Thursday, November 12, 2009

Leo Africanus and Globalization

This week's reading has strong thematic similarities to our readings in Before European Hegemony. Both dealt with interactions between different religions, international trade, and the proliferation of European influence. From a first hand point of view Hasan describes the conflict between the Muslims of Grenada/Fez and the Catholics of Portugal/Spain, then between the Catholic church and the following of the protestant Martin Luther. These conflicts had particular significance for Hasan, whose entire life and travels were cause by them. Despite the hardship that they cause him, he is in favor of a connection between religion and politics/warfare, even telling the pope that he regrets that secular sultan reign instead of religious caliphs, saying "As long as caliphs were rulers, Islam was radiant with culture. Religion reigned peaceably over the affairs of this world. Since then, it is force that rules, and the faith is often nothing but a sword in the hand of the sultan" (292).

As a trader by profession, Hasan is the perfect example of the international trade going on the 15th and 16th centuries. He describes his transactions with people from all around the Mediterranean and Middle East, and mentions several times the Italians (particularly the Genoese and Venicians, whom Abu-Lughod singled out as powerful and wealthy merchants). It is through trade that Hasan gains much of his knowledge and diplomatic skills.

Since his childhood, when his hometown was captured by the Portuguese, Hasan witnessed the proliferation of European influence in the world. Although he did not realize it, he may have been witnessing the beginning of European hegemony. His knowledge of Europeans begins minimally, starting with his Castilian step-mother, his Italian merchant acquaintance, and finally his immersion in European culture when he is brought to Rome as a slave. There he is witness to another historic event- the beginning of religious conflict amongst Christians, at the monk Martin Luther threatens the power and wealth of the Roman Catholic church. Here Hasan, now baptized Johann Leo de Medici, is in a very unique position, caught between his Muslim faith and his sympathy towards both sides of the conflict, understanding the viewpoints of both his benefactor Pope Leo and his enthusiastic protestant friend Hans.

What struck me most was the pope's behavior towards Hasan. Although he was imprisoned as a slave, he treated him like a son, and was concerned with his education and his faith. Clearly he hoped that by baptizing Hasan and setting him free, he would return to his people and bring converts to the Catholic faith. But the way he went about this was strange and seemed destined for failure. He must have known that converting him against his will would not be sufficient to ensure that Hasan would spread Christianity upon his return to the Muslim world, no matter how well he treated him.


  1. Good post! You draw connections between the 'micro-history' of one man's story to the historical movements of globalization quite well! Religious conflict and the exertion of Western Power are definitely significant themes in this story.

    -katie d.

  2. I'm not sure I agree that the Pope converted Hasan against his will. It's true that Hasan probably would not have chosen baptism, but he did not seem horribly against it. To me, it seemed like Hasan accepted it as inevitable and was more thankful to all of the benefits. He had nothing but kind thoughts about the Pope, especially after the Pope presented him with a book in Arabic. I'm not sure the Pope really wanted Hasan to go and bring converts as much as he actually approved of Hasan and wanted the best (which in his mind was baptism) for him.