The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment. By Alexander Bevilacqua. Belknap Press; 360 pages; $35.00; £25.95

IN THE Muslim world, compilations of geography or history were once called “gardens”. Like real gardens, these books needed time to grow. The best ideas had to be cultivated, and weaker specimens removed. Discovering these works at the end of the 17th century, European readers marvelled. No wonder. Westerners had swallowed lies about Muslims and their faith for centuries. But through diligent scholarship, a circle of European intellectuals helped distant gardens bloom in new languages. Their work would shape foreign views of the Middle East into the modern age.

In a deeply thoughtful new study, Alexander Bevilacqua starts with the books themselves. From about 1600, Europeans collected thousands of Arabic, Turkish and Persian manuscripts from Middle Eastern markets. Many ended up in the great “Oriental” libraries at Leiden, Oxford and Paris. The historical and geographical “gardens” were popular, but so were surveys of Islamic jurisprudence and history. Arabic translations of ancient Greek texts were coveted, too. Antoine Galland, a French diplomat, was sent to Istanbul in 1679 with a “nearly twenty-page closely written” shopping list.

This appetite was whetted by religious conviction. After the Reformation split European Christianity into mutually hostile camps, Catholics and Protestants competed not only with each other for European souls, but strove to prove themselves to the world, Muslims included. To refute Islam, Christians had to understand it, they thought. This belief inspired some astounding scholarship. In 1698, Lodovico Marracci saw his Latin translation of the Koran published in Padua, with the original Arabic printed above. Marracci worked to disprove Islam, carefully translating and rebutting each sura in turn. But by studying a strange faith so assiduously, Marracci and his contemporaries did it a service, Mr Bevilacqua says. Lazy medieval views of Islam as a “diabolical parody” were no longer credible.

In 1650, Edward Pococke published “A Sample of the History of the Arabs”, a lavish snapshot of Arab life and culture. When Simon Ockley produced “The Conquest of Syria, Persia and Aegypt, by the Saracens”, in 1708, he declared his subjects to be “very considerable, both by their Arms and their Learning”. Pococke quoted dozens of newly available works in Arabic in his “Sample”, not only Islamic religious works but those of Avicenna, a Persian physician, and Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher. This helped the Middle East seem less alien, Mr Bevilacqua writes. Like the Greeks and Romans, Europeans finally realised Islamic culture was “rooted in the same values as Western ones”.

Scholars also learned from each other. George Sale used Marracci in his graceful English translation of the Koran (published in 1733, it was popular until the 1950s). For his part, Ockley drew on manuscripts from the Pococke collection. Enlightenment idols like Voltaire and Edward Gibbon were indebted to the same crowd. Gibbon relied on Pococke and Sale to inform “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, though both he and Voltaire generally avoided making new arguments, instead pushing their less famous forerunners to the mainstream. Later writers, notably Flaubert, kept the work of 17th century Arabists alive deep into the 1800s. This thicket of relationships is never exhausting. The author works hard to keep his eponymous “republic” easy to follow, even as he hops from Latin to Arabic to French on a single page.

Mr Bevilacqua ends his history on a gloomier note. As Europe became more secular, its economies prospered and Muslim rivals like the Ottomans slumped, studying Islam properly became less urgent. By 1800, the Koranic commentaries that so gripped Marracci and his colleagues were no longer thought useful. Instead, Western scholars began patronising their neighbours across the Mediterranean. Their religion “came to be regarded as a force holding Muslims back”, says Mr Bevilacqua. A pity he offers little more than that, given the problems Western ignorance about the Middle East would later cause, from Sykes-Picot to Suez. But overall, “Republic” is a delight.