Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1326, (5-11 January 2017)
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1326, (5-11 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Judeo-Christian view of Islam

In the third in a series of articles, Wagih Makky examines historical representations of Islam in the West

Currently Islam is universally presented in western literature in a very negative way. However, this is by no means a new phenomenon.  Although Islam has never differed in its essence over its more than 1,400 year history, its depiction in the western mind has changed drastically from one era to the next depending upon western circumstances.

The common theme throughout has been disparagement of the basic concepts and major personalities of Islam. Particular loathing is reserved for and heaped on Prophet Mohamed. The Islam one2 finds in western literature describes something that is a figment of the collective western Judeo-Christian imagination and has nothing whatsoever to do with reality.

This is as true of the seventh century approach of Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem who surrendered the city to the Muslim Caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab and John of Damascus who lived during Umayyad rule as it is of the many pseudo-scholars, “experts on Islam,” of the 21st. While the earlier writers had to build their own knowledge base about Islam, latter writers have had a wealth of information available, but the outcome has stayed the same.

Western culture and intellectual heritage have two basic underpinnings. The first consists of the Biblical religious concepts lasting for over a millennium after the Roman Empire and Christianity merged institutionally. These were derived from the “Hebrew Bible” and the “New Testament”.

Through these writings, Christian dogma became the only available culture in the West.

In the meantime, the fundamental tenets of Islam were seen as undermining these formative Christian concepts. They were summarily rejected by the Western Church, which considered Islam to be an existential threat to its hegemony in stark contrast to the position taken by the Eastern Church.

Therefore, Islam was attacked verbally and physically in every possible way. The vast majority of westerners other than churchmen during these long centuries were illiterate. Thus, it was only the clergy who paid intellectual attention to Islam.  Having a stake in opposing it, they produced mostly ignorant bigoted literature about it.

Pauline Christianity and the encounter with the “heresies” that renounced the idea of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ had two major historical as well as intellectual consequences. The first consequence concerned Jesus: He was either divine, leading one to be a Christian, or not divine, leading one to be a heretic. Being a committed heretic in the Church’s view solicited abuse and if possible persecution.  In this context, the encounter with Islam dumbfounded Christianity.  

Islam’s emphasis on the absolute humanity of Jesus and its advocacy of monotheism in a most simple manner perplexed Christianity’s officialdom.

Islam’s inclusion, with great reverence, of practically all the prominent personages spoken about in the Bible compounded the problem. Moreover, the awesome power of Muslim convictions, and Muslims’ unconditional willingness to defend them against all odds, instilled fear in the hearts of Christians. Consciously or unconsciously, the decision was made that if the Western Church could not defeat Islam it would at least hate it, defame it and whenever and wherever possible, fight it.

When Islam arrived in the lands of the East for the first time, it actually sounded vaguely familiar to those who were acquainted with the uncomfortably contorted heresies that rejected Jesus’s divinity. Additionally, it appealed to minds confused by the theological gymnastics they were fed concerning the doctrine of the Trinity. Therefore, Islam’s strictly monotheistic ideas were planted in an already receptive and fertile soil. This is the reason for the speedy and irreversible historical conversion of the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa to Islam. The sword had nothing to do with this phenomenon. It is also the reason for the current appeal of Islam in Europe and North America in spite of the West’s defamatory propaganda.

The apparent similarity between the heretics’ rejection of the divinity of Jesus and that of Islam’s portrayal of Jesus inclined the Western Church in a primitive way to tag Islam as a Christian heresy. Yet, as a matter of fact the issue of the Trinity has never been settled among Christians, even to the present day. Many devout and thoughtful Christians do not accept this doctrine.

One illustrious example is the British scholar William Montgomery Watt of the University of Edinburgh who was also a priest. Having thoroughly examined the uncompromising Islamic concept of the absolute oneness of God, he rejected the idea of the Trinity in favour of the unambiguous perception of one God, although he did not reject Christianity.

After the Renaissance: The second underpinning came with the European Renaissance followed by the Enlightenment when the West, for better or for worse, disowned religion and atheism flourished.  

Even those who kept their faith divorced religion from everyday life and conceded the superiority of science over faith. Religion became a personal matter confined in space to the house of worship and in time to scheduled prayers. The atheistic West in turn found itself fundamentally at odds with Islamic ideals that negated its newly established core principles.  Begotten by Western Christianity, it inherited the latter’s dubious perception of Islam as a heretical offshoot. This was an easy way to dismiss Islam without bothering to discuss its mores — a paradoxical and disgraceful approach for an intellectual system that prides itself on adhering to the prerequisites of science.

Thanks to increasing commercial contacts with the Muslims, western scholars then became interested in studying Islam. The field was called “orientalism” and its practitioners were known as “orientalists”.  In the 1990s, the Egyptian scholar Abdel-Hamid Saleh Hemdan categorised the orientalists chronologically from the 16th until the end of the 20th century. In his book “Grades of Orientalists,” he comes to the conclusion that the vast majority of the orientalists’ works were done originally to find ways to undermine Islam.

