Roots of Misconception



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Roots of Misconception:

Euro-American Perceptions of Islam Before and After 9/11


Ibrahim Kalin

College of the Holy Cross


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 United States. The attacks were interpreted as the fulfillment of a prophecy that had been in the consciousness of the West for a long time, i.e., the coming of Islam as a menacing power with a clear intent to destroy Western civilization. Representations of Islam as a violent, militant and oppressive religious ideology became a powerful discourse and tool of analysis extending from TV screens and state offices to schools and the internet. The narrative of fundamentalist Islam was revitalized to bolster a counterattack against religious fanaticism and terrorism. It was even suggested that Mecca, the holiest city of Islam, be ‘nuked’ to give a lasting lesson to all Muslims. Although one can look at the widespread sense of anger, hostility and revenge as a normal human reaction to the abominable loss of innocent lives, its linkage to Islam and the subsequent demonization of Muslims is the result of deeper philosophical and historical issues.
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 Europe. Such common views of Islam as the religion of the sword, the Prophet Muhammad as a violent person, and the Quræån as a book of theological gibberish have their roots in this period. The second part will focus on late medieval and Renaissance views of Islam as a world culture pitted against the intellectual and religious dominance of Christianity. Although some of the late medieval and Renaissance thinkers saw Islam under the same light as they saw all religions and thus derided it as irrational and superstitious, they had a sense of appreciation for the philosophical and scientific achievements of Islamic civilization. This rather new attitude towards Islam had a major role in the making of 18th and 19th century representations of Islam in Europe and paved the way for the rise of Orientalism as the official study of things Oriental and Islamic for the next two centuries. The third part of the essay will analyze Orientalism within the context of the Western perceptions of Islam and how it has determined the modern depiction of Islam in the Western hemisphere. Having provided this historical sketch, the last part of the essay will look in greater detail at how the modern language of violence, militancy, terrorism, and fundamentalism, used disproportionately to construct a belligerent image of Islam as the ‘other’, goes back to the early medieval perceptions of Islam as the religion of the sword. It will be argued that the concepts of jihåd and dår al-islåm (the abode of Islam) versus dår al-harb (the abode of war) have been grossly misinterpreted and militarized through the meta-narrative of fundamentalist Islam to preempt the possibility of crafting a discourse of dialogue and co-existence between Islam and the West.


