The Arts of Islam in the Eyes of the West: A Historical View

Mustapha Tlili

The following is an excerpt from “Cultural Awareness in a Time of Crisis,” an introductory essay published for the conference “Bridging the Divide Between the United States and the Muslim World Through Arts and Ideas: Possibilities and Limitations,” presented by New York University Center for Dialogues, June 6–7, 2009.

Around the time of the American Revolution, the historian Edward Gibbon penned one of the most commonly quoted lines about relations between Islam and the West. He wrote that if the Frankish king Charles Martel had succumbed to Saracen invaders at the Battle of Tours in 732, “Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pupils might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.”1 The appeal of this quotation has been its combination of exoticism and succinctness in encapsulating an apparent truism of European history: struggle between Europeans and Muslims is and always has been inevitable, and the consequence of European defeat in the struggle would be cultural annihilation and inundation by Islam.

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People who share Gibbon’s apocalyptic vision commonly cite a long list of Crusades against the Saracens and a similar series of Ottoman forays into eastern Europe, the latter culminating, symbolically, not just in the occupation of more and more Christian land but in sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683, in which Christian defenders reenacted the heroic role of Charles Martel’s Franks in holding back the Muslim tide. But Gibbon’s followers fail to observe that Muslim rule did not normally result in the annihilation of peoples and cultures, any more than Crusader rule in the Holy Land resulted in the destruction of Muslim society there. To be sure, when Muslims and non-Muslims have lived together, harmony is not an inevitable outcome. At its best, however, cohabitation has worked quite well, as is demonstrated in accounts of the era of Muslim rule in Spain, the long period of peaceful relations between Muslims and Confucianists in China, and twelve centuries of generally peaceful coexistence and cultural exchange (660–1860) between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East.

Sadly, Gibbon-esque grand narratives of religiously based cultural hatred have a vividness that sometimes overshadows, in the popular memory, the myriad instances of cohabitation, mutual respect, and cultural exchange that would flesh out an honest and balanced account of Islam and the West.

Cultural Exchanges: Viewing History through Gifts and Commerce

A more benign grand narrative that highlights rather then buries these facts is sorely needed in today’s climate of religious animosity. Fortunately, there are a wealth of materials that support a retelling of history in which there is a continual flow of cultural influences between European society and the Muslim world, and a joint exploration of a common heritage from classical antiquity. The debt owed by European philosophers, theologians, and scientists to translations of books from Arabic into Latin has been abundantly studied, though sadly it is often misrepresented as purely a transmission of Greek lore from the Hellenistic era with little or no mention of the important additions, refinements, and intellectual breakthroughs made by Muslim scholars.

Gift Exchanges: Harun al-Rashid and Charlemagne

Less known are the many instances in which cultural and artistic goods have passed back and forth between Muslim and Christian lands. Consequently, the few instances that have found their way into the common historical narrative appear anomalous, or even amusing. The earliest of these is the exchange of embassies and gifts between Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid, the Abbasid caliph, in 798. What made this exchange memorable to later historians was the delivery of an elephant in 801 to Charlemagne’s capital in Aachen.

However, the elephant was not the only gift from the caliph. He also sent a carved ivory horn, a golden tray and pitcher, two tall and intricately engraved brass candlesticks, perfumes, a chess set, some lengths of fine cloth, and a tent and robe of honor bearing the words “There is no God but God.” Finally, there was a water clock in which twelve metal balls sounded the hour by falling on a cymbal, and twelve carved horsemen emerged from little windows and paraded. Historians of Islamic art easily recognize each of these items as representative of the high cultural standards of the Baghdad caliphate, and some of the items — the tray and pitcher, possibly chess pieces, the carved ivory, and the robe of honor — still survive in European museums.

