In a fantastic article written in 1996, Roger Ballard explains how a geographical entity known as Europe was mapped out, not based on sharing a common language or ethnicity, but a common religion. Historically, Europe’s imagined identity was a loose collection of Christian peoples that were defined in contrast to the Muslims who lay just beyond the boundaries to the East and the South. These historic formations have resulted in a long-standing myth that Muslims are “outsiders” within Europe that belong in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
In actual fact, Muslims have been living in Europe for centuries. For instance, Bosnian Muslims have been rooted in Europe since the 15th century, and rightly consider themselves as European as the Greeks and Hungarians who live in their neighbourhood. A BBC documentary aired recently showed how Muslims have been established and influential in British public life since the Victorian period.
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But Muslims haven’t just been living in Europe for centuries; they have also been making huge contributions to the Europe that exists today.
Muslims ruled parts of Italy, France, Portugal and Spain for more than 750 years, during which they created a cosmopolitan and prosperous society in which learning flourished. During this period, Muslims played a vital role in transmitting ancient Greek works, such as that of Aristotle, to medieval Europe. Scholars have widely argued that it was a credit to this Muslim inspiration that Europe emerged out of the Dark Ages, going on to have a Renaissance that created strong political and economic structures that still make Europe part of the so-called First World today. Europe’s prosperity is therefore, at least in part, thanks to the significant contribution of Muslims throughout history.
Muslims in Europe’s history have not just been carriers of knowledge, vital as that may have been. Throughout the centuries, they have also produced enormous scholarship in numerous fields such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and philosophy. So crucial was Muslims’ contribution to these disciplines that many English words relating to these fields have their origins in the Arabic language. Consider, for example, fundamental terms like chemistry, which came from al-kimiyah, and algebra, which came from al-jebr.
A long list of Muslim polymaths who made ground-breaking interventions and inventions could be drawn up, such as Ibn Sina in the field of medicine, Ibn al-Haytham in the field of optics, Al-Zahrawi in the field of surgery, Ibn Rush in the field of philosophy and theology, Al-Biruni in the field of astronomy, Al-Jazari in the field of engineering and Abbas Ibn Firnas in the field of aviation. It is worth spending some time reflecting on these characters, and the many others who were similar to them, all of whom contributed far more to humanity than what the vast majority of us ever will.
Polymaths are rare finds today, but there are many Muslims living in Europe today who are successful in their field, whether that be a field that is prestigious or something less glamorous. Muslim heritage is rich in inspiring contributions, and Islamic teachings encourage believers to seek knowledge and make use of their lives in the most productive way possible. Muslims have contributed massively to Europe and they continue to do so in numerous fields alongside other Europeans. This is captured in the Olympic games, where several European countries will be proudly represented by Muslim athletes. For instance the host nation, Great Britain, will have British Muslims representing them like Mo Farah, Moe Sbihi and Darren Chessman – not as British Muslims, but simply as Britons.
It is only because of that historic belief that Muslims are separate and sealed off from Europe that these issues need to be highlighted. Following recent news that the British population has risen more than expected partly due to immigration, the familiar scaremongering about “outsiders” has resurfaced. This must be challenged with reminders that those whose origins may be elsewhere may also have a long history of contributing to our societies, and may continue to do so in the future. Rather than understanding immigration as something inherently damaging, then, we should appreciate the many benefits it brings. It is often when different people come together that the most promising collaborations emerge.
There are no signs of Muslims leaving Europe – and, of course, there should not be any calls for them to do so. In fact, the population of European Muslims may only grow further with continued migration from Muslim countries, conversions to Islam, and especially if Turkey joins the EU. Muslims have a long history in Europe, have contributed to its development, and continue to make Europe what it is today. For that reason, their presence should not be feared but celebrated.
Dr Leon Moosavi is a sociologist of race and religion based at the University of Leicester.
Follow him on Twitter: @Leon_Moosavi