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. Baghdad and Syria from the 8th through 10th centuries were the two main centers of intellectual exchange and theological polemics between Muslims and Christians. Even though theological rivalry is a constant of this period, many ideas were exchanged on philosophy, logic, and theology, which went beyond theological bickering. In fact, Eastern Christian theologians posed a serious challenge to their Muslim counterparts because they were a step ahead in cultivating a full-fledged theological vocabulary by using the lore of ancient Greek and Hellenistic culture. It is thus important to note here that the reception of Islam as a religious challenge for Christianity was not because Islam was different or claimed to be a new religion. On the contrary, the message of Islam was too similar to both Judaism and Christianity in its essential outlook in spite of the Quræånic criticisms of certain Judaic and Christian beliefs.
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 Mecca, Islam had already spread outside the Arabian peninsula, bringing with it the conversion of large numbers of people in areas extending from Egypt and Jerusalem to Syria, the Caspian sea and North Africa. While Jews and Christians were granted religious freedom as the People of the Book (ahl al-kitåb) under Islamic law and did not face conversion by force, the unexpected pace with which Islam spread sent alarms to those living in Western Christendom. A few centuries later, this very fact would be used as a base for launching the Crusades against Muslims. Furthermore, the westward march of Muslim armies under the banner of the Umayyads, the Abbasids and then the Ottomans added to the sense of urgency until the decline of the Ottoman Empire as a major political force in the Balkans and the Middle East. The spread of Islam, which was a riddle for many European Christians, was attributed to two main reasons: the spread of the religion by the sword and the Prophet’s appealing to man’s animal desires through polygamy and concubines. As we shall see below in the words of the 17th century traveler George Sandys, the simplicity of the Islamic faith was occasionally added to this list, referring, in a quasi-racist way, to the simple-mindedness of Muslim converts.1
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 Syria like his father Ibn Mansur, St. John was a crucial figure not only for the formation of Orthodox theology and the fight against the iconoclast movement of the 8th century but also for the history of Christian polemics against the “Saracens.” In all likelihood, this pejorative name, used for Muslims in most of the anti-Islamic polemics, goes back to St. John himself.2 St. John’s polemics, together with those of Bede (d. 735) and Theodore Abu-Qurrah (d. 820 or 830)3 against Islam as an essentially Christian heresy or, to use St. John’s own words, as the “heresy of the Ishmaelites,” set the tone for medieval perceptions of Islam and continued to be a major factor until the end of the Renaissance.4 In fact, most of the theological depictions concerning Islam as a ‘deceptive superstition of the Ishmaelites’ and a ‘forerunner of the Antichrist’5 go back to St. John. Moreover, St. John was also the first Christian polemicist to call the Prophet of Islam an impostor and a false prophet: “Muhammad, the founder of Islam, is a false prophet who, by chance, came across the Old and New Testament and who, also, pretended that he encountered an Arian monk and thus he devised his own heresy.” 6
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.7 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.8 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,9 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.10
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 St. Augustine had his historical conversion to Christianity. In contrast to Spain where the three Abrahamic faiths had a remarkable period of intellectual and cultural exchange, the vacuum created by the spatial and intellectual confinement of Western Christianity was filled in by folk tales about Islam and Muslims, paving the way for the new store of images, ideas, stories, myths, and tropes brought by the Crusaders. Paradoxically, the Crusades did not bring any new or more reliable knowledge about Islam but instead reinforced its image as paganism and idolatry. There was, however, one very important consequence of the Crusades insofar as the medieval perceptions of Islam are concerned.
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 Western Europe, was pitted against Christianity to reject its exclusive claim to truth and universality. This explains, to a considerable extent, the double attitude of Renaissance Europe towards Islam: it hated Islam as a religion but admired its civilization.
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 1143.11 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 Temple though there was no means of using them in his day … So it is with this work. If the Moslems cannot be converted by it, at least it is right for the learned to support the weaker brethren in the Church, who are so easily scandalized by small things.12
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.13 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 Europe. Although St. John of Damascus was the first to call the Prophet of Islam a ‘false prophet’, before the 11th century there were hardly any references to ‘Mahomet’ as a major figure in the anti-Islamic literature. With the induction of the Prophet into the picture, however, a new and eschatological dimension was added to the preordained case of Islam as a villain faith because the Prophet of Islam could now be identified as the anti-Christ heralding the end of time.
This portrayal of the Prophet of Islam suffered from the same historical problem of medieval Europe to which we have referred, namely the lack of knowledge of Islam based on original sources, texts, first-hand accounts, and reliable histories. It is a notorious fact that there was not a single scholar among the Latin critics of Islam until the end of the 13th century who knew Arabic with any degree of proficiency. We may well remember Roger Bacon’s complaint that Louis XI could not find a person to translate an Arabic letter of the Sultan of Egypt and write back to him in his language.14 In fact, the official teaching of Arabic in a European university would not take place until the second part of the 16th century when Arabic began to be taught regularly at the Collège de France in Paris in 1587. Nevertheless, the first work ever to appear on the Prophet in Latin was Embrico of Mainz’s (d. 1077) Vita Mahumeti, culled mostly from Byzantine sources and embellished with profligate details about the Prophet’s personal and social life.15 The picture that emerged out of such works largely corroborated the apocalyptic framework within which the Prophet of Islam and his discomforting success in spreading the new faith was seen as a fulfillment of the Biblical promise of the anti-Christ. As expected, the theological concerns of this period shunned any appeal to reliable scholarship for the next two centuries, preempting the creation of a less belligerent image of the Prophet.
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.16
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 Hicks17, 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.18 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.19 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.20 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.21
It is pertinent here to point out that this new intellectual attitude towards Islam came to fruition at a time when Western Europe, convinced of the nascent threat of Muslim power, was hoping for the conversion of the Mongols (“Tartars” as they were called by Latins) to Christianity for the final undoing of Islam. That the clergy saw conversion as a probable way of dealing with the problem of Islam was clear in the missionary activities of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the founder of the Cistercian order and an instrumental figure for the dispatching of the second Crusade in the 12th century, and Raymond Lull, the “first missionary to Muslims,” despite the fact that neither of them conceived the goal of the Crusades to be one of proselytizing. In complaining about the absence of missionary work designed for the Gentiles, Bernard of Clairvaux implored his fellow Christians by saying thatare we waiting for faith to descend on them? Who [ever] came to believe through chance? How are they to believe without being preached to?”22 With Mongols embracing Islam under the leadership of Oljaytu, the great grandson of Chengiz Khan, however, these hopes were dashed23 and the deployment of philosophical rather than purely theological methods of persuasion presented itself as the only reasonable way of dealing with the people of Islamic faith. Interestingly enough, the interest of European scholars in Islamic culture minus its religion in the 11th and 12th centuries contributed to what C. H. Haskins has called the “Renaissance of the twelfth century.”24
The experience of convivencia of the three Abrahamic religions in Andalusia is an important chapter in the European perceptions of Islam during the Middle Ages. The translation movement centered in Toledo, the rise of Mozarabs and Mudejars, and the flourishing of Islamic culture in southern Spain are some of the indications of a different mode of interaction between Islam and medieval Europe with a strong tendency to see Islamic culture as superior. Already in the 9th century, Alvaro, a Spanish Christian, was complaining about the influence of Islamic culture on the Christian youth:

