Ian Almond

 

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

Cover Interview of December 21, 2009

A close-up

The aspect of my research which took me most by surprise happened half-way through my writing of the book.  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, for all his stunning complexity, notoriously dismissed non-Europe as a place where History never happened.  In the case of Islam, Hegel insists that it has “forever vanished from the stage of History.”  Hegel is seen by many as the Eurocentric thinker par excellence.

Researching Hegel, I was surprised to come across a number of curious facts, the least important being that one of the first things Hegel ever wrote (at 18) was a high school graduation speech on education in Ottoman Turkey.  More significantly, in the newspaper Hegel edited in Bamberg for over a year when he was 35 (the Bamberger Zeitung), a large number of articles concerned developments in the Ottoman Empire.  In some of the issues, events in Turkey took up over half of the newspaper.

And a surprising number of the articles were quite pro-Turkish, and went into some detail describing events happening in Istanbul, Wahhabi victories over the Ottomans, etc.  Hegel, I estimate, would have had to have read well over eighty articles on Turkey and the Turks during his period as newspaper editor.  Islam may well have disappeared from the stage of History, but it didn’t disappear from the pages of the Bamberger Zeitung.

For me, this moment epitomized the hidden Other history of Europe— not the official one which is written down, but the unrecorded presence of foreign ideas, non-European texts, and alien influences which is very hard to track down.  An absence or omission means nothing in itself until one learns more about the background against which it is set.  The disappearance of Hegel’s Islam from the stage of world history, von dem Boden der Weltgeschichte, the fact that Hegel hardly remarked at all upon the Ottomans, means relatively little until the greater store of knowledge Hegel could have drawn on is brought to mind.

Hegel’s non-philosophical interest in the Ottomans would continue long after he finished his newspaper editorship; as late as 1829, we find Hegel remarking in a letter how, reading a newspaper together with Schelling in a Karlsbad coffeehouse, they learnt of the taking of Adrianople and the end of the Russo-Turkish war.  In the very last year of his life (1831), Hegel criticised the English treatment of Irish Catholics with the reproach that “even the Turks have mostly allowed their Christian/Armenian/Jewish subjects the use of their churches.” Hegel’s writings may well have been largely Turk-free, but the spectre of an established, sophisticated and distinctly unbarbaric Muslim culture next door to Europe would forever cause problems for the Christian and European bias of his teleology.