Publication Date

December 1, 1992

AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


  • Middle East

Teaching Middle Eastern topics is often considered a uniquely problematic enterprise, hence the region is frequently avoided or minimized in Western or world civilization courses in spite of the many links between Middle Eastern and European societies and the centrality of Islamic societies in the complex of Afro-Eurasian agrarian-based citied civilization. This essay considers themes from Middle Eastern history and Arabo-Islamic texts that might be incorporated into such survey courses. While the Gulf War of 1991 underlined the importance of knowing something about the historical and cultural traditions of a part of the world in which the United States is likely to remain engaged for some time, teachers will want to assure themselves that the incorporation of Middle Eastern themes can be undertaken and justified intellectually and pedagogically on other than purely pragmatic or presentist grounds.

The traditional genealogy of Western civilization locates its origins in the Hebrew Bible, ancient Greece and Rome, and the New Testament. Its developmental trajectory was interrupted during the medieval period, which Henri Pirenne argued was brought on by the rise of Islam. But it resumed with the scholastic philosophers, the Age of Exploration, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French and American revolutions, and the passing of the torch of progress across the Atlantic to the United States. This narrative, especially in such a crude form, is problematic for several reasons. Annexing Greek civilization to Europe ignores its actual geographic location, which was as much Middle Eastern as European. The prominence of Spain in the rise of Western Europe is displaced. Insofar as the entity being described is conceived as a Judeo-Christian civilization, it incorrectly regards Jewish culture as European, whereas from the rise of Islam to the fifteenth century most of the important centers of Jewish culture, and indeed most Jews, were in the Muslim world. Arabic-speaking Jews from Mesopotamia, Spain, and Sicily often served as cultural mediators and translators from Greek to Arabic and from Arabic to Latin.

A more comprehensive conception that justifies including the Middle East in a course on Western civilization and provides a framework for locating Islamic societies in a world civilization course would be to consider the Mediterranean basin with an extension into the Iranian plateau as a zone of dynamic interaction among Greek, Persian, Islamic, Jewish, and Christian cultural traditions supported by a commercial network in which the Middle East functioned as the chief entrepot for long-distance trade between East Asia and the Mediterranean region. This notion draws on the work of Fernand Braudel (especially The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Harper & Row, 1972–73); on S. D. Goiten’s A Mediterranean Society (University of California Press, 1967–91), a multivolume history of the Jewish communities of the medieval Arab world based on the documents of the Cairo geniza; on Marshall Hodgson’s magisterial three-volume study, The Venture of Islam (University of Chicago Press, 1974); and most recently on Janet L. Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System, A.D. 1250–1350 (Oxford University Press, 1989). It helps us to understand that in the formation of what has come to be defined as Western culture, Islamic societies functioned as mediators between the Hellenic tradition and Western Europe during a period when Islam formed the cultural framework for long-distance trade around and beyond the Mediterranean basin. Thus, Mediterranean trade and the dialogue between the Socratic (Greek philosophical) and the Abrahamic (monotheistic) cultural traditions (the terms are Hodgson’s) can be used to organize a discussion of the interaction between Islam and Christian Europe in the realm of economic and social history and literate high culture. Even in the realm of popular culture it is possible to find common themes and traditions traversing the Mediterranean, though local knowledge is generally more powerful in shaping popular culture than broad regional influences.

When adding Middle Eastern themes and texts to existing courses an obvious starting point is the rise of Islam and the Qur’an (Koran), the Muslim sacred book. According to the Qur’an, the God (Allah) who spoke to Muhammad (570–632) is the same God who spoke previously to Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Altogether, some two dozen figures who appear in the Jewish and Christian scriptures are regarded as prophets in the Qur’an, which presents itself as the final revelation of God to humanity through his emissary Muhammad, the seal of the prophets. The surahs (chapters) of Joseph, Mary, and parts of The Cow exemplify the common narrative elements of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an. They also highlight some important differences, for example, the Muslim view that regarding Jesus as the Son of God contradicts the unity of God, the fundamental theological doctrine of Islam. The surahs of The Cow and The Women reveal something of the flavor of the Shari`ah (Islamic law), the defining framework for classical Islamic society, and they open a discussion about the impact of the advent of Islam on the status of women, a prominent topic in the contemporary Muslim world. The short surahs at the end of the Qur’an, the first to be revealed when Muhammad lived in Mecca, exemplify the moral thrust of Muhammad’s early preaching and the Islamic conception of God’s unity and power.

