Allen Fromherz has already written a very useful book on the Almohads, and he now attempts to set his work on their remarkable empire within a much wider setting, from the seventh century, when Islam reached the Maghreb, all the way to the fifteenth century, and in the entire western Mediterranean. His thesis is that we should think of western Mediterranean civilization in the Middle Ages as a shared culture and experience, embracing the much-ignored history of what are now Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia alongside the study of Spanish, Italian and other histories, predominantly Christian. Close attention to the Christian shores of the western Mediterranean has, he avers, created a narrative of worlds apart: Christians on the northern flanks who had little in common with the Muslims on the southern flanks, though they knew them fairly well through their wars. He wants to move beyond a history of undoubted engagement at that level to a history of interwoven cultures, religions and economies. Engagement was expressed, as he admits, in violent acts, such as the Pisan and Genoese raid on al-Mahdiyyah in Tunisia in 1087, which is often seen as a precursor of the crusades directed towards the eastern Mediterranean. But Europe also brought ideas from North Africa, most importantly through the arithmetical writings of Leonardo Fibonacci, who had spent part of his youth in Bougie (Bejaïa) before he composed his Liber Abaci, introducing the Latin world to the Hindu-Arabic system of numbering—easier to cope with in calculations, not least because of the invention (or should one say discovery?) of the zero. Fromherz makes the interesting point that the French word for a candle, bougie, is derived from the name of this important port from which top-quality wax was exported. No one would deny that there were fruitful contacts between Christians, Muslims and Jews within this broad space in the arcane realms of mysticism, so that Islamic theology and Jewish kabbalah were brought to bear on the ideas of such Christian luminaries as Ramon Llull of Majorca (d. 1316). His account of Llull is facile, and does not engage at all with Llull’s complex algebra, while his account of Anselm Turmeda, the fourteenth-century convert to Islam, does not address the puzzle that he appears to have been writing defences of Islam and Christianity separately but at the same time. He might well have explored the influence of Islamic ideas on Maimonides (d. 1204), the Jewish philosopher whose ideas, even at quite a basic level, reveal the influence of current thinking in the Almohad lands in the age of Ibn Rushd. The argument appears to be that the twin concepts of a Twelfth-Century Renaissance in Western Europe and a Commercial Revolution that originated in Italy (in Pisa, Genoa and Venice) should be extended to embrace the Maghreb. This risks becoming a glib over-simplification. Just thinking about trade, one can see that there was a significant difference between the outward-thrusting trading expeditions of the medieval Pisans and Genoese and the trading activities of the inhabitants of the Maghreb, particularly after the Jewish merchants of Fustat, known to us from the Geniza letters, went into decline. In fact, Muslim merchants rarely visited most Christian ports in the western Mediterranean, apparently obedient to fatwās that discouraged Muslims from entering lands of impurity. In other words, the really active traders across the sea were always the Christians and, to a lesser extent, the Jews, who had the advantage, particularly if they came from Spain, of speaking Arabic and knowing something about the cultures they encountered, which seem to have been of no real interest to the Genoese. Moreover, the concept of a Twelfth-Century Renaissance is so much bound up with Christian ideas of God, Christ and salvation that it is hard to see how one can meaningfully apply the term in the Maghreb, setting aside Fibonacci and one or two other figures. Unfortunately the argument becomes so over-stretched that the book fails to achieve what it presumably set out to achieve: a demonstration that the history of both sides of the western Mediterranean was intertwined. At the same time, very many opportunities are missed. One might expect plenty of attention to be paid to al-Andalus and then to the impact of Islamic civilisation in Christian Spain, to which buildings such as the Alcázar in Seville and the synagogues in Toledo still stand witness—he does mention the Giralda tower in Seville, but that dates from the Almohad period (and the publisher should have placed the illustration of the Giralda opposite the illustration of the Kutubiyya in Marrakesh, not on succeeding pages). Moreover, the text is littered with errors; for instance, the Louis who attacked al-Mahdiyyah in 1390 was not St Louis, King Louis IX of France, who had died in 1270 at Carthage while on crusade against Tunis, but Duke Louis de Bourbon. The Geniza documents are described as ‘the most significant corpus’ of medieval Mediterranean trading documents, but far larger bodies of material exist in the archives of Genoa and Barcelona, among other cities. I can forgive the author for mis-spelling my name in the text; however, it is disconcerting to be told that I write of a broader Mediterranean that reaches as far as Marrakesh, since I do not mention the city once in my book The Great Sea, and in that book I rather take exception to the Braudelian concept of an almost limitless ‘Mediterranean world’. The misrepresentations of what others have said and the omissions of important works from the bibliography are far too many to list here, despite the presence in the bibliography of John Adams on the American constitution, and other works of marginal importance. His practice of giving not the place of publication but the name of the publisher is perverse: although it is increasingly common to give both, it is unscholarly not to indicate the place. It is hard to find notes as there is no running-head indicating which chapter they refer to. Fromherz writes fluently, and has shown in his Almohad book that he is capable of making a good contribution to scholarship; but in this book his attention has wandered, and even the order of his chapters will puzzle readers: we switch back and forth across the centuries, although the Maghrebi (rather than Andalusi) Almohads remain the centre of gravity. Edinburgh University Press has, in the past, published beautifully printed and finely crafted books on the history of the Islamic lands, and it is hard to understand why they have abandoned their distinctive house-style, and (more seriously) their attention to research of the highest quality and have published this rather superficial book at an exorbitant price. The best thing about it is the main title, The Near West, but in other respects it is very disappointing. © The Author (2017). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. 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Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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