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Interfaith Dialogue ( 4 Oct 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Analysis of the Historical Development of the Distinct Self Muslim Identity Construction Vis-À-Vis the Christian-Western Civilization-PART TWO


By Adis Duderija, New Age Islam

In this part we describe the historical development of the Muslim identity from the ninth century to that of the colonial period.

Period from the end of the 7th to the beginning of the 9th Century

This period saw the rise and the fall of the first Muslim dynasty, the Umayyads. Although internal conflicts and discussions about what constituted a Muslim from a doctrinal viewpoint continued well into the 11th century, this era saw a growing civilisational and political consciousness of the Muslim community and its distinct religious identity formation.

From the end of the 7th century until the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century, the relationship and the nature of civilisational interactions between Arabo-Islamic and Christian civilizations [2]can be seen in the context of “two political colossi” engaged in permanent political conflict and warfare and “the grip of religious dogma on the identity of the respective religious community members on social en mass level” (Waardenburg, 2003, 133-137). Subsequently, the images/imagination of the Other and the Self were increasingly constructed in terms of ideological and religious conflict (Ibid.) Islam was seen as Christian heresy by both Christians in Muslim and non-Muslim lands and an outright threat to the “true” religion of Christianity. Additionally, Byzantine Christianity’s socio-political, cultural and religious pressure on Islam was a trademark of this period and further facilitated the religious distinctiveness of Islam vis-à-vis Christianity.[3] Both religious communities “were eager to stress their own distinctive character by indicating the unique spirit of their own religious truth and its historical continuity“(Ibid, 58) as well as to construct the identity of the Other in purely religiously exclusivist terms (Ibid, 481).Thus, “the main issues of the Muslim –Christian debate were formulated as early as in this Umayyad period” (Ibid, 136).

d.) Beginning of 9th until 11th century

The fall of Umayyad Dynasty (750 A.C.) and the subsequent rise of the Abbasid Dynasty witnessed increased assertiveness of Islamic dogma, religious ideology and “Islamisation” of society. Abbasid’s “need to demonstrate superiority of Islam vis-à-vis the non-Muslim majority and assert the originality of Islam” was not only used to justify their own coming to power, but also “to prevent its [Islam’s] dilution by already existing religions, especially Christianity” (Zebiri, 1997, 45).[4]

Islam as a religious and socio-political force was increasingly felt. Despite the existence of wide areas of peaceful interaction, the entire polemical and refutational corpus of literature written in both Byzantine Christian and Muslim territories (mainly Arab and Persian) at that time took place against a background of war and political tensions expressed in a Christian /Heathen (from a Christian point of view) or Dar-ul-Islam /Dar-ul-Harb (from a Muslim’s point of view) dichotomous and binary division of the world. In this context Shboul (2004, 245) remarks:

To the Muslim Arabs the rivalry between them and Byzantines was military, political, religious, cultural and also economic. The preoccupation of the Arabs with Byzantium as the enemy[however] is more evident in official writings , in the works of historians, geographers, poets and other men of letters, in legal texts and in popular literature and far less evident in religious polemics.

The demarcation of the ‘Other”, however, at both the individual and civilisational level, was increasingly conceived in purely religious terms (Hoefert and Salvatore, 2000, 21) rather than just political, cultural or economic. Furthermore, Qur’anic commentators and jurists of this period increasingly considered Christians as polytheists or unbelievers choosing to uphold more austere interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunnah (Zebiri, 1997, 22).

