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The Islamic World and the West: Recovering Common History

One out of five people in the world are Muslim, and many Europeans express fear about growing numbers of Muslim migrants. “Islam in Europe tends to be viewed as not only a recent, but also a foreign and threatening presence,” explains Nayef Al-Rodhan, University of Oxford philosopher, neuroscientist and geostrategist. “Europe and the Arab-Islamic world have brushed shoulders for centuries, and their histories are inextricably linked.” Europe tends to overlook historical contributions from the Arab-Islamic world. “Pushing immigrant communities to shed cultural frameworks only encourages these communities towards counterproductive defensive postures,” Al-Rodhan writes. Acknowledgement of the shared heritage and mutual contributions – not simply with trade but in mathematics, scientific inquiry and art – could counter the emerging narratives that Islam is dangerous for Europe and Muslims lack enthusiasm for innovation. Such acknowledgement alone will not ensure security, Al-Rodhan concludes, and good governance may not necessarily follow western liberal democratic traditions. – YaleGlobal

The Islamic World and the West: Recovering Common History

Europe overlooks long history of good exchanges with Arab-Islamic world and encourages defensive posture
Nayef Al-Rodhan
YaleGlobal, 15 July 2014
Wisdom from the East: The House of Wisdom – the royal library in Abbasid Baghdad (top); the world map by Al-Idrisi, looking southward

OXFORD: Recent years have seen much talk of the dangers of Islam in the West and its perceived incompatibility with Western societies. According to statistics, estimated on the basis of country of origin and of first- and second-generation migrants, Muslims represent the largest “non-indigenous” immigrant group in Europe. The largest groups are in France, with approximately 5 million; Germany, between 3.8 and 4.3 million; and the UK, 1.6 million, followed by the Netherlands and Italy, 1.1 million each, as well as Bulgaria and Spain.

The tendency across Europe to label immigrants in religious terms has led to a “culturalizing” of social problems and subsequent reference to a “Muslim problem.” In late 2010, for instance, the first conference on the Islamization of Europe was held in France, cautioning against the increasing presence of Islam in Europe, the latter defined as a civilization with Greco-Latin roots.

But, is Europe’s civilizational heritage really Greco-Latin? Mainstream European historiography would certainly have us believe so, stressing legacies such as the influence of Greek philosophy, the Latin Christendom or the Latin alphabet. The reality is more complex.

Islam in Europe tends to be viewed as not only a recent, but also a foreign and threatening presence. This popular misperception results from a thousand years of willful forgetting. In fact, Europe and the Arab-Islamic world have brushed shoulders for centuries, and their histories are inextricably linked. Knowledge, techniques and institutions made their way from East to West. As Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages, the Arab-Islamic world experienced its Golden Age; illustrious centers of learning in Baghdad, Cairo, Palermo, Cordova, Granada, Seville and Toledo drew scholars from far and wide, who not only studied the works of the Ancients but also developed bodies of Arab-Islamic science and philosophy. This westward flow of ideas and practices profoundly shaped Europe’s development.

Positive encounters between Europe and the Arab-Islamic world no longer constitute part of the West’s collective memory.

Yet, these positive encounters no longer constitute part of the collective memory of the West. Within the dominant narrative of the rise of West, the revival of Ancient Greek knowledge following the Dark Ages was key in paving the way for the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. This progressive pathway is attributed to qualities described as uniquely European such as intellectual curiosity, rationalism or the protestant work ethic. The dominant discourse of Europe’s ascent depicts it as chartings its own course without building on the achievements of other geo-cultural domains or civilizations. Debts to others are rarely acknowledged.

Despite these distorting Eurocentric explanations, there have also been scholarly attempts to question mainstream European historiography by illuminating the role that the East played in the rise of the West. These works demonstrate how contact with the Arab-Islamic world helped fuel the expansion of the European trading system along with rational religious, scientific and artistic inquiry. Uncovering this shared heritage may help build the foundations of a collective memory that combats the discourse on the danger of Islam to Europe and the West.

History demonstrates how groundbreaking achievements are invariably built on the contributions of others. Just as the Arab-Islamic world built on the foundations of earlier advancements and borrowed from other geo-cultural domains, so too did Europe. Transmissions of science and technology to Medieval Europe from the Arab-Islamic world paved the way for the European Scientific Revolution, the greatest impact being on mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and medicine. The Enlightenment, too, was influenced by a strong tradition in the Arab-Islamic world of reasoning that encouraged individual judgment and contributed to rationalist philosophy in Europe. The combination of reason and observation in the acquisition of scientific knowledge, unlike the Hellenistic tradition of observation alone, advanced European scientific knowledge.

The Arab-Islamic world built upon the foundations of earlier advancements, and so too did Europe.

The contribution of the Arab-Islamic world to the rise of the West also extends to material and institutional elements. Commercial and industrial activities in the Near East and India did much to propel the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism in Europe. This, in turn, calls into question the widely held belief that capitalism emerged in Europe due to specific values and ethics connected to Protestantism and rationalism. Even rationalism, which underpinned the emergence of a rule of law in Europe, may have some origins in Islamic legal institutions, with transmission as the 12th century. This implies that the emergence of a rational, impersonal state may not have its origins entirely in Europe as is commonly thought.  

