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

By Bernard Lewis | Go to book overview

15
The Mongols, the Turks,
and the Muslim Polity

Some thirty years ago a well-known Swiss writer on Middle Eastern affairs published an article on patriotism and nationalism among the Arabs. Discussing the attitude of nationalists to the past and their tendency to substitute fanciful constructions for serious history, he quotes “a high Syrian government official” as saying, “in deadly earnest”: “If the Mongols had not burnt the libraries of Baghdad in the 13th century, we Arabs would have had so much science, that we would long since have invented the atomic bomb. The plundering of Baghdad put us back by centuries.”1

This is of course an extreme, even a grotesque formulation, but the thesis which it embodies is not confined to, and was not invented by, romantic nationalist historians. Deriving ultimately from the testimony of contemporary sufferers, it was developed by European orientalists, who saw in the Mongol invasions the final catastrophe which overwhelmed and ended the great Muslim civilization of the Middle Ages. As the barbarians had destroyed the Roman Empire, it was thought, so the Mongols destroyed the Caliphate—except that the destruction was more terrible and more permanent, and the new masters, unlike the Germanic barbarians in Europe, could neither learn from others nor themselves create anything new. This judgment of the Mongols, sometimes extended to include the Turkish invaders who had preceded them out of the steppe, was generally accepted among European scholars and was gratefully, if sometimes surreptitiously, borrowed by romantic and apologetic historians in Middle Eastern countries as an explanation both of the ending of their golden age and of their recent backwardness. It was expressed with characteristic force by the famous English orientalist

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