Revision 5.16 “What the West Owes the East” (Literature)

Revision 5.16 “What the West Owes the East” (Literature) September 28, 2020


The Alhambra, as the sun sets
The Alhambra, of an Andalusian evening.  (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


Did Arabic literature have any impact upon the literature of the West? Few people in the West would suspect that it did. Yet the answer is almost certainly yes.

It has been argued, for instance, that a book written in twelfth-century Andalusia by a friend of Averroës may have served as the inspi­ration for Daniel Defoe’s famous novel Robinson Crusoe. The Ara­bic book is a short philosophical allegory entitled Hayy ibn Yaqzan (“Alive, Son of the Awake”), about a boy who was raised by a doe on a desert island far away from human company. Written by a Span­ish Arab named Ibn Tufayl, it tells how he learned, on his own and without the help of human teachers or books, first to cope with his environment and to survive, and then to understand the universe in a scientific way. More importantly, it explains how, without the aid of revelation, and with only the simple use of his own powerful mind, the boy, as he matured into a man, came to understand the nature and existence of God. This marvelous little narrative was first translated into English by Simon Pococke, just prior to the time Defoe wrote his story.

It has also been argued that the medieval troubadours, those wan­dering minstrels who sang of pure, unapproachable love throughout the courts of medieval Europe, borrowed their themes and many of their poetic techniques from the ghazal poems of the Umayyad period, transmitted through Muslim Spain. (It will be recalled that an Umayyad prince, Abd al-Rahman I, managed to maintain an Umayyad state in Spain even after the Abbasids overthrew and massacred his family in other parts of the Islamic empire.) These love poems shared the theme of the beautiful girl who must be virtuously admired from afar. Dante uses the same technique in his Divine Com­edy, where his guide through paradise is the virtuous Beatrice, whom he had met when he was nine and whom he had continued to love even after her premature death. (His own wife is scarcely mentioned in his works.) And speaking of Dante, one of the most serious argu­ments for Islamic influence on the West has been made in connec­tion with his Divine Comedy. Scholars like the great Spanish Islamicist Miguel Asín Palacios have argued that his tour of Heaven and Hell relies on Arab Muslim models.[1]

Arabic influence shows up in sometimes surprising places in Western drama, opera, and musical theater. For instance, the Arabic word babgha’ or babagha’, meaning “parrot,” entered the Ger­man language as Papagei. And that is why, in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, we now have the two prominent humorous characters who dress in bird feathers and are named “Papageno” and “Papagena.” To choose another example, Shakespeare’s Othello illustrates the sympathetic treatment that could occasionally be received by a Muslim figure in Western literature. Othello, the good and heroic Moor, is the victim of prejudice and, eventually, of a scheming lieu­tenant. On a more popular level, some may be interested to know that the title of the popular musical Kismet comes from the Arabic qisma(t), meaning “portion,” “share,” or “fate.”

One book that did not have influence in the West, but that should have, is the great Muqaddima of Ibn Khaldun. It served as the intro­duction (muqaddima) to his history of the world, and it is from this role that the title is derived. But it is now universally thought to be far more valuable even than the important set of historical volumes that it serves to introduce. In his “Introduction,” Ibn Khaldun lays out what he regards as the laws of history, based on his extensive reading and his wide experience as a diplomat, judge, and govern­ment official in north Africa and Egypt. Among other things, he sees a historical pattern of rise and decline that is very similar to the one sketched by the Book of Mormon. The illustrious modern historian Arnold Toynbee was not reserved in his praise of Ibn Khaldun’s work. As he repeatedly stated, he considered it perhaps the greatest work of its kind ever produced.


[1] Miguel Asín Palacios, La Escatología musulmana en la Divina comedia (Madrid: Estanislao Maestre, 1919).



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