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.25


Although the perception of Islam as a religion did not undergo any major change, the appreciation of the Muslim culture of Andalusia provided a framework in which important ideas were exchanged in the fields of philosophy, science and art. Despite the expected tensions of power between various groups, Spain as a “frontier culture” became home to many new ideas and cultural products from the Beati miniatures and Flamenco music to Elipandus’ revival of “adoptionism.” Toledo, Seville and Cordoba were hailed not simply as ‘Muslim’ cities in the religious sense of the term but as places of opulence, elegance, and remarkable cultural exchange and interaction. 26 One can also mention here the deep impact of Islamic culture on Spanish literature and especially of Sufism on St. John of the Cross.27
In spite of the esteemed memory of Andalusia, the belligerent attitude towards Islam as a heresy remained invariable even after the demise of the Christian Middle Ages when Western Europe sat out to forge a new paradigm which would culminate in the rise of a new secular worldview. Pascal (1623-1662), perhaps the most passionate defender of the Christian faith in the 17th century, for instance, was as harsh and uncompromising as his predecessors in condemning the Prophet of Islam as an impostor and fraudulent prophet. The ‘fifteenth movement’ of his Les Pensées, called contre Mahomet, voices an important sentiment of Pascal and his co-religionists on Islam and the Prophet Muhammad: Muhammad is in no way comparable to Jesus; Muhammad speaks with no Divine authority; he brought no miracles; his coming has not been foretold; and what he did could be done by anyone whereas what Jesus did is supra-human and supra-historical.28 A similar attitude penetrates the work of George Sandys (1578-1644) entitled Relation of a Journey begun An. Dom. 1610. Foure Books. Containing a description of the Turkish Empire, of Aegypt, of the Holy Land, of the Remote parts of Italy, and Ilands adioyning, which is one of the earliest travel accounts of the Islamic world to reach Europe. Hailed as both a humanist and a Christian, Sandys saw Islam under the same light as did Pascal but had no intentions of placing his ‘humanist’ outlook over his Christian prejudices against Islam. Sandys’ book contains important observations on the Islamic world, highly polemical remarks about the Quræån and the Prophet, and finally some very edifying praises of Muslim philosophers. The dual attitude of rejecting Islam as a religion while admiring its cultural achievements is clearly exemplified in Sandys’ work. Of “the Mahometan Religion,” Sandys has the following to say:
So that we may now conclude, that the Mahometan religion, being deriued from a person in life so wicked, so worldly in his projects, in his prosecutions of them so disloyall, treacherous & cruel; being grounded vpon fables and false reuelations, repugnant to sound reason, & that wisedome which the Diuine hand hath imprinted in his workes; alluring men with those inchantments of fleshly pleasures, permitted in this life and promised for the life ensuing; being also supported with tyranny and the sword (for it is death to speake there against it;) and lastly, where it is planted rooting out all vertue, all wisedome and science, and in summe all liberty and ciuility; and laying the earth so waste, dispeopled and vninhabited, that neither it came from God (saue as a scourge by permission) neither can bring them to God that follow it.29
Having rejected the religious foundations of Islam, Sandys follows suit in pitting Muslim philosophers against Islam as a common strategy during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The assumption behind this, voiced by a figure no less prominent than Roger Bacon, was the secret conversion of Avicenna and Averroes to Christianity and/or their profession of the Muslim faith for fear of persecution. For many Europeans, this was the most plausible way of explaining the genius of Muslim philosophers and scientists against the backdrop of a religion that the medieval West abhorred, ignored, and rejected. Thus Sandys speaks of Avicenna (Ibn S¥nå) in terms of praise and vindication while discarding Islam as irrational on the basis of the celebrated ‘double-truth theory’ attributed by St. Thomas Aquinas to Averroes:

