October 16, 2003

Barbarians in Arab Eyes

Barbarians in Arab Eyes
Aziz Al-Azmeh
Past and Present, No. 134. (Feb., 1992), pp. 3-18.

some excerpts:

"Briefly stated, medieval Arabic culture followed the Greek conception of the inhabited world as consisting of seven latitudinal zones that began slightly north of the equator and ended in the realms of perpetual darkness in the north. Beond the zones (aqālīm, from the Greek klimata) human habitation was not possible, and within their boundaries the nature of the changing environment prescribed different temperaments to the inhabitants."

...

"Embryonic growth was the result of the "cooking" together of these four humours [blood, phlegm, bile and atrabile]. In temperate climes the combination of these was harmonious and balanced, due to cooking under optimal heat conditions; this was the situation in the central zones, especially the third and fourth, which comprised the central Arab lands, including North Africa, Iranian lands, parts of China and the northern Mediterranean coast. To the north and south, conditions of excessive heat in the south and cold in the north led to the generation of bodies in distemper, and the degree of such distemper was proportional to the distance from the central climes."

"So while the Frankish, Slavic (among whom the Germanic peoples were counted) and Turkic (which were thought to include the Russians and the Volga Bulgars) peoples and other inhabitants of the sixth zone were generally melancholic and splenetic folk, given to savagery and the cultivation of the arts of war and the chase to the exclusion of properly civilized pursuits, they were merely barbarous, and not consummately barbarian. They lived in a condition of distemper which did not prevent them from acquiring a number of features associated with civilized society, especially large-scale territorial states and organized religion, preferably monotheistic - according to medieval Arabic social and political thought, it was the state which imposed culture upon the natural condition of men. Thus social and political considerations mitigated ecological determinism in the case of some northern peoples, while physical factors mitigated it in other cases. Yes among these peoples there were decided manifestations of barbarousness, as measured through three indices. The first was filth, the inverse of refinement and urbanity, perhaps most vividly described in Ibn Fadlan's account of his visit to the Russ in c. 921. Equally indexical were profligate sexuality and the lack of jealousy ascribed to all Europeans. Finally, a particularly spectacular manifestation of barbarousness concerned funerary rites, replete with fire, violenece and dark eroticism, most lavishly described by Ibn Fadlan."

...

"The environment was the determinant factor, for the inhabitants of the first zone emerged from their mothers' wombs "either like uncooked pastry or like things so thoroughly cooked as to be burnt"; at birth they emerged black, pinguescent, malodorous, kinky of hair, inadequate of mind. The immoderate colour of the negroes was accompanied by another icon of disnature, namely ugliness: snub noses, wide nostrils, drooping lips of unnatural size more congruent with the lips of beasts of burden, eyes in exophthalmic protrusion."

...

"Peoples at the northernmost extremity of human habitation, such as some Slavic and Turkic peoples, were described as the negroes of the north who, like their opposite numbers in the south, were akin to dumb animals who wander across mountains and desolate lands. Just as the physical appearance of negroes was a distortion of human standards, so, with the action of opposites, was that of the northerners."

Posted by Dienekes at October 16, 2003 08:21 PM | PermaLink
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