Islamic Civilization and (Western) Modernity

By O'Brien, Peter | Comparative Civilizations Review, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Islamic Civilization and (Western) Modernity

O'Brien, Peter, Comparative Civilizations Review


Much historiography of the last three decades has undermined the sway of Eurocentrism. Though unabashedly Eurocentric histories still become bestsellers,1 revisionists have shown that the ideas and developments that spawned modernity hardly sprang sui generis from European soil. In their historic re-awakening starting at the end of the Middle Ages that ushered in the Renaissance, Reformation, Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, Europeans borrowed and augmented a vast array of ideas, institutions, and practices particularly from Islamic, but also Indian and Chinese, civilization.2

This article contends that such revisionism, itself now putative, does not probe searcbingly enough the inter-civilizational encounter with Islam. The revisionist perspective underestimates or altogether overlooks not only the grave diffidence that Europeans (Latin Christians) developed through their medieval rivalry with Muslims, but, more importantly, the pivotal role that such civilizational solicitude played in motivating the urge to reform. Self-deprecation born of defeat against the archrival initiated the pattern of relentless introspection that led Europeans to question the foundations of the medieval order.

Revisionists and Eurocentrists alike tend to obscure European diffidence because they view the late Middle Ages anachronistically from the vantage point of (modern) hindsight. The subsequent accomplishments of European (early) modernity that catapulted the West past Islam are considered both immanent and imminent, projecting retrospectively a confidence among pre-modern Europeans that did not exist. In fact, the latter were desperately scrambling just to keep pace with an unequivocally superior rival. It is not inconceivable that without the daunting challenge posed by Islamic civilization, modernity would not have originated in Europe.

One caveat is in order. This paper is written from the perspective of (for the most part, educated) medieval Catholics. It presents evidence of what they wrote and said (thus the many quotations) as well as of what they can be reasonably presumed to have known (for instance, battles lost or books widely distributed and discussed). That subsequent research may have shown their views of themselves or their Muslim rivals to be in error does not change the fact that they held the views and were moved to action by them.

As intimated, just such anachronistic hindsight or retrospection has obscured me role that Islamic civilization played in the generation of (Western) modernity.

Failed Crusades

The Crusades preoccupied the late medieval Roman Catiiolic mind like no other event. In launching me First Crusade on November 27, 1095, Pope Urban ? ultimately sought to return Rome to world predominance by seizing control of Jerusalem and die surrounding territories considered the nucleus of the civilized world.3 Much vehement scholarly debate swirls around exactly when and how the Latin world became effectively cut off from the richer, more civilized East. The Pirenne Thesis blames the isolation on the Muslim invasions in the seventh century;4 the Belgian's detractors, on the Germanic invasions in the fifth.5

No one disputes, however, mat by the time of the First Crusade Latin Christendom lay isolated and nearly fully severed from the tiiriving societies of the Mediterranean east mat Rome itself considered to be the core of the known world. In declaring mat initial crusade to free Jerusalem from Muslim control, Urban ? exclaimed: "This royal city, therefore, situated, at the centre of the world, is now held captive by His enemies . . . She seeks therefore and desires to be liberated, and does not cease to implore you to come to her aid."6

Of course, me actual campaigns for Christ, prosecuted intermittently over the course of more than tìiree centuries, fulfilled no such lofty ambition. Although die milites Christi managed to capture Jerusalem in 1099 as well as establish a handful of Crusader states in die Levant, tiiey more often met with defeat. …

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