Fulbright Visiting Specialist, Oct 22 – Nov 12, 2005
Lake Superior State University
Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783
In general Western people have a distorted image of Islam and the Muslims. This view is the result of many factors: centuries old prejudices, tendentious talks and writings, preconceived ideas, presently under-developed situation of the Muslims, the terrorist acts attributed lately to some Muslims and finally the attitude of the Western media which does not go beyond the appearances and the individual cases, which generally presents the bad cases as the general state of things and does not try to find any positive sides in the Muslim world or any acceptable explanation for what is going on. All these factors have contributed to the existing erroneous views about Islam.
I would like to make clear few points before going into this distorted image of Islam. One knows that there is some difference between the principles of a religion or an ideology and the way people apply these principles. In Islam, as in Christianity, there are wonderful principles that not all Muslims and not all Christians put into practice. They may also practice in the wrong way. The malpractice or the non practice is not the responsibility of the religion itself and therefore should not in any way alter the image of the religion. Thus the way some Muslims practice Islam does not mean that this is Islam. The so-called Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with Islam. It is a misname (or a misnomer) since there is no an Islamic terrorism in the way you would say an Islamic dress or the Islamic civilization.
9/11 or the explosions in Madrid or London have nothing to do with Islam. Being committed by some Muslims does not mean that it is Islamic. The McVee Oklahoma's explosion in 1996 has not been called Christian terrorism, neither the acts of the Mafia are called Christian mafia nor the discrimination against the blacks has been called Christian discrimination.
There is another point to be clarified in this issue of misconceptions about Islam. For different political and ideological reasons, and to a lesser extent ignorance and intellectual laziness, the media in the West had largely contributed to the expansion of the distorted image of Islam inherited from the European Middle Ages. Therefore the sincere person who would like to know the truth about Islam has to go beyond the layers of non truthful information given by the media.
Let me tell you the story of my Canadian friend, who was shocked to see on TV the Muslim Iranian women doing the revolution in 1979 in Iran. The Canadian media was showing these Iranian women in their black shador shouting against the Shah , the friend of the U.S. administration, the dictator of Iran for the precedent thirty years. They were there, in the streets of Tehran demanding his departure in the name of justice and democracy. Why my friend was shocked? Because he had always been told that Islam was oppressing women and depriving them from their human rights and here he was seeing Muslim women revolted against the injustice caused to their whole country. He was also told that Islam was favoring despotism and dictators and here was a Muslim revolution against that system. He was bewildered!
My friend began a search for the truth which he could find easily. Islam was condemning dictatorship and was giving women all their rights. He realized that there was a great misunderstanding. What was existing in some Islamic societies as a mixture of different traditions or the accidents of history was thought to be Islam the religion. My friend converted to Islam and became a journalist trying to show the other side of the story brought by the media looking mostly for the sensational on the expense of the truth.
It is very common to see the underdeveloped situation of the Islamic countries presented as due to the Islamic religion. It had been said, that this religion is rather an unholy mixture of desert fanaticism, gross sensuality, superstition and dumb fatalism that prevents its adherents from participating in mankind's advance toward higher social forms. Islam is presented as tightening the shackles of obscurantism rather than liberating people from it. Consequently, it is thought by those who don’t know that the sooner the Muslim people are freed from their subservience to Islamic beliefs and social practices and induced to adopt the Western way of life, the better for them and for the rest of the world.
The prejudices against Islam are deeply ingrained in the mind of the Occidental. In fact they go back to the Middle-Ages, to the period of the Crusades, at the very end of the eleventh century. This image formed essentially between the eleventh and the fourteenth century and developed throughout the time is still dominant to these days. [cf. Norman Daniel, Islam and the West and Islam, Europe and Empire].
This image took place during the hostilities of the Crusades and the Reconquista of Spain and Sicily. There was a need for self-defense and for immobilizing the feelings of the believers against the Infidel, the Saracens, the Muslims. It was thus allowed in the Latin Christendom to say all what is bad about Islam and its Prophet. The Saracens (the name given to the Muslims at that time) were considered idolaters who worshipped Muhammad, their Prophet, regarded himself as a magician or even as the devil himself, witness the English name given to him: Mahound, a corruption of Muhammad. Sexual license and promiscuity were held to be authorized by Islam.
The four chief points composing this distorted medieval image of Islam were:
The Islamic religion is falsehood and a deliberate perversion of the Truth (the Christian Truth).
It is a religion of violence and the sword.
It is a religion of self-indulgence.
Muhammad is the antichrist.
We will talk briefly about each of these points showing how every distorted point about Islam was implying a good picture of Christianity. This picture was essential in the formation process of the European self-awareness. Unfortunately, this image or at least some of its features still exist to this day in many places. First I’ll go through the Medieval ideas and after that I’ll give the Islamic perspective.
