Folders
 

Prophet Muhammad and the Middle Ages IV

 

Renan argued that Hebrew and Arabic were degraded languages, deviations from the Aryan tradition, which had become irredeemably flawed. These Semitic tongues could be studied only as an example of arrested development and lacked the progressive character of 'our' linguistic systems.

The nineteenth century was characterised by the colonial spirit, which was giving Europeans the unhealthy belief that they were superior to other races: it was up to them to redeem the barbarous world of Asia and Africa in a mission civilisatrice. This inevitably affected the Western view of Islam, as the French and the British looked covetously towards the declining Ottoman empire. In the French Christian apologist François Rene de Chateaubriand, for example, we find a revival of the Crusading ideal which had been adapted to meet the new conditions. He had been impressed by Napoleon's expedition, seeing him as a Crusader-pilgrim. The Crusaders had tried to bring Christianity to the East, he argued. Of all religions, Christianity was the one 'most favourable to freedom', but in the Crusading venture it had dashed with 'Islam': 'a cult that was civilization's enemy, systematically favourable to ignorance, to despotism and to slavery’ (Quoted in Said, Orientalism, p. 172) In the heady days after the French Revolution, 'Islam' had once again become the opposite of 'us'. During the hierarchically minded Middle Ages, some critics of Islam had blamed Muhammad for giving too much power to menials, like slaves and women. This stereotype had now been reversed, not because people necessarily had a fuller knowledge of Islam but because it suited 'our' needs and was as always a foil against which we could measure our achievements.

In his best seller Journey from Paris to Jerusalem and from Jerusalem to Paris (1810-11), Chateaubriand applied his Crusading fantasy to the situation in Palestine. The Arabs, he wrote, 'have the air of soldiers without a leader, citizens without legislators, and a family without a father'. They were an example of 'civilised man fallen again into a savage state'.(Ibid) Therefore they were crying out for the control of the West, because it was impossible for them to take charge of their own affairs. In the Qu'ran there was 'neither a principle for civilisation nor a mandate that can elevate character'. Unlike Christianity, 'Islam' preaches 'neither hatred of tyranny nor love of liberty'. (Ibid, p. 171)

 The influential French philologist Ernest Renan attempted a scientific explanation for these new racial and imperialist myths. He argued that Hebrew and Arabic were degraded languages, deviations from the Aryan tradition, which had become irredeemably flawed. These Semitic tongues could be studied only as an example of arrested development and lacked the progressive character of 'our' linguistic systems.That was why Jews and Arabs were both 'une combinaison inferieure de la nature humaine'.

The nineteenth century was characterised by the colonial spirit, which was giving Europeans the unhealthy belief that they were superior to other races: it was up to them to redeem the barbarous world of Asia and Africa in a mission civilisatrice.

 One sees that in all things the Semitic race appears to us to be an incomplete race by virtue of its simplicity. This race - if I dare use the analogy - is to the Indo-European family what a pencil sketch is to a painting; it lacks that variety, that amplitude, that abundance of life which is the condition of perfectibility. Like those individuals who possess so little fecundity that, after a gracious childhood, they attain only the most mediocre virility, the Semitic nations experienced their fullest flowering in their first age and have never been able to achieve true maturity. (Histoire Generale, quoted in Ibid., 149)

Yet again, Jews and Arabs had been fused in a single image which provides a flattering description of 'our' superior virtues. The new racism would, of course, have disastrous consequences for European Jewry. Hitler drew upon the old Christian patterns of hatred in his secular crusade against the Jews, unable to bear the presence of an alien race on pure European and Aryan soil.

  There were no Muslims left in Europe, but during the nineteenth century the British and the French began to invade their lands. In 1830 the French colonised Algiers, and in 1839 the British colonised Aden; between them they took over Tunisia (1881), Egypt (1882), the Sudan (1898) and Libya and Morocco (1912). In 1920, even though they had made pledges to the Arab countries that they would have their independence after the defeat of the Turkish empire, Britain and France carved up the Middle East between them into mandates and protectorates.

Today the Muslim world associates Western imperialism and Christian missionary work with the Crusades. They are not wrong to do so.When General Allenby arrived in Jerusalem in 1917, he announced that the Crusades had been completed, and when the French arrived in Damascus their Commander marched up to Saladin's tomb in the Great Mosque and cried: 'Nous revenons, Saladin!’ The Christian missionary effort supported the colonialists, attempting to undermine traditional Muslim culture in the conquered countries, and local Christian groups, like the Maronites of Lebanon, were given a disproportionate role in the running of the protectorate. The colonialists would have argued that they were bringing progress and enlightenment, but the effort was informed with violence and contempt. The pacification of Algeria, for example, took many years and any resistance was brutally put down in reprisal raids. The contemporary French historian M. Baudricourt gives us an idea of what one of those raids was like:

Our soldiers returning from the expedition were themselves ashamed .... about 18,000 trees had been burnt; women, children and old men had been killed. The unfortunate women particularly excited cupidity by the habit of wearing silver ear-rings, leg-rings and arm-rings. These rings have no catch like French bracelets. Fastened in youth to the limbs of girls they cannot be removed when they are grown up. To get them off our soldiers used to cut off their limbs and leave them alive in a mutilated condition. (M. Baudricourt, La Guerre et le gouvernement de l’Algerie. Paris, 1853., p. 160.)

