Ian Almond

 

On his book History of Islam in German Thought: From Leibniz to Nietzsche

Cover Interview of December 21, 2009

The wide angle

My book takes issue with a number of positions, the first of which being that a complete and coherent history of European thought can be written without reference to non-Europe.  What emerges in my book is how central the idea of a nicht-Europa was for German thinkers.  This is as true for critical free spirits such as Herder, Marx and Nietzsche, who saw Muslim countries as offering different alternatives to Judaeo-Christian modernity, as it is for Kant or Hegel who wished to celebrate or consolidate Europe.

Secondly, the book takes issue with the received idea that thinkers in 18th and 19th century Europe held to stereotypes about Muslims because they had no access to “real” knowledge of the Muslim world, or that any knowledge they had was deformed and contaminated by the misrepresentations of Big Bad Orientalists.

I show that figures such as Hegel, Goethe, and Schlegel were fully aware of the complexity and relative tolerance of the Muslim Ottoman societies which were their neighbours.  But they compartmentalized this awareness in order to be able to continue drawing from a vocabulary of bloodthirsty, savage Turks and fanatical Arabs.  German thinkers read newspapers for news of the Turkish wars all the time, and were surprisingly familiar with the particularities of their Ottoman neighbours.

With all due respect to Edward Said—the postcolonial thinker whose work I try to qualify, not contradict—there were a number of German Orientalists such as Friedrich Christian Diez and Johann Jakob Reiske who were genuinely trying to communicate a sophisticated and nuanced view of Islam and the Ottomans.  Mainstream philosophers read these experts and carefully sifted them for what they wanted, selecting the nuggets they found useful and filtering out anything which too flatly contradicted the idea of a civilized, Christian Europe surrounded by a Slavic/Muslim non-Europe, steeped in barbarism and ignorance.

Thirdly, the book explodes the idea of philosophers as autonomous, stable, coherent beings who thought X about A and Y about B.  What emerged in my research was how truly wild, bizarre, and contradictory the attitudes towards Islam were in each thinker I studied.  Often there was no strict sense of chronological development in what a particular thinker thought about Islam from the beginning of his life to the end of it; rather a bewildering flurry of positive and negative remarks interrupted and competed against one another.  That a thinker such as Herder could call Arabs a savage people one year, and then praise the sublimity of their poetic thought the very next, made me realize that I had to refashion my entire concept of what an author is.  How else to make any sense of such inconsistencies?