By Abdallah Zbir
Apr 1, 2019
Prominent theologian Hans Kung says in his book on Islam that: “Islam continues to strike us as essentially foreign, as more threatening, politically and economically, than either Hinduism or Buddhism, a phenomenon, in any case, that we have a hard time understanding.”
The view of Islam as a “foreign” religion might make more sense if it didn’t express similarities, theologically at least, with its fellow Abrahamic faiths: Christianity and Judaism.
Since the Middle Ages, Islam has occupied a space of alterity and difference in Western consciousness. This image of Islam has shifted in nature over the centuries depending on the impact of the West’s various encounters with the religion.
The centuries-long Moorish Invasion of Spain which began in 711 CE; the Crusades, a series of bloody religious wars between Christians and Muslims between 1096 and 1291 CE; as well as the “Islamic Golden Age” which took place from the eighth to the fourteenth century and involved the translation of a plethora of Islamic philosophical, scientific, and medical texts into European languages, have all contributed to modern-day perceptions and understandings of Islam in Western consciousness.
During this period, people from the Muslim world were seen as alien and at odds with the Christian world; a view that more or less prevailed before gradually morphing into what came to be the orientalist attitudes that characterized nineteenth century narratives about Islamic peoples.
It would be remiss to mention Orientalism in this context without speaking of the influence of Palestinian American intellectual and cultural critic Edward Said. His extensive work on this subject has been widely recognized for exploring the gaps of social, cultural, and political understanding between the so-called “Western” and “Eastern” worlds, specifically the ways in which the West views and interacts with the Middle East and Islam.
Writings about Islam grew exponentially in number over the years, into what Edward Said called a “cultural enterprise” formed of “a complex array of Oriental ideas (oriental despotism, oriental splendor, cruelty, sensuality), many Eastern sects, philosophies, and wisdoms domesticated for local European use.” This enterprise has fueled the misrepresentation of Islam, in turn fueling the rise of Islamophobia in the Western world.
Orientalist writings have historically presented Islam as theologically inferior to Christianity, and with the decline of Christianity in the Western world in modern times, increasingly as inherently at odds with “Western” concepts of democracy and human rights. These false dichotomies have created an entrenched narrative that has long served to fuel European discrimination and prejudice against Islam and made the lives of Muslims living in Europe increasingly challenging.
Although there have been attempts to release Islam from its medieval closet, these haven’t been enough to shift the narrative. Literature about Islam, in the fields of theology, history or politics, has been characterized by, in one way or another, a moralizing tone, assertions of European superiority, or at worst, imperialist overtones.
The ideas, information, and innovations produced from the Islamic world during its “Golden Age” led it to flourish culturally, economically, and scientifically.
They also had a transformational and lasting impact on the rest of the world and the foundations of modern thought. Indeed, translation of philosophical works from Arabic to Latin by such Muslim thinkers as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) “led to the transformation of almost all philosophical disciplines in the medieval Latin world.” Moreover, while Europe was going through the dark ages, the Islamic world had come to encompass an area larger than the Roman empire.
For 700 years during this period, the empire had so much influence and power that Arabic was the international language of science.
Emerging Christian thinkers in the centuries that followed, such as Italian Dominican missionary, Christian apologist, and travel writer, Riccoldo da Montecroce (c. 1243–1320 CE), tended to draw inspiration and admiration from a number of aspects of the Islamic world, such as its beautiful natural landscapes; poetic, referential, and aesthetically pleasing language; and canon of literature, while rejecting the “perfidious” Islamic religion from which they stemmed.
Montecroce’s medieval peers tended to agree, adopting a similarly selective view of the religion. Moreover, medieval writings on Islam functioned well to establish a stable paradigm by which Christianity could assert its superiority, and create a counter-image of Islam’s inferiority.
In the words of British anthropologist Mary Douglas, “Christian Europeans from the ninth century to the twelfth explained Islam in ways meant to reassure their Christian readers of the superiority of Christianity.”
Since the early Middle Ages, writings about Islam have continued to perpetuate the medieval discriminatory discourse that presented Islam as foreign, backwards, and dangerous. This has endured into the modern-day damaging perceptions of Muslim people as ignorant, violent, or lascivious, among other stereotypes.
Once a Muslim behaves or thinks contrarily to such stereotypes, and steps out of the darkness of their medieval cabin so to speak, the pervasive nature of such stereotypes becomes apparent.
Prominent Algerian scholar and thinker Mohammed Arkoun recounted his own experience as a Muslim North African in Europe, noting that: “it was a shock for nearly all [my] European colleagues to meet someone like me.
They always say how can a Muslim like you talk in such a manner. It is a great thing and a hopeful sign to see a liberal, open-minded Muslim like you. Still they jump to conclusions: We don’t think your ideas represent any of your own people’s or fellow Muslims in your country. Your thoughts, speeches or discourse go against the stream of Islam.”
Perspectives such as these have become common in modern times. Echoing the selective and narrow view of Islam and its place in the West that was propagated centuries earlier by the likes of Montecroce, Arkoun’s colleagues’ well-meaning comments reflect a damaging and fallacious view of the “inherent” conflict between Muslims and Europeans.
The representation of Islam and Muslims as regressive has medieval roots, but has endured ever since in various forms, inflaming at various points in history.
In order to move past the fallacious but entrenched perception of a dangerous, inferior, and problematic Islam at odds with the “Western World,” we must move towards the deconstruction of these concepts, particularly in light of an increasingly globalized, interconnected, and pluralistic world. As Arkoun argues, we have a responsibility “to fight clichés and dogmas [and] deconstruct them. Not to be eager to endorse, adopt or instill them.”