Though this episode is usually cited as an oddity, it was not an isolated instance of the exchange of embassies and gifts. Charlemagne’s great-great-granddaughter, Bertha, the daughter of Lothair II, repeated her famous forebear’s actions when she sent an embassy to the Abbasid caliph al-Muktafi in 906. Her letter, preserved in an Arabic manuscript compiled less than a century later, describes her as “Queen of all the Franks” and relates that “a friendship took place between [her] and the King of Ifriqiyah [Muslim Tunisia].” Despite this friendship, a Tunisian ship fell to her navy in battle and a man named ‘Ali, one of 150 captives, entered her court and stayed for seven years. Through ‘Ali she learned that:

There is friendship between you [the caliph] and the Byzantine king who resides in Constantinople. But my armies are far greater than his, and my kingdom is larger, and my authority covers twenty-four kingdoms, the language of each of which being different from that next to it. The great city of Rome lies within my kingdom, thanks to God. [‘Ali] told me good things about you that filled my heart in regard to your state of affairs. I do request God to support me in winning your friendship and peace between us for as many years as you wish. The [final] decision in this is yours. A settlement of peace is something that had never been requested by any member of my family, or my relatives, or the like of us. 2

The text goes on to list the gifts Queen Bertha’s ambassador, who was none other than the Tunisian ‘Ali, was charged to deliver to the caliph: fifty swords, fifty shields, fifty Frankish spears, twenty garments woven with gold, twenty pieces of cloth made of sea wool (i.e., fibers from the shells of pinna nobilis, a Mediterranean bivalve; also known as “sea byssus” or “byssus silk”), twenty male slaves, twenty female slaves, ten large dogs, seven falcons, three birds that sniff out poison, and beads to remove spearheads and arrowheads from wounds. This list contrasts sharply with the artistic manufactures that Harun al-Rashid sent to Charlemagne and thereby symbolizes the great disparity between the refined arts of the Muslim realm and the much less sophisticated military courts of Western Europe. The two lists together further demonstrate that embassies and gift exchanges were very elaborate affairs involving scores of people, as they continued to be through the following centuries.

Gift Exchanges: Venice and the Ottoman Empire

Even at peak periods of military confrontation the exchange of gifts across contested frontiers was commonplace. Venice in particular was a Christian state repeatedly in confrontation with the Ottoman Empire. Yet during the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, Venetian records mention scores of gift exchanges in both directions, particularly in the period 1520–1566 when Suleyman the Magnificent ruled in Istanbul. As Stefano Carboni relates in his book Moments of Vision, “This is also the period that marks the closest proximity in artistic production between Venice and the Ottomans or, better, that denotes a peculiar vogue in Venice for ‘Oriental’ patterns.”3 As in earlier times, the most desired products were those of the highest artistic value, whether a portrait of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror by the Venetian artist Gentile Bellini on the one side, or luxurious silk brocades and velvets on the other. Nor was the flow of fine Islamic goods limited to exchanges with the Ottomans. In 1603, an embassy sent to Venice by the Safavid ruler of Iran, Shah ‘Abbas I, gave to the Doge a selection of very fine carpets crafted from silk and silver-wrapped thread.

To this day the tradition of gift exchanges continues, a recent example being Saudi King Abdullah’s presentation of a heavy gold necklace and medallion — the King Abdulaziz Order of Merit — to President George W. Bush in 2008. (Although, in all likelihood, the necklace was produced by Italian rather than Saudi jewelers.)

Commerce: Coins, Jewelry, and Other Goods

Though the gifts of ambassadors and rulers often included exquisite examples of artistic production, they frequently ended up in palace treasuries, or in royal menageries, as was the case not only with Charlemagne’s elephant, but also with a polar bear brought to Baghdad by European ambassadors in the thirteenth century for presentation to the caliph al-Mustansir (1226–1242). The more common mode of making the arts and crafts of Muslim societies known to a wider world was through commerce. This involved not only the goods being traded, but also the moneys used in the exchange. Tens of thousands of Muslim coins stamped with elaborate Arabic inscriptions have been found in Scandinavia and Poland, where they were often perforated, strung, and used as jewelry. Many Christian authorities, starting with King Offa of England in the eighth century and proceeding through various twelfth- and thirteenth-century rulers in Castile, Aragon, Norman Sicily, and Georgia, not to mention the Bishop of Maguelone in southern France, issued coins with Arabic inscriptions, sometimes with the words changed to convey Christian meanings, and sometimes not.4 Though numismatists usually presume that these issues were intended for trade with Muslims, this has never been proven. But whether or not this was the case, it is apparent that the Arabic script was at that time a clear signifier of wealth and luxury, showing up not only on Christian coinage, but also on imported textiles used in European churches and sumptuous furnishings depicted by European artists in prosperous Italian and Dutch households.

