Misunderstanding Cultures: Islam and the West
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Princeton University, Usa 24 June 2013

I have given myself two tasks. One is the philosopher’s job of trying to get clear about some difficulties with the very idea of the West. The second is historical: it is to remind us of when the idea that West and Islam might be opposites began, because it turns out that history makes the philosophical task easier. So I am going to begin there.

For Herodotus, the world, like Caesar’s Gaul, was divided into three parts. To the east was Asia, to the south was a continent he called Libya, and the rest was Europe. But the ancients certainly knew that people and goods and ideas could travel between the continents with little hindrance. Indeed, Herodotus admitted to being puzzled as to “why three distinct women’s names have been given to what is really a single land-mass …”[2] Still, despite Herodotus’s puzzlement, these continents were for the Greeks and their Roman heirs the largest significant geographical divisions of the world. It took a further intellectual leap, however, to go from identifying continents to thinking of their inhabitants as a single people. It wouldn’t have occurred to Herodotus that he had something special in common with the inhabitants of Persia; something that united him with them in contrast to all the inhabitants of Europe. He was born 500 miles south of here at Halicarnasus—now Bodrum. But being born in Asia Minor didn’t make him an Asian; it left him a Greek. And the Celts, to the north, about whom he knew so little, were much stranger to him than the Persians or the Egyptians, about whom he knew rather a lot. You can have Europe, Africa and Asia without thinking of Europeans, Africans and Asians as kinds of people.

David Levering Lewis has claimed recently that it took two things to make Europeans begin to think of themselves, for the first time, at the end of the first millennium, as a people among peoples. One was the creation of a vast Holy Roman Empire by the six-foot-four-inch, thick-necked, fair-haired Frankish warrior king we know as Charlemagne. The other was the development, in the Iberian Peninsula on the Southwestern borders of his domain, of the Moslem culture of Spain, which the Arabs called al-Andalus. In making the various tribes of Europe into a single people, what they shared and what distinguished them from their Moslem neighbors were both important.

Europeans are defined, like so many peoples, as much as anything by what they are not. This is, by now, a familiar idea. But Lewis offers a more startling proposal: in making the civilization that modern Europeans inherit, the cultural legacy of Al-Andalus is at least as important as the legacy of the Catholic Franks. In borrowing from their great Other, they filled out the European Self.

Charlemagne created his vast empire around the core of two Frankish kingdoms: Neustria—whose capital was Paris—in the west, and Austrasia in the east. He created monastic centers of learning, drawing scholars from across his empire and outside it. These cultural and political achievements perhaps entitled him to his self-conception as Rome’s heir in the West, author of an imperial restoration. When he traveled to Rome in December 800, some thirty years into his reign, he went to defend the authority of Leo III as Pope; and His Holiness returned the favor by crowning him Emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day 800 … much to the annoyance of the Empress Irene here in Constantinople, who called herself Emperor not Empress and thought the title was hers.

Like Charlemagne’s empire, al-Andalus was very much the product of a war-machine. Islam burst out of Arabia in the seventh century, spreading with astonishing rapidity in every direction. After the Prophet’s death in 632, the Arabs managed in a mere thirty years to defeat the two great empires to their north, Rome’s residue in Byzantium and the Persian empire that reached through central Asia as far as India. The Umayyad dynasty, which began in 661, pushed on west into North Africa and east into Central Asia. In early 711, Tariq Ibn-Ziyad led a Berber army across the straits of Gibraltar into Spain.[3] There he attacked the Visigoths who had ruled much of the Roman province of Hispania for two centuries. Within seven years, most of the Iberian Peninsula was under Moslem rule; not until 1492, nearly eight hundred years later, was the whole peninsula under Christian sovereignty again.

The Umayyads did not, however, intend to stop at the Pyrenees. Their first attempt to take Aquitaine in the early eighth century were frustrated. A little more than a decade later, `Abd al-Rahman, the new emir of al-Andalus, returned to take up the task. He got as far north as Poitiers, almost half way from the Pyrenees to Paris. There, however, the Moslems met their match. In October 732, Charles Martel, who had force-marched his troops from the faraway Danube, joined Duke Odo in decimating the emir’s troops. In a Latin chronicle written in 754 by a Christian scribe, the victors at Poitiers are referred to as “Europenses”: it is the first recorded use of a Latin word for the people of Europe. And it was written (either in Cordoba or Toledo) in al-Andalus.

