Revisiting Historical Relations between Europe and the Islamic World: Three Fertilizing Periods
Mohammed Hashas, LUISS University of Rome 3 January 2014

The geographical label WANA (Western Asia and North Africa region) as suggested by the Jordanian Prince El Hassan bin Talal in 2009 seems a much better name for the so-called Muslim majority countries or broad Middle East; the label can “neutrally” replace the dichotomous and archaic “Europe and Islam,” or “Islam and the West,” and thus get geographical parities like “Western Europe and WANA.”[2] Jacques Derrida, in a historical conversation with Mustapha Charfi, the Tunisian philosopher, says that the core of the debate lies in ignorance between the northern part and southern part of the Mediterranean.[3]

To borrow words and use them for this particular subject, there is a lot of “clash of ignorance”[4] going on between the two sides of the Mediterranean. Such ignorance is turned into “sacred ignorance”[5] by a number of actors for religious, philosophic, and/ or political reasons. The American historian of Muslim-Christian relations, Richard W. Bulliet, says that we can in no way understand the current West and the current Muslim world without reading their historical relations. They simply intertwine, even though in their most bloody encounters. Both civilizations cannot stand alone and define themselves alone without the presence of the other, “The past and future of the West cannot be fully comprehended without appreciation of the twinned relationship it has had with Islam over some fourteen centuries. The same is true of the Islamic world.”[6]

I can see three major stages that characterize the relationship between the Arab-Islamic world and the modern West, Europe in particular. Each of these three stages carries within it “fertilizers”, or “fertilizing moments”, conflicts and interests of various kinds bracketed here. These stages are the following: 1) the medieval relations stage, 2) the modern relations stage, and the 3) contemporary relations stage. This third stage, as I see it, is still in the making; it could be labelled post-modern, or post-Orientalist, but not in the very same sense in which these terms have been used. It could also be labelled post-religious, meaning post-classical-religion. With the third stage, especially its second part that starts from 1945, the idea is to move out of the Islam vs. Europe, or Europe vs. Islam, dichotomous mindset. It is the stage of more hybridization between the two worldviews, the Western and the Islamic, the modern and traditional, the secular and divine, the physical and metaphysical. Each of these three main stages can be further divided according to particular big historical events, mostly politically-driven.

1.The Medieval Relations Stage (7th – 15th Centuries)

The medieval relations stage ranges from the advent of Islam in the7th century to the end of the 15th century, mainly 1492 which dates for the recovery of Spain from the Muslims and the expulsion of the latter, along with the Jews, mostly to North Africa. This stage is the most flourishing in Islamic history. It can be divided into stages like: The Prophetic and Guided Caliphs era (622-632; 632-661), the Ummayad era (661-750), the Abbasid era (most intellectual era, 750-1258), the Fatimids (909–1171), the Mongols (1258–1368), and the Ottomans (1453–1923), to name but these main historical-political entities. The beginning of Islamic opening went through a remarkable intellectual curiosity, borrowing, and creativity by integrating a lot from the great civilizations of the time, the neighboring ones first, the Persian and the Indian, and subsequently and most importantly from the Greek philosophical tradition. Interaction with other religions and customary practices in the region and elsewhere after expansion can in no way be eclipsed from our historical curiosity that the modern multicultural context requires to understand religious flexibility and its ability to integrate what seems alien to it in the first place.

The Greek heritage passed through the Arabs, flourished under their hands, and came back to Europe through Spain and Sicily translation centers which were under Muslim rule between the 8th and 15th centuries. However, intellectual expansion and opening is not politically and economically innocent. Conflicts occur and wars take place, for a number of reasons that can be first labeled innocent, or civilizing, but which soon turn out to be dogmatic, or materialist. The Crusades (chiefly between 1095 and 1291), and the Reconquista (mid-to-late 15th Century) are historical examples of conflict between the “then” Christian Europe and Muslim broad Middle East.[7] Briefly said, the medieval relations stage witnessed the early fertilization between Europe and the Muslim world: Greek thought and Muslim philosophy fertilization and transplantation from Europe, to the Islamic lands, and back to Europe, through Spain and Sicily.