The rise of Europe should be seen as part of a global history. Instead of thinking in terms of separate civilizations, it is more fruitful to think about one human civilization to which different geo-cultural domains contribute, much like an ocean into which many rivers flow. Conceiving of civilization in these terms renders the contributions of others visible. It also encourages recognition of the debts that we all owe to others and reduce cultural arrogance.

Unearthing the many positive exchanges that occurred between Europe and the Arab-Islamic world has immediate implications for contemporary transcultural relations. Once this stark opposition is broken down, it becomes more difficult to categorize the East in general and the Arab-Islamic world in particular as peripheral and subordinate. The East no longer seems so reassuringly inferior, antagonistic or alien to the West. This forces us to revisit the notion of the “Arab predicament” that has generated so much fatalistic thinking.

A more holistic look at history is instructive in other respects.  Identifying our commonalities, which in part involves tracing our past encounters and exchanges, is critical to promoting modern transcultural security. Awareness of this enriching process of cross-cultural fertilization needs to be promoted among the general public and not simply in restricted academic circles. Here, education is key. Promoting this awareness would help build a collective memory in Europe that Arabs and Muslims are present, not only in relation to confrontation but also in connection to high points in Europe’s history.

The US gives immigrants the necessary time to assimilate. Europe must do the same.

The United States has been more successful in assimilating people from different cultures than Europe. This is because America did not ask immigrants to choose between their ethnic/cultural/religious frameworks and their "American-ness." Host countries have the right to demand loyalty to the security of the state and the rule of law from their new immigrants, but they must allow them to assimilate at their own pace aided by opportunity, inclusion, trust and respect. Pushing immigrant communities to shed cultural frameworks only encourages these communities towards counterproductive defensive postures. America assimilated immigrant communities successfully because it gave them the necessary time to do so, and Europe needs to do the same.

In conclusion, increased awareness of our connections and reciprocal debts is not enough to ensure transcultural security. This will also depend on enabling the emergence of endogenous good governance paradigms outside the West. While people around the world do seem to embrace democratic ideals, the desired end point of such struggles does not or may not have to be an exact replica of Western liberal democracy. Imposition of governance models and interference from outside will be unsustainable over the long run and will only undermine trust and transcultural security. We, therefore, not only need to revisit history, but also look at the course of history with new lenses in order to ensure peaceful and mutually respectful relations between the West and the Arab-Islamic world.

 Nayef Al-Rodhan is a philosopher, neuroscientist and geostrategist. He is senior member of St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, UK, and senior fellow and director of the Centre for the Geopolitics of Globalization and Transnational Security at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, Geneva, Switzerland. He is also author of The Role of the Arab-Islamic World in the Rise of the West: Implications for Contemporary Trans-Cultural Relations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). 

Read an excerpt from his book: "The Role of the Arab-Islamic World in the Rise of the West: Implications for Contemporary Trans-Cultural Relations."

Rights:Copyright © 2014 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale

Comments on this Article

24 July 2014
Dear Prof. al-Rodhan,
For your interest, I will be forwarding a paper I just finished and to be published in a major academic journal. It is about philosophy. I know longer view the "west" as anything but mythical. The medieval period was defined by Islamic civilization, paving the way to what call modernity. My paper deals with the philosophical background, the reason why all that should be so.
-Anthony F. Shaker , Islamic philosophy and science
19 July 2014
It would be wise to remember that there was an East before there was a West. I suggest that the Ancient 'Silk Road' foundational upon the Muslim trader and the maritime explorations of Zheng He as well as the 'Axial Age' were all primary contributors towards the East being contributor to the West --
Just a simple extract of the East contribution prior to Eurocentrism and its brethren Americocentrism -- each failing to give a resurgence to a 'nation - geocentrism' concept ....
-E.X. Pat , article: Islamic World and the West
15 July 2014
Very interesting piece, however, I take issue with many of
the assertions made. I like the main point that we need to think and
rise above the parochial notion of East versus West and think globally
but the argument is not well backed up. I dont think the assertions are
entirely accurate. The Hellenistic tradition does not rely on
observation alone - reason and debates (Socratic method) were very
much part of the tradition. Also Aristotle's logos - logic is both
reason and observation as we define it today.
I also find the reason for why America has accepted immigrants more
easily a bit too simple - first, whatever native history/culture
pre-existed European arrival was conclusively destroyed so there was
no framework that demanded fitting into, second, those who came first
to inhabit were misfits at home, renegades and rebels in some way or
the other who resisted cultural norms in their own countries and
finally assimilation is expected even in America, its just that
institutions have been co-created by immigrant groups - a varying
number of them over time, so its a more gentle expectation and besides
institutions are always evolving.
-Priya Natarajan , Very interesting piece,