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Humanism, Oriental Studies, and the Birth of Philology: Learning Arabic in Europe since the Sixteenth Century

Riedel, Dagmar A.

I will explore the emergence of Arabic studies in western Europe between the sixteenth-century Reformation and nineteenth-century Imperialism. There is scant research on the history of Arabic studies in early modern Europe aside from Johann Fück' s Arabische Studien (1955), because previous scientific efforts in the field seemed insignificant after the pioneering work of scholars such as Antoine Silvstre de Sacy (1758–1838) and Gustav Flügel (1802–1870). Moreover, research on European Orientalism has focused on the perception of Arabs and Islam within the context of French and British Near East politics, following the lead of Edward Said' s Orientalism (1979). My starting point is the observation that the theoretical discourse of Arabic studies still appears to be largely independent of that in French, English, or Germanic studies. The continued methodological autonomy seems to reflect that neither sixteenth-century Humanists nor nineteenth-century philologists were interested in the Arabic language. While Anthony Grafton has explored how the Humanist approach to editing developed from the goal to recover the Latin and Greek heritage of antiquity, Bernard Cerquiglini has analyzed how nineteenth-century philology became the scientific methodology for editing the first literary documents written in the European vernaculars. Latin, however, was continually taught, even throughout the Dark Ages. In contrast, Thomas Erpenius (1584–1624) published the first Arabic grammar (1617), and only in the seventeenth century did European libraries begin to collect systematically Arabic literature. But the marginal position of Arabic within European university curricula is salient. During the Middle Ages Muslims and Christians competed for territory in Spain, southern Italy, Asia Minor, and the Levant, and since the Reformation, both Protestants and Catholics had relied on Islam as the prime example for spotting false prophets and Antichrists. I will use the chapter on Islam in the Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peoples du monde by Bernard Picart (1673–1733) to examine the role of Islam in the Enlightenment discourse on idolatry. My analysis will demonstrate that religious intolerance among Christians shaped their perceptions of diverse Muslim societies from the Balkans to the Indian peninsula. I will argue that nineteenth-century Arabic studies remained distant from the modern methodological developments in the field of philology because Europeans did not encounter an Arab nation state with Arabic as its national language. Knowledge of Arabic was relevant for theological research on the Scriptures, but not for the recovery of the literary heritage of the modern national languages.

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Al-'Usur al-Wusta

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Center for Iranian Studies
Published Here
August 28, 2012
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