The rise of Islam in the early seventh century AD and its rapid expansion to the east and the west launched one of the largest empires in human history. This empire entered into a world where pagans, Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians had already established high and polished civilizations. It absorbed the nations and cultures that preceded it and created a linguistic, cultural, and political divide between northern and western Europe, on the one hand, and North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean basin, on the other. Nations that had maintained close and mutually influential contact with each other since ancient times (such as Anatolia, or modern-day Turkey; Egypt; Italy; and Greece) were now sundered; eastern Christians and western Christians now lived very distinct lives, the latter politically dominant and unified in the Latin church, the former a fragmented minority in rival communions focused on distinct languages. By the same token, areas formerly opposed to each other and long in a state of almost constant tension and conflict, such as Syria-Palestine and Persia, were now culturally and, to an extent, politically and linguistically, unified, and a new civilization arose that was unlike anything known in antiquity.
The cultural, linguistic, and political curtain that fell in the seventh century continues to divide what was once called Christendom from the world of Islam, but neither side of the divide can afford to sit complacently behind it. Modern transportation, economics, and politics have rendered any idea of solitary self-sufficiency obsolete. Western economic and security interests are inextricably bound up with the world of Islam; millions of eastern Christians and Muslims now live in the West. More than ever before, Westerners need to understand and appreciate the vast and rich civilization, a complex mosaic of mutually enriching ethnic and religious groups, that emerged in the lands of Islam. And that need may well be just as pressing among those living in the Islamic world.
In Western history books, late antiquity and the Middle Ages have often been characterized as a period of relative stagnation, even decline. And yet, throughout the dominions of Islam—spanning the vast territories from the central Asian steppes, Persia, the Indian subcontinent, and Mesopotamia in the East to Morocco and southern Spain in the West—the "medieval" period was a vibrant time of inquiry, discovery, and progress, building upon remarkable literary, scholarly, and scientific achievements from the immediately preceding centuries. Beginning approximately two hundred years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and extending over a period of two more centuries, nearly the entire intellectual output of ancient Greek civilization was translated into Arabic and incorporated into Islamic civilization, where it joined with Indian mathematics and astronomy and the cultural legacy of ancient Persia. Eastern Christians played a pivotal mediating role in this process. But Arabic and Islamic civilization was not content merely to absorb and imitate. A rich and unique literature emerged; the most engaging ideas of the age, and the most important advances in fields such as architecture, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy developed within the Islamic sphere of influence, cultivated by the efforts of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish writers, scientists, scholars, and intellectuals.
Today, many of the intellectual and scientific achievements of the West are built upon foundations inherited from this Islamic age of enlightenment. But that legacy is often forgotten or undervalued because of linguistic and other barriers. Most of the writings of the great intellectual figures and innovators of the Islamic cultural region have long been inaccessible for Western study, unavailable to laypeople and even to most scholars, because of language and other obstacles. Islam remains a widely misunderstood faith in the West. Making its important works accessible in English, the principal language of the contemporary West, can dispel many misconceptions, increase awareness, and open doors to friendly relations. Indeed, the very act of publishing these works is itself a gesture of friendship, badly needed in a time of frightening divisions and worrisome distrust.
The Middle Eastern Texts Initiative (METI) was established by Brigham Young University to facilitate access to the wealth of the intellectual and spiritual tradition found in Classical Arabic, Persian, Syriac, and other languages of the Islamic cultural region and the subcommunities that entered into its formation. In most cases, we publish dual-language volumes, with the original text on one page and a fluent and trustworthy translation on the facing page. In every case, the manuscripts are carefully reviewed by in-house editors and peer reviewed by internationally eminent scholars, and the published works are annotated and introduced by internationally respected specialists. The volumes are published by Brigham Young University Press and distributed worldwide by the University of Chicago Press.
Currently we produce three series: The Islamic Translation Series, the first METI publishing venture, is designed not only to further scholarship in Islamic studies but to assist in the integration of important Islamic texts into Western academia and curricula, to enhance understanding of Islam among nonspecialists, and to provide access to their own rich intellectual heritage to the large number of Muslims today (including the Islamic diaspora in Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States) whose command of English is better than their command of Arabic. The texts that appear in the Medical Works of Moses Maimonides are among the cultural treasures of the world. Written in Arabic, they are unmistakably a part of the Arabic scientific tradition in which works of impressive intellectual stature were composed not only by Muslims but also by Christians, Jews, and others in a quest for knowledge that transcended religious and ethnic boundaries. The third series, Eastern Christian Texts and its sub-series, the Library of the Christian East, provide specialists and nonspecialists with reliable English-language translations of works produced by Christian writers living in the Middle East from the fourth to the fourteenth century, together with a comprehensive collection of introductions to those Eastern Christian authors and topics.
The primary justification for this publishing effort, of course, is the merit of the books it produces. They are among the greatest works ever written, anywhere, and they represent the heritage not only of the communities that created them in the first place but, properly speaking, the inheritance of all of humankind.
But the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, itself a cooperative effort between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars, offers a powerful reminder that today's tragic religious hostilities do not exhaust the story of the Islamic world. The threads that made up the cultural tapestry of the world of Islam, represented by such METI authors as Maimonides and the Christian philosopher Yahya b. Àdi as well as by its eminent Muslim writers, cannot be entirely separated from one another without destroying that tapestry. And therein lies a potent lesson for today.
The Maxwell Institute's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative offers a service not only to scholars and interested laypeople, to Western readers interested in philosophy, mysticism, theology, and the history of science and medicine, but to non Arabic-speaking Muslims (in such places as Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey and, increasingly, in Europe and North America) as well as to members of the Eastern Christian diaspora. Indeed, since the original language texts included in its books will sometimes represent the finest and most accessible versions of those writings ever published, METI will serve audiences in the original homelands and languages of its authors.
For more information see our Web site: http://meti.byu.edu