How truly wild, bizarre, and contradictory the attitudes towards Islam were—and sometimes are

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In a nutshell

This book is about the reception of the Muslim world in the works of eight major German thinkers, but differs from other histories of ideas on two points. First of all, it does not consider each of these thinkers as a clear and consistent Self, a single author who had a single response to Islam. On the contrary, I treat each author as a collection of multiple selves, each of whom had very different things to say about Islam at different times.

In the chapter on Gottfried Leibniz, for example, you will really read about three Leibnizes: Leibniz’s response to Islam as a Christian thinker, as a political theorist, and as a philologist. Leibniz, in all of these modes, had very different things to say about a faith he sometimes saw as a monster, a political rival, a corrupted version of a natural theology, and as a useful source of historical information.

The second central argument tries to show how much more German thinkers knew about the Muslim world than they let on, and how they were all-too-familiar with a sophisticated picture of their Ottoman neighbours, even if they never allowed this to impinge upon their writing. There is a truly remarkable disconnect between the kind of information mainstream intellectuals had about the Turks and the clichés and stereotypes they chose to perpetuate in their writing. It would be like living next door to a family of poets and teachers for years, and yet still holding to the conviction that they were farmers and manual labourers.

“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?”

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?

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.

“The multiple responses to Islam in German thought reveal a profound polyphony in the human subject, an ideological schizophrenia which could never really make up its mind about what it thought about Islam.”


The significance of this book lies in three directions. First of all, society’s responses to the foreign are irredeemably multiple, even in the individual. And when I say “multiple” I don’t simply mean in that obvious psychoanalytical, fetishism/phobia way we have two names for Persia/Iran, one connoting mystical poetry, exquisite miniatures, and nice carpets, the other a fanatical dictatorship which has to be destroyed. The multiple responses to Islam in German thought reveal a profound polyphony in the human subject, an ideological schizophrenia which could never really make up its mind about what it thought about Islam.

Secondly, the fact that the thinkers I deal with in this book were able to read sophisticated accounts both of and by Muslims and still reproduce the clichés of fanatics, terrible Turks, etc. not only reflects upon the compartmentalization human beings are capable of, but also makes us question what it actually means for knowledge of a foreign culture to reside in society.

In our “awareness-raising” epoch, which is trying to reverse negative representations of Islam and Muslims, we assume that simply providing people with correct information about the Muslim world will automatically remove stereotypes. What my research suggests is that this sort of education is simply not enough—it underestimates the psychic need for a notion of fanatical, barbaric Islam, and the need for a consequent “civilized” notion of Europe to persist. Asking people to acknowledge that these barbaric, backward “others” of the West are as civilized and multi-faceted as we are would be like asking them to talk about incest in their family. It would be asking them to embark upon the dissolution of themselves, and of the grand concepts with which they associate themselves.

Finally, last year I wrote a history of Muslim-Christian military alliances in Europe, to try and show the extraordinary extent to which Islam is involved in the history of Europe. In many ways, History of Islam in German Thought also shares the goal: to bring Islam into Europe, to highlight the futility of talking about Europe without ever referring outside it. Herder understood this simple truth over 200 years ago.

© 2009 Ian Almond
Ian Almond History of Islam in German Thought: From Leibniz to Nietzsche Routledge 208 pages, 9 x 6 inches ISBN 978 0415995191

Ian Almond is a British academic who teaches English Literature at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He has lived in many other parts of the world: Germany, Italy, India, and Turkey, where he taught for six years at Bogazici University in Istanbul. Almond considers himself to be a Christian Socialist. Besides the two books featured in his Rorotoko interviews, Two Faiths, One Banner (Harvard University Press/I.B.Tauris, 2009) and History of Islam in German Thought (Routledge, 2009), Ian Almond is also the author of Sufism and Deconstruction (Routledge, 2004), and The New Orientalists: Postmodern Representations of Islam (I.B.Tauris, 2007). His books have been translated into Arabic, Korean, Persian, Bosnian and Indonesian.

Cover Interview of
December 21, 2009