Monthly Archives: January 2008

‘Creating East And West’

Creating East and West: Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks.
Nancy Bisaha.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2004.

Where earlier scholars have oft neglected the plentiful writings of Humanists on the Ottoman Turks, as these seemed to echo Mediaeval ideals and to stand outside the typical concerns of their intellectual movement, Bisaha sees in their work a fundamental shift in the way in which the Christian West began to conceive of itself and its relations with the wider world. She argues that the Humanist response to the rise of Ottoman power in Europe was instrumental in the formation of a Western cultural identity, and that in fact the “Humanist reactions to the Ottoman Turks are a legacy of the Renaissance not less important than the dignity of man, republican thought, and three-point perspective in painting.” (11)

She traces the myth of ‘East’ and ‘West’ as opposites to the ancient Greeks (e.g., to Herodotus). It was adopted and expanded under the Romans, particularly with the rise of Christianity, which used the physical reach of the Eastern Roman (later Byzantine) Empire to define the limits of civilization. In Bisaha’s thesis, the Byzantines take on a central rôle in delineating East from West, for with Arab armies having swallowed much of the old Rome, and the Turks having poured into Anatolia, Constantinople and its immediate hinterlands began to be seen as the dividing line between a culturally coherent entity—Europe—and the foreign, ‘infidel’ Other. She argues that the Humanists’ “intimate association, or ‘active relationship’, with the ancient past” allowed then the develop a “transformative” reading style which fit ancient models to present reality. (43) The advancement of the Turks was read as a continuation of the Greco-Persian Wars, and Greek rhetoric about the Easterners’ threat to ‘civilization’ was simply updated to fit the political struggles of the Renaissance.

This increasing identification of Western culture with the Greco-Roman past would prove a double-edged sword. The explosion of respect for, and direct engagement with, the Greek legacy within the Latin West made possible an unprecedented cultural efflorescence. And yet, as appreciation for Greek learning expanded, views of the Turks deteriorated, and made the loss of Constantinople in 1453 seem especially traumatic. (133-4, 62) Having elevated the Greeks so far, the Humanists came to see the loss of Byzantium as a general threat to “Christendom, Europe, and Western culture” (134), which lead increasingly to calls for new Crusades, and inspired writers to revive Mediaeval polemic to justify this stance.

The new approach to the Turks quickly spilled over into relations with Islam. Arabs had hitherto escaped the epithet ‘barbarian’ on account of their cultural achievements, but the Ottoman Turks, about whom much less was known, found this ancient slur resurrected and applied to them. (73) It would not be long before this association was transferred to Muslim civilization as a whole, and new religious polemics were “even employed as a means to minimize the intellectual foundations of Islam and, hence, the great… achievements of Muslim scholars.” (135) From the earlier recognition that Islam had “produced some of the greatest philosophers of the Middle Ages”, prominent Humanists came “completely [to dismiss] Arab learning as valueless and even harmful to Western readers.” (170) Mediaeval texts were uncritically mined to develop images of Islam which, in many cases, still persist.

And yet this is only half of the story, as Bisaha credits the Humanists with initiating a revolution which would introduce a multicultural perspective to scholarship on the non-Western world. The classical legacy was just as important here as in forming the East-West binary, for by “engaging pre-Christian concepts of foreign cultures and adversaries, humanists were able to see the Turks as more than just ‘enemies of the faith’.” (8) She identifies a parallel discourse which invoked comparison between the Ottomans and the Romans, on account of their considerable technical and administrative achievements. Some time is also profitably spent on a handful of figures who bucked prevailing trends to carve out a more nuanced or ambivalent perspective on the Turks, from the neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino, to Erasmus and Machiavelli. Significantly, though, she does stress that these and other authors still wrote from a purely Christian perspective, and that whilst they tended to point out the interconfessional similarities and the need for mutual tolerance and dialogue, their ultimate goal remained conversion of Muslims to the ‘one true faith’. In this way, the rhetoric of the Humanists becomes a mirror of tension in our own time: “By simultaneously fashioning both a chauvinistic sense of ‘Western civilization’ and a more relativistic approach to other societies, humanists would shape the early modern and modern perceptions of not only the Muslim East but also other non-Western cultures. The negative impulse was the more dominant of the two legacies…” (174)