The Penguin translation of the Qur’an is not particularly accurate but it is relatively accessible for beginners. Ahmed Ali’s The Quran: A Contemporary Translation (Princeton University Press, 1988) reflects a modernist Islamic understanding. It has a parallel Arabic text, which helps make the point that Muslims do not regard any translation of the Qur’an as a true rendition of the word of God. A. J. Arberry’s The Koran Interpreted (Collier, 1986) emulates the style and spirit of the original Arabic, though it is the most difficult of these translations for beginning students. For background reading, W. Montgomery Watt’s Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman (Oxford University Press, 1961) is a solid biography of Muhammad from a traditional scholarly perspective sympathetic to Islam, though its argument has been sharply challenged by the revisionist work of Patricia Crone (Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, Princeton University Press, 1987; and, with Michael Cook, Hagarism, Cambridge University Press, 1977).

Contrary to the argument of the Pirenne thesis, the rise of Islam did not close the Mediterranean. Rather, the Arab conquests created what may be considered an Islamic common market. Starting in the mid-eighth century and peaking in the period of Fatimid rule in Egypt (969–1171), Muslim merchants established their dominance in Mediterranean commerce, and Islam became the hegemonic culture uniting both shores of the Mediterranean, as Rome did in antiquity. Gold Fatimid dinars circulated in a region delimited by Spain, Scandinavia, Muscovy, India, and China—a virtual “dollar of the Middle Ages.” The mercantile ethos and social diversity of Fatimid Egypt is exemplified by the career of Ya’qub ibn Killis (d. 991)—a Jewish merchant born in Baghdad and a convert to Islam who was one of the architects of the Fatimid empire and of its capital city, Cairo, where the new rulers established the first university in the Mediterranean basin, al-Azhar.

The Islamic commercial revolution was also accompanied by an agricultural revolution. According to Andrew Watson’s Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World (Cambridge University Press, 1983), Muslims introduced at least seventeen new plant varieties into the Mediterranean region, including rice, sugar cane, cotton, watermelons, eggplants, spinach, artichokes, sour oranges, lemons, limes, bananas, mangoes, and coconut palms. Muslims also initiated new irrigation techniques that expanded agricultural productivity. A twelfth-century Arabic cookbook, whose title can loosely be translated as The Way to the Beloved, lists more than 500 exotic recipes for chicken. The description of medieval recipes in Claudia Roden’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food (Random House, 1972, pp. 177–78) makes an entertaining classroom recitation.

It is difficult to find texts suitable for a survey course on economic topics like these. One strategy might be to assign selections from Alfred F. Havighurst, ed., The Pirenne Thesis: Analysis, Criticism, Revision (3rd ed., Heath, 1976) and pose the question: Why did Pirenne have such a negative view of Islam? Part of the answer would certainly be the influence of traditionally hostile European perceptions which can be traced to the era of the Crusades.

Comparing Muslim and European experiences of the Crusades is an excellent exercise for which there are many suitable texts and a reasonable secondary literature. Excerpts from Arabic chronicles translated and edited by Francisco Gabrieli in Arab Historians of the Crusades (University of California Press, 1969) convey the Muslim sense of cultural superiority. The selections on the Crusaders’ massacre of the Muslims and Jews of Jerusalem (from the chronicle of Ibn al-Athir) and on Frankish medicine and Orientalized Franks (from the autobiography of Usama Ibn Munqidh) are particularly graphic. Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades through Arab Eyes (Schocken, 1985) is a modern synthetic discussion of this issue. The Crusaders never occupied a major Muslim capital; they were eventually expelled, and a strong Muslim state was reconstituted by Saladin. So from the Muslim point of view, the Crusades were a minor and temporary military problem in a peripheral territory. However, historians whose project is the rise of the West often view the Crusades as the period when the balance of naval power between Islam and Christian Europe began to shift. After the year 1000 the commercial power of the Italian cities, which was enhanced by alliances with the Fatimids and their successors as well as by transporting and provisioning the Crusaders, gradually replaced the preeminent position of Muslim merchants in the Mediterranean.

