, U.K.: One World, 1993.

Haddad, Yvonne Y., ed. Muslims in the West: From Sojourners to Citizens. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Makdisi, George. The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990.

Waardenburg, Jacques, ed. Muslim Perceptions of Other Religions: A Historical Survey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Jorgen S. Nielsen

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European Culture and Islam

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European Culture and Islam