This brings us to the relevance of Bisaha’s work to current scholarship. She usefully observes that not only are “Humanist interpretations of Christian thought regarding the Turks… a microcosm of later Christian attitudes towards Islam” (173), but that their works laid the intellectual foundations for the colonialist enterprise. She suggests “that European assertions of intellectual superiority over Native Americans did not spontaneously arise on the first contacts between the two cultures. In many ways the Turkish advance provided compelling conditions under which humanists constructed a coherent vision of Western culture and its inherent superiority to other societies.” (183) In this way, her book is an effective intervention in the debate over characterisation of Muslim and Western cultures and conflict, and in particular the reflexive chauvinism still permeating media coverage and political rhetoric about the Islamic world’s supposed deficiencies.

However, as an intellectual history it is aimed at a strictly academic audience, and is unlikely to receive the readership it deserves. In particular, assumptions about the reader’s knowledge of Catholic Humanism may be off-putting to those without a basic grasp of the cultural, political, and intellectual dynamics of the Renaissance, which is especially vexing given her many well-contextualized and detailed examples. Had she offered a more gentle introduction, this thoughtful and well-grounded text could be used with undergraduates well outside early modern European and Middle East studies.

‘Between Two Worlds’

Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State.
Cemal Kafadar.
Berkeley: University of California, 1995.

Cemal Kafadar’s complex intervention is impressive on several distinct levels: as an introduction to the historiography of Ottoman origins; as a re-casting of one of that field’s major interpretive paradigms; as a meditation on the rôle of tribalism and ideology in the formation of nations; and as a welcome antidote to the facile definitions often given in nationalist histories. He is at his best elucidating the fluidity of identity in frontier cultures, and placing the evolution of Ottoman Turkish origins within the context of a well-trafficked crossroads. It is, on the other hand, frequently frustrating to the non-Ottomanist reader, and he spares no time providing an orientation to the mediaeval Mediterranean — from the occasional specialist terminology, to individuals and place names, to the intricacies of tribal politics in pre-Ottoman Anatolia — that is sufficient to draw in an undergraduate audience.

The book is at base a historiographical essay which seeks to rectify perceived deficiencies in previous approaches to Ottoman origins. His introduction to that material, comprising the majority of the first chapter, focusses on a bare handful of works, placing each within the context of their production and identifying their essential approaches to the subject. The four authors with which he is principally engaged are Herbert A. Gibbons, who argued for the centrality of Byzantine influences; Fuat M. Köprülü, who took the nationalist approach, extolling Turkoman cultural traits; Paul Wittek, who set out the gazi thesis (more on this below); and Rudi P. Lindner, who had been the most prominent critic of Wittek’s approach. In all of them, Kafadar traces a common complaint: a reductive simplicity, or desire to explain definitively the rise of the Ottomans according to a single mechanism or ideology. But as Kafadar admirably puts it, the “actions of the early Ottomans… do not need to be framed in terms of ahistorical either/or propositions. Human beings display many complex and even contradictory behaviours, and it is in that very complexity that explanations for historical phenomena must be sought.” (12) This nuanced approach is employed in his deconstruction of the arguments of his predecessors, finding in each a fatal flaw born of essentialist reasoning. Indeed, some of the explanations appear exceptionally crude, and it is difficult to believe — provided his portrayal of them is entirely fair — that they were taken seriously for so very long.

Kafadar’s own approach, which synthesizes elements from each of those above, is sketched out across the second and third chapters of his book. His position is closest to that of Wittek, though he moderates that scholar’s thesis by introducing subtle nuances, particularly with respect to definition, and argues for the addition of other factors. Kafadar argues for a persistent tension betwixt cultural inclusivity — driven by a nomadic and tribal origin — and a religiously-inspired expansionism. Portions of this tension are to be resolved by looking to the interaction betwixt a political centre, with interest in bringing order to an expanding polity, and the raiders of the frontiers, whose frequently shifting and heterodox religious identity and practical considerations made use of both perspectives as appropriate.