The experiences of the Crusades and the Spanish Reconquista are reflected in several texts of the European literary canon that reveal interesting variations in their images of Islam. The Song of Roland, composed about the time of the first Crusade, can be read as a form of anti-Muslim war propaganda. The narrative is based on the Battle of Roncesvals (778) in which the Christian Gascons engaged the forces of Charlemagne, but in the poem the Gascons have been replaced by Muslims. Roland has an extremely hostile and ignorant view of Islam, regarding Muslims as heretics who worship a satanic trinity composed of Muhammad, Apollo, and Termagent. In contrast, The Poem of the Cid set during the Spanish Reconquista has a relatively benign and respectful view of Islam reflecting the fruitful coexistence of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Spain during the Convivencia period. Dante’s Divine Comedy was influenced by Arabic literary forms that entered Italy via Sicily. The Inferno contains a harsh description of Muhammad as a sower of discord and heresy. But Dante is more appreciative of Averroes (Ibn Rushd in Arabic), who is included among the “noble pagans” in recognition of his contributions to Latin Christian culture.

Ibn Rushd (1126–1198) is arguably the leading figure in the Arabo-Muslim philosophical and scientific tradition, which served as the transmission belt for the reintroduction of Greek thought into Western Europe. In 800 the Caliph Harun al-Rashid established a teaching hospital in Baghdad, an enterprise which encouraged the extensive translation of Greek medical texts into Arabic. The first such translations were made by Masrjawayh, an Arabic-speaking Jew from Basra around 720. Harun’s successor, al-Ma’mun, established an academy (Bayt al-Hikmah, or House of Wisdom) and encouraged his court physician Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809–873) to translate Greek medical, philosophical, and scientific works. Hunayn systemized a method of translating from Greek to Arabic via Syriac and supervised the translation of works by Galen, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, and Archimedes. Others who flourished in the Bayt al-Hikmah include al-Khwarizmi (Algorismus in Latin, 780–850), who introduced the use of zero into Arab mathematics and founded the science of algebra.

The cultural disparity between the lands of Islam and Europe in this period is captured in Philip K. Hitti’s pithy comment: “While al-Rashid and al-Ma’mun were delving into Greek and Persian philosophy their contemporaries in the West, Charlemagne and his lords, were reportedly dabbling in the art of writing their names” (The Arabs: A Short History, 2nd ed., Regnery Gateway, 1967, p. 120). This may not be entirely fair, because according to Einhard’s biography Charlemagne knew Latin and some Greek, although he never did master writing his name.

Arabo-Islamic medical science, which developed Greek theory and practice, was also far more advanced than European medicine. Abu Bakr al-Razi (Rhazes in Latin, 865–925), the chief physician at the Baghdad hospital, composed a comprehensive medical encyclopedia (al-Hawi, or Continens) that was translated into Latin in 1279 by a Sicilian Jew, Faraj ibn Salim. Works by al-Razi and Ibn Sina (Avicenna in Latin, 980–1037) dominated the teaching of medicine in Europe until the end of the sixteenth century.

Al-Farabi (d. 950) and Ibn Sina developed ideas derived from Plotinus (d. 270), an Egyptian whose neo-Platonic synthesis became the best known version of the thought of Plato and Aristotle for Muslims until Ibn Rushd corrected many misinterpretations. Ibn Rushd, known as “the commentator,” was the most important interpreter of Aristotle between late antiquity and the scholastics. Thomas Aquinas (1226–1274) and the scholastics discovered Aristotle and Greek philosophy by reading translations from Arabic into Latin made by Jewish scholars living in Toledo after the Christian reconquest in 1085. Ralph Lerner and Muhsin Mahdi’s edited volume, Medieval Political Philosophy (Cornell University Press, 1984), contains selections from al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Aquinas as well as the Jewish scholar Maimonides (Moshe ben Maymon, 1135–1204), whose philosophical works written in Arabic use Aristotelian categories. Their common intellectual project consisted of an attempt to reconcile the Abrahamic and Socratic intellectual traditions by demonstrating that there was no contradiction between truths derived from reason and divine revelation. Majid al-Fakhry’s A History of Islamic Philosophy (2nd ed., Columbia University Press, 1983) provides a good overview of this topic.

Al-Ghazali (Algazel in Latin, 1058–1111) is commonly considered the synthesizer of the classical Islamic outlook. His intellectual autobiography, Deliverance from Error (translated by Montgomery Watt as The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazali, Allen and Unwin, 1963; excerpted in William McNeill and Marilyn Robinson Waldman, eds., The Islamic World, University of Chicago Press, 1983), considers scholastic theology, philosophy, shi`a theosophy, and mysticism (sufism) as alternative paths to truth. Although he was familiar with the Greek philosophical tradition as it had passed into Islam, al-Ghazali polemicized against it in The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Pakistan Philosophical Society, 1958). Al-Ghazali sharply limited the scope of reason, concluding that a combination of shari`a-minded traditionalism and sufism constitute the surest path. Deliverance from Error is comparable to Augustine’s Confessions, as both represent a departure from the Socratic tradition, which accorded primacy to human reason.

Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) is the last great figure of medieval Arabo-Islamic philosophy. His Mugaddimah (Prolegomena to History) elaborates a philosophy of history and a theory of the state using materialist categories, although Ibn Khaldun undoubtedly considered himself a believing Muslim. The Mugaddimah has often been compared to Machiavelli’s The Prince, as both discuss the real behavior of states and rulers in terms of historical processes independent of religious or moral norms. The abridgement of Franz Rosenthal’s translation of The Mugaddimah (Princeton University Press, 1967) is convenient to use.

With the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492 and the shift of the dynamic center of Europe to the Atlantic northwest, it becomes more difficult to speak of a creative interaction between Islamic and Christian culture, but the conflict between the two societies continued to have a profound impact on the development of Europe. The Ottoman Empire remained a major power within the European state system until the late seventeenth century, and the Ottoman–Hapsburg rivalry was a significant factor contributing to the legal toleration of German Protestantism. Martin Luther originally regarded the Ottoman threat as a punishment for the sins of Christian Europe, and he viewed the Catholic Church as a greater enemy than the Ottomans. As the Ottomans were advancing on Vienna in 1529, Luther altered his views and advocated German unity against the Turks (“On War with the Turks”). Subsequently, the Protestant German princes of the Schmalkaldic League conditioned their participation in the defense of Vienna on obtaining religious toleration, and this was one of the factors that led Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to recognize Lutheranism in 1555.

In the modern era the Middle East is part of the story of the expansion of the world capitalist market centered in Europe, of colonial settlement, and of imperial conquest. The French conquest of Algeria (1830), the construction of the Suez Canal (1869), the British occupation of Egypt (1882), and the conflicting British promises to the Arabs and Zionists during World War I are among the critical moments that have shaped the relationship between the Middle East and the West in the twentieth century. Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (Grove Press, 1965), a product of the Algerian war of independence (1954–62), captures the anger and rejection of the West common to many Arabs and other formerly colonized peoples as they began to search for a postcolonial cultural and political orientation, while its central object of analysis—the emergent nation-states of the Third World—is a product of Western influence.

A minimum program for integrating these topics into existing survey courses might focus on adding texts whose themes are comparable to texts often included in Western or world civilization courses. In that case selections from the Qur’an, from al-Ghazali’s Deliverance from Error, and from Ibn Khaldun’s Mugaddimah can be chosen. This strategy can justifiably be criticized as tokenism, as it introduces only a few texts and themes out of their original context primarily because of their relationship to the canonical themes of Western civilization. But it opens the door to viewing Arabo-Islamic culture as something that is not inherently hostile or foreign to the tradition many Americans claim as their own. This is, in my view, potentially a sufficient good to justify this practice.

A more ambitious and intellectually satisfying program would integrate many of the themes and texts discussed here into a traditional Western civilization syllabus. Such a course is difficult to teach and demanding of students. But it can be done, and it offers many rewards.

Elements of this essay are a commentary on the syllabus of a one-year course designed by a group of Stanford faculty entitled “Conflict and Change in Western Culture.” That course simultaneously satisfied the requirements of the old Western Culture Program and pointed to the need for the reform, which has since been adopted. Working as a team allowed teachers whose fields as commonly constructed might not intersect to transcend the limits of traditional disciplinary and interpretive categories. Involving literary scholars and sociologists as well as historians in teaching the course led us to prefer addressing broad themes over presenting a seamless historical narrative. Organizing the course around texts with comparable themes and using some less well-known texts allowed students to read and explicate them with a diminished sense of obligation to a received “correct” interpretation. Emphasizing the dynamic interaction and common elements of traditions commonly represented as now engaged in a confrontation rooted in an antagonism between the core values of their cultures encouraged some students to think more critically about popular images and definitions of issues related to the Middle East. These benefits more than compensated for the effort required to develop and teach a course of this nature.

Joel Beinin is an associate professor at Stanford University. Sabine McCormack, Mary Louise Pratt, Renato I. Rosaldo, Jr., Susan A. Stephens, Ann Swidler, David E. Wellbery, the late John Winkler, and Morris Zelditch, Jr.—all of whom taught in Conflict and Change in Western Culture—contributed to the ideas in this essay in ways that make individual attribution impossible.