There has been much interest in the depiction of Arabs in contemporary Western culture and literature, whether in popular movies, newspapers or books. Concerns about negative depictions in earlier centuries, too, led to the term "Orientalist" being widely seen as pejorative. What if, however, we try to go even further back? In fact, how far back can we go? What was the earliest Western book focused specifically on Arabs and their history?
I did not actively set out to discover such a book but stumbled upon it by chance while I was looking into the subject of Latin translations of the Quran. Eventually I was to translate a 13th-century Latin text, "Historia Arabum" (History of the Arabs) into Arabic, as I have long believed that there should be more translation of Latin works into Arabic in general, and this work would surely be of interest to Arab readers. More recently, I have also done an English translation that had not been done before, though there have been others — one into medieval Castilian, an early form of Spanish, in the 14th century, and more recently into German, in 2006.
In the process of translation and analysis, I struggled with many questions and seeming contradictions in this work, which was unusual for its time in its apparent objectivity and use of Arabic sources. This was particularly surprising given the prologue, which primes the reader to expect a polemic against Arabs and Muslims: the threat they posed to Christendom and the destruction they caused in Spain for more than 500 years. Did the apparent inconsistency between the bulk of the book's content and the prologue reveal something about the author's "real" attitude toward Arabs and Muslims beneath the surface of hostility to Islam as a religion? What could the work tell us about the author's own times? Does it have lessons for us today in an increasingly polarized world?
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[Additional notes to sentences, 14 May 2022]:
- "Latin (the lingua franca of the educated in medieval Europe)"- a reader who responded to this piece argues that the designation here is inaccurate since Greek was used in southeastern Europe. In fairness it should perhaps be specified that Latin was at least the lingua franca in Western and Central Europe.
"A book of liturgy guiding daily worship and prayer"- delete (an accidental editorial insertion which I had asked to be removed prior to publication). The Breviarium Historie Catholice is essentially a sacred world history.
- "The entire eighth book of the series is taken up by the events of the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa."- I mean here not only the battle itself but also the preparations for it and campaigns that immediately followed on from it, culminating in Alfonso VIII's death in 1214.
- "Apparent mistranslation of the Arabic term 'fityan'"- The qualifier of "apparent" is inserted here because while some figures who are classified in Arabic source material as being of the 'fityan' (singular: 'fata') appear to have been actual eunuchs, others were clearly not. In effect, to render this term as eunuchs is an over-generalisation at least for this context of political intrigue in Andalusian history, and in my view it is better to leave the term untranslated or come up with a formulation like 'freedmen clients' or 'the boys' (the latter in the sense of a posse). In general, the more precise rendering of 'eunuch' in Arabic is 'khasi' (pl. 'khasyan').
One example of a prominent individual classified as being of the 'fityan' in this period but was clearly not a eunuch is Mujahid al-'Amiri. According to Ibn Idhari's al-Bayan al-Mughrib v. 2 p. 411 (printed by Dar al-Gharb al-Islami in 2013), Mujahid, who ruled a ta'ifa fiefdom in Denia in eastern Spain, was of the "fuhul of the fityan of the Banu 'Amir" (i.e. 'fityan' who served the 'Amirids, who had great influence over the initial reign of the Umayyad caliph Hisham II at Cordoba). 'Fuhul' is apparently an explicit classification for 'fityan' who were not eunuchs, as Ibn Idhari mentions that when a certain Khayran al-'Amiri ruled Almeria, "all the fityan of Muhammad bin Abi 'Amir- in their fuhul and khasyan- rallied to him" (ibid. p. 419). As for Mujahid, he had at least two children: 'Ali and Hassan (ibid. pp. 412-413). Another notable example of a non-eunuch described with the terminology of 'fityan' is Sabur (cf. Kitab 'Amal al-'Alam, p. 183), for he is described as a "fata." He had his own fiefdom in Badajoz and had two children. When Sabur died, these children were still minors, and so his main administrator became ruler, sidelining the children and establishing his own dynasty.
- "Slavic origin": the general corresponding term in Arabic sources used to describe these ex-slaves is 'saqaliba,' which could mean 'Slavs' not only in the conventional sense of people of the Slavic ethno-linguistic group of the Indo-Europeans (ergo, taken from parts of Central and Eastern Europe), but also other Europeans originally taken as slaves. Conflation through terminology and lack of specifics in sources can make determining precise origins difficult in many cases.