In retrospect, later Christian historians assigned to the Battle of Poitiers an epochal significance. Edward Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, pointed out that if the Moors had covered again the distance they had traveled from Gibraltar, they could have reached Poland or the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps, Gibbon thought, if `Abd al-Rahman had won, “the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.” For him, the fate of Christian Europe hung in the balance. After a week of battle, he wrote, “the Orientals were oppressed by the strength and stature of the Germans, who, with stout hearts and iron hands, asserted the civil and religious freedom of their posterity.”[4]

At the time, though, it would have seemed very strange to see Charles Martel’s victory as a triumph of religious freedom. The small but influential Jewish community in Iberia had been tolerated in Spain when their Visigothic overlords were still Arian heretics ruling Catholic and Jewish subjects; but Jews began to be persecuted in 589, when the Visigoths converted to Catholicism. For the Jews, then, the Moslem conquest, bringing rulers who largely practiced toleration of Jews—as well as Christians and Zoroastrians—in the large areas of the world now under their control, was not unwelcome. And during the first period of Moslem domination, Christians, too, discovered that they would have religious freedom, so long as they (like the Jews) did not seek to convert Moslems or criticize Islam. The contrast with the kingdom of the Franks, and, by the ninth century with the Frankish empire, could hardly have been more striking. The obsession of Catholic rulers with religious orthodoxy was one of the things that made the Dark Ages—as Petrarch was to dub the period from the fifth to the tenth centuries—so dark.

The Great Cordoba Mosque is the most evident material embodiment of the civilization of the Arabs in Spain, but their intellectual achievements were even more astonishing. Starting in the time of `Abd al-Rahman the first, the Umayyad’s sought to compete with their Abbasid rivals in Baghdad for cultural bravura. Over the next few centuries, Cordoba alone acquired hundreds of mosques, thousands of palaces, scores of libraries. By the tenth century, those libraries had hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, while the largest libraries of Christian Europe could boast collections of only a few hundred.[5] The university of Cordoba predated Bologna, now called “the first European university,” by more than a century. And al-Andalus was a world of cities, not, like Europe, a world of country estates and small towns. By the end of the millennium, Cordoba’s population was ninety thousand, more than three times the size of any town in the territory once occupied by Charlemagne. In those cities, Jews, Christians and Moslems, Arabs, Berbers, Visigoths, Slavs and countless others created the kind of cultural goulash—a spicy mixture of a variety of distinct components—that generates a genuine cosmopolitanism. There were no recognized rabbis or Moslem scholars at the court of Charlemagne; in the cities of al-Andalus there were bishops and synagogues. Racemondo, Catholic bishop of Elvira, was Cordoba’s ambassador to Constantine VII in Constantinople and Otto I in Aachen. Hasdai ibn Shaprut, leader of Cordoba’s Jewish community in the middle of the tenth century, was not only a great medical scholar, he was the chairman of the Caliph’s medical council; and when the Emperor Constantine sent the Caliph a copy of the Discorides’ De Materia Medica, he took up ibn Shaprut’s suggestion to send for a Greek monk to help translate it into Arabic. The knowledge they acquired made Cordoba one of the great centers of medical knowledge of Europe. By the time of `Abd al-Rahman’s successor and namesake, `Abd al-Rahman III, in the tenth century, the emir of al-Andalus had the confidence to declare himself Caliph, successor or representative of the Prophet and, implicitly, leader of the Moslem World. Had the three religions not worked together, borrowing from the pagan traditions of Greece and Rome, what we call the West would have been utterly different. In an age where some claim a struggle between the heirs of Christendom and of the Caliphate is the defining conflict, it is good to be reminded of this long ago history of fruitful cohabitation.