The important advance here in apprehension of the religious basis for war and state-formation is that lack of orthodoxy; rather than seeing puritanical loyalists out to spread an ‘authentic’ vision of the faith, Kafadar encourages us to see these gazi as the sort of zealots who, perhaps recently converted, seek to spread their beliefs and enthusiasm far and wide, no matter the fine details. For historians, it can also be well-nigh impossible to distinguish orthodox and heterodox elements when textual sources are sparse, an observation which draws the sting from Lindner’s critique. (73) Kafadar reasons that a faith which insinuates itself with the local population by taking up elements of their myths will spread far more easily and enjoy longer success. He does not make the parallel but one can be seen in early Christianity, wherein radically different faiths sprang from the minds and hearts of the faithful proselytes, only later to be crushed by an orthodoxy emanating from Rome.

One aspect of Kafadar’s analysis continually frustrated this non-specialist reader: the distinction he seeks to draw between gaza and jihad or ‘holy war’. The distinction with the first is fairly clear, and his argument against other scholars’ conflation of gaza and jihad is understandable given the latter’s personal connotations (war within the self) and strictly defensive nature when physical war is intended. Where his distinction becomes muddled is in his objection to the characterisation of gaza as ‘holy war’. He asserts, against considerable Islamic jurisprudence to the contrary, that there is no basis for the distinction between the ‘abode of Islam’ and the ‘abode of war’. (79-80) But even if we grant this approach (which has the benefit at least of not contradicting the Qur’an), it seems perfectly reasonable to construe the notion of fighting to spread one’s faith a ‘holy war’ — a perverse concept which has probably been with us for as long as religion has existed. Kafadar makes this point himself later in the work, by noting that “insofar as the gaza ethos played a rôle [in the formation of the Ottoman state], it must be remembered that the Ottomans were not the only ones who could claim to be fighting in the path of G-d.” (119)

The fact that jihad is misread as perpetual war for Allah, instead of being situated within the context it more accurately reflects, does not seem to bear overmuch upon his approach to gaza and the spreading frontiers of the faith. Whilst it is useful to understand the theological subtleties in each imperative, it is difficult to escape the more generic term ‘holy war’ in the context within which Kafadar is working, when he himself defines gaza as “raiding activity whose ultimate goal was… the expansion of the power of Islam.” (80) The expression “War for the Faith” actually crops up in one of his sources, which identifies the material dimensions of gaza (accumulation of booty) as well as the “guarantee of Paradise immediately in the world to come”, which is as close as one gets to a definition of holy war, whether it be waged by Muslims, Christians, or others. (88) Such a definition also muddies the earlier contrast with jihad, and makes it easy to understand why earlier scholars would have used the terms synonymously.

‘Europe And Islam’

Europe and Islam.
Franco Cardini; trans. by Caroline Beamish.
Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

The basic goal of Cardini’s text appears to be a demonstration that Europe1 and the Islamic world have been in constant intercourse for many centuries, sometimes peacefully, sometimes less so, and in this it is a qualified success. However, he wishes to argue that such contact across “[the] ‘liquid continent’, as the Mediterranean was known, provided innumerable opportunities for peaceful encounters and cultural exchanges” and that the Mediterranean was “a border area as well as being one where trade was carried out and where in some respects there was integration.” (167)2 This latter could serve as a vital point in arguments for a unified Islamo-Christian civilization, but it is not carried out in any effective way by Cardini. Most pages are spent recounting diplomatic and military exploits, leavened with the occasional philosophical exchange, and almost entirely neglecting to explore the cultural fabric of Mediterranean settlements which have been repeatedly contested. The closest he comes is in discussion of the shared intellectual and scientific traditions, yet here as elsewhere the text seems saddled with unnecessarily ‘Orientalist’ notions of European exceptionalism. Discussion of actual “integration” is notably absent.

