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Prophet Muhammad and the Middle Ages III

 

This was a subtle transmutation of the old habit of making 'Islam' and its Prophet the opposite of everything that 'we' hoped (or feared) that we were.

The apocalyptic view of Islam promoted by the martyrs of Cordova had continued during the Crusading period, though it was not a major theme. In 1191, when Richard the Lionheart had been travelling to the Holy Land with the Third Crusade, he had met the celebrated Italian mystic Joachim of Fiori at Messina in Sicily. Joachim had told Richard that he would certainly defeat Saladin. He was wrong, but he made some other interesting observations. He believed that the end of the world was at hand and that resurgent Islam was one of the chief instruments of Antichrist, but he added that Antichrist himself was already alive in Rome and was destined to become the Pope. As people in Europe became more critical of their society, Islam became associated with the enemy within. The reformers made the same identification between the faithless papacy (their own arch enemy) and Islam. Thus in the later writings of the fourteenth-century English reformer john Wycliffe, the main faults of 'Islam' were exactly the same as the faults of the Western Church in his own day: pride, greed, violence and the lust for power and possession. 'We Western Mahomets,' he wrote, referring to the Western Church as a whole, 'though we are only a few among the whole body of the Church, think that the whole world will be regulated by our judgement and tremble at our command.'(Quoted in Southern, Western Views of Islam, pp. 79-80.) Until the Church returned to the true spirit of the Gospels and to evangelical poverty, this 'Islamic' spirit would grow in the West as well as in the East. This was a subtle transmutation of the old habit of making 'Islam' and its Prophet the opposite of everything that 'we' hoped (or feared) that we were.

     Wycliffe had to rely on much unreliable information, but he had read the Qu'ran in translation and thought that he had found important points of comparison between Muhammad and the Church of Rome. Like the Church, he argued, Muhammad had been very cavalier with the Bible, picking out what suited him and discarding the rest. Like the religious orders, Muhammad had made innovations which laid an extra burden on the faithful. Above all, like the Church Muhammad had forbidden any free discussion of religion. Wycliffe had read the old medieval prejudice into certain passages of the Qu'ran, which does not forbid religious discussion per se but points out that some kinds of theological debate had been divisive in both of the older religions of the one God and had divided them into warring sects. Some ideas about God could only be speculative guesswork: nobody, for example, could prove the doctrine of the incarnation, which appeared to Muhammad to have be en added by some Christians to the pristine message of the Prophet Jesus. Wycliffe, however, compared this so-called Islamic intolerance to the attitude of the Church over problematic doctrines like the Eucharist, telling Christians to believe blindly the things that they could not understand.

The reformers had 'introduced the idea of Islam as an interior state which may be imputed to the enemies of pure doctrine.

      Luther and the other Protestant reformers continued this habit. At the end of his life, faced with the frightening encroachments of the Ottoman Turks into Europe, Luther shared the nightmare of the martyrs of Cordova and believed that Christendom could be entirely engulfed by Islam. In 1542 he published his own translation of Riccoldo da Monte Croce's Disputatio. 

In his preface, he mentions that he had read it years earlier but had found it impossible to accept that people could believe such a manifest tissue of lies. He had wanted to read the Qu'ran but could not find a Latin translation - as R. W. Southern points out, this is a telling indication of the low state of Islamic studies in the sixteenth century - but recently a copy had come into his hands and he had realised that Riccoldo had spoken the truth. He asked whether Muhammad and the Muslims were the Antichrist and replied that 'Islam' was too gross to fulfil this terrible destiny. The real enemy was the Pope and the Catholic Church and, as long as Europe c1ung to this internal enemy, it laid itself open to the danger of defeat at the hands of the 'Muhammadans'. Zwingli and some of the other reformers put forward similar ideas, seeing Rome as the 'head' of Antichrist and 'Muhammadanism' as its body. This Protestant development shows that 'Islam' had been interiorised by many people in Europe and had become a symbol of absolute evil in their emotional landscape. As Norman Daniel explains in his perceptive study The Arabs and Medieval Europe, it was no longer an exterior historical reality that could be examined critically like any other. The reformers had 'introduced the idea of Islam as an interior state which may be imputed to the enemies of pure doctrine(however the writer may define it). In so doing they in effect admitted the interiorization of Islam as the "enemy" (undifferentiated) which it had been for so long in the European imagination.'(Daniel, The Arabs and the Medieval Europe, p. 302.) Daniel gives the example of Catholics and Protestants comparing their Christian opponents with 'Islam' but with little understanding of what the comparison really entailed. The seventeenth century Catholic missionary M. Lefebvre saw Muslims as 'Muhammadan Protestants' who believe in justification by faith: 'they hope for the remission of al1 their sins, provided they believe in Mahomet'. But the eighteenth-century Protestant travel writer L. Rauwolff saw Muslims as 'Muhammadan Catholics': 'they go after their own invented devotion to good works, alms, prayers, fasting, redeeming of captives etc., to make satisfaction to God'.(Norman Daniel, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image., Edinburgh, 1960., pp. 284-5.) In the Middle Ages, Christians had been able to see Islam only as a failed version of Christianity, and had created myths to show that Muhammad had been instructed by a heretic. Later, in the light of fresh internal divisions in Christendom, Westerners continued to see and his religion in essentially Christian terms; they seemed unconcerned with the objective historical truth, nor does it seem to have occurred to them that Muslims had their own independent enthusiasms that could not adequately be defined with reference to Christian practice.

