History as a Means to Empathy: An Interview with Alexander Bevilacqua

By Nick A. Cohen

In the late 1600s and into the early 1700s, European scholars began to collect, catalogue, and translate Arabic, Persian, and Turkish books. For the first time in European history, academics began to seriously study Islam and the literary and intellectual traditions of Muslim lands. Through these efforts, a new European understanding of Islam was developed, one that viewed Christianity and Islam not as inherently antagonistic belief systems but rather as two shoots sprouting from a common branch. This newfound scholarly focus also introduced Europeans to the rich intellectual and philosophical traditions of the Arabic-speaking world, helping to usher in the era of the European Enlightenment.

More than 300 years later, these texts have again been the discussion partner of a European scholar, although the focus today is no longer on understanding Islam; rather, the aim now is to understand the relationship between the European scholars of old and their study of Arabic traditions. In his 2018 book The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment, Alexander Bevilacqua (ΦBK, Harvard University) paints a portrait of these scholars and the way in which their study of Islam came to form the basis of modern Western conceptions of Islam and Islamic culture.

Bevilacqua is Assistant Professor of History at Williams College and a former junior fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows, where he finished writing The Republic of Arabic Letters. His research draws on sources in six languages and has taken him to archives and rare book libraries across Europe. 

In a recent interview, Bevilacqua spoke about his research and the lessons that we can learn from the study of the past. 



What was your goal in writing The Republic of Arabic Letters? What did you hope to communicate through your research?

BEVILACQUA: In our retrospective accounts of the 17th and 18th centuries, we have tended to think that it was the Enlightenment that enabled a more impartial study of Islam. That is, we have assumed that Europeans needed to become more secular in order to consider another religion in a fair-minded way. My research shows that this is a false assumption. In reality, the Christian culture of Europe in this period was able to engage very seriously with a foreign religion that had often been understood as inimical. The new ideas about Islam that Christian scholars, both Catholic and Protestant, generated in this time period then influenced the European Enlightenment and became, essentially, the European Enlightenment’s knowledge of Islam. 

Interestingly, the secular self-consciousness of the Enlightenment led Europeans in the second half of the 18th century to think of themselves as exceptional and different from all other peoples of the world. This had a very real impact on the European reception of Islam. No longer a kindred religious tradition with much to offer, it came to seem to Europeans something that was holding Muslims back—a retrograde set of beliefs and customs. The promise that earlier Europeans operating within a Christian worldview had seen in Islam was undermined precisely by the increasingly secular nature of European culture in the high Enlightenment.

It appears that, broadly speaking, we in the West have not really moved much beyond the thinking of the high Enlightenment. What lessons can we learn from those early European scholars of Islam, whose efforts of understanding you highlight throughout your book, and how can we apply those lessons to ourselves today?

BEVILACQUA: It is crucial to understand that, for many centuries, European Christians considered Islam to be a kindred religion. They saw it as a faith that had profound theological disagreements with Christianity but was nevertheless part of the same religious tradition as Christianity. In recent years there has been a public debate in the US as to whether the God in the Qur’an is the same as the Christian God. This was not at issue in Europe between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment! Europeans were absolutely clear about the fact that Muslims worshipped the same God that they did. If anything, the modern-day Western popular understanding of Islam – or at least the way Islam is often represented in public discourse – is more alienated. Many of us are, in other words, less able to perceive a common intellectual and religious heritage than did people living many centuries ago. 

Another lesson is that there is no intrinsic conflict between Western culture and the cultures of Islam. The history of Europe does not go directly from the era of the Crusades to the era of modern colonialism. There is a period in between during which Europeans feel that they have very much to learn from Islam and its intellectual traditions. Restoring to view a period of history that had long been obscured can be, I think, very empowering. It suggests that things can change yet again, that the configuration that exists today is not the only possible one. We are not constrained by history, which actually offers us other relations between these cultures and religions.

These lessons and realizations would be important not just for historians to understand but also for the general public. Were you thinking about the general impact that your work might have as you were writing the book? Who was your imagined or intended audience?

BEVILACQUA: I am a historian, so I spend most of my time focusing on the past rather than the future. But I hope that any interested person would be able to read my book; I did not want to exclude anybody on principle. The process of writing was, in part, a process of unlearning: it was a process of realizing how many technical words and phrases I had assimilated in my time in academia without even realizing it. I’ll give you one example: the field that I work in is called early modern Europe. By that we mean Europe roughly from the Renaissance to the French Revolution. To anyone who is not a historian, ‘early modern’ is a meaningless phrase. Could it be early 19th century? Early 20th century? It does not have a stable meaning. So I made a deliberate effort never to use the phrase ‘early modern.’ I do not use it a single time in The Republic of Arabic Letters. That was the kind of issue that I was thinking about; I did not want anyone to feel that the book was not written for them, that they could not be part of this conversation.

