Roots of Misconception: Euro-American Perceptions of Islam Before and After 9/11
In the aftermath of the September 11, the long and checkered relationship between Islam and the West entered a new phase. A ubiquitous sense of suspicion and denouncement swept through the public sphere of many European countries and the
In many subtle ways, the long history of Islam and the West, from the theological polemics of Baghdad in the 8th and 9th centuries to the experience of convivencia in Andalusia in the 12th and 13th centuries, informs the current perceptions and qualms of each civilization vis-à-vis the other. This paper will examine some of the salient features of this history and argue that the monolithic representations of Islam, created and sustained by a highly complex set of image-producers, think-tanks, academics, lobbyists, policy makers, and media, dominating the present Western conscience, have their roots in the West's long history with the Islamic world. It will also be argued that the deep-rooted misgivings about Islam and Muslims have led and continue to lead to fundamentally flawed and erroneous policy decisions that have a direct impact on the current relations of Islam and the West. The almost unequivocal identification of Islam with terrorism and extremism in the minds of many Americans after 9/11 is an outcome generated by both historical misperceptions, which will be analyzed in some detail below, and the political agenda of certain interest groups that see confrontation as the only way to deal with the Islamic world. It is hoped that the following analysis will provide a historical context in which we can make sense of these tendencies in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks and their repercussions for both worlds.
Two major attitudes can be discerned in Western perceptions of Islam. The first and by far the most common view is that of clash and confrontation. Its roots go back to the Christian rejection of Islam as a religion in the 8th century when Islam first arose on the historical scene and was quickly perceived to be a theological and political threat to Christendom. The medieval European view of Islam as a heresy and its Prophet as an 'impostor' provided the religious foundations of the confrontationalist position which has survived up to our own day and gained a new dimension after 9/11. In the modern period, the confrontationalist view has been articulated in both religious and non-religious terms, the most famous one being the clash of civilizations hypothesis, which envisions the strategic and political conflicts between the Western and Muslim countries in terms of deep religious and cultural differences between the two. The second view is that of co-existence and accommodation which has become a major alternative only in recent decades although it has some important historical precedents in the examples of Emanuel Swedenborg, Goethe, Henry Stubbe, Carlyle and others. Proponents of the accommodationist view consider Islam to be a sister religion and in fact part of the Abrahamic tradition, and prove, in the case of Swedenborg and Goethe, the possibility of envisioning co-existence with Islam and Muslims while remaining true to the word and spirit of Christianity. This position, which will be analyzed very briefly at the end of the essay, marks a new and important chapter in the history of Islam and the West with implications for long-term civilizational co-existence and understanding.
The first part of the essay will look at how Islam was perceived to be a religious heresy first by Christian theologians in the East and then in
From Theological Rivalry to Cultural Differentiation:
Perceptions of Islam During the Middle Ages
As a new dispensation from Heaven, which claimed to have completed the cycle of Abrahamic revelations, Islam was seen as a major challenge for Christianity from the outset. References to Jewish and Christian Prophets, stories and other themes in the Quræån and the Prophetic traditions (hadith), sometimes concurring with and sometimes diverging from the Biblical accounts, contributed to the sense of consternation and insecurity on the one hand, and to the urgency of responding to the Islamic claims of authenticity, on the other. The earliest polemics between Muslim scholars and Christian theologians attest to the zeal of the two communities to defend their faiths against one another.
The other important factor was the rapid spread of Islam into areas that had been previously under Christian rule. Within a century after the conquest of
The combination of Islam as a religion with its own theological premises on the one hand, and the expansion of Muslim borders in such a short period of time, on the other, played a key role in shaping the anti-Islamic sentiment of the Middle Ages. No one single figure can illustrate this situation better than St. John of Damascus (c. 675-749) known in Arabic as Yuhanna al-Dimashqi and in Latin as Johannes Damascenus. A court official of the Umayyad caliphate in
What is important about St. John's anti-Islamic polemics is that he had a direct knowledge of the language and ideas of Muslims, which was radically absent among his followers in the West. R. W. Southern has rightly called this the "historical problem of Christianity" vis-à-vis Islam in the Middle Ages, viz., the lack of first-hand knowledge of Islamic beliefs and practices as a precaution or deliberate choice to dissuade and prevent Christians from contaminating themselves with a heretical offshoot of Christianity. The absence of direct contact and reliable sources of knowledge led to a long history of spurious scholarship against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in Western Christianity, resulting in the forging of Islam as an eerie foe in the European consciousness for a good part of the Middle Ages. The problem was further compounded by the Byzantine opposition to Islam and the decidedly inimical literature produced by Byzantine theologians between the 8th and 10th centuries on mostly theological grounds. Even though the anti-Islamic Byzantine literature displays considerable first-hand knowledge of Islamic faith and practices, including specific criticisms of some verses of the Quræån, the perception of Islam as a theological rival and heresy was its leitmotif and provided a solid historical and theological basis for later critiques of Islam.