This quick sketch of the history of relations among Europeans, Arabs and North Africans at the turn of the first millennium of the Common Era is a reminder of the messy interconnections between Islam and what we now call the West. One could explore, as well, the equally fascinating interweaving of European, North African and Middle Eastern histories that occurred as the imperial dreams of France and Britain met the fading power of the Ottoman Empire in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In each case, what we see is not the opposition of two distinct homogeneous civilizations, but conflicts within as well as between societies whose religious and intellectual lives had much in common; in part because of the interactions I have been sketching, which began a millennium earlier. I want now to turn to an attempt to explain why we so easily misunderstand this long history of sharing as well as conflict as the story of two great and utterly separate entities—the West and Islam—with distinct and irreconcilable essences. And to do that, I must sketch the story of how we came to think of modern Europeans and Americans as the real heirs to the classical civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The academic curriculum of the nineteenth century traced civilization to roots in ancient Greece, following a history of progress from the excellent beginnings mapped out by the heirs of Homer. The culture of the West is a sort of golden nugget, dug from the earth of Hellas. Perhaps it traveled with Alexander. So it went to Egypt—the library at Alexandria was once its home. And the Macedonian emperor may have left some gold dust in Central Asia. You can see that in the sculpture of Gandhara. But the treasure was taken finally in triumph to Rome. There, of course, as everywhere on its travels it was embellished: for example, in the second century BCE by Terence, the greatest of the Roman comic dramatists, who was born in Carthage (now Tunis); and—at the turn of the fifth century CE, as the empire became Christian—by Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, born at Tagaste (now Souk Ahras in Algeria). In St. Augustine’s lifetime, the Visigoth’s took Rome; not long after he died, the Vandal’s captured Hippo.

When Rome collapsed, there was a struggle for the golden nugget between Rome’s heirs in Western Europe and her Byzantine and, later, Moslem heirs. It may even be conceded among the learned that the nugget passed in the 9th century to Baghdad and the Bayt al-Hikmah, the palace library set up under Harun al-Rashid; but it began wandering Western Europe again after the Reconquest of Spain. Partitioned between the Flemish and Florentine courts and the Venetian Republic in the Renaissance, its fragments passed through cities such as Avignon, Paris, Amsterdam, Weimar, Edinburgh and London, and were finally reunited—pieced together like the broken shards of a Grecian urn, in the academies of the United States.

The golden-nugget story is what scholars now call “essentialist”: the Western tradition has an essence, which is passed, from hand to hand on its historic journey. Let us admit that this sort of essentialism remains extremely common in our intellectual lives. We too often suppose that a historically produced identity must have a trans-historical essence. But that is simply a mistake. What was England like in the eleventh century? Take whatever you think was distinctive of it. What makes something English now isn’t that it shares those distinctions. Rather, as time rolls on, each generation inherits the label from an earlier one; with the label may come some legacies. But as the legacies are lost or exchanged for other treasures, the label can keep on. And so, when a generation comes that moves from the territory to which English identity was once tied—moves, shall we say, to a New England—the label can even travel beyond the territory. Identities can be held together by narratives, in short, without essences.

The contemporary idea of a Western civilization, which has escaped the Academy and entered the general culture, is the result, I want to suggest, of five exaggerations: hyperboles that are mistaken for the literal truth. And these exaggerations begin with the essentialist error I just identified: the mistake of thinking that a tradition needs to be defined by something shared across time in every moment of its trajectory, an error that leads us to exaggerate what we have in common with our ancestors. Let me call this the birthright exaggeration.

A second exaggeration is idealist: a tendency (especially common among intellectuals) to see what we do—ideas, arguments, narratives, poems, in a phrase, word-mongering—as the armature of human history. An understanding of societies that places ideas at its heart is likely to exaggerate the importance of texts and of the scribes who create and transmit them. As a second century BCE Hebrew scribe put it, in Ecclesiasticus, early on in the history of such self-importance, “With what wisdom shall he be furnished that holdeth the plough, and that glorieth in the goad, that driveth the oxen therewith, and is occupied in their labours, and his whole talk is about the offspring of bulls?”

