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Noel Malcolm, Useful Enemies: Islam and The Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, 1450-1750 (OXford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
Simon Mills, A Commerce of Knowledge: Trade, Religion, and Scholarship between England and the Ottoman Empire, 1600-1760 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).
Few topics received more attention in early modern European print than the Ottoman Empire and Islam. What did early modern Christian writers think of these peoples and their religion? And how did they acquire their information? Previous generations, inspired by Edward Said’s monument Orientalism, may have answered these questions by pointing out that much of what early modern Christian scholars wrote essentialized their Muslims adversaries. With their orientalist gaze, they only saw Muslim societies as undeveloped and static.
The two books that I propose to review tell a different story. They are part of a revisionist historiography about Christian-Muslims interactions that shows that modern Western understanding of Muslim civilizations has deep early modern roots. Pioneering early modern scholars across Christian Europe wrote Muslim history using Arabic sources and relying on different Islamic intellectual traditions. Christian scholars relied on Muslim merchants to buy the Arabic and Turkish books and manuscripts that guided them through Muslim history. They studied the Quran and the life of Muhammed by talking to Muslim scholars. And they adopted and even acknowledged their interlocutors’ contributions. In short: beneath the veneer of Orientalism lies a deeply human world in which scholars from different religious traditions came together to exchange ideas.
My interest in reviewing these books together is that they, in the first place, solve a particular problem that has divided historians for decades: is the history of cultural encounter one of texts and their formative power or one of conversations and face-to-face interaction? Noel Malcolm has produced a tradition history of ideas that focuses on books; Simon Mills’s monograph recovers real-world encounters in Aleppo. Together they show how early modern globalization brought different intellectual traditions into closer contact than ever before and how a great diversity of bookish and personal encounters brought early modern Christians knowledge of Islam. These books can also teach historians an important lesson about why Western scholars were so interested in Islam in the first place. They pursued knowledge of Islam for polemical purposes, as is well known, but also —and this is less well known—for purely scholarly ends. At time, they even used Islam to better understand or criticize Christianity.
It is this completely forgotten story of connections —across the Mediterranean and across religions— that deserves a large readership in my view. It is a deeply human story that reveals a powerful moment of intercultural possibility: despite political boundaries and religious division, Christians and Muslims were willing to engage in meaningful conversation. It is, of course, not always a rose-colored story (polemic and prejudice were never far away); and perhaps these conversations were not on equal footing. But both Mills and Malcolm show how discourses that to this very day dominate thinking (and discussion) about East and West has a history that is far richer than this modern dichotomy suggests.
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