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



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.

Akbari 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.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Medieval Orientalism?

The Shape of the World
Defining the Parts
Defining the Center

From Jerusalem to India
The Liber Floridus
The Roman de toute chevalerie
Kyng Alisaunder

The Place of the Jews
Dispersal and Enclosure
Climate and the Diasporic Body

The Saracen Body
The Male Saracen
The Female Saracen
The Hybrid

Empty Idols and a False Prophet
The Broken Idol
The Place of Muhammad
The Filthy Idol

The Form of Heaven
The Beautiful Surface
The Paradise Inside
The Place of Philosophy

Available from Cornell University Press.


“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 It will not be easily superseded.”

—Jeffrey J. Cohen, The American Historical REview

“Her book will become essential reading for all who wish to understand the place of the Orient and the Saracen in later medieval thought.”

JOHN TOLAN, The Journal of Religion

“It is valuable to have such a varied picture of western European views of Islam, the Orient, and the Oriental “other,” and the book is sure to stimulate much new research.”

S.H, Medium Aevum

“Suzanne Akbari's study of Western views of Islam throughout the European Middle Ages is synoptic in the best sense, working comfortably with texts in Latin, Old French, Italian, German, and Middle English, and exhibiting an equally capacious grasp on secondary scholarship in an equal variety of languages.”

— Christine Chism, Studies in the Age of Chaucer

“Although Akbari recognizes the impossibility of providing a comprehensive overview of premodern Christian views of Islam, she ambitiously and impressively tackles a vast number of sources and reveals the intertextual relationships between them.”

— Leila Ann Ouji, University of Toronto Quarterly