For although as a Mahometan, in his bookes De Anima and De Almahad, addressed particularly to a Mahometan Prince, he extolleth Mahomet highly, as being the seale of diuine lawes and the last of the Prophets… But now this Auicen, laying downe for a while his outward person of a Mahometan, and putting on the habite of a Philosopher; in his Metaphysicks seemeth to make a flat opposition between the truth of their faith receiued from their Prophet, and the truth of vnderstanding by demonstrative argument… And it is worthy obseruation, that in the judgment of Aucien one thing is true in their faith, & contrary in pure & demonstratiue reason. Wheras (to the honor of Christian Religion be it spoken) it is confessed by all, & enacted by a Councel, that it is an errour to say, one thing is true in Theology, & in Philosophy the contrary. For the truths of religion are many times aboue reason, but neuer against it.30


We see a similar line of thought articulated in Peter Bayle’s monumental Dictionnaire historique et critique (Historical and Critical Dictionary, 1697). Bayle (1647-1706) was one of the pioneers of the Enlightenment and his skeptical scholarship had a deep impact on the French Encyclopedists, championed by Diderot, and the rationalist philosophers of the 18th century. His Dictionnaire, which has been aptly called the "arsenal of the Enlightenment", devotes a generously lengthy twenty-three page entry on the Prophet of Islam under the name “Mahomet” as opposed to seven pages on Averroes and only half a page on al-Kindi (“Alchindus”). Bayle exercises caution in narrating the Christian bashings of Islam and the Prophet and rejects as simply foolish and baseless some of the legendary stories concerning the Prophet’s tomb being in the air, his dead body having been eaten by dogs as a sign of Divine curse and punishment, and his being the anti-Christ. There is enough material, Bayle argues, to charge the Prophet of Islam with:

I will not deny, but, in some respects, the zeal of our own disputants us unjust; for if they make use of the extravagances of a Mahometan legendary, to make Mahomet himself odious or to ridicule him, they violate the equity, which is due to all the world, to wicked, as well as good men. We must not impute to any body what they never did, and consequently we must not argue against Mahomet from these idle fancies, which some of his followers have fabled of him, if he himself never published them. We have sufficient material against him, tho’ we charge him only with his own faults, and do not make him answerable for the follies, which the indiscreet and romantic zeal of some of his disciples has prompted to write. 31


