Books + Animal Crackers with Nutella = Research…pt. 1

Okay, so this may not be the best logic, but this is how my research was completed this summer. It is odd, however, that I have finally found the time [and the volition] to type my final blog posts after I presented my findings at the research symposium. I guess that I had a more concrete understanding of my research once I was pushed to talk to other people about what exactly I had discovered. Nonetheless, I present you with my  research saga. I know that my previous post concludes with my assertion that I would research a specific thesis…but that changed. Instead, I invite you to read the following summary of my studies.

As you know from my previous posts, my studies were inspired by an analysis of Dante’s comedy. I discovered that Richard W. Southern is a renowned expert on Western relations with Islam during the pre-modern period. I settled into reading Southern’s Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages, in order to glean an initial impression of how western society had perceived the arab-islamic world during the pre-modern era. According to Southern, a variety of both secular and religious factors influenced the cultural division between the European West and the Arab East.

Secularly, european expansion, influence of islamic philosophers and scientists, and the mindset of European superiority created tension between the European West and the Arabic East. As European nations began to expand their trading partnerships and political ties, they became increasingly aware of the fact that there was more to “known world” than they had thought. Interaction with the Mongols, and the staggering success and size of their empire, indicated to the West that non-Christian empires were flourishing and experiencing rapid growth while they were struggling with political infighting and rampant corruption (Southern, 42). At the very least, the Mongol empire posed a physical threat to European sanctity, and the fact that the vast empire was perceived to have united one-third to one-half of the known-world’s population under various non-Christian religions was frightening to many of the Christian leaders in power in the West.

Further,  tensions existed from an educational level. Most educated scholars and leaders were schooled in the Bible; education in the West was fundamentally linked to Christian values, morality, and practices. However, much of the science and philosophy that was taught in pre-modern Europe was derived from work performed by Islamic scientists and thinkers. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Islamic people continued on with much of the academic study that had begun with Aristotle, Plato, and the like. Renowned scholars such as Avicenna and Averroes contributed significantly to the fields of medicine, mathematics, and theology; their works were very influential to study in the West. Even Dante’s Commedia illustrates the tension surrounding this exchange when he places these two thinkers in Lesser Hell as opposed to the depths of Hell with Muhammad and Ali. Averroes and Avicenna contributed ‘positively’ to Western society while Muhammand and Ali were schismatic figures who divided people who would have been Christians into following the ‘fraudulent’ creed of Islam (Said, 59).

Lastly, the European sense of superiority was another key factor that fueled the fire between the the West and the East. European society at the time was structurally different than much of the Arab world. Although states were often vying amongst themselves for regional power and dominance, there existed a relatively uniform hierarchical structure, based upon Christian virtues of celibacy, good judgement, and devotion. The Arab world was perceived to function in a perpendicular sense. Many arabs were Muslim by religion, and many European scholars began to exchange the word Arab for the word Muslim when discussing this region and its people. Thus, commoners and less educated members of European society would be told of the Muslim world and the atypical values and actions of its society. Culture was much more egalitarian, there were no monasteries or priests built into social structure, heavenly rewards were sexual in nature, and the ruling body was thought to be excessively indulgent and materialistic (Southern, 7). Because of this divide, it was hard for many Christian westerners to see the commonalities between them and their Arab neighbors. It was simply easier to assert European superiority over this lifestyle, and to ignore the merits of these people. Further, the political strength of most Western European nations trumped that of the Arab-Islamic tribes and peoples of the East; enough so that western people came to view eastern culture as a lesser form of society than their own.


Southern, R. W. 1912-2001. Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Cantarino, Vicente, “Dante and Islam: History and Analysis of a Controversy,” Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society, 37-55, no. 125 (2007),