Jona Lendering

Forgotten Heritage

Oosterse wortels van de westerse cultuur

Eastern roots of Western culture

Modern Europe is in many respects indebted to Eastern traditions, not least those of the Islamic world. The Arabs endowed Europe with experimental science, for example, and the notion of equality before the law. We should not underestimate the importance of either, says Jona Lendering. Nor of the implications of his findings for today’s worldwide debate about the supposed ‘clash of civilizations’ between East and West.

In a compelling argument constructed page by page, Lendering gradually convinces his readers that modern Europe is closer to the world of Mediaeval Islam than to classical Athens. The contribution of the classics to the Western world view, he believes, has in any case been overstated by education in the Prussian mould. Take the alphabet, originally a Phoenician invention. Or the setting down of laws: an initiative of the Babylonians, who discovered Pythagoras’ theorem long before the Greek philosopher was born.

Lendering does not confine himself to Eastern models for Western science, mathematics and medicine, which other authors have charted before him; he also looks at ideas in the fields of law and politics. One of his more astonishing claims is that the origin of the European university lies in the madrasa, a type of Islamic school that developed in the high Middle Ages. Both are autonomous, non-feudal institutions that originally emphasized the study of law; both have their own systems of degrees and doctorates that are strictly independent of religious and secular powers. Lendering writes that such parallels are too far-reaching to be ignored or dismissed as coincidental.

In current political debates the madrasa serves to symbolize all the violent, irrational and ‘backward’ features of the Islamic world. Fine, says Lendering, as long as we also recognize that in many ways Islamic thought was once the engine of progress in Western society. Because the truth, he writes in conclusion to his fascinating book, must be the guiding principle for all education. The West owes its Eastern precursors that much at least.

  • Long overdue reconsideration of nineteenth-century Greek-centred assumptions in higher education
  • A strongly opinionated contribution to contemporary debates about the place of the humanities in our universities

The myth of a unique, democratic and proto-European Greek culture is demonstrably false, Lendering argues, raising an extremely important point of discussion.

NRC Handelsblad

In this pleasantly written, against-thegrain book, Lendering undermines many assumptions, replacing them with a story that is much more absorbing, rich and multi-facetted.

De Groene Amsterdammer

Jona Lendering

Jona Lendering lectures in Mediterranean history at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. His earlier work includes An Interim Manager in the Roman Empire: Pliny in Bithynia (1999), The Edges of the World: The Romans between the Schelde and Eems rivers (2000), City in Marble: a guide to Ancient Rome

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Vergeten Erfenis. Oosterse wortels van de westerse cultuur (2009). Non-fiction, 196 pages.
Words: 58,000

With illustrations in black-and-white, notes and references


Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep

Weteringschans 259
NL - 1017 XJ Amsterdam
Tel: +31 20 760 72 10

[email protected]

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