e.) From end of the 11th to the 15th century

Until the 11th century, encounters between Muslim and Christian civilisations were almost exclusively limited to the Byzantine East. From the 11th century onwards, as the attitude of Byzantium translated into that of a defensive war another, trans-culturally more dominant and more influential civilisation was developing, namely the Latin Christian West. The Muslims had had little interest in Western Europe prior to this time-period largely considering Christian inhabitants of the Latin West as uneducated barbarians (Zebiri, 1997, 22). However, from the 11th century onwards and in tune with the ups and downs of the Crusading drive, 4 Europe, and its Latin West headed by the Pope, were seen as an increasing threat to the civilised world of Islam. The view of the Muslim Other in the eyes of the Crusaders is thought to have “both initiated and perpetuated the representation of Muslims as evil and depraved, licentious and barbaric, ignorant and stupid, unclean and inferior, monstrous and ugly, fanatical and violent” (Sardar, 2002, 2). Throughout this period Latin Christianity viewed the Muslim religion as the arch-antagonist describing it in one instance as “doctrina falsa et diabolica” (Hoefert, 2000, 45). As Mastnak (2003, 206) asserts, Christians:

Made [the Muslims] the quintessential, normative enemy of Christianity and Christendom, the Muslims now represented infidelity itself. They were regarded as the fundamental enemy, the personification of the very religion of Antichrist. The Muslim world became no less than the antithetical system.

The Christian knowledge of Islam during this period was “confined to ecclesiastic groups and was both scanty and stereotypic” (Malik, 2004, 68). The stereotypes about Muslims inherited from Byzantine Christianity were largely passed on to the Latin West. According to Zabiri (1997, 26) the period from 1250-1400 “Western images of Islam [were] highly imaginative and contained elements of pure invention/fabrication.” Terminology used for Muslims during this era included (apart from the term Muslims) terminology such as Moors, Mohammedans, Mahometans and Turks (Malik, 2004, 70). Based on these stereotypes the historical figure of Muhammad was given “most violent epithets [such as] the pseudo-prophet, the hypocrite, the liar, and the adulterer” (Meyerdorff, 2004, 222).

Polemics sharply increased with the rise of the powerful Ottoman Empire and the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The so-called “Turkish Threat “ was to dominate Christian-Islamic civilisational interactions and attitudes for the next two and a half centuries and was to give rise to the image of unitas christiana among various Christian sects (Hoefert, 2000, 47). Mastnak (2003, 207) points out that the Western Christians “were able to draw on the existing hostility toward the Muslims to invoke a sense of unity and community” which later on developed into the formation of a new Western unity.

During this period both communities making up the respective civilisations were aware of the total opposition between causes held and defended by the “Self” and the “Other” which they used for purposes of political legitimisation and re-enforcement (Waardenburg, 2003, 157). Within each civilisation communities were organised along religious lines thus linking nation and religion and projecting the religion of the Other as the ideological antagonist (Ibid). Interpretations of the Other religion were full of misunderstandings and were characterised by “structural intolerance towards [other] religious groups with no attempt to reformulate own claims of absolute truth in light of the claims of the religious other” (Ibid.). This resulted in the development of a “religio-centric, centripetal and nearly solipsistic, religiously fixed worldview of both civilisations” (Ibid, 158) in which “religious identity was considered as something religiously and socially given, primarily by the religious community to which one belongs, with own tradition and authority” (Ibid, 56).

Both civilisations were “blinded by their own light”, as Waardenburg (2003) vividly puts it, developing distorted views placing the religion of the “Other” as the enemy. Additionally, both civilisations were too caught up in conflict in order to exercise intro-and retrospection so that “in broader circles people deeply felt the two religions as mutually exclusive due to the deep loyalties towards [their] own respective communities”(Ibid,159).

f.) The period between the 15th and the 17th centuries

The period between the 15th and the 17th centuries saw the rise of the European states’ military and political power. Commencing in the fifteenth century, it lasted until the end of the Second World War. At the beginning of the 17th century the Ottoman Empire was well in its decline and the economic and military superiority of the West was on the rise.