A third error is the determinist exaggeration, which supposes that what we have been fixes what we must be.

The fourth is an organicist exaggeration of the degree to which cultures are unified; often, given, the intellectualism, unified by ideas or, in the worst case of this, in Hegelianism, the Idea.

Finally, there is what I will call the nationalist exaggeration, which overstates the relationship between cultural identities, on the one hand, and political identities, on the other; this is, in a way, an instance of organicism, but one that is of sufficient independent importance to be worth giving a separate label.

These five habits of hyperbole—birthright, idealism, determinism, organicism, and nationalism—have shaped, I think, a great deal of modern intellectual life. I want to examine briefly some of their recent history and to urge us to be vigilant against them. But I should say at the start that, in claiming they are exaggerations, I am emphatically not suggesting that we respond to overstatement with understatement: we shouldn’t, that is, understate the importance of ideas or the sway of the past or the connections among elements of culture or between culture and politics, either. Least of all, in repudiating an overstated birthright, should we deny the reality of our various heritages.

The story of the golden nugget is used to support the five exaggerations: it tells us the history of the West is a history of texts and ideas; that because those ideas are part of a Western essence which is our inheritance we are bound to continue living by them; that they are united with everything else important in our lives; and that the cultural unity of the West is a basis for political unity—and an obstacle in our relations with the non-West.

We can trace back one source of these ideas to Johann Gottfried Herder. In his On the New German Literature: Fragments of 1767, Herder wrote: “Whoever writes about the literature of a country, must not neglect its language.” Herder’s notion of the Sprachgeist—the “spirit” of the language—embodies the thought that language is more than the medium through which speakers communicate. When Thomas Jefferson borrowed from English legal argument the idea of the Anglo-Saxon roots of English liberty, he was claiming a connection to the tradition of the shire moot and the hundred moot, which had been abolished at the Norman Conquest. So when he introduced Anglo-Saxon into the curriculum at the University of Virginia—Mr. Jefferson’s University, which opened in 1819—his argument was Herderian: reading the “histories and laws left us in that … dialect,” he said, students would “imbibe with the language their free principles of government.”[6]

The nineteenth century added to the philhellenic classicism of the Enlightenment the idea that the Western heritage was a racial possession; and, since the nineteenth century is the century of biology (a word itself coined emblematically enough in 1800 in Germany) the nature of races was increasingly consigned to the new sciences of life: the full title of Darwin’s 1859 masterwork, recall, was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

The idea of a civilization produced only by an Indo-European or a European race required a kind of blindness to what scholars already knew: the story neglected not only the Egyptian influence on the Greeks, but also the centrality of Jewish contributions to Western high culture, the key role of the Arabs in maintaining the intellectual tradition that linked Plato to the Renaissance, or, more minutely, such facts as the influence of Hafiz—a Persian poet—on Goethe. We could now add many other embarrassments some of them did not know: the transmission of materials and ideas along the Silk Road, say, or the role of Arab and Andean inspiration in shaping European classical music.

But the story has other ancestors, stretching back at least to the Renaissance. In the early fourteenth century, Petrarch spoke, as I mentioned earlier, of the dark ages that came before him in the course of seeking to reestablish the tradition of learning that Rome had inherited from Greece; Petrarch made Homer available to the Greek-less moderns by having him translated into Latin. And the success of Renaissance humanism led eventually to the recovery of Greek as one of the languages of the learned.

Thomas Jefferson (who studied Latin and Greek as a child because Petrarch’s program succeeded) identified more than four centuries later with Athens and Rome as originators of democracy and republicanism—why else, after all, would the United States have a Capitol in our capital? He was making a claim to the golden nugget. Plato and his peers made a claim on an Egyptian legacy—inspired, surely, as Alexander was, by the powerful sense of the majesty and antiquity of the civilization of the Pharaohs; the Romans went on to proclaim themselves cultural heirs to the Greeks. It is one of the oldest gestures in the world.

