About This


 Lewis observes that during most of the period 622-1492, Western European civilisation was definitely inferior to the Islamic, and was, in comparison to it `underdeveloped.’ This did not just mean, he explains, the average upper class Muslim felt superior to most Western Europeans (merchants, warriors, scholars, or priests,) it also helps explain why, for centuries, Western Europeans were eager to copy many facets of Muslim culture.[1]The most important period of passage, however, once more, as Le Bon stresses, is the 12th and 13th century period, when, in his words, the luxury of the Orient  with respect to the military, manner of dress, and home interior, passed West.[2]Many other forms of cultural influence also passed in that same period as the following will underline. Before considering some such passages, however, it is important to dwell a little on two important matters:

-First, The parameters by which Western Christendom  allowed some of the Islamic culture to filter through.

-Second, a comment on the expression: luxury in a Muslim context.


On the fist point, as Menocal points out, political enmity towards the Muslims on the part of the `entrenched establishment,’ never succeeded in mitigating the seductiveness of such Islamic culture and its numerous attractions for many who emulated them and believed they had much to offer.[3] However, because of the sort of relationship that existed between Muslims and Christians, it was a relationship that is most likely to produce anxiety, both antagonistic and dependent, loathed at one level but inescapably influential at many others, the culture of a world `damned by one's faith yet seeming to be rewarded by God with affluence and often with stunning military victories.’[4]

Glick comments on the conflicting elements related to Islamic cultural impact. Factors influencing selectivity were varied: economic demand, the market for stylistic innovation, a desire for new knowledge all contributed to climates favourable to innovation; hostility, warfare, and religious difference contributed to a climate that may have been inimical to borrowing, but only selectively so.[5]Competition with an enemy can be a powerful stimulus to cultural innovation. If the barrier is strong enough, such imitation may not be consciously acknowledged; rather, a process of reinvention may take place within the recipient culture.[6]

 Summing up, Letourneau, notes that however hostile in principle to Muslim Spain, Christian Spain would not stop imitating it because the civilisation of al-Andalus was richer and more sophisticated than that of the states of Barcelona , Aragon, Navarre, Castille, Asturies, and Leon, pursuing that, similarly Muslim Sicily  and Ifriqyia appeared as fabulous territories, rich and full of luxury to the Italian population.[7]


The second point, talking of luxuries in relation to Islam sounds misplaced. The concept of excessive material wealth or luxury has no place in Islam. The idea of the Day of the Judgement `has always imbued Islam with a humbling spirit,’ Ettinghausen reminds us.[8] In view of the pending hour of reckoning, moral deeds have much higher value than earthly goods with which to embellish life, and artfully made objects of daily life, are only symbols of worldly splendour or ostentatious luxury, which can easily corrupt.[9] The Hadith (Islamic tradition), thus, states:

 `he who drinks from gold and silver vessels, drinks the fire of hell,'

 Hence Islam shuns luxury, and never found ground for jewelled, gold or silver vessels, even within the mosque, for the greater glory of God; thus, there is no parallel whatsoever to the sumptuous objects in the church treasuries of the Christian Middle Ages.[10] Islam, Ettinghausen insists, was amply satisfied with the humblest materials, such as brass, clay, plaster and brick; cheap material such as stucco used to decorate even the mirhab, the focal point of the mosque, when the wealth of the community could have provided the most costly material.[11] The accumulation of wealth as in the treasuries of the Fatimids is an exception, and ample evidence for the ebbing morale of the slowly degenerating dynasty.[12]In contrast, the second Caliph of Islam, Omar (634-44), owned but one shirt and one mantle, patched and re-patched; lived on barley bread and dates, and drank nothing but water; slept on a bed of palm leaves, hardly better than a hair shirt,[13] and this while the immense treasures of Byzantium  and Persia were spread at his feet after both had been vanquished.[14]Thus, no beakers of precious metal could be used at the courts of the Muslim state, and earthenware was called to the fore to fulfil the needs of the highest ranks of Muslim society.[15]


Having, thus, cleared two major issues in relation to the Islamic cultural impact, such impact is looked at in terms of its wider definition, with regard to some dominant aspects, but by no means all aspects.

[1] A.R. Lewis:  The Islamic World and the West; op cit; p.vii.

[2] G. Le Bon: La Civilisation des Arabes; op cit; p.259.

[3] M.R. Menocal: The Arabic Role; op cit; p.65.

[4] Ibid. p.54.

[5] T. Glick: Islamic and Christian Spain; op cit; p. 285.

[6] Ibid.

[7] R. Letourneau: l'Occident Musulman du VII a la fin du 15 siecle: Annales de l'Institut d'Etudes Orientales, Alger, Vol 16, 1958, pp 147-176.p.160.

[8] R. Ettinghausen: The Character of Islamic Art; op cit; p. 255.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] W. Durant: The Age of Faith; op cit; p.189.

[14] J. Glubb: A Short History; op cit; p.84.

[15] R. Ettinghausen: The Character; op cit; p. 255.




Imitation in War and Peace
At war, first, the Islamic impact took a variety of forms. Defence and castle fortifications have been dealt with already; the point raised here, relates to Arabic vocabulary carrying concrete meaning, here the term ‘barbican’, ie a tower guarding a gate or a bridge, derived form the Islamic compound meaning ‘gatehouse’ or ‘house on the rampart’.

Read More »

Home Comfort and Elegant Living
De Zayas notes that the streets in Islamic towns and cities are narrow, and homes rise against each other, like scrambling, so small, and very simple seen from the outside; and yet inside, there is a great meticulousness and extreme cleanliness; so much so that the occupants take off their shoes at the entrance.

Read More »

Literature and Polite Literature
When coming across the literature of 18th century Europe, one reads with great fascination about the Literary Salons of France in particular, where the leading aristocracy conversed in endless disputations with the French intellectual elites, the likes of Voltaire, for instance. A wonderful, typically Western/French manifestation, born in the century of enlightenment, it would seem. And yet, again, written history proves so misleading in comparison with true history.

Read More »