Beginning with the 19th century, this goal switched to serving western imperialist aims. This is not to say that unintentionally these efforts did not solidify Islamic studies as a major field of academic research. Great Muslim scholars became known and their works were brought to light (albeit never quite understood or appreciated) in the western world, first in Europe and then in the United States. But when one examines the vast majority of western scholars’ works on Arabs or Islam, one is struck by their simplistic treatment of the subject matter. This is due mainly to the failure to investigate the background of the Arabic materials.  Western writers as a rule quote each other, and in so doing they perpetuate mistakes and misconceptions which are eventually accepted as norms.

The thinkers of the European Enlightenment only paid attention to Islam in order to highlight what they saw as the appalling shortcomings of the church. Scholarly work about Islam was not the goal; rather, the idea was the refutation of Christianity. This approach led most to denounce religion in general. This attitude is apparent in the opinions and writings of Henry Stubbe (1632-1676), Humphrey Prieaux (1648-1724), François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694-1778), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and others.  

As an example, Gibbon in his most famous work “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” describes Islam as a religion “compounded of an eternal truth and a necessary fiction, that there is only one God and Mohamed is the apostle of God.” He dismisses Islam as “most powerfully addressed to a devout Arabian, whose mind is attuned to faith and rapture; whose ear is delighted by the music of sounds; and whose ignorance is incapable of comparing the productions of human genius.” Infamously, he described the day (29 May 1453) that Constantinople fell to the Muslims as the “darkest day” in human history and civilisation.

Gibbon’s views are influential among those studying Islam and Muslims in the West even now, and disingenuously he is generally considered as having been sympathetic to Islam and Muslims. The other very influential western writer considered to have found merit in Islam is the British writer Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881).

Carlyle gave a lecture in May 1840 entitled “The Hero as Prophet. Mahomet: Islam” that made him a “western supporter of Islam” who is very frequently quoted. Carlyle could not deny the superior character of Mohamed when studying for his biography, but he would not allow himself to concede his prophet-hood. However, this same person calls the Quran “a most wearisome confused jumble” betraying “the confused ferment of a great rude human soul”.

Imperialist assaults: Finding ways to sap Islam’s energies was a well-established phenomenon during 19th and early 20th century European imperialist assaults on the Arab and Muslim worlds.  

The works of the orientalists Ernest Renan, A. J. Wensick, J. H. Kramers, Goldziher, Brockelmann, Zwemer, Margoliouth, Forster, Noldeke, Bicher Faris, Pfannmiiler, Nicholson, Hamilton Gibb, William Muir and many others who produced what they considered to be in-depth descriptions of Islamic culture and its peoples and, in particular, biographies of the Prophet Mohamed in English, French, German and other European languages testify to this.  However, their translations of and commentaries on a meagre number of the ancient original works in Arabic, though laudable for stimulating Arab and Muslim scholars to investigate their own heritage, have in the vast majority of cases led the latter to strongly and indignantly refute what these westerners said.  

The writings of William Muir (1819-1905) forcefully make this point. Muir was a high-ranking officer in the British Indian Civil Service and an Anglican Evangelical lay preacher. He is quoted as saying that in 1857 “the sword of Mahomet and the Koran [sic.] are the most fatal enemies of civilisation, liberty, and the truth which the world has yet known.” He added even more clearly that “Britain must not faint until her millions in the East abandon both the false prophet and the idol shrines and rally around the eternal truth which has been brought to light in the Gospel.”  

With the discrediting of such statements and individuals at the present time, current western apologists invariably distance themselves and the West in general from them.  However, current western scholarship is built upon such foundations. Without these roots, there is no legitimate superstructure. Dropping the offensive statements while keeping the remaining structure is a fallacy they hope to pass on to unaware Muslims.  

The Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said’s landmark book Orientalism (1978) demolished the building blocks of a discipline that had been painstakingly put together over the previous two centuries in the service of European colonialism. His work masterfully threw this effort into disrepute as suspect and unworthy of being called “scholarship”.  He showed that the underlying principle of orientalism is that “Islam cannot be what the Muslims say or do or even what they say they mean, but only what a handful of texts — selected and then interpreted and canonised by the western orientalist — tells us it is and it is not.”

Said’s most important argument about orientalism was that “it preceded and put in place the necessary conditions for the western colonial project and was not created after the fact.” He dates the birth of classical orientalism to the work of the Frenchman Ernest Renan in the 1840s, whereas the period of great western colonial expansion began in the 1870s and ended with the Second World War. Although the “Orient” usually meant the Arab and Muslim lands of the East, Said’s conclusions became the standard for all geographical locations that suffered under the yoke of colonialism, whether in Asia, Africa or South America.

Scholar Jonathan Lyons’s 2012 book Islam through Western Eyes later advanced the thesis that what he termed the “anti-Islam discourse” actually started farther back during the 11th-century preparation for the First Crusade when the Christian West knew next to nothing about Islam and Muslims.

Orientalism is only this discourse’s application during the European colonialist era and beyond when the West dominated the East.  

Lyons observes that “it is important to recognise that this domination of the East by the West was not the case at the formation of the anti-Islam discourse. In the first place, mediaeval Christendom lagged behind the Muslim world by virtually any measure, cultural, scientific, military, and economic. Second, the formation of the discourse took place…without any real knowledge or first-hand experience of Islam or Muslims. And third, what power there was in the relationship was surely to the disadvantage of Christian Europe, which saw in Islam an existential, civilisational threat; for its part, the world of Islam felt it could safely ignore the invading Crusaders for decades before mobilising to expel them.”

Defying the natural evolution of ideas, this anti-Islam discourse persisted intact until the present time. In his well-researched book Lyons asks and answers the pertinent question of “how, then, has the West’s comprehensive idea of Islam persisted intact and essentially unchanged – thrived even — over the course of one thousand years?... The answer lies with the formation in the 11th century of the anti-Islam discourse, which to the present day defines and explains Islam and regulates what it is that we hear and see of Muslims.”  

He then explains this persistence as due to experts who perpetuate these ideas without change. This is obvious in every public and academic arena propagated by so-called “Islam experts”. This “discourse on Islam has been since its very formation in the 11th century the exclusive realm of such experts, in the face of whose expertise the public at large has had little choice but to act as passive, trusting receptors.”  

It “defines and explains Islam and regulates what it is that we hear and see of Muslims.” Further, “the anti-Islam discourse has always been an elite affair in which an uninformed public has no other recourse — nor does it generally seek one — other than to put itself in the hands of the experts.

The later rise of the mass media and the advent of public-opinion surveys have done nothing to cast doubt on the top-down nature of the West’s predominant Islam narrative,” Lyons writes.

He describes this anti-Islam discourse as consisting of “a series of familiar ideas that echo across today’s political arena, on the Internet, on ‘talk’ radio, in the so-called quality press, and all too frequently, in academia. Such notions include the following: Islam is a religion of violence and is spread by the sword; its tenets are upheld by coercion and force; Islam’s Prophet, its teachings, and even its God are false; Muslims are irrational and backward, “mediaeval”, and fearful of modernity; Islam is by nature fanatical; Muslims are sexually perverse, either lascivious polygamists or repressive misogynists or both; they are antidemocratic and despise western notions of civic freedoms; and, finally, they are caught up in a jealous rage at the western world’s failure to value them or their beliefs.”  

The damage this discourse has wrought over the centuries, from the Crusades’ sectarian violence to orientalist colonialism’s exploitation and degradation to today’s anti-Muslim war on terrorism, is enormous. Lyons’s conclusion is that “the very idea of Islam has been perpetuated by those western social groups and institutions that stand to benefit from the survival, intact and unexamined, of a thousand-year old anti-Islam discourse, often for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the putative subject.”

After 2011: Very early in the beginning of the third millennium, on the morning of the beautiful sunny day of 11 September 2001 in the city of New York, American self-assurance was irrevocably shattered.  

The American psyche was fatally injured when the famous twin towers of the World Trade Centre tumbled down. The then US president then plunged the United States, albeit with overwhelming popular enthusiasm and most of the western world in its support, into an adventure and a “crusade” that caused it to lose its soul and the respect of others.  

At the highest echelons of decision-making in the US and Europe there was the certainty of a quick and easy victory over the forces of “barbaric Arab and Islamic terrorism”. The wars that were launched were incredibly described as “a walk in the park”. However, untold destruction and innumerable losses of life and treasure brought not the eradication but the consolidation and amalgamation of worldwide terrorism.  

It is certain that the world will live under the cloud of this scourge for the foreseeable future thanks to these misguided efforts. The boldness and blind arrogance of the western decision-makers was not accidental, however. It was wholly based on the firm conviction of the cowardice and faint-heartedness of Arabs and Muslims. All that was needed was the projection of overwhelming power and these cowards would surrender without a fight. The operation thus called for “shock and awe”.  

This mindset and these descriptions of the perceived enemy stemmed from analyses of the Arab and Muslim peoples carried out by throngs of “experts” using the existing long heritage of western thought. At its apex, the Anglo-American orientalist Bernard Lewis occupied pride of place. Lewis was the most prominent advisor on how to deal with the Arabs and Muslims, given his presumed lifelong interest in both. Arab and Muslim Americans’ collective wisdom was disregarded as irrelevant in deference to that of Lewis.

What actually transpired thanks to this alleged wisdom needs no interpretation. It is obvious in the degraded reputation of the United States (even as a military power) and the phenomenal rise in and unbelievable brazenness of acts of violence no longer confined to the Arab and Muslim worlds but now engulfing the world as a whole.  


The writer is an international consultant and former member of the US Transportation Security Administration. This article is adapted from his book Islam and the West — Why Do They Hate Us So Much?

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