Sir, Professor Ralph M Coury (Letters, February 4) asks how one can explain the rich culture of the Arab/Islamic Middle Ages, which drew so widely on the heritage of Greeks, Romans, Indians, Persians and others, if V S Naipaul’s view, that Arab and Islamic societies have by their very nature been hostile to outside influences, is true.

The reality is more complicated than this simple dichotomy suggests. The Arabs’ early conquests made them masters of the Persian empire and of much of the eastern Roman empire, sophisticated societies that were the products of centuries of intellectual and technological development, and pragmatic Abbasid caliphs, mindful
of their imperial Persian heritage, thought it better to spare the lives
of conquered Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians who paid jizya, or protection money, and allow them to provide Islam with its doctors, merchants, administrators,
and translators (of scientific and philosophical texts).

The Koran nevertheless terms the pre-Islamic period the age of jahiliyya or ignorance, and invites believers to travel the world and see the remains left by extinct peoples who refused to believe. There was no demand from Arabs for translations of Christian, Jewish or classical historical or literary texts. More ideological rulers, such as Egypt’s al-Hakim, persecuted Jews and Christians with greater vigour. The pressure to convert to Islam was always there, and practices such as the seizure for marriage of non-Muslim girls, still in evidence across the Islamic world, and the regular Ottoman gathering of the brightest boys from the Balkans for conversion to Islam and enrolment in the Sultan’s service, ensured the gradual dwindling of the conquered populations.

The question of where within this spectrum the “very nature” of Arab and Islamic society is to be located, is perhaps more metaphysical than historical.

David J Critchley

Winslow, Bucks, UK

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