2.The Modern Relations Stage (1492-1945)

For the second stage, the modern relations stage, it is situated between 1492 and 1945, the end of Second World War, and the beginning of the construction of post-war Europe. This stage would begin with the opening of Europe to the Greek heritage received back from the south of the Mediterranean. Historical eras as the Renaissance, Reformation, the French Revolution, and Enlightenment are influential stages in the modern history of Europe until now. A debate among some historians of the southern and northern shores of the Mediterranean is about the European denial of the Islamic contribution to the early seeds of modernity and European rebirth. The idea that Europe stood up alone from its Middle Dark Ages (5-15th Centuries) does not find much acceptance among some historians of Europe and many historians of the Islamic civilization, and this issue is raised here and there when discussing the feasibility and future of “European Islam.” How long will Islam and Muslims be denied their historical contribution? How can they feel that Europe is their home if the same Europe denies them a historical (physical and mainly intellectual) presence on its soil? These are some voices and questions that are raised, have always been so for centuries, and will continue to be raised still.

Moreover, the modern relations stage and its flourishing ideals that characterize modernity and the modern age has its dark side. Though Europe has been working on its own house for the last four centuries, its house cannot mirror itself well if it is not compared and challenged by the outside world, and the nearest world to be looked at is the Islamic world. Its gates are not far, and it is easy to gaze over them. Orientalism and Colonialism are the other two concepts and mechanisms Europe has used to feed itself while constructing its edifices. Certainly, Orientalism as an intellectual and political school in Europe is older that Edward Said´s Orientalism (1978).[8] What the latter has done is that it has opened the debate from within Western academia about Eurocentrism (as well as Americentrism) and its construction and conception of itself and the Other. Orientalism and the colonial enterprise have strengthened Europe economically and politically, but have weakened it intellectually. Its ideals seem to flourish just within its walks, since they do not apply to the Other outside the gates of secular and liberal Europe. The Catholic Church has been used in this machinery of colonialism and avid capitalism through the “civilizing mission.” It is not only the “enslavement” of the Other, especially the Muslim world here, by dints of colonialism, that weakens the intellectual Europe, but also the two world wars on its own soil contribute to that. It could be said that the Muslim Other, if fanaticized in the Middle Ages, is diabolized in the modern age, and is seen unable to “modernize” because it does not hold the torch of “secular philosophy.” By secular philosophy I mean the radical abolishing of religion from thought, and the total reliance on reason and empiricism.

The Muslim world, at this stage of European modernity since the 15th century, has been in the defensive, at times in adaptation mode, and in utter scorn and criticism at others. Unlike the first stage which saw the implantation of Muslim (and Greek) thought in Europe, the second stage did not see such a flourishing aspect of communication. This second stage is more confrontational in attitude, and the relationship here escalated to unprecedented levels economically, politically, and intellectually. The second stage is a stage of dominance and Othering par excellence. The first stage, though also characterized by dominance from the Muslim side, was not as capitalist and secularist as the second stage. Dehumanizing the Other, and expecting no positive contribution from him/her, is greater when the mode of thought is utterly capitalist and secular. Faced with the horror of liberal and secular Europe of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Muslim world could but reject these ideals as one package, because Europe which defended them had simply contaminated them by means of Orientalism and colonialism. The 20th century world wars, to which some Muslim lands were a backyard, made the liberal and secular ideals weak in the eyes of the neighbors outside the European soil.

