Misrepresentations

Dmitri Levitin

  • The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment by Alexander Bevilacqua
    Harvard, 340 pp, £25.95, February, ISBN 978 0 674 97592 7
  • The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle between Faith and Reason by Christopher de Bellaigue
    Vintage, 404 pp, £10.99, February, ISBN 978 0 09 957870 3

‘Oriental history,’ the German philologist Johann Jakob Reiske wrote in 1747, ‘is very worthy of the study of an honest mind, and does not deserve any less than European history to be taught publicly in universities.’ The book in which these words appear – Dissertatio de Principibus Muhammedanis qui aut eruditione aut ab amore literarum et literatorum claruerunt (‘Dissertation on Islamic princes who shone for their erudition or for their love of letters and lettered men’) – was short, widely available and accessible to any European man or woman who could read Latin. As Alexander Bevilacqua shows in his erudite and eloquent book The Republic of Arabic Letters, Reiske was just one of a number of European scholars in the hundred years or so after 1650 who devoted a good deal of their time to learning Arabic and other Near Eastern languages, to reading and publishing Arabic, Turkish and Persian texts, and to revising the negative view of Islam that Europeans had inherited from the medieval period.

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