Long before the late Eduard Said invented “Orientalism” to exalt Arab culture and Islamic society at the expense of the West, bien-pensants like Voltaire inclined to express their rebellion against the dwindling vestiges of Christendom by representing Europeans as bigots or clowns and raising up exotic foreigners – Voltaire himself wrote about Turks and Persians of the Muslim fold – to be the fonts of wisdom and models of refined life in their tracts and stories.
The sultan and dervish look with amused tolerance on the gaucheries of the European rubes. The rubes swing their elbows and knock over the pottery. It was the Eighteenth-Century philosophes and illuminati who coined the pejorative term Dark Ages to refer to the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Roman imperial administration in the West under pressure of the Gothic assertions of the Fifth Century.
Liberal discourse often casually extends the same term to apply it to all of medieval European civilization up to the Renaissance. Specialist historians have, however, long since demonstrated that no such absolute discontinuity as the term Dark Ages insinuates ever existed, which means that the Enlightenment version of history is at least partly wrong. And yet the usual story retains its currency, as an item in a kind of liberal folklore.
Part of that story is the motif of the Islamic middleman role in the transmission of classical knowledge to Christendom.
According to this motif, the West in the Eleventh Century possessed no first-hand knowledge of the Greek and precious little of the Roman classics. Fortunately (so the story goes) the Muslims had translated Plato and Aristotle into Arabic, knew all about them, and bestowed the gift of their lore on the benighted monks of Italy and France. The benefactors under this notion behave suavely and generously, while the beneficiaries are – to paraphrase a line from a David Lean film – ignorant, barbarous, and cruel.