 But during the Renaissance other Western people were trying to acquire a more objective understanding of the Islamic world. They were carrying on the tradition and aspiration of Peter the Venerable, which had been continued in the fifteenth century by scholars like John of Segovia and Nicholas of Cusa. In 1453, just after the Turks had conquered the Christian empire of Byzantium and brought Islam to the threshold of Europe, John of Segovia pointed out that a new way of coping with the Islamic menace had to be found. It would never be defeated by war or conventional missionary activity. He began work on a new translation of the Qu'ran, collaborating with a Muslim jurist from Salamanca. He also proposed the idea of an international conference, at which there could be an informed exchange of views between Muslims and Christians. John died in 1458, before either of his projects had been brought to fruition, but his friend Nicholas of Cusa had been enthusiastic about this new approach. In 1460 he had written the Cribratio Alchoran (The Sieve of the Qu'ran), which was not conducted on the usual polemical lines but attempted the systematic literary, historical and philological examination of the text that John of Segovia had considered essential. During the Renaissance, Arabic studies were instituted and this cosmopolitan and encyclopaedic approach led some scholars to a more realistic assessment of the Muslim world and to an abandonment of cruder Crusading attitudes. But, as in the Middle Ages, the growing appreciation of the facts was not enough to neutralise the old images of hatred, which had such a powerful hold on the Western imagination.

But during the Renaissance other Western people were trying to acquire a more objective understanding of the Islamic world.

 This is very c1ear in the year 1697, when, at the very beginning of the Enlightenment, two influential works were published. The first was the Bibliotheque orietlale of Barthelmy d'Herbe1ot, which remained the most important and authoritative source of reference in Islamic and Oriental studies in England and Europe until the beginning of the nineteenth century. It has been described as the first Encyclopaedia of Islam. D'Herbelot had used Arabic, Turkish and Persian sources and had made a real effort to break out of the blinkered Christian approach: he had, for example, given alternative accounts of the creation myths current in the East. This approach could only be positive and was a sign of a healthier spirit. But under the heading 'Mahomet' we find this sadly familiar entry:

This is the famous impostor Mahomet, Author and Founder of a heresy, which has taken on the name of religion, which we call Mohammadan. See entry under Islam. The interpreters of the Alcoran and other Doctors of Muslim or Mohammadan Law have applied to this false prophet all the praises which the Arians, Paulicians, or Paulianists, and other Heretics have attributed to Jesus Christ, while stripping him of his Divinity ....

Even though d'Herbelot was aware of the proper name of the religion, he continued to call it 'Mohammadan' because that was the name that 'we' use; similarly the Christian world could still see the Prophet only in its own distorted way as an inferior version of 'us'.

 The same year the English Orientalist Humphry Prideaux published his important Mahomet: The True Nature of Imposture. The title alone shows that he had swallowed the old medieval prejudice - indeed, he cites Riccoldo da Monte Croce as his major source - even though he was claiming to have achieved a more rational and enlightened view of religion than had been possible in the benighted and superstitious Middle Ages. As a man of reason, Prideaux argued that not only was Islam a mere imitation of Christianity but it was a clear example of the idiocy to which all religions, Christianity included, could sink if they were not based firmly on the rock of reason. The Age of Reason had supposedly liberated people from the crippling religious prejudice of the Crusading period, but Prideaux repeats all the old irrational obsessions of the past. He wrote of Muhammad:

For the first Part of his Life he led a very wicked and licentious Course, much delighting in Rapine, Plunder, and Blood-shed, according to the Usage of the Arabs, who mostly followed this kind of Life, being almost continually in Arms one Tribe against another, to plunder and take from each other all they could ....

Even though d'Herbelot was aware of the proper name of the religion, he continued to call it 'Mohammadan' because that was the name that 'we' use; similarly the Christian world could still see the Prophet only in its own distorted way as an inferior version of 'us'.

His two predominant Passions were Ambition and Lust. The Course which he took to gain Empire, abundantly shews the former; and the multitude of Women which he had to do with, proves the latter. And indeed these two run through the whole Frame of his Religion, there being scarce a Chapter in his Alcoran, which doth not lay down same Law of War and Blood-shed for the promoting of the one; or else give same Liberty for the use of Women here, or some Promise for the enjoyment of them hereafter, to the gratifying of the other.

But during the eighteenth century people were trying to promote a more accurate understanding of Islam. Thus in 1708 Simon Ockley produced the first volume of his History of the Saracens, which upset many of his readers because he did not reflexively present Islam as the religion of the sword, but tried to see the seventh-century jihad from the Muslim point of view.In 1734 George Sale had published a remarkable English translation of the Qu'ran which is still regarded as accurate, though it is a trifle dull.

