Europe’s debt to Islam given a skeptical look
By John Vinocur
Monday, April 28, 2008
When Sylvain Gouguenheim looks at today’s historical vision of the history
of the West and Islam, he sees a notion, accepted as fact, that the Muslim
world was at the source of the Christian Europe’s reawakening from the
He sees a portrayal of an enlightened Islam, transmitting westward the
knowledge of the ancient Greeks through Arab translators and opening the
path in to mathematics, medicine, astronomy and philosophy – a gift
the West regards with insufficient esteem.
“This thesis has basically nothing scandalous about it, if it were true,”
Gouguenheim writes. “In spite of the appearances, it has more to do with
taking ideological sides than scientific analysis.”
For a controversy, here’s a real one. Gouguenheim, a professor of medieval
history at a prestigious university, l’École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, is
saying “Whoa!” to the idea there was an Islamic bridge of civilization to
the West. Supposedly, it “would be at the origin of the Middle Ages’
cultural and scientific reawakening, and (eventually) the Renaissance. ”
In a new book, he is basically canceling, or largely writing off, a debt to
“the Arabo-Muslim world” dating from the year 750 – a concept built up by
other historians over the past 50 years – that has owing Islam for an
essential part of its identity.
“Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel” (Editions du Seuil), while not contending
there is an ongoing clash of civilizations, makes the case that Islam was
impermeable to much of Greek thought, that the Arab world’s initial
translations of it to Latin were not so much the work of “Islam” but of
Aramaeans and Christian Arabs, and that a wave of translations of
began at the Mont Saint-Michel monastery in 50 years before Arab
versions of the same texts appeared in Moorish Spain.
When I talked to Gouguenheim about his book a couple of weeks ago, he said
he had no interest in polemics, just some concern that his research could be
misused by extremists.
At the same time, he acknowledged that his subject was intensely political.
Gouguenheim said it was in light of a 2002 recommendation from the that schoolbooks give a more positive rendering of Islam’s part in
European heritage “that an attempt at a clarification becomes necessary.”
Reading Gouguenheim without a background in the history of the Byzantine
Empire or the Abassid caliphate is a bit of a challenge. It justifies
distance and reserving judgment.
But Le Figaro and Le Monde, in considering the book in prominent reviews,
drank its content in a single gulp. No suspended endorsements or anything
that read like a caution.
“Congratulations, ” Le Figaro wrote. “Mr. Gouguenheim wasn’t afraid to remind
us that there was a medieval Christian crucible, a fruit of the heritage of
and ,” while “Islam hardly proposed its knowledge to
Le Monde was even more receptive: “All in all, and contrary to what’s been
repeated in a crescendo since the 1960s, European culture in its history and
development shouldn’t be owing a whole lot to Islam. In any case, nothing
“Precise and well-argued, this book, which sets history straight, is also a
strongly courageous one.”
But is it right?
Gouguenheim attacks the “thesis of the West’s debt” as advanced by the
historians Edward Said, Alain de Libera and Mohammed Arkoun. He says it
replaces formerly dominant notions of cultural superiority advanced by
Western orientalists, with “a new ethnocentrism, oriental this time” that
sets off an “enlightened, refined and spiritual Islam” against a brutal
to be created by the Abassids in the ninth century, was limited to the study
of Koranic science, rather than philosophy, physics or mathematics, as
understood in the speculative context of Greek thought.
He says that Aristotle’s works on ethics, metaphysics and politics were
disregarded or unknown to the Muslim world, being basically incompatible
with the . , he said, “became aware of the Greek texts because it
went hunting for them, not because they were brought to them.”
Gouguenheim calls the Mont Saint-Michel monastery, where the texts were
translated into Latin, “the missing link in the passage from the Greek to
the Latin world of Aristotelian philosophy.” Outside of a few thinkers – he
lists Al-Farabi, Avicenne, Abu Ma’shar and Averroes – Gougenheim considers
that the “masters of the Middle East” retained from Greek teaching only what
didn’t contradict Koranic doctrine.
Published less than a month ago, the book is just beginning to encounter
learned criticism. Sarcastically, Gabriel Martinez-Gros, a professor of
medieval history, and Julien Loiseau, a lecturer, described Gouguenheim as
“re-establishing the real hierarchy of civilizations. ”
They said that he disregarded the mathematics and astronomy produced by the
Islamic world between the 9th and 13th centuries and painted the period’s
Islamic civilization exactly what it was not: obscurantist, legalistic,
fatalistic and fanatic.
Indeed, Gouguenheim’ s thesis, they suggest, has “intellectual associations
that are questionable at their very heart” – which I take to mean nastily
If you read Gougenheim’s appendix, he’s preemptively headed off that kind of
accusation. He offers his book as an antidote to an approach to Islam’s
medieval relations to the West exemplified by the late Sigrid Hunke, a
German writer, described as a former Nazi and friend of Heinrich Himmler.
Hunke describes a pioneering, civilizing Islam to which “the West owes
everything.” Gouguenheim replies that, in deforming reality, her work from
the 1960s continues as a reference point that unfortunately still “shapes
the spirit of the moment.”
He says he means to rectify that.
His book is interesting and bold. At the very least, it is kindling for
arguments on a touchy subject where most people don’t have more than
inklings and instincts to sort out even shards of truth from angry and