The forgotten inheritance. Why the mutual hatred between Islam and the west? Is it because neither can acknowledge that Islam gave Europe what it values most: liberal humanism? By Ziauddin Sardar
The Cross and the Crescent: Christianity and Islam
from Muhammad to the Reformation
I listened to an interview with Pat Robertson, the American televangelist and founder of the Christian Coalition. The Prophet Muhammad, he said, "was an absolute wide-eyed fanatic. He was a robber and a brigand. And to say that these terrorists distort Islam . . . they're carrying out Islam."
Like most Muslims, I have become immune to such abuse. But I expected the interviewer, Sean Hannity, to challenge the good Reverend. Instead, he inquired: "Do you think it's the majority of Muslims?" Robertson replied by calling Islam "a monumental scam". This prompted Hannity to conclude: "It's inevitable then that the world is going to be in conflict with Islam for many decades to come."
The world, that is the western world, has been at war with Islam since its inception. The views of Robertson and Hannity have had common currency for more than 1,400 years. Western hatred of Islam, as both Richard Fletcher and Andrew Wheatcroft show in their new books, dates to the beginning of Islam. As early as 638, Wheatcroft notes, the Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem publicly called the Muslim Caliph's presence in the city "an abomination". In the early eighth century, John of Damascus, an Arab monk, characterised Muslims as fanatical infidels. This image remains with us today. The protracted era, over 250 years, of the Crusades constructed the image of the violent "Saracen", whose very existence was a threat to Christendom. With the emergence of the Ottoman empire, the Ottomans became, to use Wheatcroft's words, "the fons et origo of all evil". Colonialism sealed these images in concrete.
The cold war provided a brief respite, when the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union took over the role of conventional demon in western consciousness. Things returned to historic form with the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the "clash of civilisations" thesis first emerged and became the orthodoxy in Washington. After the events of 11 September 2001, the idea that Muslims were wild-eyed fanatics, determined on destroying civilisation as we know it, acquired the status of a self-evident truth.
Yet there is nothing inevitable in this pathological hatred of Islam. It was deliberately constructed and learnt over many centuries. Both Fletcher and Wheatcroft chart the centuries of scholarship, literature, art and popular culture during which the west nursed and nourished representations of Muslims as the embodiment of all that is evil and depraved, licentious and barbaric, ignorant and stupid, unclean and inferior, monstrous and ugly. In other words, western societies have been programmed to despise and hate Muslims. This is why, Wheatcroft suggests, these images are unquestioningly recycled in the western press and television, Hollywood films and the works of so-called experts on the Middle East. One only needs a trigger - such as a riot, or the Rushdie affair, or an act of terrorism - for this programme to reload and recycle the historic images of hatred.
There is a different way of looking at Muslims. Islam and the west, as Fletcher argues convincingly, have a distinguished history of collaboration and mutual respect. We traded with each other, shared the benefits of such technologies as papermaking, navigation, mining and surveying, and had enthralling debates on theology and philosophy. Both Fletcher and Wheatcroft hold up Islamic Spain, where Christians, Muslims and Jews lived in peaceful harmony for almost 800 years, as a model example. Much of this history, he asserts, has been overlooked in favour of the history of mutual rivalry and hatred.
So why do Muslims hate the west? How do we explain, for example, Pakistani textbooks employed in religious seminaries stating that western "infidels are cowards by nature"? Are the Crusades, colonialism and orientalism by themselves enough to explain such jingoism and hostility?
Both Fletcher and Wheatcroft look to Muslim theology for a more satisfying explanation. Fletcher claims that Islam has a single text, the Koran, in "its fixed and final form", which provides little opportunity for divergence of opinion. He locates Muslim hatred of Christianity in the monolithic nature of the Koran. But not even the most literalist and narrow-minded interpretation of the Koran can justify such hatred. Any sacred text, fixed or otherwise, is open to a variety of interpretations; and the Koran has been interpreted in numerous ways - not just literally but also metaphorically and mystically, legally, and even in modernist and postmodern terms. Moreover, the Koran specifically sanctions respect for Christianity and Judaism as sister religions to Islam.