 In 1751, François Voltaire published Les Moeurs et l’esprit des nations in which he defended Muhammad as a profound political thinker and founder of a rational religion; he pointed out that Muslim polity had always been more tolerant than the Christian tradition. The Dutch orientalist Johann Jakob Reiske (d. 1774) was an incomparable scholar of Arabic who could see a quality of the divine in Muhammad's life and the creation of Islam (but was hounded by same of his colleagues for his pains). During the eighteenth century, a myth was developing that presented Muhammad as a wise, rational lawgiver of the Enlightenment. Henri, Comte de Boulainvilliers, published his Vie de Mahomed (Paris, ı 730; London, 1731), which portrayed the Prophet as a forerunner of the Age of Reason. Boulainvilliers agreed with the medievals that Muhammad had made up his religion in order to become the master of the world, but turned the whole tradition on its head. Unlike Christianity, Islam was a natural, not a revealed, tradition and that was what was so admirable about it. Muhammad was a great military hero like Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. This was another fantasy, because Muhammad was certainly no Deist, but it was at least an attempt to see the Prophet in a positive light. At the end of the century, Edward Gibbon in the fiftieth chapter of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire praised the lofty monotheism of Islam and showed that the Muslim venture deserved a place in the history of world civilisation.

Thus in 1708 Simon Ockley produced the first volume of his History of the Saracens, which upset many of his readers because he did not reflexively present Islam as the religion of the sword, but tried to see the seventh-century jihad from the Muslim point of view.

 But so entrenched was the old prejudice that many of these writers could not resist giving the Prophet a gratuitous swipe occasionally, demonstrating that the traditional image was not dead. Thus Simon Ockley described Muhammad as 'a very subtle and crafty man, who put on the appearance only of those good qualities, while the principles of his soul were ambition and lust'. (Daniel,Islam and the West, p. 297) George Sale agreed in the introduction to his translation that 'It is certainly one of the most convincing proofs that Mohammadanism was no other than a human invention, that it owes its progress and establishment almost entirely to the sword. '(Ibid., 300.) At the end of the essay Les Mocurs, Voltaire concluded his positive description of Islam with the observation that Muhammad had been 'regarded as a great man even by those who knew that he was an impostor and revered as a prophet by all the rest' (Ibid., 290.)  In 1741 in his drama Mahomet or Fanaticism, Voltaire had been able to take advantage of the current prejudice to use Muhammad as an example of all the charlatans who have enslaved their people to religion by means of trickery and lies: finding same of the old legends insufficiently scurrilous, he had blithely made up same of his own. Even Gibbon had little time for Muhammad himself, arguing that he had lured the Arabs to follow him with the bait of loot and sex. As for the Muslim belief in the divine inspiration of the Qu'ran, Gibbon loftily declared it an impossible position for the truly civilised man:

This argument is 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. The harmony and copiousness of style will not reach, in a version, the European infidel; he will peruse with impatience the endless incoherent rhapsody of fable and precept and declamation, which seldom excites a sentiment or an idea, which same times crawls in the dust, and is same times lost in the clouds. (The Decline and the Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. Dero E. Saunders, abridged in one volume (London, 1980), pp. 657-8)

But so entrenched was the old prejudice that many of these writers could not resist giving the Prophet a gratuitous swipe occasionally, demonstrating that the traditional image was not dead.

This shows a new Western confidence. No longer are Europeans cowering before the Islamic threat; instead they regard the Muslim religion with amused condescension, assuming that, if 'we' do not understand the Qu'ran, it must mean that there is nothing in it.In1841, Thomas Carlyle would also dismiss the Qu'ran with contempt in his lecture on Muhammad, 'The Hero as Prophet'.This was, however, a passionate plea for Muhammad and a denial of the old medieval fantasy. For almost the first time, somebody in Europe was trying to see Muhammad as a genuinely religious man. But the Qu'ran was condemned as the most boring book in the world: 'a wearisome, confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement; most crude, incondite, insupportable stupidity in short'. (On Heroes and Hero Worship (London, 1841), p. 63)

No longer are Europeans cowering before the Islamic threat; instead they regard the Muslim religion with amused condescension, assuming that, if 'we' do not understand the Qu'ran, it must mean that there is nothing in it.

At the very end of the eighteenth century, a telling incident showed the direction in which the new European confidence was tending. In 1798 Napoleon sailed to Egypt, accompanied by scores of orientalists from his Institut d'Egypte. He intended to use all this new scholarship and understanding to subjugate the Islamic world and challenge the British hegemony of India.

As soon as they landed, Napoleon sent the scholars off on what we should call a fact-finding mission, giving his officers strict instructions to follow their advice. They had obviously done their homework well. Napoleon had cynically addressed the Egyptian crowd at Alexandria with the claim: 'Nous sommes les vrais musulmans.' Then he had sixty sheikhs of al-Azhar, the great mosque in Cairo, brought with full military honours into his quarters. He carefully praised the Prophet, discussed with them Voltaire's Mahomet and seems to have held his own with the learned ulema. Nobody took Napoleon very seriously as a Muslim, but his sympathetic understanding of Islam did allay the hostility of the people to a degree. Napoleon's expedition came to nothing: he was defeated by the British and Turkish armies and sailed back to Europe.

 

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