History does not have to be written in jargon. There is nothing especially technical about the past, or about studying the past. The human past is relevant to everybody—all people have a stake in how we think about it. As historians, we should really make an effort to be as inclusive as possible, and that is what I tried to do with this book.

That is much easier said than done. But it is an incredibly important charge for historians and for scholars in the humanities and social sciences to pick up, particularly today when the focus is largely on STEM, computer science, and other tech-related fields. So the question naturally becomes: what is the role of history and the humanities in the 21st century, and how do these fields stay relevant in an increasingly tech-oriented world?

BEVILACQUA: History is crucial. It shows us how people lived in the past, in other times and places, and thereby offers two very different lessons, both equally important. One is the enormous variety of ways in which humans have organized their societies. The other is the larger pattern of resemblance across place and time, the ways in which people have faced similar challenges and problems. Both the recognition of diversity, variety, difference and the recognition of similarities can be enriching. They can change our relationship with the present because they allow us to imagine alternatives: we could be living differently today than we do. Hopefully the past inspires us to think more critically about our present-day arrangements. But it can also teach us to cultivate empathy for others who are profoundly different from us. Indeed, history can be a school of empathic imagination. The generosity that we as historians try to offer to the people whom we study hopefully translates into ethical attention to living people, not just to dead ones.

How do you communicate that goal of history to people who may not view it as intrinsically interesting or valuable? How can you relate the research that you have done on 17th and 18th century scholars studying the Arab world to those whose work does not intersect with this specific period in history?

BEVILACQUA: There are two answers to this question. One is that it is true that, right now, STEM subjects are enormously prestigious and that some worry about a supposed crisis in the humanities. But, in fact, the number of people outside of academia who are not professional historians but are interested in the past and who feel that they have a stake in the past is enormous. I do not think that this interest is going to go away. If anything, we should be pondering how to reach these broader audiences. This group includes readers of historical fiction, people who reenact the past and those who are amateur aficionados of all kinds of historical information. This is a large portion of humankind! And if you add all of the people who care about genealogy, about their family history and their identity, you essentially include most people. I do not think that history is going to go away. It is possible that professional historical study has lost touch with these wider constituencies. But it is not at all impossible to reconnect and to try to engage and interact with people interested in the past, broadly speaking.

The second answer is that studying history can be very humbling. You suddenly realize how little we know, on what slender bases so much of our knowledge of human societies of the past rests, and therefore also of ourselves and own societies. This is something that most people do not realize sufficiently today. The Internet and resources like Wikipedia may give us an illusion of knowledge, an illusion of completeness, but the truth is that even the information that has been encoded in a place like Wikipedia often rests on the most slender of bases. One example I mention to my students: we have no contemporary portraits of, say, Christopher Columbus or of Hernán Cortés, and yet if you look at their Wikipedia pages you see pictures of their faces, which are in fact imaginary. A person casually consulting Wikipedia will be deluded about how much we actually know. So many important ideas and notions that we have or that we think we have are often based on interpretations that come from a single document, or a single line in a single manuscript read in a certain way. This realization engenders intellectual modesty. It is a tonic against the hubris that we nowadays know everything. 

It is a dramatic fact that our knowledge is so limited. But I do not mean that therefore we should all give up on trying to know and go home. I just believe that we will make more lucid assessments if we are aware of our limitations.

So is that what the role of the historian should be in the 21st century—someone who challenges us to grow intellectually by revealing our often shallow understanding of the past?

BEVILACQUA: I think historians can also seek to counter simplistic or ideological mobilizations of the past. Scholars are sometimes anxious about engaging with macro-narratives, but the truth is that those narratives will continue to exist in the public sphere whether we like it or not. Sometimes, careful historical work can engage those narratives and can offer a revision of at least parts of them. Even very closely focused work can have much wider implications outside the realm of professional historical scholarship.

With all that we have talked about in mind, both the significance of early European scholars of Islam as well as the impact that historians today can have, I would like to know what you believe the role of a public intellectual to be today. How should scholarship interact with the general public?

In some very real sense we are all public intellectuals today. Social media has given all of us a voice. Whether we are professional historians or not, we are all able to broadcast our views widely, so in a way the intellectual and ethical responsibilities of scholars and of public intellectuals are not fundamentally dissimilar from those of anyone who wants to engage in the public sphere.

I do think that, as scholars, we have some specific privileges. In particular, we have the benefit of time—what used to be called scholarly leisure, otium, or, in Greek, scholé. We have time to go deep, to spend many years engaging with a topic. That is a real privilege, and it also brings with it a real responsibility of sharing those findings and conveying our insights to a general audience. So perhaps we have additional responsibilities. But in some basic sense, all of us—everyone who tweets or retweets a message these days—should be thinking about the impact of our actions and the ways in which we can make technology an opportunity rather than a liability. 

Nick A. Cohen (ΦBK, Carleton College) recently completed his bachelor’s degree in international relations with a minor in European studies. Carleton College is home to the Beta of Minnesota chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.