Having stated this precaution, Bayle joins his fellow Europeans in describing the Prophet of Islam as a man of sensuality and bellicosity, an impostor and a “false teacher.” In The Dictionary, the Prophet appears under the same light of medieval Christian polemics, and Bayle states, on Humphrey Prideaux’s authority, that

Mahomet was an impostor, and that he made his imposture subservient to his lust … what is related of his amours, is very strange. He was jealous to the highest degree, and yet he bore with patience the gallantries of that wife [‘A’ishah], which was the dearest to him” and that “… I choose to concur with the common opinion, That Mahomet was an impostor: for, besides what I shall say elsewhere his insinuating behavior, and dexterous address, in procuring friends, do plainly show, that he made use of religion only as an expedient to aggrandize himself.32


While Bayle’s entry is hardly an improvement upon the gruesome picturing of the Prophet in the previous centuries, it does contain some important observations on Islamic culture, based mostly on the available travel accounts of the time. The modesty of Turkish women, for instance, is narrated in the context of stressing the ‘normalcy’ of Muslim culture, which is contrasted to the common mores of Europe, indicating in a clear way the extent to which Europe’s self-image was at work in various depictions of Islam and Muslims. Bayle also praises Muslim nations for their religious tolerance and admonishes the zeal of medieval Christians to persecute their own co-religionists. Like many of his predecessor and peers, Bayle pits Muslim history against the injunctions of the religion of Islam and explains the glory of Muslim history as a result of the deviation of Muslim nations from the principles of Islam rather an application of them. Thus he says that
…the Mahometans, according to the principles of their faith, are obliged to employ violence, to destroy other religions, and yet they tolerate them now, and have done so for many ages. The Christians have no order, but to preach, and instruct; and yet, time out of mind, they destroy, with fire and sword, those who are not of their religion. ‘When you meet with Infidels, fays Mohamet, kill them, cut off their heads, or take them prisoners, and put them in chains, till they have paid their ransom, or you find it convenient to set them at liberty. Be not afraid to persecute them, till they have laid down their arms, and submitted to you’. Nevertheless, it is true, that the Saracens quickly left off the ways of violence; and that the Greek churches, as well the orthodox as the schismatical, have continued to this day under the yoke of Mahomet. They have their Patriarchs, their Metropolitans, their Synods, their Discipline, their Monks … It may be affirmed for a certain truth, That if the western princess had been lords of Asia, instead of the Saracens and Turks, there would be now no remnant of the Greek church, and they would not have tolerated Mahometanism, as these Infidels have tolerated Christianity.33
Towards the end of his entry, Bayle refers his readers to the work of Humphrey Prideaux (d. 1724) of Westminster and Christ Church for further information about Islam, whose title leaves little need to explain its content: The true nature of imposture fully display’d in the life of Mahomet: With a discourse annex’d for the vindication of Christianity from this charge. Offered to the considerations of the Deists of the present age. Prideaux’s book, published in 1697, was one of the most virulent and bitter attacks on Islam during the Enlightenment. That it became a best-seller in the 18th century and was reprinted many times into the 19th century tells much about the Enlightenment approach to Islam.34 The robust rationalism and overt disdain for religion was a major factor in the reinforcement of medieval perceptions of Islam as a religious worldview, and attacking Islam was an expedient way of deconstructing religion as such. This attitude is obvious in Voltaire (1694-1778), one of the most widely read celebrities of the Enlightenment, who took a less hostile position towards Islamic culture while maintaining the erstwhile Christian representations of the Prophet Muhammad. In his famous tragedy Fanatisme ou Mahomet le prophéte, Voltaire projects Muhammad as a prototype of fanaticism, cruelty, imposture, and sensuality, which was nothing new to his readers except for the legends and stories that he himself had invented. In a letter to Frederick of Prussia, he states that