If deliberate ignorance was the cherished strategy of the period, the out-and-out rejection of Islam as a theological challenge was no less prevalent. The Quræånic assertion of Divine unity without the Trinity, the countenance of Jesus Christ as God's prophet divested of divinity, and the presence of a religious community without clergy and a church-like authority were some of the challenges that did not go unnoticed in Western Christendom. Unlike Eastern Christianity, which had a presence in the midst of the Muslim world and better access to the Islamic faith, the image of Islam in the West was relegated to an unqualified heresy and regarded as no different than paganism or the Manichaenism from which
The Crusaders, it is to be noted, were the first Western Christians to go into Islamdom and witness Islamic culture with its cities, roads, bazaars, mosques, palaces, and, most importantly, its inhabitants. With the Crusader came not only the legend of Saladin (Salåh al-Din al-Ayyubi), the conqueror of Jerusalem, but also the stories of Muslim life, its promiscuity, its wealth and luxury, and such goods and commodities as silk, paper, and incense. Combined with popular imagery, these stories and imported goods, presenting a world immersed in the luxuries of worldly life, confirmed the 'wicked nature' of the heresy of the Ishmaelites. Although the subdued sense of admiration tacit in these stories did very little to ameliorate the image of Islam, it opened a new door of perception for it as a culture and civilization. In this way, Islam, vilified on purely religious and theological grounds, came to possess a neutral value as a culture, if not possessing any importance in itself. The significance of this shift in perception cannot be overemphasized. After the 14th century, when Christianity began to loose its grip on the Western world, many lay people, who did not bother themselves with Christian criticisms of Islam or any other culture and religion for that matter, were more than happy to refer to Islamic culture as a world outside the theological and geographical confinements of Christianity. In a rather curious way, Islamic civilization, to the extent to which it was known in
During the passionate and bloody campaign of the Crusades, a most important and unexpected development took place for the written literature on Islam in the Middle Ages. This was the translation of the Quræån for the first time into Latin under the auspices of Peter the Venerable (d. c. 1156). The translation was done by the English scholar Robert of Ketton, who completed his rather free and incomplete rendition in July 1143. As expected, the motive for the translation was not to gain a better understanding of Islam by reading its sacred scripture but to better know the enemy. In fact, Peter the Venerable explained his reasons for the undertaking of the translation of the Quræån as follows:
If this work seems superfluous, since the enemy is not vulnerable to such weapons as these, I answer that in the Republic of the great King some things are for defense, others for decoration, and some for both. Solomon the Peaceful made arms for defense, which were not necessary in his own time. David made ornaments for the
Regardless of the intention behind it, the translation of the Quræån was a momentous event, since it shaped the scope and direction of the study of Islam in the Middle Ages and provided the critics of Islamic religion with a text on which to build many of their anticipated criticisms. Parallel with this was an event that proved to be even more alarming: introduction of the Prophet of Islam into the Christian imagery of medieval
This portrayal of the Prophet of Islam suffered from the same historical problem of medieval
Almost all of the Latin works that have survived on the Prophet's life had one clear goal: to show the impossibility of such a man as Muhammad to be God's messenger. This is exceedingly clear in the picture with which we are presented. The prophet's 'this-worldly' qualities as opposed to the 'other-worldly' nature of Jesus Christ was a constant theme. The Prophet was given to sex and political power, both of which he used, the Latins reasoned, to oppress his followers and destroy Christianity. He was merciless towards his enemies, especially towards Jews and Christians, and took pleasure in having his opponents tortured and killed. The only reasonable explanation for the enormous success of Muhammad in religious and political fields was something as malicious as heresy, viz., that he was a magician and used magical powers to convince and convert people. The focus on the psychological states of the Prophet was so persuasive for Europeans that as late as in the 19th century William Muir (1819-1905), a British official in India and later the Principal of Edinburgh University, joined his medieval predecessors by calling the Prophet a 'psychopath' in his extremely polemical Life of Mohammed. Many other details can be mentioned here including the Prophet's having a Christian background, that his dead body was eaten and desecrated by pigs or that he was baptized secretly just before his death as a last attempt to save his soul.
