- The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment by Alexander Bevilacqua
The past two decades of Enlightenment studies have seen much energy devoted to determining the degree to which heterodox and anti-authoritarian thought of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries drove the formation of values associated with the Western liberal tradition. The result has been relatively little emphasis on expanding our understanding of intellectual life in the long eighteenth century in the broadest sense. Alexander Bevilacqua's The Republic of Arabic Letters elegantly refocuses our historical understanding of this period as an age of exciting discovery, passionate learning, and joyful understanding rather than as an age of contention focused on a battle for ideological supremacy. To do so, he studies a scholarly network that he calls the Republic of Arabic Letters to describe the age's enthusiasm for collecting, translating, and studying Arabic manuscripts (printed books in mid-Eastern languages were very rare) among rulers, ministers of culture, wealthy private citizens, and "learned travelers" (11). The works brought back to the West from the Eastern Mediterranean formed the foundation of scholarship as individuals undertook learning Arabic, Persian, or Turkish and universities enabled more prolonged and detailed studies of languages. As scholars began to read the literature in the primary language, they began to cultivate a more sympathetic view, transforming Islam in the Western mind from a civilization of aggression and a religion of error to a culture worthy of study, praise, and even imitation.
The history of translations of the Koran supplies one of the most insightful pieces of evidence supporting the theory of Islamic studies playing a role in the evolution of Enlightenment thinking. The story begins with Bishop Lodovico Marracci's efforts to translate, comment on, and publish a Latin version of the Koran (1698) and ends with George Sale's translation of the Koran into English (1734). Along the way, Bevilacqua tells much more than a history of a translation: [End Page 135] he reveals a world in transition. Marracci worked tirelessly across decades to bring about a translation of the Koran that would simultaneously serve as a philological tool for understanding Arabic and a polemical tool to expose the weaknesses of Islam. Marracci's philological effort, which was very much a remnant of Renaissance Humanism (see Ada Palmer's brilliant work, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance ), sought to present a highly faithful and at times too literal translation for those interested in the Arabic language. Marracci's translation also contained profuse commentary on the religious doctrines of Islam—commentary that Marracci thought would help expose Islam as fraudulent. But reactions to Marracci's work reveal a changing intellectual climate: Bevilacqua cites Richard Simon's judgment "that [Marracci's] translation and the philological research were more compelling than the polemic," and Siegmund Baumgarten's complaint that Marracci makes the Koran seem unnecessarily "obscure or inconsistent and ridiculous" (67). Thus, Bevilacqua's narrative paints a picture of a nascent world of scholarship that was moving beyond the confessional divide that dominated pre-Enlightenment scholarship and beyond the philological concerns of many Renaissance humanists to a broader understanding of different cultures and peoples on their own terms and for the mere sake of understanding them.
Bevilacqua argues that this new understanding resulted from acquiring and translating original Arabic sources that in turn created an increasingly objective view of Islam emphasizing its political achievements and even its moral insights. This scholarship was undertaken by Catholics, Protestants, and freethinkers, demonstrating the extra-confessional nature of knowledge production during the Enlightenment. Bevilacqua points out that while some scholarship finds the Enlightenment reassessment of Islam to be essentially a polemical tool in the hands of freethinkers, his research indicates that "the reappraisal of Islam was part of a wider transformation in the understanding and comparative study of religions . . . in which both Catholic and Protestant scholars participated" (77). Richard Simon forwarded this agenda by aligning Islam with ancient pagan writers who were commonly deemed to provide exemplary modes of thought and behavior even...