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Reviewed by:
  • Anglo-Saxon Perceptions of the Islamic World
  • Brannon Wheeler
Anglo-Saxon Perceptions of the Islamic World. By Katharine Scarfe Beckett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. viii+276 pp. $65.00.

In this surprising and wonderfully-written study, Beckett introduces the reader to a world of Latin, Anglo-Saxon, and Old English sources filled with unusual perceptions of Muslims, their history, culture, practices, and beliefs. The book is carefully noted, argued in detail, and is written in a readable style accessible to specialists and non-specialists alike.

The crux of Beckett's book is the reception and use of various terms applying to Muslims, Arabs, and others closely associated with Muslims and Arabs by the literary sources read in Anglo-Saxon England. Among the overlapping terms found in the sources and examined in detail by Beckett are Arabs, Ismaelites, Saracens, and other biblical nomenclatures such as Midianites, Ammonites, and Moabites.

As Beckett notes, most of the contact between Muslims and Anglo-Saxon England came indirectly, through literary engagement rather than first-hand experience. The literary context into which the Muslims were placed was a Christian biblical framework provided primarily by Jerome and later Bible exegetes. Contemporary information about Muslims was introduced into Anglo-Saxon England by travellers and traders, but Beckett shows that much of this also was colored by the literary sources into which they were eventually incorporated.

One account, unique according to Beckett, offers eye-witness information on contemporary Muslims. This is the pilgrimage account of Arculf who journeyed to Jerusalem in the late seventh century (679-82 CE). The account of his travels, which focused on a description of holy places, was put into writing by Adomnan, bishop of Iona, and later presented to the king of Northumbria. Beckett outlines how this work, entitled De locis sanctis, served as a template for the later work of Bede with the same title.

Beckett also presents some unusual documentary evidence of contacts between Muslims and Anglo-Saxon England. This includes a single gold dinar of Offa, king of Mercia, now held in the British Museum (obverse featured on the front cover of the dust-jacket though nowhere else in the book). The dinar contains garbled Arabic inscriptions on the obverse and reverse apparently in imitation of the Muslim "shahadah" or statement of faith found on contemporary coins from the Middle East. Beckett compares this unique coin with other gold dinars uncovered in Sussex, London, [End Page 232] and Oxford, and silver dirhem hoards brought to England and Ireland through raids and settlers from Scandinavia.

Another unusual piece of documentary evidence comes as the ninth item in a list of decrees recorded from synods in Mercia and Northumbria. The list of decrees dates from the late eighth century (786 CE) and mentions a "Saracen" practice of consuming food in secret. According to Beckett, this could refer to a memory or second-hand report concerning the Muslim practice of ritual fasting during the month of Ramadan. Beckett crafts these sorts of isolated reports into a web of cultural references that epitomized the Anglo-Saxon perception of Muslims and Arabs. They also provide the historian with a priceless window onto the earliest of Muslim practices which are otherwise unattested at such early dates.

The heart of Beckett's book is a thorough review of the mention of Muslims in literary sources read in Anglo-Saxon England. This is divided into six chapters: "Arabs and Arabia in Latin"; "Ismaelites and Saracens in Latin"; "Arabs, Ismaelites and Saracens in early Anglo-Latin"; "Pseudo-Methodius and the sons of Ismael"; "Arabs, Ismaelites and Saracens in Old English"; and "Persisting theories about Saracens in post-Conquest England." Each of these chapters provides a careful survey of the major literary sources and their references to the various groups associated with Muslims including the Bible exegesis of Jerome, Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae, Canterbury commentaries, Bede, Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, Old English notes on Genesis, poetry, Old English gloss of the Durham Ritual, and vernacular translations of Latin texts like the Historiae Adversum Paganos of Paulus Orosius.

Throughout the book, Beckett returns to the theories of Normal Daniel and Edward Said regarding the relationship between perceptions of...


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