The goods that arrived in Europe through normal commercial exchange ran the aesthetic gamut from fine textiles, glassware, carved ivory, metalwork, and ceramic vessels at the high end; through exotic spices transshipped through the Middle East; to basic commodities like sugar, paper, cotton goods, and, from the fifteenth century on, coffee. The measure of their appreciation was a wave of borrowing of a material variety that swept southern Europe from the twelfth century onward.

Venetians adopted sophisticated ceramic and glassmaking techniques and began to grow sugar on the Mediterranean islands that made up part of their seaborne empire.5 Cotton farming and weaving spread from Syria to Northern Italy. Paper mills gave Europe its own source of cheap writing materials just in time for the Gutenberg revolution. In short, alongside the well-known translation movement that restored Europe to its Greek heritage by way of Arabic intermediaries, there was a massive flow of lifestyle innovations from the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean to the northern shore. The arts and styles of Muslim lands became so commonplace in major metropolitan centers that their point of origin lost any importance.

Further rounds of commerce affected different parts of Europe, particularly after 1600 and the advent of joint stock companies. High quality goods from the Muslim world — Persian rugs, Indian calicoes, Damascene swords — found ready markets even as European military and political force was making certain Muslim lands subject to imperialist control. European builders similarly benefited from a growing, if often imprecise, familiarity with Islamic architecture.

Commerce: Twentieth-century Changes

Not until the twentieth century, with the burgeoning of the Industrial Revolution, did Europeans begin to turn away from fine imports from Muslim lands. Though the capitalist need to expand the markets for industrial goods on a worldwide scale eventually spelled the demise of most high-quality craft production, both for domestic consumption and for export, the Muslim reputation for exquisite cultural products continued. However, it became increasingly tinged with exoticism as a succession of international fairs and expositions beginning with Great Britain’s Crystal Palace Exposition of 1851, which included an exhibit from India, familiarized European consumers with images of “Eastern” products, often in artificially contrived “native” settings.

While these historical patterns of gift-giving and cultural exchange could be elaborated further, they point to a clear conclusion: despite the marvels of worldwide travel and communication, educated and prosperous Europeans and Americans today, are less familiar with the artistic traditions and current cultural standards of the world’s various Muslim societies than their social counterparts were during almost any one of the first thirteen centuries of cultural contact. Today’s Americans and European tourists visit Muslim countries and buy souvenirs, but the items they buy are usually mediocre imitations of the artisanal production of the past, not works by artists who are considered within those societies to be great talents. That is to say, a Western tourist in Iran is more likely to acquire a shabby knockoff of a Persian miniature painting than a canvas by a contemporary Iranian oil painter. By the same token, despite the electronic techniques that have revolutionized the production and distribution of cultural performances, familiarity with Muslim music, theater, and dance has generally decreased.


1. Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Bradley, nd), vol. V, 423.
2. Ghada Hijjawi Qaddumi, A Medieval Islamic Book of Gifts and Treasures, doctoral dissertation (Harvard University, 1990), 69.
3. Stefano Carboni, “Moments of Vision: Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797,” in Venice and the Islamic World: 828-1797 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) 28.
4. For a sensible discussion of the King Offa dinar in the context of other Arabic script issues, see:
5. For extensive discussions of a variety of borrowed styles and practices see Rosamond E. Mack, From Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300-1600 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); and Venice and the Islamic World: 828-1797, op. cit.

Excerpted from “Bridging the Divide Between the United States and the Muslim World Through Arts and Ideas: Possibilities and Limitations” by Mustapha Tlili. © 2009 by New York University Center for Dialogues: Islamic World-U.S.-The West. All rights reserved.