Among the prolonged issues of these wars is the question of the Jews and their dehumanized status in Europe until WWII. After WWII, as a way of recognizing a historical fallacy, Europe has included Judaism to its Greco-Roman and Christian roots. (Will Europe take long again before it does the same for Muslims and recognize Islam as part of its enriching roots? Does it have an obligation to do that anyway?). For many, if not most, Muslims and many non-Muslims, up until now, Europe could not come out clean from these wars even though it supported, and still does, the creation of a state for the Jews in Palestine. For many, the ongoing unsolved Israel-Palestine, Israel-Arab issue, is a leading mark of European failure to recognize its intellectual deficits and political bias against Muslims – Arabs and Christians of the Middle East in this case. Broadly, the second stage of relations between Europe and the Islamic lands could not build bridges of understanding, despite Europe´s decades of lodging among Muslims (i.e. colonial times). By the mid-20th century, Europe´s weakness, after the two wars, would give the lead to the USA, which would not be able to enter these relations in any particular mode that is different from Europe’s. Europe and the US in particular would become what is commonly known now as the West, and the rest would include, among the developing world, the Muslim world.

I will refer to this note again later, but I should refer to it here as well, since the discussion at this stage is about the modern stage, the modern Europe and Americas (needless to note that Australia, and New Zealand are considered part of the West, and Israel as well, though not put strongly and clearly on the table while discussing the West vs. Islam). This note concerns the idea of essentializing Islam as one, vs. its developed counterpart, the West. There is no doubt that the Islamic world shares the main worldview of the Islamic creed, but the way it is lived daily and developed regionally needs more studies to understand dynamism within Islam and the Islamic world. The idea of speaking of one world, the Islamic world, vs. the West, is one of the main “dangerous” results of the binary of the Self and the Other, the “us” and “them,” developed during the Orientalizing and Othering process. Though the Islamic lands were in many ways weakened politically, at least for the last two centuries, and were thus negotiated with, and mostly ruled, state by state, when it comes to the intellectual attitude it is viewed as one. Here, I am not saying that it should or should not be seen as such. This needs further studies, but what I want to draw attention to is that the old Eurocentric view of the Islamic world as a homogeneous entity has remained the same despite political changes that have occurred to these Islamic countries either in block or one by one. Despite the close civilizational ties of the Islamic world, I would argue that Islam in far Asia has developed according to the Asian old cultural heritage, and the same applies to Islam in Turkey, Iran, or Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance. Mostly, when Islam is invoked, it is the Islam of the Middle East and North Africa (Arab Islam) that is referred to, and is seen to speak for all Muslim societies in other continents. This might have been a safe view when the Middle East-North Africa were the center of the Islamic world, ruled from there, but there are years of difference between that age and the current age.

There are also some important political and economic differences now that also make speaking of one world, the Islamic world, a generalization that does some harm to some countries and Muslims, and at times does them ample justice, depending on the issue raised, and how it is raised. Politics of interest are in the fore front. Wahhabi Islam is seen as conservative, and at times violent, but speaking against a particular oil producer and ally of the West, like Saudi Arabia, is not heard of in the public. The point here is that the Orientalist mindset still remains and divides the Islamic world when it wants, and unites it when it also wants; it unites it when the discourse is intellectual and philosophic, and disunites it when the discourse is political-economic, according to the benefits each brings to the discourse. The same binary opposition is still nurtured in the beginning of the third stage, to which I turn now.

3.The Current Stage (1945-present)

The third stage of relations between Europe and the Islamic world is the current stage, which is still taking shape. It is post-Second World War era. This stage still feeds itself from the legacy of the past. Though its start (from 1945 until now) is still in labour, I see that there are opportunities of fertilization between the two established civilizations and worldviews, possibly more than any time before. I am not trying to “do dialogue” here. I am more concerned with intellectual exchange when I speak of fertilizers.

Post-WWII Europe as well as most of the Islamic world that was under its dominance entered the new stage of relations with the baggage they had accumulated about each other centuries before. In Europe, the Orientalist mindset remains. The essentialist view of Islam is still present, and the view of the non-West as Other is strongly visible/felt at least in the first two to three decades after the Second World War, which does not mean that it is over now.