Much modern talk about Western Civilization works by conceiving in essentially Herderian terms of the civilizations of the past—Greece, Rome, Renaissance Italy, Reformation Germany—and then claiming for contemporary Europeans and North Americans what is best in the spiritual, cultural and intellectual life, of those earlier peoples. To escape the confusions that come with this picture of the West we need first to step outside the framework of modern nationalism, the framework Herder helped to lay down.

This is extremely hard to do. Almost everyone, everywhere today on the planet lives with a picture of the world in which it is as natural as could possibly be that the world is divided into a couple of hundred nation-states.[7] But the fact, of course, is that both the idea and the practice developed only slowly over the last few centuries. Westphalia and the reorganization of Europe in the centuries that followed, produced a world in which, in fact, hardly any nation states fitted the Herderian picture of the homogeneous mono-cultural nation living under a single government. Those few states that do fit something like this have usually been forced into it over a couple of centuries of violent civil strife: the homogeneous nation is the result, not the pre-condition of modern statehood. The nationalist exaggeration, organicism about the nation, has blinded us to all this.

Eugen Weber taught a generation of students of French history that as late as 1893, roughly a quarter of the then 30 million citizens of metropolitan France had not mastered the French language: so much for the Sprachgeist.[8] What makes France French? It doesn’t matter what you say: language, state institutions, cuisine, the laicité of the republic, the Empire, a Catholic tradition. None of them was ever a very good response. The very question presupposes an organicist answer; and things have gotten even worse for the prospects of the organicist story since the end of the French empire. Large numbers of people have arrived whose language, cuisine, religion and relation to empire are not those of the hexagon. Germany struggles with the distinct political legacies of two halves, separated less than a century after Germany first became a nation-state—as the Deutsches Kaiserreich—at the end of the Franco-Prussian War.[9] Italy was united by the Savoyard monarchs in the mid-nineteenth century, but, like Weber’s France, contained a great variety of mutually unintelligible dialects. Even now Italy recognizes twenty regional dialects, acknowledges the presence of small minorities speaking Albanian, Ladin, Friulian, Greek, Occitan and Südtirolean, as well as speakers of Somali and Ethiopian and other legacies of empire; and it is conventional to describe the version of the language taught in schools and printed in most newspapers as “lingua toscana in bocca romano.”

If the states of Western Europe where the Herderian ideology was developed do not fit the mold of the mono-ethnic nation state, it is rare to find anything like it anywhere else. Indian, China, and Nigeria: each has scores of languages and ethnic groups. The United States, where most people speak some sort of English, is not a place that could plausibly be described—pace the American Studies Association—as having a single national culture: everything that is normally said to be American—from McDonalds to Hollywood to consumer capitalism—is found elsewhere as well and is, in any case, not much appreciated by large numbers of Americans. There are no doubt candidates for Herderian states: I will give you Japan, where 99% of the population identifies as Japanese.[10] Remember though that their script is Chinese, their largest religion Indian, and there are fifteen Japanese languages, including Japanese sign language, recognized by ethnologists. By and large people, do not live in mono-cultural, mono-religious, monolingual, nation states and, by and large, they never have.

In short: while nationality, for better of worse, has become an increasingly central feature of the identities of modern men and women, the content of nationality—its meaning for each citizen—is the result of cultural work not a natural and pre-existing commonality. I want to insist—to be succinct—that we say “No” to idealism, organicism, and determinism about the nation.

Herder’s talk of the spirit of a nation created a picture in which all the aspects of the life of a people who shared a language were generated from a common core. It accounts for his organicism; for his conviction of the unanimism of the Volk. The residues of this notion in our ordinary talk are everywhere.

It is built into the idea of a Western civilization as a common, integrated heritage. Sir Edward Burnett Tylor defined “culture” in 1871 as that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Culture we are taught to think fits together like a jigsaw, each element carefully configured to occupy a particular place, each part essential to the meaning of the whole.

So suppose we abandon organicism, of this sort. Then we can borrow the more cosmopolitan picture in which every element of culture—from philosophy or cuisine to the style of bodily movement—is separable in principle from the others; you really can walk and talk like a black American and think with Matthew Arnold and Immanuel Kant as well as with Martin Luther King and Miles Davis. There are organic wholes in our cultural life: the music, the words, the set-design, the dance of an opera fit and are meant to fit together. It is, in the word Wagner invented, a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. But there isn’t one great big whole called culture that unites organically all these parts.

