Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

Stereotyping the Other


Western Views of Islam in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Edited by David R Blanks and Michael Frassetto, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. pp235

The book has as its sub-title "Perception of Other" and sets out to show in several essays by different hands how, in the case of the Islamic world, the West built up certain stereotyped images of the Muslim Arab, images that continued to influence the portrayal of the inhabitants of this area right down to modern times.

Richard Southern in his book Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages postulates the basic thesis that Islam was Christendom's greatest problem. The Christian response to the general threat of Islam, military and cultural, was seen most vividly in the stark fanaticism of the Crusades and in the Reconquista of that part of Spain that had come under Islamic domination; these were the two most important areas of activity for the building up of a hostile picture of "the enemy." However, as the two editors say in their introduction, it is overly simplistic to assume, as many have, that medieval and Renaissance attitudes were carried whole cloth into the modern world. In his long essay entitled "Western Views of Islam in the Premodern Period," David Blanks raises a number of interesting propositions about the possible interactions of individuals who are entrenched in their particular religious beliefs. Towards the end of the essay he describes the experience of the English traveller Sir Thomas Herbert who, in the early 17th century, visited a Hindu temple in India; he found the experience so strange and disturbing, the Hindu images so threatening and unfamiliar, that he was unable to cope with the experience and had to make do, when he came to write of the visit, with quoting the description given of it by a previous visitor. Stereotypes, as David Blanks points out, are "cognitive devices for coming to terms with the alien."

In Moran Cruz's essay on "Popular Attitudes towards Islam in Medieval Europe," she expresses the view that, with regard to the Crusades and relations between Muslims and Christians, no better knowledge of Islam resulted from the contacts made. She quotes some of the many legends and anecdotes brought back by Christians who had been in the Holy Land, particularly legends about the two hero-figures of the Crusades, Saladin and Richard the Lionheart. Among the more improbable of these is that Saladin baptised himself on his deathbed. On the other hand, certain Christian mystics of the Middle Ages, among them Dame Julian of Norwich, were exercised by the question as to whether Saracens, provided they had lived impeccable lives, could be saved from damnation; she concludes that humans cannot grasp God's great mercy and should not presume to think that non-Christians will automatically be damned. To hold a contrary view as to the ultimate fate of an individual, be it by a Christian or a Muslim, is surely to discredit both sides.

During the Renaissance, Islam was seen through slightly more informed and tolerant eyes, at least in some educated circles. In order to understand the popular image that Europe built of their rival Muslims, one must take into account the fact that Western Christians at that time were faced by an enemy both more military powerful and more culturally sophisticated. War with Islam was thus seen as a divine mission and from this it followed that the enemy should be portrayed in the blackest colours.

It is interesting in this context to read that the word "Islam" appeared for the first time in English in 1613 and in French in 1687. This, as is noted, represents a linguistic turning-point. Previously the term used was the inaccurate and disrespectful one of "Mohammedanism."

Plate from an illuminated manuscript depicting the Crusaders capturing Jerusalem in 1099
One of the seminal works on the East-West relationship is of course Norman Daniel's Islam and the West: The Making of an Image. That a devout Catholic should devote much of his life to striving to arrive at a real understanding of his Muslim neighbours and colleagues in Cairo so as "to chart a new path for coping with the existence of a competing monotheism" is in itself commendable. "It is," he says, "essential to find some means of genuine communication. It will be a terrible responsibility to answer for, if we so maintain our own faith as to exclude others from it; insist on giving it a colour gratifying to ourselves, and so present it as to blind others to the truth." It is, as David Blanks says, "precisely Daniel's religious enthusiasm that is the source of his deep respect for Islam." It is a respect, one suspects, that he would not have had, for instance, for Buddhism.

It should be noted that the Muslims during these periods also built up their stereotypes of the Christians who were invading their lands: Usama ibn Munqidh's Kitab Al-I'tibar, while greatly entertaining, cannot be said to give an accurate picture of the different races who made up the Crusaders. He, too, was eager to present his Christian enemies in terms that made them contemptible and ridiculous.

In his essay entitled "Early Modern Orientalism: Representations of Islam in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Europe," Daniel Vitkus points out that whereas for the masses Islam was depicted in the crudest of caricatures, there were among the educated elite scholars who were engaged on the study of Islamic theology with the sole purpose of refuting its teachings in order to stop its spread. This inevitably led to distortions and fabrications. Montgomery Watt in his writings has argued that this creation of a distorted image of Islam was largely a response to the cultural superiority of the Muslims, especially in Al-Andalus. The West's inferiority complex was reinforced by the emergence of a new Islamic power, the Ottoman Turks, who by 1529 were on the point of capturing Vienna. At this time in Europe there was serious conflict between Catholics and Protestants and the writer of this essay presents the Protestants as not being wholly against the expansion of the Ottomans, so long as it was at the expense of the Catholics. It was found, in those countries overrun by the Turks, that their new Muslim masters were often more tolerant of Protestantism than the Roman Catholic nobles who had held power there before the Ottoman invasions. Among the Balkan peasantry of the time was the saying "Better the turban of the Turk than the tiara of the Pope."

It is only in relatively modern times that accurate knowledge about Islam has been available in the West. However, the existence of such knowledge, as one knows, does not necessarily mean that it is being used to produce an undistorted picture. There are many motives at play and today, as in previous times, stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs are employed in books, the cinema and elsewhere. Perhaps "the other" will always be seen through a preconceived veil of make-believe, one that changes with the circumstances under which the two meet.

All in all, a thought-provoking volume of essays on a subject as alive today as ever.

Reviewed by Denys Johnson-Davies

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