The Republic of Arabic Letters

Islam and the European Enlightenment

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Alexander Bevilacqua
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Harvard University Press
    , February
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment, Alexander Bevilacqua seeks to uncover a period of European intellectual history in which Catholic and Protestant scholars displayed unprecedented erudition and fairness in their study of the Muslim world and traditions. Challenging popular narratives that emphasize the centrality of the secular Enlightenment, Bevilacqua argues that it was a group of lesser known 17th and 18th century pre-Enlightenment scholars who, together, laid the foundation for subsequent Western understandings of Islam. Bevilacqua works to integrate intellectual history with an account of texts and their readers in order to build a strong case for the work carried out by this “republic of letters.”

Bevilacqua traces the foundational stages of this “republic” through its scholars’s efforts to gather native Muslim sources. He details how the European acquisition of Muslim manuscripts began around 1600 with the rise in global commerce, followed by book-buying missions as libraries competed to acquire the most impressive collections of Oriental texts. According to Bevilacqua, it was this influx of native Arabic, Persian, and Turkish sources that opened the doors for Western scholars to study the Islamic tradition on a level that had previously been impossible. 

Bevilacqua emphasizes the dedication these European scholars put into learning the relatively obscure languages needed to decipher these new texts, frequently without access to native speakers or ever setting foot in the lands in which they were spoken. These scholars would ultimately reach high levels of proficiency through careful engagement with traditional Muslim sources, namely prominent works of tafsirsira, and hadith. Bevilacqua suggests that they would, in turn, employ these traditional sources as the standard authorities for interpreting and translating Islamic texts, including the first sound translations of the Qur’an into European languages. This reliance on native Muslim sources is significant for Bevilacqua, as it illuminates the deference these Catholic and Protestant scholars showed to their Muslim counterparts.

Ultimately, a much more positive view of Islam arose as a result of this scholarship, as well as the centrality of Islam’s place in European history. Bevilacqua notes that new works “added detail and depth to a portrayal that often relied on a set of recycled tropes” (75). He explains that in order to make this new view of Islam more palatable to wider audiences—as well as to justify their own study—scholars employed two major techniques: comparing Islam to the “good pagans” of the ancient Greco-Roman tradition, and comparing Islam to Judaism and Christianity. They placed an emphasis on native sources and understandings as much as possible, working diligently to piece together the missing histories that were previously excluded. Notably, all of these early scholars were Christians, and some had primarily polemical aims. However, this did not detract from their appreciation of Islam or the fairness of their scholarship. This highlights one of the significant implications of Bevilacqua’s work, namely that a confessional orientation to one faith is not mutually exclusive of tolerance, respect, and appreciation for another. 

By the time of the Enlightenment, Bevilacqua argues, the “republic” had already laid a strong foundation for Islamic scholarship in Europe. However, rather than relying on the erudition of their predecessors, many Enlightenment thinkers favored the accounts of European travel writers. Bevilacqua writes that, far from being neutral, the scholarship emerging from the European Enlightenment was often “cavalier” and “opportunistic” (177). In fact, in some cases, these philosophesundermined the positive views of Islam that previous scholars painstakingly worked to cultivate. Bevilacqua suggests that Enlightenment writings displayed a “combative secularism” that fell far short of the erudition of their Catholic and Protestant predecessors (198). Although their scholarship was dramatically inferior to that of the lesser-known “republic,” it was these Enlightenment thinkers whose views were popularized and canonized. While Bevilacqua acknowledges the amorphous nature of the Enlightenment, he overemphasizes the distinction between it and the “republic” at the expense of showing the more fluid progression in higher standards of scholarship—regardless of confessional affiliation—following the Renaissance. Nevertheless, this does not detract from his central argument. 

Tracing this secularizing development, Bevilacqua notes that as the Enlightenment gave way to the Age of Empire, writings on Islam became increasingly patronizing. It was this attitude that would come to be seen as the defining trait of Western Islamic scholarship. Resisting this discursive history, Bevilacqua’s work seeks to shed light on a more sympathetic and nuanced view of Islamic scholarship in the West, highlighting individuals who went to great lengths to acquire and understand native Islamic sources, frequently with little chance of personal gain, as well as significant resistance from their contemporaries. These scholars, though Christians themselves, advocated for the merit of Islamic traditions, and encouraged their further study. Bevilacqua acknowledges that while their names may not be well-known, it was the members of this republic that built the foundation for the Western study of Islam. Bevilacqua’s Republic of Arabic Letters offers a heartening example of what Islamic scholarship in the West can and should look like—a respectful, careful investigation in dialogue with native sources and interpretations that acknowledges one’s own limitations, is charitable but not dishonest, and involves a willingness to learn from the wisdom within a tradition, even if one disagrees. Bevilacqua’s depiction of this history is both engaging in its presentation and persuasively argued, combining captivating narratives with careful research and analysis. This text would prove a helpful resource for readers and scholars seeking to understand their own place in the intellectual history of Islam in the West.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brooke Baker is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alexander Bevilacqua is Assistant Professor of History at Williams College.


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