After the independence, commonly known now in academia as the postcolonial era, The Muslim world would find itself hesitant as to how to enter the world stage with a heavy legacy of intellectual stagnation, political weakness, and economic dependence. Though the Islamic intellectual awakening had started in the previous stage of interaction with Europe (i.e. in the second stage of modernity in my three classifications), from late 18th century from India, for instance with Ahmad Khan, it was the Arab Renaissance (Nahda) of the mid-1800 that was able to stir the Muslim mind to the challenges ahead of it. It should by no means be belittled the fact that most of the Arab Renaissance avant-guardists travelled to Europe and it is there that they started to rethink of their tradition in light of modern achievements. This is another crucial fertilizing moment between Europe and the Islamic majority countries. The Arab Nahda here also includes many Christian Arab intellectuals who translated many modern European works into Arabic, and defended the project of Arabisation in language and Arabism in politics, and Arab nationalism, including Arab secularization as well. The movement would affect, though differently, all the Islamic majority countries in the three main continents where they stretch, from Morocco to Indonesia. I do not intend to go into details here but to give headlines that I see pertinent in these introductory notes to the topic of European Islam.

From the Islamic world perspective, after the independence, the Arab Renaissance that started in the mid-1800, had to face not only the political challenges that the pioneers of Nahda were busy with in their early stages of activism. The main concern of the Nahda avant-gardists was the liberation of the lands, the importance of keeping the Khilafa or not, and the reinterpretation of religious texts as much as Sharia law allowed that to serve the immediate political changes and challenges. The inability to keep the lands united after independence, and the inability to unite efforts of religious revival and re-interpretation, besides external pressure from the previous colonial powers, the pressure of the Cold War and importance of alliances, besides the Israeli-Arab unresolved cause, all played a role in making these attempts weak in front of the massive challenges that the independence brought about. The early post-colonial challenges, and the aspirations of the liberated peoples in the Muslim world to a better world would soon vanish with the coming of army officers (examples of Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Algeria), radical secularists (Tunisia, and Turkey), and radical Islamists (Iran, Sudan) into power. Politically then, for European powers, any regime that allies well with them against the Soviets and the Islamists were accepted as good partners. Details aside, the current Arab Spring, started on 17 December 2010, shows that “the classical core lands of Islam,” if I may use the phrase, have not been satisfied with the status quo of the governing regimes and that their aspirations are being revisited after five-six decades of independence and dictatorships – most of which were allies of the West.

Intellectually, the Arab Nahda legacy seems to have stagnated and weakened even before the end of WWII. Arab Nationalism, Israeli-Arab conflict, the Cold War skirmishes, and economic pressures have left a big intellectual gap unfilled. It was after the Six Days War of 1967, in which the Arab army was defeated by Israel, that a new generation of Arab intellectuals would start to revive the debate and role of the intellect and intellectual in the Arab world, and here again the Arab world seemed to monopolize the picture of the Islamic world. Deep intellectual projects would start to develop by the early 1970s and be influential up to this day. Three trends could be broadly sketched: 1) some intellectuals and philosophers call for a radical epistemological break up with the past to start a new modern Arab-Islamic thought, and these are either pro-Western or do depend heavily on their critique of the Arab-Islamic tradition, and are broadly not seen as very genuine in their approaches, especially if their critique of religious texts is direct and public; 2) some stand in the middle to call for reforms without a total break with the tradition, and these have tried to build critical and reformist approaches from within, while opening up to the modern Western schools of thought, with a more critical attitude of Euro-modernity; 3) the third trend, which I see as smaller in number but bigger in influence to the extent that it seems to have overshadowed the two previous trends, is more conservative and sees in the past/tradition the solace for present and future answers; the conservatives here are again broadly non-violent, but it is their other section, the violent side that is more present in the international scene and influences International Relations. The 9/11 terrorist events are provoked by this violent fraction of the conservatives who dream of an Islamic Caliphate and one world order; they are commonly referred to as fundamentalists, radicals, jihadists or extremists. This fraction justifies its violence by, among others, the “Western” dominance over the Islamic world, the Western support of Israel, and the plot against Islam after the fall of the Soviet bloc. The West is seen as the new Crusader. History conflicts are brought to the front, and difference between the West and the Islamic world is stressed.