Today the Muslim world associates Western imperialism and Christian missionary work with the Crusades. They are not wrong to do so.

The colonialists displayed their basic contempt for Islam. In Egypt, Lord Cromer decried the attempt of the liberal intellectual Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905) to rethink some traditional Islamic ideas. Islam, he declared, could not reform itself, and the Arabs were incapable of regenerating their own society. As he explained in his magisterial two-volume work Modern Egypt, the 'Oriental' was irredeemably childish and the diametrical opposite of 'us';

Sir Alfred Lyall once said to me: 'Accuracy is abhorrent to the Oriental mind. Every Anglo-Indian should always remember that maxim.' Want of accuracy, which easily degenerates into untruthfulness, is in fact the main characteristic of the Oriental mind.

  The European is a close reasoner; his statements of fact are devoid of any ambiguity; he is a natural logician, albeit he may not have studied logic; he is by nature sceptical and requires proof before he can accept the truth of any proposition; his trained intelligence works like a piece of mechanism. The mind of the Oriental, on the other hand, like his picturesque streets, is eminently wanting in symmetry. His reasoning is of the most slipshod description. Although the ancient Arabs acquired in a somewhat higher degree the science of dialectics, their descendants are singularly deficient in the logical faculty. They are of ten incapable of drawing the most obvious conclusions from any simple premises of which they may admit the truth. (Quoted in Said, Orientalism, p. 38.)

  Even though Western scholars continued to attempt a more objective picture of the Arab and Muslim world, this colonial superiority made many people believe that 'Islam' was beneath their serious attention.

'Accuracy is abhorrent to the Oriental mind. Every Anglo-Indian should always remember that maxim.' Want of accuracy, which easily degenerates into untruthfulness, is in fact the main characteristic of the Oriental mind.

  Certainly this offensive Western attitude has succeeded in alienating the Muslim world. Today anti-Western feeling seems rife in Islam, but that is an entirely new development. The West may have harboured fantasies of Muhammad as its enemy, but in fact most Muslims remained unaware of the West until just over 200 years ago. The Crusades were crucial in the history of Europe and had a formative influence on the Western identity, as I have argued elsewhere. (Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World., London, 1988.) But, though they obviously deeply affected the lives of Muslims in the Near East, the Crusades had little impact on the rest of the Islamic world, where they were simply remote border incidents. The heartlands of the Islamic empire in the Iraq and Iran remained entirely unaffected by this medieval Western assault. They had, therefore, no concept of the West as their enemy. When Muslims thought of the Christian world, they did not think of the West but of Byzantium; at that time Western Europe seemed a barbarous, pagan wilderness, which was indeed far behind the rest of the civilised world.

But Europe caught up and the Muslim world, which was occupied with its own concerns, failed to notice what was happening. Napoleon's expedition to Egypt was an eye-opener for many thoughtful people in the Near East, who were much impressed by the easy, confident bearing of the French soldiers in this post-revolutionary army. Muslims had always responded to the ideas of other cultures, and many were drawn to the radical, modernising ideas of the West. At the turn of this century, nearly every leading intellectual in the Islamic world was a liberal and a Westerniser. These liberals may have hated Western imperialism, but imagined that liberals in Europe would be on their side and would oppose people like Lord Cromer. They admired the quality of the Western way of life, which seemed to have enshrined many ideals that were central to the Islamic tradition. In the last fifty years, however, we have lost this goodwill. One reason for the alienation of the Muslim world has been its gradual discovery of the hostility and contempt for their Prophet and their religion which is so deeply embedded in Western culture and which they consider still affects its policy towards Muslim countries even in the post-colonial period.

As the Syrian writer Rana Kabbani points out in Letter to Christendom:

Is the Western conscience not selective? The West feels sympathy for the Afghan Mujahedin, propped up by American intelligence just as the Nicaraguan Contras were, but feels no sympathy for militant Muslims who are not fighting its Cold War battles but have political concerns of their own. As I write, Palestinians are dying every day in the Occupied Territories - nearly 600 dead at the latest count, over 30,000 wounded and 20,000 in detention without trial ... yet Israel remains a democracy in Western eyes, an outpost of Western civilization. What is one to think of such double standards? (Rana Kabbani, Letter to Christendom., London, 1989, p. 54)

The West must bear some measure of responsibility for the development of the new radical form of Islam, which in some hideous sense comes close to our ardent fantasies.