The explanation for the current anti-western paranoia in relation to Muslim societies is to be found not so much in Islamic theology as in a siege mentality. Muslims throughout the world feel that their dignity and survival are under attack from the west. Muslim populations react not only to double standards, but are also concerned at how the west maintains unrepresentative and repressive regimes in power and then blames Muslims for not sharing the basic values of democracy. In the 19th century, just as parliamentary reform acts were inching Britain towards democracy, Egypt attempted to introduce comparable representative institutions, only to have them abolished by British colonial power. The despots today in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt are there largely because of the US.
There is another way of looking at the relationship between Islam and the west. Since both Fletcher and Wheatcroft are silent on this alternative history, let me spell it out. The west's hatred of Islam stems from, more than anything else, the denial of its true lineage. The western world as we understand it is a child of Islam. Without Islam, the west - however we conceive it today - would not exist. And, without the west, Islam is incomplete and cannot survive the future.
Fletcher tells us that Muslims spent the early centuries of Islam translating the Greek heritage. Europeans spent the 11th and 12th centuries translating the Arabic translations into Latin. But Muslims did more than simply preserve the Greek heritage and pass it on to its rightful owners, the west. They added and expanded it in numerous ways. Few of the great names of the European Middle Ages could read Greek; what they read was not Plato, but Latin commentaries on Plato by al-Farabi; not Aristotle, but the Latin translations of the commentaries of ibn Sina (Avicenna) on Aristotle; not the Neoplatonists, but the works of the Brethren of Purity, the tenth- and 11th-century philosophers of Basra and other Neoplatonist philosophers of the Muslim world. It is hardly surprising the Renaissance started in the independent city states of Italy, cities whose long history of trading contact with Muslim lands provided familiarity with its sophistication and ready access to Arabic texts.
From the perspective of Islam, there is a double irony here. Not only did Islam introduce classical Greek civil-isation to Europe, but also, without Islam, Europe would have been unable to manufacture its Greek roots. We Muslims have a right to be upset: not just that our intellectual endeavours were appropriated by Europe, but that the source was wrongly attributed.
For western civilisation is happy to trace its origins to Greece, a slave society owned and operated by and for narrow elites with a highly developed sense of their own exclusivity. The founding fathers of American democracy were obsessed with making references to ancient Greece in their debates. Their articulation of modern individual rights for a narrow white elite is riddled with appeals not only to a mythic Greece, but to Greek writers few of them had read.
There is more. Islam trained Europe in scholastic and philosophic method, and donated the model of its institutional forum of learning: the university. Europe acquired wholesale the organisation, structure and the very terminology of the Muslim education system. Islam showed Europe the distinction between medicine and magic, drilled it in making surgical instruments and told it how to establish and run hospitals. It gave Europe what it values most: liberal humanism. European liberal humanism has its origins in the adab - literally, the etiquette of being a human - movement of classical Islam. It is the suppression of this history that generates the most distrust of the west among Muslims.
To transcend our mutual hatred, we need to be true to our histories. We need to see Islam and the west as partner projects; one cannot be conceived without the other. The west must jettison the fabricated history of its origins, embrace its Islamic roots, and acknowledge that Islam has played a key role in shaping its most cherished humanistic values. Muslims, on the other hand, need to appreciate that some of the best achievements of the west are founded on the humanistic values of Islam. Our mutual salvation lies in our shared, enlightened history and common humanity.
More from New Statesman
- Online writers:
- Steven Baxter
- Rowenna Davis
- David Allen Green
- Mehdi Hasan
- Nelson Jones
- Gavin Kelly
- Helen Lewis
- Laurie Penny
- The V Spot
- Alex Hern
- Martha Gill
- Alan White
- Samira Shackle
- Alex Andreou
- Nicky Woolf in America
- Bim Adewunmi
- Kate Mossman on pop
- Ryan Gilbey on Film
- Martin Robbins
- Rafael Behr
- Eleanor Margolis