The post-1945 relations between the West and the Islamic world, (WANA region in focus), have been confrontational in nature though more economically and politically tied together, at least more so until 2010, the historical date of the Arab Revolution. All in all, this third stage of relations between the West and the Islamic World has not changed much from what the previous stage has accumulated. More than ever before, pointing to the dominance of one and the backwardness of the other has escalated to stages of wars (played in the Islamic world backyard) and terrorist attacks (mostly staged in Europe and the US but the damage of which has been more in the Islamic world backyard). This is the dark side of the first decades in the third stage of relations from 1945 to 2010 (before the Arab Revolution started),[9] passing by the black day of 9/11, 2001. The bright side has yet to be worked on, which the next point could exemplify. Two major fertilizing factors can be considered seriously in the ongoing third stage of relations: one is internal and the other is external. The internal fertilizing factor is European Islam, and the external one is the Arab Revolution. Only blind historians, short-sighted politicians, extremists (be they atheists, secularists, or religious), and un-universalist philosophers would miss reading the twinned history in the light of these two remarkably historical phenomena, which I consider fertilizing factors in the Mediterranean.
(To be continued)


[1]I intended this section to be read as an introductory note to my general framework of approaching “European Islam” and the “Arab Revolution.”

[2]The American historian Hudson coined the term “Islamdom” to refer to the Islamic lands, like the term “Christendom.” Still, it sounds more relevant as a term for the Middle Ages and its power politics. See, Marshall G. S Hodgson, Venture of Islam, Vol. 1 (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1974) 58. For the label WANA, see: Sultan Barakat and Ahmad Mango, “First Annual West Asia-North Africa (WANA) Forum,” 19-20 April 2009, Amman (Jordan), at:

[3]Mustapha Cherif, Islam and the West: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, trans. Teresa Lavendar Fagan (Chicago and London: Chicago UP, 2006).

[4]Edward Said wrote the piece after the terrorist events of 9/11, 2001, critiquing the “gimmick thesis” – in his words – of Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs; Summer 1993; 72, 3; 22-49. The thesis was later expanded in the widely circulated book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1998); Said, “The Clash of Ignorance,” 4 October 2001, available at:

[5]Olivier Roy has written a book entitled La sainte ignorance by which he refers to 21st century religious movements which are dogmatic and are anti-intellectual. Roy, La sainte ignorance: Le temps de la religion sans culture [The Sacred Ignorance: The Age of Religion without Culture] (Paris: Seuil, 2008).

[6]Richard W. Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization (New York, Columbia UP, 2004) 45.

[7]I am not saying that Europe is now not Christian; and I am equally not saying that it is Christian as it were, say, in the Middle Ages and during the Reformation. As some have labeled it, it could be called “post-Christian” in the sense that religiosity is fused with liberal and secular thought, and religion in its classical sense as a governing or guiding socio-political system is hardly there. I say hardly because Christian holidays are still enjoyed and integrated in the liberal-secular political systems of the modern Europe; a number of monarchies still keep the linkage to Christianity, as is the case with Britain and Denmark, for example, where the queen is head of the Anglican Church, and head of the Lutheran Church, respectively. See, for instance, Philip Sherrard, “A Post-Christian Epoch?” Encounter, February 1956, vol. VI, No. 2, pp 25-29.

[8]Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978)

[9]The Arab Revolution, or the so-called Arab Spring, if its socio-political and intellectual demands and aspirations are not aborted by internal and external players, will change fundamentally the relations between the Arab world and Europe, and open new horizons of cooperation on many levels. This remains a valid scenario for a region that hankers for democratic change, despite the various problems that the revolution first two years have not managed to overcome until now. The way ahead is still long. See, for instance, Mohammed Hashas, “Future Scenarios for a Common Mediterranean Culture,” 9 March 2011, at: