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In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a pioneering community of Christian scholars laid the groundwork for the modern Western understanding of Islamic civilization. These men produced the first accurate translation of the Qur’an into a European language, mapped the branches of the Islamic arts and sciences, and wrote Muslim history using Arabic sources. The Republic In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a pioneering community of Christian scholars laid the groundwork for the modern Western understanding of Islamic civilization. These men produced the first accurate translation of the Qur’an into a European language, mapped the branches of the Islamic arts and sciences, and wrote Muslim history using Arabic sources. The Republic of Arabic Letters reconstructs this process, revealing the influence of Catholic and Protestant intellectuals on the secular Enlightenment understanding of Islam and its written traditions. Drawing on Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, and Latin sources, Alexander Bevilacqua’s rich intellectual history retraces the routes―both mental and physical―that Christian scholars traveled to acquire, study, and comprehend Arabic manuscripts. The knowledge they generated was deeply indebted to native Muslim traditions, especially Ottoman ones. Eventually the translations, compilations, and histories they produced reached such luminaries as Voltaire and Edward Gibbon, who not only assimilated the factual content of these works but wove their interpretations into the fabric of Enlightenment thought. The Republic of Arabic Letters shows that the Western effort to learn about Islam and its religious and intellectual traditions issued not from a secular agenda but from the scholarly commitments of a select group of Christians. These authors cast aside inherited views and bequeathed a new understanding of Islam to the modern West.


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In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a pioneering community of Christian scholars laid the groundwork for the modern Western understanding of Islamic civilization. These men produced the first accurate translation of the Qur’an into a European language, mapped the branches of the Islamic arts and sciences, and wrote Muslim history using Arabic sources. The Republic In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a pioneering community of Christian scholars laid the groundwork for the modern Western understanding of Islamic civilization. These men produced the first accurate translation of the Qur’an into a European language, mapped the branches of the Islamic arts and sciences, and wrote Muslim history using Arabic sources. The Republic of Arabic Letters reconstructs this process, revealing the influence of Catholic and Protestant intellectuals on the secular Enlightenment understanding of Islam and its written traditions. Drawing on Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, and Latin sources, Alexander Bevilacqua’s rich intellectual history retraces the routes―both mental and physical―that Christian scholars traveled to acquire, study, and comprehend Arabic manuscripts. The knowledge they generated was deeply indebted to native Muslim traditions, especially Ottoman ones. Eventually the translations, compilations, and histories they produced reached such luminaries as Voltaire and Edward Gibbon, who not only assimilated the factual content of these works but wove their interpretations into the fabric of Enlightenment thought. The Republic of Arabic Letters shows that the Western effort to learn about Islam and its religious and intellectual traditions issued not from a secular agenda but from the scholarly commitments of a select group of Christians. These authors cast aside inherited views and bequeathed a new understanding of Islam to the modern West.

57 review for The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment

  1. 4 out of 5

    Murtaza

    Before the term "Orientalist" gained its negative connotation, there was a small yet dedicated generation of European scholars working at the beginning of the Enlightenment era who sought to understand the peoples of the Muslim world and their beliefs. They did so not in the service of raw power or to patronize the Muslims and their religion. Rather, these Catholic and Protestant scholars saw Islam and the civilization that it created as comparable to their own Christendom (albeit as an ultimate Before the term "Orientalist" gained its negative connotation, there was a small yet dedicated generation of European scholars working at the beginning of the Enlightenment era who sought to understand the peoples of the Muslim world and their beliefs. They did so not in the service of raw power or to patronize the Muslims and their religion. Rather, these Catholic and Protestant scholars saw Islam and the civilization that it created as comparable to their own Christendom (albeit as an ultimately heretical deviation), and saw Islamic antiquity as the site of noble human dramas directly analogous to the classical achievements of Greece and Rome. These Christian scholars thought there was something of universal worth to learn in the study of Islam, Muslims and their history, even as they studied in order to provide intellectual defense against the erosion of their own communities of faith. This book is the story of this group of 16th and 17th century scholars and how they came to plant the first seeds of knowledge about Islam into the soil of the European intellectual culture of the time. As Bevilacqua describes, much European knowledge about Islam initially came as the result of individual scholars and their patrons literally traveling to the bazaars of Istanbul, Aleppo and Cairo to physically purchase books and manuscripts. These books included translations of classical Greek works as we know. But there were also many Islamic religious texts and commentaries sought out and carried back to the libraries and collections of Europe. These works helped stimulate a renaissance of European understanding of Islam. Surprisingly it was a far more sympathetic one than what exists for the most part today. Europeans wanted to know about the Muslims, on some level to refute their false religion and thus protect the integrity of their own faith. But to the credit of their intellectual tradition they also genuinely wanted to understand on its own terms what to them, at the time, seemed like a great and powerful civilization that had changed the course of the world. Most notably these scholars gave respect to the Muslim tradition by citing and using Arabic commentaries written by Muslims when developing their own works. This is something that is a bare minimum for anyone genuinely seeking to understand a foreign tradition, yet is something that many modern Westerners who consider themselves intellectuals often fail to do. This is a sign of a debilitating hubris that exists today, but which was less prevalent in the European past. Interestingly many of these scholars viewed Islam's perceived rationality and comportment with natural law (i.e. the idea of the unity of God was seen as more natural than a trinity) as a sign of its falsehood, as it was somehow a sign of the trickery entailed in the creed. Such opinions only make sense in the light of zealous faith, but its notable that for all the great faith these scholars had in their own religion they were still able to appreciate the heroes and achievements of Islamic civilization. Hazrat Ali, Muawiyah, Abu Bakr, Harun al-Rashid, Al-Mamoun, Salah al-Din and Prophet Muhammad himself were all highly praised and respected on their own terms as heroes, lawgivers and patrons of learning, even by scholars who ultimately considered them heretics and propagators of a false religion. Even the Ottomans came in for a sympathetic hearing for helping incubate an orderly and dynamic society, rather than being merely the tyrannical "sick men" that later European philosophers described. Despite being religious Christians with their own metaphysical commitments, the European scholars of Islam at this time were in large part more charitable and sympathetic to Islam than many liberal-secular commentators in the contemporary West. Interestingly, political philosophers like Niccolo Machiavelli and Edward Gibbon (who was actually less sympathetic to Islam than, say, Voltaire) saw Islamic civilization as one of the inheritors and continuers of ancient Rome. This would be a surprise to clueless modern Islamists who sometimes inveigh against "Rome" as representing an imagined Western civilization. As the book notes, European views on Islam only turned definitively sour during the age of imperialism, when Muslims came to be seen less as a respected rival civilization and more as an inferior race. Once Westerners began to disdain their own religion they also started to lose sympathy for the beliefs of their neighbors, whose power now appeared to be in terminal decline and whose religious faith suddenly started to look to them less like an inspiration and more like a hindrance. The book is written in academic style but is nonetheless benefitted by its very clear and lucid prose. It was nice to read the stories of these European scholars who lived the life of the mind and devoted it to the study of the history and beliefs of a foreign people. In their own personalities these scholars exemplified the best of the Western intellectual tradition. The men of the "Republic of Arabic Letters" achieved herculean intellectual feats, translating foreign languages to write their histories and using source materials that literally needed to be scoured from across the world to get the job done. Given the challenges it was amazing what a good job they did. It also goes to show that the history of European engagement with Islam, even by Christians studying to prove the superiority of their own faith, was something more than a simplistic narrative of crusades and colonialism.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Caroline

    The Republic of Arabic Letters is an enlightening investigation of European efforts between about 1600 and 1800 to acquire, translate, and characterize great works of Islamic literature. Bevilacqua seeks to undermine the view that the Enlightenment writers ‘discovered’ these works and spread knowledge of them through Europe. In particular, he asserts that earlier efforts to translate the works and convey knowledge of the Islamic world to European readers were in general more erudite, objective, The Republic of Arabic Letters is an enlightening investigation of European efforts between about 1600 and 1800 to acquire, translate, and characterize great works of Islamic literature. Bevilacqua seeks to undermine the view that the Enlightenment writers ‘discovered’ these works and spread knowledge of them through Europe. In particular, he asserts that earlier efforts to translate the works and convey knowledge of the Islamic world to European readers were in general more erudite, objective, and accurate than the subsequent ideological use of translations by Voltaire and the uneven evaluation by Gibbon. These early scholars worked from books in Arabic, Turkish and Persian that European diplomats and library agents had purchased in the Middle East, primarily in Constantinople. The deepest holdings were in Rome, Leiden, and Oxford, with other important libraries in Germany and Spain. The very earliest Catholic translators were trying to understand Islamic belief with an eye to undermining it in efforts to convert Muslims to Christianity. While crass tales of Islamic beliefs were common, these cleric-scholars thought it would be more persuasive to find arguments for Christianity that did not rest on false claims that would be dismissed by knowledgeable Muslims. This attitude lay behind, first of all, the translation of the Qur’an by Marracci in 1698, but also other works. George Sale produced a long-influential translation into English in 1734. The scholars brought philological expertise, patience and rigor to the task. Some interspersed refutations alongside the Qur’an text, but the most influential kept their opinions distinct from the original text. Many recognized the similarities between the three Abrahamic religions, and in fact searched for keys to Biblical questions in the belief that study of ancient Arabic writers might solve questions about Hebrew texts. All of these writers differed on the extent to which they believed Mohammed was a conscious ‘imposter’, as opposed to an enthusiast who blurred the source of his ‘revelations’ through zeal. Bevilacqua also discusses how these writers basically sympathetic to the general value of Islam as a monotheistic religion with many values shared with Christianity dealt with the Qur’an’s portrayal of Paradise as a distinctly sensual experience. There was a parallel (or perhaps interwoven) line of scholars who were working in the Renaissance tradition of expanding knowledge and simply believed it was natural, beneficial, to understand other parts of the world. There was a recognition that a culture that had created a vast empire in a very short time required study. Deeper knowledge sometimes led to comparisons to classical writers as justification for study and the basis for esteem. This period also saw the development of comparative religion studies. Bevilacqua writes a whole chapter on d'Herbelot’s Bibliotheque Orientale, a sort of one volume encyclopedia based on Arabic, Turkish and Persian sources that treated all sorts of history, religious and literary issues and was widely influential. As part of this interest in Islam, scholars began to consider Mohammed as a leader, particularly a leader considered using Machiavelli’s writings. Both sorts of translators approached the work with the rigor of philologists. Bevilacqua argues that they were generally accurate their work, to the extent of their resources. They brought not only the Qur’an itself to Europeans but also the important commentaries, again to the extent that these were available to them in European libraries. They were generally at the mercy of whatever had been collected by the agents working decades before in Constantinople. Bevilacqua’s penultimate chapter presents European scholars’ efforts to synthesize a western-style comprehensive history of the Arabs from the diverse works of a culture that didn’t have a tradition of such histories. (Which irritated the Europeans mightily.) The major players here were Edward Pococke and Simon Ockley in England, Johannn Jacob Reiske in Germany, and Eusébe Renaudot in France. They often focused on medieval Islam, which they perceived as fostering the high point of literary, scientific, and philosophical achievement. Bevilacqua faults them as being too credulous of their sources, but credits them for acknowledging their sources evaluation of events rather than overlay only a Western perspective. Comments throughout the volume remind the reader how the relationship between Europe and the Ottoman Empire changed over this period, reducing the perceived threat of the ‘Orient.’ Bevilacqua finishes with his assessment of Enlightenment use of Islamic resources that had been developed by these earlier scholars. He gives credit to Gibbons, quoting him liberally, but is generally critical of Montesquieu and Voltaire for manipulating knowledge of Islamic culture to fit their preconceived ideas. Bevilacqua’s scholarship appears to be sound; the notes and bibliography are very extensive. I just had a hard time with his convoluted prose. I kept having to reread sentences that didn’t have difficult concepts, because he juxtaposes unrelated clauses or uses odd conjunctions. Unnecessarily complex syntax (eg multiple negatives) slows down other sentences. There is also a rather dissertation-like repetition of his points throughout. Finally, and this isn’t a fault but the result of the difficulty of dealing with such wide ranging material over two centuries and many countries, I had trouble tracking some of the authors and books. Bevilacqua treats material thematically, starting with acquiring library material, moving on to translating the Qur’an, then to translations of other types of materials, and finishing with the Enlightenment. This made it hard to keep the works in mind in sequential order in order to follow the discussions of influence and citation. I ended up making a timeline of translations by country which I’ll try to upload here (the table format didn’t upload, but the list is below). But, well worth putting up with the writing for the information. I found it a valuable stretching of my ideas about how information about Islam was made available to European readers. Spain manuscript 1143, printed 1543, Robert of Ketton at a Toledo monastery for Frenchman Peter the Venerable, translation of the Qur’an into Latin Italy 1547 translation into Italian of Robert of Ketton’s Latin version of the Qur’an 1688 Ludovico Marracci Prodromus ad Refutationem Alcorani (Preliminary to the refutation of the Qur’an); preface to the subsequently published translation, life of Mohamad, etc. 1698 Ludovico Marracci: Alcorani Textus Universus (entire text of the Qur’an into Latin with commentary by Islamic scholars, all in Latin translation) France 1674 Richard Simon Histoire Critique de la crėance et de coûtumes des nations du Levant 1697 Barthélemy d’Herbelot reference work of Islamic history & letters Bibliothèque Orientale England 1650 Edward Pocock Specimen Historiae Arabum; notes on Arabic history drawn from many Arabic writers 1734 George Sale’s translation of the Qur’an into English prose, relying on Marracci and Al-Baydāwī’s commentary; wide & long influence, including his Prelimiary Discourse intro 1708 Simon Ockley, Conquest of Syria, Jerusalem and Aegypt by the Saracens; and The History of the Saracens Netherlands 1641 translation into Dutch of the German version of Robert of Ketton’s Qur’an 1705 Adriaan Reland De Religione Mohammedica Libri Duo, widely translated, used SE Asia texts on Islam. Germany 1616 translation into German by Salomon Schweigger of Robert of Ketton’s Qur’an 1703 translation of Marracci. 1766 Johann Jacob Reiske Introduction of Oriental History

  3. 4 out of 5

    Salma

    الكتاب جميل ومميز بموضوعه وبوفرة مراجعه ويستحق خمس نجمات بجدارة فهو من المواضيع التي أحبها، ومبحوث بعناية وكان من الممكن أن أعيش معه تجربة ثرية كما عشتها مع كتاب نبيل مطر الرائع: االإسلام في بريطانيا لكن الترجمة أبخسته حقه للأسف فكثير من الجمل عسرة وفي تركيبها خلل، وتحتاج لإعادة صياغة ككلام عربي فعلا مما أفقدني متعة القراءة -_- الكتاب جميل ومميز بموضوعه وبوفرة مراجعه ويستحق خمس نجمات بجدارة فهو من المواضيع التي أحبها، ومبحوث بعناية وكان من الممكن أن أعيش معه تجربة ثرية كما عشتها مع كتاب نبيل مطر الرائع: االإسلام في بريطانيا لكن الترجمة أبخسته حقه للأسف فكثير من الجمل عسرة وفي تركيبها خلل، وتحتاج لإعادة صياغة ككلام عربي فعلا مما أفقدني متعة القراءة -_-

  4. 4 out of 5

    Lamia Al-Qahtani

    موضوع الكتاب جيد يؤرخ فيه قصة ترجمة القرآن والتاريخ الإسلامي إلى اللغات الأوروبية، لكن الترجمة صعبت من فهم محتواه، التراكيب صعبة إضافة إلى الأخطاء النحوية وأخطاء الطباعة في التحويل إلى الهوامش وغيرها.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Mbarak

    يرى المؤلف أنه كان هناك زخم من الترجمة ودراسة كتب المسلمين ما بين ١٦٥٠ إلى ١٧٥٠. تميزت هذه الفترة بنظرة أكثر تقديرا واحتراما للدين الإسلامي كدين مكافئ للنصرانية وللمسلمين كحضارة و شعب له مكانته في التاريخ الإنساني. هذه النظرة اختلفت عن نظرة الأوروبيين في الفترات السابقة والتي ترى في الدين الإسلامي مجرد هرطقة و المسلمين مجموعة من البدو الذين نشروا هرطقتهم بقوة السيف. يرجع الكاتب هذا التغيير إلى عدة أسباب: أحدها هو توقف حصار العثمانيين لفيينا سنة ١٦٨٣ وسيادة جو من الاستقرار السياسي ما بين العثمانيي يرى المؤلف أنه كان هناك زخم من الترجمة ودراسة كتب المسلمين ما بين ١٦٥٠ إلى ١٧٥٠. تميزت هذه الفترة بنظرة أكثر تقديرا واحتراما للدين الإسلامي كدين مكافئ للنصرانية وللمسلمين كحضارة و شعب له مكانته في التاريخ الإنساني. هذه النظرة اختلفت عن نظرة الأوروبيين في الفترات السابقة والتي ترى في الدين الإسلامي مجرد هرطقة و المسلمين مجموعة من البدو الذين نشروا هرطقتهم بقوة السيف. يرجع الكاتب هذا التغيير إلى عدة أسباب: أحدها هو توقف حصار العثمانيين لفيينا سنة ١٦٨٣ وسيادة جو من الاستقرار السياسي ما بين العثمانيين والأوروبيين. بالإضافة إلى ذلك كان هناك فضول لمعرفة سبب ديمومة هذه الحضارة الإسلامية. علينا أن نتذكر أن وجود الدولة الإسلامية الممتدة أنذاك كان هو الوضع الطبيعي والسائد فبالنسبة للأوروبي الذي عاش خلال القرن السابع عشر كانت الامبراطورية العثمانية هي القوة العظمى بلامنازع أنذاك، فكانت هناك رغبة ملحة لمعرفة الأكثر عن المسلمين. السبب الثالث هو انتشار المفكرين الأحرار والذين كانوا ينتقدون الخرافات الكنسية وطقوسها المبتدعة. هؤلاء المفكرين وجدوا في الدين الإسلامي من نقاء العقيدة وصفائها ما دعاهم إلى الاستزادة من دراستها. الكاتب أيضا يرصد التغيير الذي طرأ على نظرة الغربيين للأسلام في الفترة اللاحقة والتي تعتبر فترة التنوير بمفكريها كفولتير و دلامبارت وغيرهما. التنويريون اعتمدوا كثيرا على كتب الأسفار والتي تتضمن الكثير من التلفيقات و القصص المغلوطة بينما في السابق اعتمد الباحثون على كتب علماء المسلمين. أيضا في نهاية القرن الثامن عشر و خلال القرن التاسع عشر بدأت الخارطتين السياسية والاقتصادية بالتغيير. بدأت الطفرة الصناعية في أوروبا وتأخرت كثيرا في الدولة العثمانية. أيضا مني العثمانيون بهزائم في جنوب آسيا و ضد الدولة الروسية. أضف إلى ذلك التغير الفكري والاجتماعي في أوروبا أدى إلى نظرة من الاستعلاء والفوقية ضد الشعوب الأخرى، هذه انعكس في كتابات الغربيين عن المسلمين فما عادوا ينظرون للمسلمين بنفس الاحترام والتقدير الذي وجد في السابق. الكتاب بعمومه جيد وقصير نسبيا (حوالي ال ٢٠٠ صفحة)

  6. 4 out of 5

    Phi Beta Kappa Authors

    Alexander Bevilacqua ΦBK, Harvard College, 2007 Author From the publisher: In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a pioneering community of Christian scholars laid the groundwork for the modern Western understanding of Islamic civilization. These men produced the first accurate translation of the Qur’an into a European language, mapped the branches of the Islamic arts and sciences, and wrote Muslim history using Arabic sources. The Republic of Arabic Letters reconstructs this process, reveal Alexander Bevilacqua ΦBK, Harvard College, 2007 Author From the publisher: In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a pioneering community of Christian scholars laid the groundwork for the modern Western understanding of Islamic civilization. These men produced the first accurate translation of the Qur’an into a European language, mapped the branches of the Islamic arts and sciences, and wrote Muslim history using Arabic sources. The Republic of Arabic Letters reconstructs this process, revealing the influence of Catholic and Protestant intellectuals on the secular Enlightenment understanding of Islam and its written traditions. Drawing on Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, and Latin sources, Alexander Bevilacqua’s rich intellectual history retraces the routes―both mental and physical―that Christian scholars traveled to acquire, study, and comprehend Arabic manuscripts. The knowledge they generated was deeply indebted to native Muslim traditions, especially Ottoman ones. Eventually the translations, compilations, and histories they produced reached such luminaries as Voltaire and Edward Gibbon, who not only assimilated the factual content of these works but wove their interpretations into the fabric of Enlightenment thought. The Republic of Arabic Letters shows that the Western effort to learn about Islam and its religious and intellectual traditions issued not from a secular agenda but from the scholarly commitments of a select group of Christians. These authors cast aside inherited views and bequeathed a new understanding of Islam to the modern West.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Chris Miller

    The audience for this book does not have to be scholarly. It is well written and researched, making it very interesting and informative, not only for the specialist but a general reader as well. Mr. Bevilacqua takes us through the period 1600-1800+ showing the transmission of Islamic culture and works into Latin as well as other languages. He leads us from polemics that are studied to refute the Q'uran, through people who respect if not accept the culture. He introduces and brings to life a numb The audience for this book does not have to be scholarly. It is well written and researched, making it very interesting and informative, not only for the specialist but a general reader as well. Mr. Bevilacqua takes us through the period 1600-1800+ showing the transmission of Islamic culture and works into Latin as well as other languages. He leads us from polemics that are studied to refute the Q'uran, through people who respect if not accept the culture. He introduces and brings to life a number of scholars who are reading, thinking, and translating Arabic during these years. By the nineteenth century, Arabic culture has lost its appeal for the European mind and most of the effort is exerted in travel writings. I would submit that ONLY scholars can appreciate the footnotes that make up a third of the book. Latin, French, German, Dutch are used extensively without translations. Don't let that scare you, though. It is a wonderful read.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    Nothing wrong with the book. Very well researched. Not really interesting or engaging despite its sophisticated writing style

  9. 4 out of 5

    Mariam

  10. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

  11. 5 out of 5

    Numan

  12. 4 out of 5

    Shannon

  13. 4 out of 5

    Bess Camarata

  14. 5 out of 5

    Asma

  15. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Davis

  16. 5 out of 5

    Ekul

  17. 5 out of 5

    Deniz

  18. 4 out of 5

    Phil P

  19. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Bringhurst Familia

  20. 5 out of 5

    Ulay

  21. 4 out of 5

    Brooke Baker

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jason

  23. 4 out of 5

    Rick

  24. 4 out of 5

    Sameed

  25. 5 out of 5

    sherabwangmo

  26. 4 out of 5

    Emre

  27. 5 out of 5

    Omar

  28. 5 out of 5

    Brittany

  29. 5 out of 5

    Dan Gorman

  30. 4 out of 5

    Sincerae

  31. 4 out of 5

    Diogo

  32. 5 out of 5

    Sean

  33. 5 out of 5

    Kristin Mason

  34. 4 out of 5

    Scott

  35. 5 out of 5

    Martin

  36. 4 out of 5

    Christian

  37. 5 out of 5

    Diana

  38. 5 out of 5

    Areej

  39. 5 out of 5

    Ismail Mayat

  40. 4 out of 5

    Ibrahim

  41. 4 out of 5

    Razi

  42. 5 out of 5

    Brian

  43. 5 out of 5

    Hertoto

  44. 4 out of 5

    Mehwish

  45. 4 out of 5

    Emanuela Keefe

  46. 4 out of 5

    Rich Kowalczyk

  47. 5 out of 5

    Sam Seitz

  48. 4 out of 5

    Tony

  49. 4 out of 5

    Jared Davis

  50. 4 out of 5

    margaret

  51. 5 out of 5

    David Dunlap

  52. 4 out of 5

    Sabrina

  53. 4 out of 5

    Alex O'Donnell

  54. 4 out of 5

    Khaled Wahsh

  55. 4 out of 5

    Hany

  56. 5 out of 5

    Aya Nady

  57. 4 out of 5

    ReemK10 (Paper Pills)

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