Circling the Mediterranean: Europe and the Islamic World

The Mediterranean Sea brought together Europe, North Africa and the Near and Middle East. Not only commodities, but also stories and songs continually circulated from place to place, crisscrossing the water to link nations. The opposition of “the Islamic world” and “Europe” is a modern invention: it was not the way medieval people described themselves or the world.  The cultural ferment of the Islamic world was an essential element in the emergence of the early modern West. The story of pre-modern history and literature is, therefore, above all a story of connections, interaction, and mutual influence. In other words, the Middle East helped shape what we consider European texts.

Christianity and Platonism

The influence of the Roman Empire was spreading which worried other cultures. The expansion of the Roman Empire culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and scattering (or “diaspora”} of the Jewish community. About three centuries later this heterogeneous collection of new religious orientations became codified as a single Christian doctrine. Augustine’s autobiography, the Confessions, worked as the lynchpin between Roman philosophies and new Christian ideals. These moments illustrate the imaginative pull of classical literature which persisted during the period of Christianity’s emergence. The written works and other customs began to transform as Christianity grew in popularity. The yearning for a mystical faith that would provide a sense of purpose was ubiquitous in the late Roman Empire. In the 4th century Christianity became Roman state religion. It was an empire so vast that it had two capitals. The waves of invasions of Italy by Germanic tribes came to a head in the fifth century, when Rome endured a series of weak rulers. Augustine and Boethius, writing in the 5th and 6th centuries, bear witness to the decay of Rome and to the birth of something entirely new, as a Christian culture, various and diffuse, rose out of the ashes of empire. The simultaneous emergence of rabbinic Judaism and Christianity can be described as a kind of twin birth, both of them formed in the crucible of Roman aggression in the first century. The Jewish diaspora laid the groundwork for many Christian “beginning” stories.

The Spread of Islam

The dissemination of the Qur’an by Muhammad in the 7th century and the formation of an Islamic community affected the development of Mediterranean culture. In Ibn Ishaq’s account of Muhammad’s life, we find a community struggling to meet the expectations found in the Qur’an, and to the exemplary life of its prophet, Muhammad. The revealed book and the life were the religious guidelines of an empire that grew almost overnight to dominate large swathes of the Middle East and North Africa. Islamic rule extended westward through Spain into southern France and Persia to India. The spread of Islam took place not only through cultural and religious means, but also through direct military conquest. The most important of the many religious divisions is of the Sunni from Shi’a Islam: the former centers on a strict conformity to the exemplary life of the Prophet Muhammad and a literal reading of the Holy Book; the latter, instead, prescribes a special veneration of the family of the Prophet, especially his daughter Fatima, her husband and their sons. There was a later medieval emergence of Sufi mysticism.

Internal squabbling finally gave way to utter chaos with the invasion of the Mongols in the early 13th century and their seizure of Baghdad in 1258. Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo—the various nations yoked under Islamic rule, shared one crucial element: the Arabic language. Arabic was the standard language of conversation, administration, and poetic composition, not only for Muslims, but also for Christians and Jews who lived in regions under Islamic rule, such as al-Andalus. Arabic language served to unify diverse populations, in much the same way as Greek had done in the ancient eastern Mediterranean and Latin would do in medieval Europe. Poetic traditions in Arabia before the revelation of the Qur’an had placed special value on recitation and the musical quality of verse, its rhythmic repetitions and use of end rhyme. Because the Qur’an itself conformed to many of these pre-Islamic norms, it became a standard model for poetic excellence while maintaining its preeminent theological value. Persia came under Islamic influence and offered gifts as well. The Ottomans held Persian language, art, and poetics in high esteem, and imported painters as well as writers to serve their imperial court. Finally, the marriage of religious devotion and an exquisite poetic sensibility, so finely expressed in the lyrics of Attar, Rumi, and Hafez, would come to be a crucial part of the literary legacy of Islam, widely disseminated not only among the community of Muslim readers, but also among the diverse modern audiences of world literature.