…a merchant of camels should excite a revolt in his townlet … that he should boast of being rapt to Heaven, and of having received there part of this unintelligible book which affronts common sense at every page; that he should put his own country to fire and the sword, to make this book respected; that he should cut the fathers’ throats and ravish the daughters; that he should give the vanquished the choice between his religion and death; this certainly is what no man can excuse.35


The ambivalent attitude of the 17th and 18th centuries, torn between the received images of Islam and the Prophet from Christian polemics and the glory of Islamic civilization witnessed by many travelers and scholars, resulted in a different genre of writing concerning Islam. One important work to be mentioned here is Stubbe’s ‘defense of Islam’. A typical Renaissance man, historian, librarian, theologian and a doctor, Henry Stubbe (1632-1676), published an unusual book with the following title: An account of the rise and progress of Mahometanism with the life of Mahomet and a vindication of him and his religion from the calumnies of the Christians.36 In fact, it was this book which had led Prideaux to write his attack on Islam mentioned above. Stubbe had no reservations about going against the grain and responding to the traditional charges of violence and sensuality associated with Muslims. More importantly, he openly defended Islamic faith as more proximate to man’s reason and nature as a tacit way of criticizing Christian theology and sacraments. A typical passage from his book reads:
This is the sum of Mahometan Religion, on the one hand not clogging Men’s Faith with the necessity of believing a number of abstruse Notions which they cannot comprehend, and which are often contrary to the dictates of Reason and common Sense; nor on the other hand loading them with the performance of many troublesome, expensive, and superstitious Ceremonies, yet enjoying a due observance of Religious Worship, as the surest Method to keep Men in the bounds of their Duty both to God and Man.37
In addition to the Islamic faith, the Prophet also receives a very fair treatment from Stubbe who appears to be heralding the rise of a new class of European scholars of Islam in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Another very important exception of this period is the famous Swiss theologian and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) and his historical theology of the rise of Islam. Swedenborg considered the spread of Islam to be part of the Divine Providence. For him, the true goal of Islam and its Prophet was to destroy the rampant paganism of pre-Islamic Arabs and their neighbors because the Church was too weak and dispersed to fight against paganism. It was as a response to this historic moment that the Lord sent a religion “accommodated to the genius of the Orientals”. Thus Swedenborg states that
“the Mahometan religion acknowledges the Lord as the Son of God, as the wisest of men, and as the greatest prophet … that religion was raised up by the Lord’s Divine Providence to destroy the idolatries of many nations … that all these idolatries might be extirpated, it was brought to pass, by the Divine Providence of the Lord, that a new religion should arise, accommodated to the genius of the orientals, in which there should be something from both Testaments of the Word, and which should teach that the Lord came into the world, and that he was the greatest prophet, the wisest of all men, and the Son of God. This was accomplished through Mahomet.”38
Although Swedenborg attributes the belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ to Muslims, which is unwarranted in the Islamic sources, he hastens to add that the reason why Islam accepted Jesus only as a prophet and not a divine being was because “the orientals acknowledged God the Creator of the universe, and could not comprehend that He came into the world and assumed the Human. So neither do Christians comprehend it”.39 By combining his theology of history with an anthropology of the ‘orientals’, Swedenborg confronts Islam as a religion whose essential message is the same as that of Christianity. That such an inclusivist approach should be taken by a mystic theologian of the stature of Emanuel Swedenborg is extremely important considering the rising tide of conservative Christian attacks on Islam in recent decades and especially after 9/11. The example of Swedenborg together with Goethe and others evinces the reality of a peaceful co-existence between Christians and Muslims on both social and, more importantly, religious and theological grounds.