During the pre-Enlightenment period of the 15th and 16th centuries a process of profound epistemological change in which knowledge was generated and categorised took place. However, the essentialist approach to Islam and Christianity inherited during the Medieval Ages continued so that the “dichotomy of Christian /Turk became the most powerful and important tool of Otherisation of the period” (Hoefer, 2000, 48) replacing the medieval Christian/Heathen binary Weltanschauung. The concept of religion was, however, no longer seen in its medieval form as being restricted to “the semantic field of religious practice[5] [but as] religion as a generic concept” (Ibid. 56), – an epistemological change, which later was to give rise to occidental ethnography (Ibid. 57). The main Christian writers of the time, such as Luther, Shakespeare, Locke, and Calvin, used the word infidels in the context of Turks/Muslims (Malik, 2004, 74). A similar attitude prevailed among Muslim writers on Christianity (Zebiri, 1997, 26). Religion, therefore, was still considered the central distinguishing civilisational criteria. Throughout this medieval period, it can be safely asserted, that “the negative and stereotypical images of Islam provided the anti-thesis to Europe’s own self-image, thus serving to bolster its own identity in face of perceived external threat and, on a more popular level,  satisfied demands for imaginative stimulation” (Ibid). Fundamentally, the same arguments apply for the manner in which the Christian West was constructed by the Islamic civilisation for the purposes of self-definition (Ibid.) Throughout the periods described so far identities embedded in these civilisations operated within the socio-cultural structures entrapped in a traditional worldview.

At this juncture it would be useful for the purposes of what follows to briefly explore the meaning of traditional identities. How do we characterise traditional identities? According to Ameli (2002, 91-92) in a traditional worldview identities are taken for granted, are stable and predictable. They are based on the “guiding tradition” within which people belong to a circle of social life within clearly demarcated and stable social and cultural settings. Thus, identities were not able to be transformed in a fundamental way, nor were they constructed as a result of a conscious choice at either individual or collective level. Rather they were based on past history. Religious identities, in particular, were integrated, continuous and solid. The reasons behind this characterisation of traditional religious identity were, thus, to be found in the very nature of traditional societies and the worldview in which they were embedded. Traditional societies were governed by limited social intercourse and their focus was primarily on internal cultural relations. The means of transport and communication were very restricted. Change took place very slowly. As a result throughout the period considered thus far social norms and mores as well as understandings of the religious tradition did not alter significantly and were largely maintained by consistency in social stratification, cultural roles, psychological motives, rewards and incentives present in respective civilisations.

g.)The Period from the 17th to the 19th century

The beginning of this period marks the advent of modernity in the West. Whilst in the previous period, from a sociological viewpoint, identities could be described as being traditional in the sense described above, this era marks the transmission towards the development of modern societies and modern identities. The period from the 17th to the 19th century in the Christian West was characterised by a number of momentous events, which had a decisive effect on the nature of contemporary Western civilisation (and by default its dynamic/relationship with Muslim civilisation). The process of Entkirchlichung, the rise of secular democratic nation-states, scientific and industrial revolutions further strengthened the military and political superiority of the Western civilisation [6] and underscored its distinctiveness from the Muslim civilisation which largely remained in its pre-modern form.

This era witnessed dissemination of more informed views about the Other in both camps as the advent of modernity distorted the concept of self-identity in a myriad of ways (Ameli, 2002, 74). The period saw, for example, polarisation between liberal and conservative Christians in their respective attitudes towards Islam, which was more detached from inherited perceptions (Zebiri, 1997, 27). However, the body of knowledge generated by the Christian-Western civilisation during the Enlightenment period can be considered as the “cradle of methodological essentialism” based on a view of Islam as the “Other” (Hoefert and Salvatore, 2000, 23). It was during this epoch “via a series of civilisational distinctions with respect to Islam that Europe shaped the Self –image of a civilisation based on a unique model of rationality and objective knowledge, the unique site and source of modernity” (Ibid). This “lack of proper information about Islam only added to stigmatisation which especially during the closing centuries of the Ottoman Empire turned into a virile form of “Islamophobia” helping the West define its own identity (Malik, 2004,79).

This epistemologico-methodological framework was, of course, embodied and manifested itself to perfection in the rise of the Orientalist discourse in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.