Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450

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"Representations of Muslims have never been more common in the Western imagination than they are today. Building on Orientalist stereotypes constructed over centuries, the figure of the wily Arab has given rise, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, to the Islamist terrorist. In Idols in the East Suzanne Conklin Akbari explores the premodern background of some of the Orientalist types still pervasive in present-day depictions of Muslims-the irascible and irrational Arab, the religiously deviant Islamist-and about how these stereotypes developed over time." Idols in the East contributes to the recent surge of interest in European encounters with Islam and the Orient in the premodern world. Focusing on the medieval period, Akbari examines a broad range of texts including encyclopedias, maps, medical and astronomical treatises, chansons de geste, romances, and allegories to paint an unusually diverse portrait of medieval culture. Among the texts she considers are The Book of John Mandeville, The Song of Roland, Parzival, and Dante's Divine Comedy. From them she reveals how medieval writers and readers understood and explained the differences they saw between themselves and the Muslim other. Looking forward, Akbari also comes to terms with how these medieval conceptions fit with modern discussions of Orientalism, thus providing an important theoretical link to postcolonial and postimperial scholarship on later periods. Far reaching in its implications and balanced in its judgments, Idols in the East will be of great interest to not only scholars and students of the Middle Ages but also anyone interested in the roots of Orientalism and its tangled relationship to modern racism andanti-Semitism.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Akbari's wide~ranging and ambitious book examines portrayals of the Saracens and the Orient in texts of diverse nature written in Latin and European vernaculars between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. . . . It will become essential reading for all who wish to understand the place of the Orient and the Saracen in later medieval thought."—John Tolan, Journal of Religion (January 2011)

"Provocative yet never overreaching, as compelling as it is meticulously researched, this groundbreaking book now stands as the best treatment of Islam in the medieval Christian imagination that we possess. It will not be easily superseded."—American Historical Review

"In Idols in the East, Suzanne Conklin Akbari writes a prehistory of Orientalism. In order to consider the possible contours of a medieval Orientalism, Akbari analyzes a wide range of primary and secondary sources. By focusing on texts that represented Muslims and also on texts that structured a cosmology where Muslims and Islam could fit within a Christian worldview, the book provides a conceptual narrative."—Speculum

"Idols in the East is an excellent as well as a timely book. Suzanne Conklin Akbari's assessments of the primary and secondary sources that come under her scrutiny are judicious, insightful, and fair-minded. Above all, Idols in the East makes clear how wide a range of evidence there is for a discourse of medieval Orientalism and how such a discourse might be understood in the present."—Iain Macleod Higgins, University of Victoria, author of Writing East

"Idols of the East recuperates a lost orientalism and a history of oriental power dropped from the famous Orientalism of Edward Said: for the historical power and cultural significance of the Islamic East, Suzanne Conklin Akbari argues, has been dramatically underemphasized. Akbari carefully unpacks medieval practices of mapping the East, representations of Judaism and Islam, conflations of ethnic and religious terminology, and iconic figurations of the Saracen. Her book reaches beyond medieval studies to furnish an account of orientalism's prehistory that all postcolonialists should read: highly recommended."—David Wallace, Judith Rodin Professor, University of Pennsylvania

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801448072
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 7/23/2009
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Suzanne Conklin Akbari is Professor of English and Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. She is author of Seeing through the Veil: Optical Theory and Medieval Allegory, editor of Marco Polo and the Encounter of East and West, and medieval volume editor for The Norton Anthology of World Literature.

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Table of Contents

Introduction Medieval Orientalism? 1

1 The shape of the world 20

2 From Jerusalem to India 67

3 The place of the Jews 112

4 The Saracen body 155

5 Empty idols and a false prophet 200

6 The form of heaven 248

Conclusion A glance at early modern Orientalism 280

Works cited 289

Index 315

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