In contradistinction to the radical opposition of Pascal, Bayle, Prideaux, and Voltaire to Muhammad as a figure of religion, some of their contemporaries, including Stubbe mentioned above, saw something different in the Prophet of Islam as a man of the world. Divested of his claims to have received God’s word, the Prophet Muhammad could be appreciated for what he had accomplished in history. This is an important shift from the strictly Christian assessments of Muhammad as a false prophet to putting increasingly more emphasis on his human qualities. This new attitude is also the beginning of the depiction of the Prophet and many other figures of the past as ‘heroes’ and ‘geniuses’, the ostensibly non-religious terms that the Enlightenment intellectuals were fond of using against the Christian conceptions of history. The 17th and 18th centuries witnessed the rise of many scholars and intellectuals who looked at the Prophet of Islam under this new light, which eventually led to more liberal and less inimical appraisals of Islam and Muslims. In England, Edward Pococke (1604-1691), the first chair holder of Islamic studies at Oxford, published his Specimen Historiae Arabum, a medley of analyses and translations on the history of Islam, its basic tenets and practices, and a selective rendering of one of the works of al-Ghazali. Judged by the standards of his time, Pococke’s work was a major step in the scholarly study of Islam. Furthermore, Pococke was one of the first among the European scholars of Islam to spend time in the Islamic world collecting material for his studies. Of equal importance and prominence was George Sale (1697-1736), who produced the first English translation of the Quræån in 1734, making use of Lodovico Marracci’s Latin translation40 published at Padua in 1698, rather than that of Robert Ketton published in the 12th century.
Sale had no intentions of granting Islam any authenticity as a religion, and he made this point very clear in his 'Preliminary Discourse' written as a preface to his translation. His overall approach to Islam, which earned him the somewhat belittling title of ‘half-Mussulman’, however, was to set the tone for the 18th and 19th century studies of Islam in Europe and paved the way for the establishment of Orientalism as a discipline. Sale’s translation was a huge improvement on an earlier rendering of the Qur’an into English by Alexander Ross, which was based on Andre du Ryer’s French translation published in 1647.41 Like that of Sale, Ross’ translation contained a short discourse on Islam and the Prophet in which Ross explained the raison d’etre of the translation to his Christian readers and assured them that there was no danger in reading the Qur’an because it was comprised of “contradictions, blasphemies, obscene speeches, and ridiculous fables….”42 It is important to note that the Ross translation was the first edition of the Qur’an in America, which came out in Massachusetts in 1806 and enjoyed a wide circulation until the Sale translation became the standard text. In any case, Sale’s translation was the definitive text of the Qur’an in the English language well until the end of the 19th century and it was on the basis of this translation that Gibbon and Carlyle read and discarded the Qur’an as “a wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement; most crude, incondite; -- insupportable stupidity, in short! Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Qur’an.”43
While the Qur’an and, by derivation, the religious foundations of Islam were invariably denied, the human qualities of the Prophet of Islam were invoked by the humanist intellectuals of the 18th and 19th centuries either to level subtle criticisms against Christianity or simply to cherish their humanist-secular philosophy of history. The depiction of the Prophet as a genius and hero with a piercing mind and perspicacity, remarkable power of persuasion, sincerity, and dedication reached a climax with Carlyle and his heroic philosophy of history. In Carlyle’s work, the Prophet is presented as a remarkable man of the world: a hero, a genius, a charismatic figure, a personality that the Christian spirit of the Middle Ages was incapable of seeing and appreciating. Although Carlyle had placed his analysis of the Prophet within a clearly secular framework and thus preempted any charges of heresy, he still felt obligated to apologize for his positive estimation of the Prophet: “as there is no danger of our becoming, any of us, Mahometans, I mean to say all the good of him I justly can. It is the way to get at his secret: let us try to understand what he meant with the world; what the world meant and means with him, will then be a more answerable question.”44 A much more asserting voice of the time was that of Goethe (1749-1832), who was neither secretive nor apologetic about his admiration of things Islamic. His West-oestlicher Diwan was a loud celebration of Persian-Islamic culture and his interest in the Islamic world went certainly beyond the mere curiosity of a German poet when he said, as quoted by Carlyle, that “if this be Islam, do we not all live in Islam?”45 In the 19th century, Goethe’s call was taken up by a whole generation of European and American poets and men of literature, which included such celebrities as Emerson and Thoreau.46
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