A productive feature of medieval culture was the intersection of poetics and philosophy. In these strikingly parallel cases, Platonic philosophy supplied the means to express a religious worldview that focuses particularly—whether in Christian or in Islamic terms—on how the individual soul can come to experience the divine presence. Avicenna began to interpret the literal journey metaphorically or even mystically, understanding the singular ascent of the Prophet as a model for the journey that every soul must make toward God. This text, known as the Libro della Scala (or Book of the Ladder) was widely disseminated, providing a vision of the layered heavens that would inspire European Christian writers, including Dante. The influence of Islamic literature was felt not only through the exalted union of philosophy and theology with poetics but also on a more mundane, vernacular level. The vibrant tradition of frame-tale narratives, in which an outer layer organized a series of nested narratives that are contained within the frame like the layers of an onion, had a long history in the Mediterranean region. The genre took off in Persian and Arabic literatures. Other collections and their frame-tale form served as the inspiration for many European manifestations of the genre.


The Invention of the West

The idea of the West as a synonym for Christian Europe—which seems so natural and familiar to modern readers—did not even begin to emerge until the late Middle Ages. Christian European Jews were only sporadically tolerated, and Muslims were virtually unknown. Latin was used for religion and politics. Latin’s cultural hold was stronger: medieval Christians used it exclusively to compose their philosophical and scientific works, while both Arabic and Persian functioned as languages of literature and learning for Muslims. Beginning in the 9th century, however, and with increasing frequency from the 12th century onward, vernacular languages such as English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish became more common vehicles for poetic composition.

The medieval map, with its deeply religious imaginative geography and central focus on Jerusalem, illuminates the ways in which the repeated cycles of European warfare around the Mediterranean and into the Middle East—called “Crusades,” after the cross (Latin crux) sewn by the warriors onto their garments—functioned not just as actual military campaigns, but also as symbolic assaults designed to reclaim control of the spiritual homeland of the medieval Christian. The Crusades functioned mainly as opportunities for economic development and international cooperation among the nations of Europe, helping to unify these disparate Christian nations through their shared opposition to the Muslim enemy. Anti-Muslim violence in the form of crusades was therefore closely linked with the persecution of Jews and the early emergence of anti-Semitism. The opposition of Christian and non-Christian, so fundamental to the ideology of the crusades, permeates the epic literature of the Middle Ages. Metaphorically, the victory of Christian over pagan is presented as a template for all holy war.

The epic genre began to emerge, originally in oral form. Epic, whether in England or in Persia, creates a sense of national identity by evoking a common historical origin, but it also grafts upon the rootstock of native myth new forms of identity—especially religious forms imported from outside the borders of the nation. Epic is often opposed to romance: the former is portrayed as a masculine genre dedicated to the deeds of knights and the matters of war; the latter as a feminine genre that focuses on the relations of the lady and her lover, confined to the domestic sphere of the court. Both genres, which rose to prominence in the 12th century, share the idealized image of the knight: if he expresses his chivalry on the field of battle, the work is epic, but if his prowess is displayed in the private space of the bedchamber, the work is romance. The French origins of the romance genre are closely tied to the emergence of French as a literary language. Latin was unquestionably the primary language of scholarly learning, but vernacular or spoken languages increasingly came to be the first choice for poetic composition. In the 12th century, French was the first of the European languages to be elevated in this way; by the 14th century, other vernaculars had also begun to be widely used. Latin was still trying to hold on and expand out into literature. Petrarch is considered Renaissance—and used early 14th century Latin and Italian. Boccaccio is considered medieval—mid-14th century Italian/Latin. The example of these two contemporaries illustrates the ways in which period divisions, like geographical divisions, sometimes obscure the profound continuities that underlie literary history.

Even medieval authors longed for classical antiquity, even though we associated this idea with the Renaissance. While we can read Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Christine de Pizan in the context of the emergence of Latin humanism, they can also be seen as central participants in the late medieval European flowering of the frame-tale genre. Transmitted from India to Persia, then disseminated throughout the Islamic world and across the Mediterranean, frame-tale narratives such as the Thousand and One Nights were widely popular, both in written and in oral form. Petrus Alfonsi’s work is just one of the first in a long series of frame-tale narratives. The age of Boccaccio and Chaucer also witnessed the rise of yet one more genre centered on the crossing of cultural boundaries: the travel narrative.

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I'm a doctor of philosophy in Literary and Cultural Studies which makes me interested in everything! I possess special training in text analysis, African American literature, Women and Gender Studies, American lit, World Lit and writing. I work as an assistant professor of English in Memphis.

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