Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

By Bernard Lewis | Go to book overview

9
The Use by
Muslim Historians of
Non-Muslim Sources

Herodotus, the father of history, wrote of the “great and wonderful actions” of both Greeks and Barbarians and pursued his study into the past of alien lands and remote times. Though excluded by the hierophantic mysteries from access to oriental writings, he tried to make good the deficiency by travel and personal inquiry in Eastern lands. Some fifteen centuries later another European, William, Archbishop of Tyre in the states of Outremer, wrote a history of the Islamic Empires. He too sought his information from oriental sources and, better placed than Herodotus, was even able to read them in the original.1

These first European students of oriental history were, however, exceptional. Herodotus, though acclaimed as the father of history, was not accorded the respect of classical historians, most of whom preferred to follow the precept and practice of Thucydides and limit their concern to the deeds of their contemporaries and compatriots. The medieval European chroniclers were for the most part content to follow their example, and it is no accident that while William of Tyre’s history of the Crusaders in the East—the Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum—was widely read and even translated into French, his Gesta orientalium principum has not, as far as is known, survived in a single manuscript. It was not until the Renaissance had awakened a new European curiosity and the Discoveries had whetted it with the sight of remote and alien peoples that European historians began to show interest in other lands and societies and to seek out and pass on information and opinions about them.2 This universal historical curiosity is still a

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