Arab History Through Medieval Spanish Eyes — with Aymenn Al-Tamimi

Arab History Through Medieval Spanish Eyes — with Aymenn Al-Tamimi
The Medieval city from the tower of the Alcazar fortress, Toledo, Spain / JMN / Getty Images
You could see a parallel between hostility to Islam today and hostility in the Middle Ages. I think it’s still there.

The bishop of Toledo, Rodrigo Ximénez de Rada, wrote “Historia Arabum” in the 13th century. The book is one of the earliest accounts of Arabic history written by a Western author. It was translated from the original Latin into Arabic by Aymenn Al-Tamimi, a non-resident fellow at the New Lines Institute and a PhD student at the University of Swansea in Wales. In this podcast, he joins New Lines’ Lydia Wilson to discuss the book and his reasons for translating it.

Rodrigo’s Europe was awash with Arabic influences. Though popular interpretations of medieval history usually focus on the Crusades and other instances of religious confrontation, European Christian scholars nevertheless held great respect for the achievements of their Islamic counterparts, and Latin translations of Arabic works were in high demand. Even Rodrigo himself, who participated in the Christian “reconquista” of Spain, shared this ambivalent view. “You see even words of praise given to various Muslim rulers of Al Andalus,” Al-Tamimi points out.

Any appreciation of the Islamic world’s philosophical and scientific prowess, however, did little to assuage his antipathy toward Islam itself, which he denounced as the “false sect of Muhammad.” Al-Tamimi sees the roots of modern European Islamophobia in these medieval attitudes: “I think it’s still there.”

And yet Rodrigo also described the Arabs of Spain as being an integral part of the country. This apparent contradiction, Al-Tamimi explains, is actually quite instructive. Rodrigo, he says, was “happy to tolerate the Muslims in Spain provided that they were subject to Christian power.” That logic continues to underpin many supremacist social arrangements today.

Produced by Joshua Martin

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