For a book which references Islam in its title, one might have expected serious discussion of the faith itself in relation to its Abrahamic siblings, yet there is almost nothing of the sort. Even when he outlines a religious critique that continues to resonate to-day (that of Thomas Aquinas) he fails to explore useful counters to its bald assertions.3 The frequent failure to address the actual substance of Islam as it was experienced in the Mediterranean is surprising, and when he does the analysis is somewhat suspect, as when he tries to use the experience of scholars and translators in Sicily and Spain to suggest that the thirteenth century may have been (somehow!) “pro-Islamic”. (93-7) This entirely displaces the context of those studies, which in the case of the religious texts was always rejection of Islam as a legitimate expression of the ‘one true religion’.4 He similarly paints the expansion of Arabic study and the growing professionalisation of Islamic studies in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as indicative of honest interest in an equal culture, rather than as study motivated by antagonistic relations betwixt the faiths. Such were attempts to foster a basic knowledge of an “Other” with which the European world was in uneasy peace, as one might study the ways of an enemy; they can perhaps even be seen as reflexions of European self-perceptions and self-righteous superiority. Certainly one cannot divorce the development of those academic disciplines from the overtly Christian context in which they were carried out: the universities were affiliated with the Church, after all.

Cardini surely believes, as Richard Bulliet puts it, that “[the] past and future of the West cannot be fully comprehended without appreciation of the twinned relationship it has had with Islam over some fourteen centuries.”5 At points in this book he makes highly useful observations in support of this, such as noting that “[the] rebirth (or simply birth) of the coastal cities of Christian Western Europe [appears] to have been partly the outcome of Islamic expansion.” (23) In places he helps to clarify the extent to which Islam is implicated in the transmission of a ‘classical heritage’ to the West, which remains too-little appreciated. And there are numerous anecdotes that Europeanists would do well to consider, such as that Sicily was predominantly Berber Arab in the eleventh century (52), or that Arab coinage became the standard in much of southern Europe by the tenth century (26). Yet in many areas his analysis is frustrating and troubling. It is difficult, for example, to see how he can get from Napoleon’s curiosity regarding the Orient, and his acknowledged “strong sympathy with the crusades”, to assert that he possessed “a certain sympathy with Islam” (197); commentators from Al-Jabarti to Juan Cole have recognised Napoleon’s casual manipulation of religious sentiment for what it was. His treatment of Zionism is even more tendentious, as, e.g., when he notes that with “the Great War over, the Jews and the Arabs found themselves in conflict with one another — something that was far from the intentions of either.” (209) He clearly has not consulted the journals of Theodor Herzl; violence and dispossession were a part of political Zionist thinking from the start.6

Cardini argues that trade betwixt Europe and the Muslim world led to “increasingly demonstrated familiarity and manifest sympathy” (185), yet he offers little data to suggest that such sympathy was in evidence, and much arguing against it.7 With page after page devoted to military campaigns, it is difficult to see how Cardini expects the reader to see the cultural interchange he so clearly wishes to highlight. And despite a profound appreciation for the notion, this reader cannot see his text as a useful palliative in this area. Cardini notes in his preface that his book will examine the “ideas, prejudices, disinformation and anti-information that [has] formed and coloured Europe’s attitude towards Islam.” (ix) He observes in concluding it that “[public] opinion in Europe is still very badly informed about most religious and cultural aspects of the Islamic world” and that “[scant] information of mediocre quality… combines with lingering or grotesquely repeated prejudices to prevent the formation of any calm and tolerant view of Islam.” (211) This may be entirely accurate, but a history of military interactions and religious conflict seems ill-suited to addressing it.

1      The text treats primarily southern and western Europe, offering only the barest mention of Russia’s lengthy interaction with — and within — the Islam world.
2      The latter sentence demonstrates one of the book’s greatest weaknesses: a frequently awkward syntax. This, combined with an appalling number of spelling and typographical errors, was more than a little surprising from Blackwell, even in a translation.
3      “Islam was the distortion of truth; Islam was the religion of violence and war; Islam was the religion based on sexual licence; Muhammed was a false prophet.” (89)
4      I find curious that he refers to a 1698 text called Refutatio Alcorani as a “non-judgemental commentary”! (172)
5      Bulliet, Richard W. The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization. New York: Columbia U., 2004. 45.
6      This section contains another of the book’s many strange factual errors, where he suggests that Tel Aviv was built up “around the old Arab city of Haifa”; Tel Aviv is just north of (and now surrounding) the Arab city of Jaffa, and is about than forty miles south of Haifa.
7      Such as the reference to Machiavelli’s question just one page earlier.