The foregoing image of the Prophet of Islam was an extension of the unwavering rejection of the Quræån as authentic revelation. In fact, once the Prophet had been portrayed as a possessed and hallucinatory spirit, it was more convincing in the eyes of the opponents for the Quræån to be attributed to such a man as Muhammad. Having said that, there was also a deeper theological reason for focusing on the figure of the Prophet. Since Christianity is essentially a 'Christic' religion and Jesus Christ the embodiment of the word of God, the Latin critics accorded a similar role to Muhammad in the religious universe of Islam: one could not understand and reject the message of Islam without its messenger. At any rate, the rejection of the Quræån as the word of God and the representation of the Prophet as a possessed spirit and magician immersed in the lusts of the inferior world stayed with the Western perception of Islam into the modern period. Perhaps the most disturbing outcome of this has been the exclusion of Islam from the family of monotheistic religions. Even in the modern period, where the interfaith trialogue between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has come a long way thanks to the indefatigable work of such scholars as Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ismail Raji al-Faruqi, Kenneth Cragg and John Hicks, we are still not prepared to speak with confidence of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition by which Islam can be seen within the same religious universe as the two other Abrahamic faiths. The absence of such a discourse reinforces the medieval perceptions of Islam as a heretic and pagan faith, and thwarts the likelihood of generating a more inclusive picture of Islam on primarily religious grounds.
From the Middle Ages through the Modern Period:
The European Discovery of Islam as a World Culture
The Christian impression of Islam as a heretical religion was countered by the admiration of Islamic civilization in the works of some late medieval and Renaissance thinkers. The Islamic scientific and philosophical culture, inter alia, played a significant role in this process. Here we will mention only two examples, both of which show the extent to which Muslim philosophers were embraced with full enthusiasm. Our first example is Dante and his great work The Divine Comedy, an epitome of Medieval Christian cosmology and eschatology in which everything is accorded a place proper to its rank in the Christian hierarchy of things. Writing in his purely Christian environment, Dante places the Prophet and Ali, his son-in-law and the second important figure of Islam after the Prophet, in hell. By contrast, he places Saladin, Avicenna, and Averroes in limbo, thus granting them the possibility of salvation. This positive attitude is further revealed by the fact that Siger de Brabant, the champion of Latin Averroism, is placed in paradise as a salute to the memories of Avicenna and Averroes. With this scheme, Dante points to a first step in coming to terms with Islam: if it is to be rejected as a faith, its intellectual heroes are to be accorded their proper place. This conclusion can also be regarded a result of Dante's interest in Islamic philosophy and science and is corroborated by the fact that besides Avicenna and Averroes, he refers to some Muslim astronomers and philosophers in other writings. The influence of the nocturnal ascent or the night journey (mi'raj) of the Prophet of Islam on the composition and structure of the Divine Comedy has been debated by a number of European scholars, pointing to Dante's overall interest in Semitic languages and Arabic-Islamic culture. The Spanish scholar Asin Palacios has claimed that the night journey served as a model for the Divine Comedy. In spite of Dante's rejection of the Prophet for strictly Christian reasons, his appreciation of Islamic thought and culture is a remarkable example of how the two civilizations can co-exist and interact with one another on intellectual and cultural grounds.
Another closely associated case in which one can easily discern a different perception of Islamic culture is the rise of Latin Averroism in the West and its dominance of the intellectual scene of the Scholastics until its official ban in 1277 by Bishop Tempier. Even though Averroism was denounced as a heretical school, it remained to be a witness to the deep impact of Islamic thought on the West. Roger Bacon (1214-1294), one of the luminaries of 13th century Scholasticism, called for the study of the language of the Saracens so that they could be defeated on intellectual, if not religious, grounds. Albertus Magnus (c. 1208-1280), considered to be the founder of Latin scholasticism, was not shy in admitting the superiority of Islamic thought on a number of issues in philosophy. Even Raymond Lull (c. 1235-1316), one of the most important figures for the study of Islam in the Middle Ages, was in favor of the scholarly study of Islamic culture in tandem with his conviction that the Christian faith could be demonstrated to non-believers through rational means. Finally St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who represents the pinnacle of Christian thought in the classical period could not remain indifferent to the challenge of Islamic thought and especially that of Averroes since Averroism was no longer a distant threat but something right at home as represented by such Latin scholars as Siger de Brabant (c. 1240-1284), Boethius of Dacia and other Averroists.
It is pertinent here to point out that this new intellectual attitude towards Islam came to fruition at a time when
The experience of convivencia of the three Abrahamic religions in
My fellow Christians delight in the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the works of Mohammedan theologians and philosophers, not in order to refute them, but to acquire a correct and elegant Arabic style. Where today can a layman be found who reads the Latin commentaries on Holy Scriptures? Who is there that studies the Gospels, the Prophets, the Apostles? Alas! The young Christians who are most conspicuous for their talents have no knowledge of any literature or language save the Arabic; they read and study with avidity Arabian books; they amass whole libraries of them at a vast cost, and they everywhere sing the praises of Arabian lore.
Although the perception of Islam as a religion did not undergo any major change, the appreciation of the Muslim culture of
In spite of the esteemed memory of
So that we may now conclude, that the Mahometan religion, being deriued fromLast Mod: 20 Eylül 2018, 18:16