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Ambivalence towards Islam

Bar Hebraeus. De origine & moribus Arabum. Oxford, 1650

Portrait of the Moorish Ambassador to the Court of Queen Elizabeth, 1600

Blaeu. Appendix Theatri A. Ortelii et Atlantis G. Mercatoris. Amsterdam, 1631.

Europeans had a long history of interaction with Muslims going back to before the crusades of the Middle Ages. Considering themselves engaged in both religious and cultural conflict with Islam, early modern Europeans had a wide variety of bigoted stereotypical views of Muslims in general and of the two major societies of contact, the Ottoman Turks and the Moors of North Africa, in particular. In travel narratives, stories of pirates and religious and political texts, Christian writers portrayed a complex and contradictory Islamic world that was largely imaginary. Though demonizing stereotypes of racial difference, sexual promiscuity, and cruelty remained, increased contact and experience gained through travel, diplomacy, and trade modified some of these myths into a grudging admiration for the power and sophistication of Islamic society. In a small way, a deeper understanding of a religion and people believed to be inherently different was achieved.


An excerpt from a thirteenth-century work by Bar Hebraeus (also known as Abu 'l-Faraj) on the history of Islam serves as the backdrop for an extensive study by Edward Pococke of the religion, history, and literature of the Arab world that marks the beginning of modern Islamic studies in the West.

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