Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.12.19

Nadia Maria El Cheikh, Byzantium Viewed by the Arabs. Harvard Middle Eastern Monographs, 36.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2004.  Pp. xi, 271.  ISBN 0-932885-30-6.  $19.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Kevin van Bladel, University of Southern California (
Word count: 1732 words

True to its title, this is a monograph on Byzantium as seen by Arabs (or rather Muslims writing in Arabic) from the advent of Islam to the Turkish conquest of the Constantinople, that is, from the seventh to the fifteenth centuries CE. The book is divided into four chapters preceded by a theoretical introduction and orientation to the sources and sealed with a summary conclusion. The first chapter describes the period of early contact between the new Islamic state and its older neighbor and rival. The second describes the character of the hostile attitude that became the normative way in which Byzantium was represented in Arabic sources. The third chapter reviews Arabic descriptions of the city of Constantinople and Byzantine court protocol as well as relations between Byzantium and Muslim states in the late ninth and eleventh centuries. The last chapter describes the later, more ambiguous and perhaps friendlier attitude of Muslims writing in Arabic toward Byzantium after hostilities turned toward the Crusader states.

The book is timely, coming soon after several other publications investigating literary contact and cultural exchange between Byzantium and Muslim states.1 The number of Byzantinists who realize the necessity of integrating the ocean of evidence offered in Arabic sources with their familiar Byzantine sources is slowly growing. What we have here is a contribution to this development by an Arabist. The author's expertise in classical Arabic literature is immediately obvious: the bibliography shows just over a hundred Arabic works used, primarily literary and historical works, which provide a representative basis of evidence for the study. Yet the study overall would probably have profited by the greater use of Greek and Byzantine literature to corroborate certain points, though, strictly speaking, Byzantine Greek sources were outside the project's scope.

As related in its Introduction, the book is concerned not so much with actual relations between states ruled by Muslims and Byzantium, though these do figure importantly in the discussion, as with representations of Byzantium in literary expression in Arabic, for it is only through the filter of representation that the real history of their relations and the actual historical events behind them can be approached. These representations were for the most part antagonistic but complicated by the cultural closeness of the two sides to each other. On one hand this approach is well chosen, since it saves the author from falling into the trap of taking traditions of representation at face value centuries after those representations had been created. On the other hand, this seems to rob the work as a whole of some of its potential historical particularity, with the result that it is difficult to correlate new developments in the representation of Byzantium in Arabic sources with specific events, social changes, and authorial intentions on a smaller time scale. The result is a very good general picture of the type required in a new field of investigation, but it is the beginning, and not the end, of that investigation.

The Introduction also gives brief introductions to the major Arabic sources used in this study. The reader who does not know Arabic literature will benefit very much from this key, without which it might not be clear when authors like al-Azdi or Yaqut were writing, and will need to consult this key frequently in order to appreciate the historical dimension of the project most fully.

Though all of the particular arguments of the book cannot be reviewed here, a few will serve as examples. The first chapter deals at length with the representation of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire in the Qur'an. It shows decisively how the traditions of interpretation of Qur'anic verses on the victory and defeat of the Roman Empire (in sura 30, verses 1-5) initially tended to reflect Muslim sympathy with the monotheistic Romans against the Persians for the first three centuries of Islam. Some time around the eleventh century, however, these verses came to be more frequently interpreted to indicate rather the eventual conquest of Byzantium by the Muslims. El Cheikh rightly connects this with political developments of the eleventh century and clearly demonstrates a change in attitude toward Byzantium at this time. Yet, as El Cheikh shows, the antagonistic attitude on the part of Arab Muslims was also present from earlier times. Umayyad court poetry regularly signals hostility toward the Byzantines, in particular praise poetry dedicated to caliphs who fought the Byzantines. But it is not all so simple, and some trickier problems remain. A long section in the first chapter deals with the Muslim representation of Heraclius, Byzantine Emperor at the time of Muhammad. Arabic traditions portray Heraclius as extremely sympathetic to Islam and even nearly a convert. This portrayal, El Cheikh argues, was meant to legitimize the younger, Islamic state on the one hand and to show the wrongful disobedience of the Byzantine people in resisting Islam on the other. If only they had heeded their emperor! Without entering into discussion of the personality of Heraclius, and speaking strictly of the reasons for the survival and spread of these traditions in Arabic books, I agree with El Cheikh's analysis: this tradition in Arabic literature is part of a historiographic project of self-legitimation for Muslims.