The first point: Islam as falsehood and a deliberate perversion of the truth.
In Medieval Europe, people’s views of nature, man and God were so dominated by Biblical conceptions that no alternative way of expression was conceivable. Consequently, the teaching of Islam, whenever different from that of Christianity, must have been false, corrupted and illogic. By opposition, the Bible was seen as the pure, absolute, unadulterated expression of the Divine truth, and valid for all times and places. While Islam was considered to be a false religion without evidence nor miracles to confirm it and suitable only for “men not learned in divine matters …but bestial, living in deserts”, to use the words of St-Thomas of Aquinas (in Summa Contra Gentiles, book1, chapter 6-cited by Watt in Influence of Islam on MedievalEurope, p.74), the Christian teaching was held to appeal rationally to educated and cultured men, and to be supported by sound historical evidence.
The second point: Islam as a religion of the sword.
In Christendom, Muhammad was thought to have spread his religion by military force. Scholars like Aquinas, Pedro de Alphonso, Humbert of Romans, were holding such views (Watt, p.74).
This image of Islam as a religion of violence contrasts with the image Medieval Christians had about their own religion as one of peace. The irony is that this idea was held in the centuries the Crusaders were waging wars against the Muslims on their own lands.
The third point: Islam as a religion of self-indulgence.
Especially in sexual matters, Islam was appearing to the Latin Christendom as a religion of self-indulgence. Plurality of wives, divorce, Quranic paradise, the "gracious living" of Muslims had an over prominent place in that image of Islam. Mistranslation and wrong information were used and given to reinforce the sexual license attributed to this religion. Exaggerations and false allegations were spread about the marital life of the Prophet. The Medieval image of Islamic sexuality was a travesty of the reality and a mixture of falsehood built upon some basic distorted truths.
This aspect of the image of Islam implied that Christendom was not self-indulgent. A life long monogamous marriage with the belief that within marriage sexual intercourse was not a good thing (Procreation of children and not pleasure was presented as the aim of the generative powers of men) was considered to be the ideal after the monastic life. Christianity was seen as a religion of asceticism, mortifying all carnal desires, despising this life and longing only for the hereafter.
The fourth point: Muhammad presented as the antichrist.
For Medieval Christians Islam was considered to be a false religion, consequently its alleged Prophet must have been an impostor encouraging evil. He must have been either the tool or the agent of the devil. The Prophet Muhammad had always been vilified, misunderstood and presented to the Christians as the opposite of Christ: the Antichrist par excellence. Vilifying him was the way to destroy morally his religion and thus preventing people from trying to understand this religion or to convert to it.
Role of the distorted medieval image.
This distorted image of Islam formed at the beginning of the Crusades activities was necessary to compensate the sense of inferiority the Europeans had toward the Muslims and their brilliant civilization. This image enabled Christians to feel superior to the Muslims and to think that they were fighting for Light against Darkness. Montgomery Watt in his short study, Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe says (in p.83) “the darkness ascribed to one's enemies is a projection of the darkness in one self that is not fully admitted”. In that sense, a projection of the shadow-side of Europeans can be found in the distorted image of Islam. The excessive sexuality and violence attributed to Islam existed in Europe in spite of the Christian ideal of Puritanism.
This distorted image of Islam had a deep meaning for the life of Catholic Europe itself. It provoked Europe into forming a new image of itself. An image opposed to the one attributed to Islam, its Prophet and its followers. The Latin Christendom could thus see itself at the opposite good side. This image was essential to the process of acquiring an European self-awareness and was effectively functional in doing so.
Persistence of this image in the West.
The distorted image of Islam which began to be formed with the Crusades had been handed down to the modern Europeans and the Americans and new notions came to be added along the way like the oppression of women, terrorism, etc…
It is an irony of history that the age-old resentment against Islam, resentment religious in origin, should persist to this day at a time when religion has lost most of its hold on the imagination of Western man. Elements of this distorted image are still used by numerous writers and groups in the Western media for different reasons: religious, ideological, political, etc...
Even after learned people in the West began to study foreign cultures and to approach them sympathetically, in the case of Islam, the traditional aversion has very often crept in as an irrational bias in their scientific investigations.
In this way the cultural gulf which History had laid between the world of Islam and Europe remains unabridged. This had caused contempt for Islam to become part of the Western thought.
I’ll expose now the Islamic perspective for each of the four accusations laid down by the Medieval people and still existing to this day. They are even used as war propaganda against the Islamic world. To these four main points, I can add a fifth, but a modern one, the Oppressed Muslim Woman. I’ll talk also about that issue.