Thursday, May 29, 2008

Byzantium Viewed by the Arabs

Hi everyone,

I offer this book review to all those who are interested in the "Gouguenheim controversy". Must tell you that his book won't travel far beyond the national French boarders (okay, okay: till Switzerland then !).
It would make no sense and the reason is dreadfully simple: France has never been a nourishing land for the Byzantine studies. You can hardly find out a journal or a university review using overtly the item "byzantin(e)s" or "Byzance" in the main title.
Therefore, I raise my cup and toaste to honour the best intellectual Byzantine sanctuary in the West: Dumbarton Oaks ! (help yourself, visit the "publications" then the "online publications" pages)
And now, time to relish the BR !
(Needless to say, you're invited to speak up ;)

Byzantium Viewed by the Arabs.

by Niall Christie

Byzantium Viewed by the Arabs. By NADIA MARIA EL CHEIKH. Harvard Middle Eastern Monographs, vol. 36. Cambridge, Mass.: HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2004. Pp. xi + 271. $19.95 (paper).

Byzantium Viewed by the Arabs presents an exploration of the evolution of Muslim views of the Byzantine Empire and its inhabitants from the origins of Islam to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. It is not a complete, comprehensive study; indeed, El Cheikh herself acknowledges that the themes and topics addressed in the book were for the most part dictated by issues of importance, representativeness and source availability. The importance of the work lies above all in its laying out of important groundwork for future research.

In the introduction El Cheikh provides a survey of the sources before highlighting some of the problems related to the representation of the "other" that may be found in their pages. In particular, the vision that the early Muslim authors presented of the Byzantines was conceived, naturally, through their own cultural and religious beliefs, with the Byzantines being used as a deliberate contrast to the Muslims, enabling the Muslim authors to define aspects of their own culture in terms of how they differed from the Byzantines. Later Muslim writers were influenced by these earlier texts, resulting in a certain stability in the way that the Byzantines were perceived, even though such perceptions were also affected by the writers' own experiences.

The meat of El Sheikh's work consists of four chapters. Chapter one, "The Encounter with Byzantium," addresses the formation of the initial Muslim image of the Byzantines and its evolution up to and in the aftermath of the failed Muslim siege of Constantinople in 99/717. El Cheikh shows that Muslim authors exhibit a fluidity with regard to both the terminology used to refer to the Byzantines and their perception of the origins of the Byzantine race. She then goes on to consider the presentation of the Byzantines in ayas 1-5 of sura 30 (Surat al-Rum) of the Qur'an and the various readings and interpretations of them made by Muslim scholars from the second/eighth to the eighth/fourteenth centuries, before discussing relations between the early Muslim leaders and their Byzantine opponents. One Byzantine leader who receives particular attention is the Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-41), not only because of the controversy that surrounds the letter said to have been sent to the Byzantine emperor by the Prophet but also because the Muslim sources use him to legitimize the authenticity of Islam, presenting him as an ideal ruler who acknowledged the prophethood of Muhammad and nearly converted to the Islamic faith. In this chapter El Cheikh also discusses the impact of Byzantine art and architecture on the Muslim consciousness, before concluding with a study of the failed Muslim sieges of Constantinople and the subsequent development of the capture of the city as a fore-ordained event in Muslim eschatology.

Chapter two, "Confronting Byzantium," examines the rivalry that developed between the Muslim and Byzantine states in the second/eighth and third/ninth centuries. El Cheikh examines the changing depictions of the Byzantine rulers, some hostile, others neutral, in the literature from the period, paying particular attention to the images of those who reigned during the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid (r. 170/786-193/809), demonstrating how the varying depictions reflected the changeable relations that existed between the caliph and the emperors. In this chapter she also assesses other aspects of Byzantine culture as viewed through the eyes of the (often hostile) sources. While they regard the Byzantine state as a potential source of Classical texts, the sources are careful to distinguish the ancient Greeks from the Byzantines, whose adherence to Christianity is often regarded as having led them to neglect ancient Greek wisdom. Muslim accounts of the history of the Byzantine state before the rise of Islam are tinged with anti-Byzantine polemics. Byzantines, while acknowledged as fierce fighters, are viewed as being treacherous, cruel and morally corrupt; and their women are depicted as being beautiful but sexually immoral, presenting a potential source of temptation for Muslim males. As El Cheikh notes, hostile stereotypes abound in the literature, with the depictions being reflective of the prejudices of the authors rather than reality.

In Chapter three, "Islam on the Defensive," El Cheikh considers the changes in Muslim-Byzantine relations that occurred during the third/ninth to fifth/eleventh centuries, during much of which the rulers of Muslim states found themselves faced with Byzantine expansion at their expense. She examines Muslim depictions of Constantinople during this period, giving particular attention to the detailed description of the city made by Harun ibn Yahya, a Muslim who was held captive there in the third/ninth or fourth/tenth century, in order to demonstrate that Muslim confidence in the splendor and prestige of Baghdad led Muslim writers no longer to feel the need to lace their accounts of the imperial city with criticism or polemic. The author also assesses the impact of Byzantine court ceremonial practices on the Muslim consciousness, showing that some provoked derision while others were praised. However, Muslim depictions of the Byzantines become increasingly negative in the face of Byzantine military successes, and the Emperor Nicephorus Phocas (r. 352/963-359/969), as a result of his military successes, is particularly harshly criticized. In a brief discussion at the end of the chapter, El Cheikh comments on the jubilation that followed the Seljuk victory against the Byzantines at Manzikert in 463/1071 and the shift in Muslim attention that followed the arrival in the Muslim world of the Crusaders, and then the Mongols.

Chapter four, "A New Reality: Revisiting Byzantium," discusses the softening of Muslim attitudes towards the Byzantines that accompanied the shift in attention just described. The presence of new enemies seems to have led to a more cordial attitude towards the Byzantines, reflected in both the friendly relations of Muslim and Byzantine rulers and the depiction of the Byzantines in the sources. In the latter case, the more positive aspects of Byzantine culture cited in the earlier sources persist, but the negative depictions of the Byzantine character are for the most part no longer present, with the accusations of immorality now being transferred to the Franks. The immense eschatological value of and admiration for Constantinople remains in the sources, and the conquest of the city in 857/1453 is naturally greeted with rejoicing.

It will have become apparent that El Cheikh's topic-by-topic treatment of her subject is episodic in nature, and it must be admitted that at times one feels that she has combined a number of articles together to construct the parts of the book; indeed, she notes at the beginning that some of the material addressed in the work has been discussed previously by her in articles published elsewhere. However, El Cheikh ends her text with an expertly crafted conclusion in which she neatly sums up her discussion, drawing together the numerous threads she has addressed into a unified account of the development of the Muslim image of the Byzantines through the ages. A bibliography and index follow.

Byzantium Viewed by the Arabs is an excellent book. Using an expansive array of primary sources and secondary works, El Cheikh has created a work that explores a plethora of important issues in the history of Muslim representation of the Byzantine world and its inhabitants. In addition, she has also laid foundations for future research on this important subject. This text should be standard reading for anyone interested in Muslim-Byzantine relations and, given its low price and clear exposition, would also be worth consideration as a textbook for courses on this topic.

NIALL CHRISTIE

UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA

Publication Information: Article Title: Byzantium Viewed by the Arabs. Contributors: Niall Christie - author. Journal Title: The Journal of the American Oriental Society. Volume: 125. Issue: 1. Publication Year: 2005. Page Number: 107+. COPYRIGHT 2005 American Oriental Society; COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.

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