Kafka and Miles Davis can live together as easily as Kafka and Strauss. What is true in high culture is true in cuisine: Briton’s have swapped rice and curry for fish and chips. You will find the style of hip-hop in the streets of Tokyo. Spain—in the heart of the West—resisted liberal democracy for two generations after it took off in India and Japan—in the East, the home, supposedly, of Oriental despotism. Jefferson’s Western inheritance—Athenian liberty, Anglo-Saxon freedom—did not preserve the United States from creating a slave republic.

That is why we in Europe and North America don’t need the idea of the West to guide us forward; why what we have are choices not tracks laid down by a Western fate. Far from East being East and West being West and the twain never meeting, they have always been intertwined—as we saw in the history of Al Andalus—wherever you draw the imaginary boundary. And, dare I say, if the idea of a Western culture can mislead us, so can the idea of a singular culture of Islam.

Those who want the idea of the West to provide some solidarity against radical Islam are looking in the wrong place, too. What we need is a different boundary: the one between those who will share with strangers and live with difference and those who don’t care for difference or won’t share with strangers. And that divide is within “the West,” as it is internal to the world of Sunni and Shia, and the variety of other sects—Alawite, Isma’ili, Ibadhi, Druze and so on—that make up the world of Islam. It is the difference between the cosmopolitan perspective that recognizes the presence and the power of our mutual contamination and the counter-cosmopolitanism that aims for an imaginary and impossibility purity.


[1]This article was presented at the Reset-Dialogues Istanbul Seminars 2011 that took place at Istanbul Bilgi University from May 19-24, 2011.
[2] Herodotus The Histories John Marincola ed. Aubrey de Sèlincourt trans. (London & New York: Penguin, 1972): 254.
[3] Which is where Gibraltar gets its name: Jabal Tariq in Arabic is Tariq’s Mountain.
[4]Gibbon The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire H. H. Milman ed. (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1899): 288.
[5]The catalogue of the royal library “alone consisted of forty-four volumes. Under Al-Haim II (961-976) this library was reported to have given employment to over 500 people. . . . Elsewhere at Moslem Spain there was a total of seventy libraries in the 10th century, several in Toledo. In addition to the royal library, these included libraries in universities in Cordoba, Seville, Malaga, and Granada , among others, and in numerous mosques. Private libraries flourished in Moslem Spain, and it was said that Cordoba was the greatest book market in the western world in the 10th century.” (Harris, History of Libraries in the Western World 4th ed [1999] 81).
[6]Cited in Reginald Horsman’s Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), 19.
[7]192 UN members plus the Vatican, Taiwan, Palestine and Western Sahara, minus the United Kingdom plus England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. (If you thought the UN had 191 members, you didn’t notice the accession of Montenegro in June of this year, after its separation from Serbia.)
[8]See Eugen Weber “Who Sang the Marseillaise,” in My France. Politics, Culture, Myth (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1991), 92-102.
[9]It did so, of course, without one large chunk of largely German-speaking territory, namely Austria, and without, as the Nazi’s were soon to point out, many German speakers in the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires.
[10]The more than one million people of Japanese descent in the Brazilian city of Sao Paolo almost outnumber the non-Japanese legal residents who live among the 123 million Japanese.

A version of this article was presented at the Reset-Dialogues Istanbul Seminars 2011 (‘Overcoming the trap of Resentment’) that took place at Istanbul Bilgi University from May 19-24, 2011.

The final/definitive version of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s essay was published in Philosophy&Social Criticism, vol 38 number 4-5 May 2012, SAGE Publications Ltd, (LA, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC), all rights reserved, p. 425-434, Special Issue: “Overcoming the Trap of Resentment”, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations Istanbul Seminars 2011, Edited by: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul and David Rasmussen. Link to the issue http://psc.sagepub.com/content/38/4-5.toc