The Islamic World and the West: Recovering a Common History

By Nayef Al-Rodhan

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.

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.

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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).

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

(Image: A Family's Life)

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