This kind of discussion is what the work under review offers. Though it is not possible to describe all the arguments here, other subjects covered may be mentioned in brief. El Cheikh describes the Islamic adoption of Byzantine styles of sacred architecture and the place of Constantinople in Arabic ideology, which moved from the anticipated goal of conquest among the earliest Muslims to a symbol, the conquest of which stood for the arrival of Judgment Day. The second chapter deals with the knowledge and ideas of Arab Muslims about Byzantium, especially the Byzantine emperors, as expressed primarily in works from the first long period of normal relations between the caliphate and the imperium, from the end of the eighth to the beginning of the eleventh centuries. The discussion of the Arabic reception of ancient Greek science and philosophy does not use the cited research of Dimitri Gutas as thoroughly as it might have, and several important publications in this area were not incorporated. In a discussion of Byzantine national character and the Muslim Arabs' stereotypes about it, El Cheikh shows how Byzantine women were turned into exotic, fair-haired lovelies simultaneously desirable and sexually immoral. As El Cheikh rightly explains, this unsurprising tendency tells us more about the anxieties of Muslim Arab authors than it does about Byzantine women. The third chapter describes in detail some Arabic accounts of the city of Constantinople itself and its monuments, which appear as one of the marvels of the world. The growing hostilities between Muslim states and the Byzantine Empire during the eleventh century were changed with the arrival of crusaders from Western Europe. The Franks (Arabic ifranj) immediately replaced the Byzantines as the main threat and object of hostilities so that the numerous commonalities between Middle Eastern Arabs and Byzantines became more visible. This final period is the subject of the fourth chapter, the book's last and shortest. In these last centuries it is clear that contacts between Muslim Arabs and Byzantines became less antagonistic and that a sizable Muslim population had found a home in Constantinople. But that city never ceased to be a goal of conquest promised in the prophecies in the beginnings of Islam. Reports are summarized describing widespread celebration among Muslims in different lands upon hearing news of Sultan Mehmet's success in taking the city in 1453. For Muslims who believed that this was one of the events that must precede the Day of Judgment, this was an especially significant event.

Though its chapters are divided loosely into chronological periods, the book's real concern is with traditions of representation. Themes that had originated in the eighth century, for example, continued to find new expression hundreds of years later so that it is difficult to say which reports are truly describing contemporary circumstances. But the themes of description, prejudices and stereotypes, persist over astonishingly long periods of time. As a description of these themes, the work under review succeeds.

Byzantium Viewed by the Arabs assumes a basic familiarity with the history of Islam. Words like tafsir, Qur'an commentary, may be unfamiliar to non-Arabists who may be advised to read a few basic works on Arabic and Islam before using this book. Some Arabic terms, like fidya (ransom, p. 92), are not defined at all, but the non-Arabist is not able to look these words up in standard Arabic dictionaries (organized by word root and Arabic letters). Likewise, the non-Arabist reader cannot be expected to know, for example, that al-Zawra' is the name of the part of Baghdad on the west of the Tigris (p. 152). Thus the group of readers that stands to gain the most from reading this book, those who cannot use Arabic sources, will inevitably miss some important points of detail.

Some of the translations of passages from Arabic into English leave something to be desired, sounding at times too much like a word-for-word rendering and losing thereby some of the life of the originals, though this is typical of the field of Arabic literature. The work also contains a handful of errors in English usage which are perhaps inevitable in our polyglot academy but which ought to have been corrected by the editor. Mistakes in transliteration of Arabic are fairly frequent, another point where the editor's duty was sadly neglected. A few other mistakes caught my eye: for example, Pseudo-Apollonius of Tyana is cited in bibliography as Pseudo-Dionysius (!).

The book under review should serve as a foundation for further research in this area, which still contains a huge amount of material awaiting historians. It will be possible in the future to correlate particular developments in the representation of Byzantium in Arabic sources more closely with political developments and social changes than El Cheikh has done, but the subject is so great that a single monograph cannot put all of the extant material to use exhaustively. The achievement of this book is to have made a wide-ranging, theoretically informed, and useful introduction to an important subject. It has succeeded in signaling the most important periods and themes of its subject, cutting a new trail for future Arabist scholarship and giving specialists from other fields a view of the treasures that can be found in this one.


1.   To name just two important ones: Hélène Condylis-Bassoukos, Stéphanitès kai Ichnélatès, traduction grecque (XI siècle) du livre Kalla wa-Dimna d'Ibn al-Muqaffa' (VIII siècle). Étude lexicologique et littéraire, Académie Royale de Belgique. Classe des Lettres. Fonds René Draguet, 11, Leuven, Peeters 1997, and Maria Mavroudi, A Byzantine Book on Dream Interpretation: The Oneirocriticon of Achmet and its Arabic Sources, Leiden, E.J. Brill 2001. Mavroudi's book summarizes in its last chapter in what is currently known of the Byzantine Greek reception of Arabic literature, an area of study sure to be rich in discoveries.

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