Europe's debt to Islam given a skeptical look
By John Vinocur
Monday, April 28, 2008
When Sylvain Gouguenheim looks at today's historical vision of the history of the West and Islam, he sees a notion, accepted as fact, that the Muslim world was at the source of the Christian Europe's reawakening from the Middle Ages.
He sees a portrayal of an enlightened Islam, transmitting westward the knowledge of the ancient Greeks through Arab translators and opening the path in Europe to mathematics, medicine, astronomy and philosophy - a gift the West regards with insufficient esteem.
"This thesis has basically nothing scandalous about it, if it were true," Gouguenheim writes. "In spite of the appearances, it has more to do with taking ideological sides than scientific analysis."
For a controversy, here's a real one. Gouguenheim, a professor of medieval history at a prestigious university, l'École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, is saying "Whoa!" to the idea there was an Islamic bridge of civilization to the West. Supposedly, it "would be at the origin of the Middle Ages' cultural and scientific reawakening, and (eventually) the Renaissance."
In a new book, he is basically canceling, or largely writing off, a debt to "the Arabo-Muslim world" dating from the year 750 - a concept built up by other historians over the past 50 years - that has Europe owing Islam for an essential part of its identity.
"Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel" (Editions du Seuil), while not contending there is an ongoing clash of civilizations, makes the case that Islam was impermeable to much of Greek thought, that the Arab world's initial translations of it to Latin were not so much the work of "Islam" but of Aramaeans and Christian Arabs, and that a wave of translations of Aristotle began at the Mont Saint-Michel monastery in France 50 years before Arab versions of the same texts appeared in Moorish Spain.
When I talked to Gouguenheim about his book a couple of weeks ago, he said he had no interest in polemics, just some concern that his research could be misused by extremists.
At the same time, he acknowledged that his subject was intensely political. Gouguenheim said it was in light of a 2002 recommendation from the European Union that schoolbooks give a more positive rendering of Islam's part in European heritage "that an attempt at a clarification becomes necessary." Reading Gouguenheim without a background in the history of the Byzantine Empire or the Abassid caliphate is a bit of a challenge. It justifies distance and reserving judgment.
But Le Figaro and Le Monde, in considering the book in prominent reviews, drank its content in a single gulp. No suspended endorsements or anything that read like a caution.
"Congratulations," Le Figaro wrote. "Mr. Gouguenheim wasn't afraid to remind us that there was a medieval Christian crucible, a fruit of the heritage of Athens and Jerusalem," while "Islam hardly proposed its knowledge to Westerners."
Le Monde was even more receptive: "All in all, and contrary to what's been repeated in a crescendo since the 1960s, European culture in its history and development shouldn't be owing a whole lot to Islam. In any case, nothing essential.
"Precise and well-argued, this book, which sets history straight, is also a strongly courageous one."
But is it right?
Gouguenheim attacks the "thesis of the West's debt" as advanced by the historians Edward Said, Alain de Libera and Mohammed Arkoun. He says it replaces formerly dominant notions of cultural superiority advanced by Western orientalists, with "a new ethnocentrism, oriental this time" that sets off an "enlightened, refined and spiritual Islam" against a brutal West.
Nuggets: Gouguenheim argues that Bayt al-Hikma, or the House of Wisdom, said to be created by the Abassids in the ninth century, was limited to the study of Koranic science, rather than philosophy, physics or mathematics, as understood in the speculative context of Greek thought.
He says that Aristotle's works on ethics, metaphysics and politics were disregarded or unknown to the Muslim world, being basically incompatible with the Koran. Europe, he said, "became aware of the Greek texts because it went hunting for them, not because they were brought to them."
Gouguenheim calls the Mont Saint-Michel monastery, where the texts were translated into Latin, "the missing link in the passage from the Greek to the Latin world of Aristotelian philosophy." Outside of a few thinkers - he lists Al-Farabi, Avicenne, Abu Ma'shar and Averroes - Gougenheim considers that the "masters of the Middle East" retained from Greek teaching only what didn't contradict Koranic doctrine.
Published less than a month ago, the book is just beginning to encounter learned criticism. Sarcastically, Gabriel Martinez-Gros, a professor of medieval history, and Julien Loiseau, a lecturer, described Gouguenheim as "re-establishing the real hierarchy of civilizations."
They said that he disregarded the mathematics and astronomy produced by the Islamic world between the 9th and 13th centuries and painted the period's Islamic civilization exactly what it was not: obscurantist, legalistic, fatalistic and fanatic.
Indeed, Gouguenheim's thesis, they suggest, has "intellectual associations that are questionable at their very heart" - which I take to mean nastily right-wing.
If you read Gougenheim's appendix, he's preemptively headed off that kind of accusation. He offers his book as an antidote to an approach to Islam's medieval relations to the West exemplified by the late Sigrid Hunke, a German writer, described as a former Nazi and friend of Heinrich Himmler.
Hunke describes a pioneering, civilizing Islam to which "the West owes everything." Gouguenheim replies that, in deforming reality, her work from the 1960s continues as a reference point that unfortunately still "shapes the spirit of the moment."
He says he means to rectify that.
His book is interesting and bold. At the very least, it is kindling for arguments on a touchy subject where most people don't have more than inklings and instincts to sort out even shards of truth from angry and conflictual expertise.
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