 The West must bear some measure of responsibility for the development of the new radical form of Islam, which in some hideous sense comes close to our ardent fantasies.Today many people in the Islamic world reject the West as ungodly, unjust and decadent. Some Western scholars like Maxime Rodinson, Roy Mottahedeh, Nikki R. Keddie and GiIles Kepel are trying to understand the meaning of this new Islamic mood. But, as usual, these attempts to attain a more objective and sympathetic comprehension of the present crisis in the Muslim world are the concern of a minority. Other more aggressive voices show little desire to understand but promote the old tradition of hatred.

 The new radical Islam is not simply inspired by hatred of the West, however. Nor is it in any sense a homogenous movement. Radical Muslims are primarily concerned to put their own house in order and to address the cultural dislocation that many have experienced in the modern period. It is really impossible to generalise about the rise of this more extreme form of the religion. It not only differs from country to country, but from town to town and from village to village. People feel cut out from their roots: Western culture has invaded the interstices of their lives. Even the furniture of their homes has undergone major change and becomes a disturbing sign of domination and cultural loss. In turning to religion, many are attempting to return to their roots and recover an identity which is profoundly threatened. But in each area, the type of Islam is entirely different and idiosyncratic and is deeply affected by local traditions and conditions that are not specifically religious. In his classic book Recognizing Islam, Religion and Society in the Middle East, Michael Gilsenan has argued that the differences are so great from one district to another that the term 'Islam' or 'fundamentalism' is simply not useful in defining the current attempt to articulate the experience of people in the Middle East during the post-colonial period. The phenomenon is certainly far more complex than the media tends to suggest. Many Muslims in the area may well be experiencing rather the same sense of dread and loss of identity as that felt by the martyrs of Cordova, w ho felt that their culture and traditional values were being eroded by an alien power.

 We constantly produce new stereotypes to express our apparently ingrained hatred of' Islam'. In the 1970s we were haunted by the image of the immensely rich oil sheikh; in the I980s by the fanatical ayatollah; since the Salman Rushdie affair, 'Islam' has become a religion that spells death to creativity and artistic freedom. But none of these images reflects the reality, which is infinitely more complex. Yet this does not stop people from making sweeping and inaccurate judgements. Rana Kabbani cites two hostile remarks by Fay Weldon and Conor Cruise O'Brien. In Sacred Cows,, her contribution to the Rushdie debate, Weldon writes:

 The Koran is food for no-thought. It is not a poem on which a society can be safely or sensibly based. It gives weapons and strength to the thought-police and the thought-police are easily set marching, and they frighten ... I see it as a limited and limiting text when it comes to the comprehension of what I define as God. (Fay Weldon, Sacred Cows. London, 1989, p. 54)

I can only say that this remark does not cohere with my own experience of studying the Qu'ran and the history of isIam. But Conor Cruise O'Brien, reverting to the tradition that makes any respect for Islam a cultural defection, would call me a hypocrite, Muslim society, he writes, looks profoundly repulsive ... it looks repulsive because it is repulsive ... A Westerner who claims to admire Muslim society, while still adhering to Western values, is either a hypocrite or an ignoramus or a bit of both.

But not all critics take this Crusading line. Many scholars in our own century have tried to enlarge the Western understanding of Islam: Louis Massignon, H. A. R. Gibb, Henri Corbin, Annemarie Schimmel, Marshall G. S. Hodgson and Wilfred Cantwell Smith.

He concluded: 'Arab society is sick, and has been sick for a long time. In the last century, the Arab [sic] thinker Jamal al-Afghani wrote: "Every Muslim is sick, and his only remedy is in the Koran." Unfortunately the sickness gets worse the more the remedy is taken. ' (Connor Cruise O’Brien, The Times, 11 May1989.)

But not all critics take this Crusading line. Many scholars in our own century have tried to enlarge the Western understanding of Islam: Louis Massignon, H. A. R. Gibb, Henri Corbin, Annemarie Schimmel, Marshall G. S. Hodgson and Wilfred Cantwell Smith. They have followed in the footsteps of people like Peter the Venerable and John of Segovia and have used scholarship to challenge the prejudice of their time. Religion has for centuries enabled members of a given society to cultivate serious understanding. People may not always succeed in expressing their religious ideals as they should, but they have helped notions of justice benevolence, respect and compassion for others to provide a standard against which we can measure our behaviour. A serious study of Islam shows that for 1,400 years the ideals of the Qu'ran have contributed in large measure to the spiritual welfare of Muslims. Some scholars, like the outstanding Canadian scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith, would go so far as to say that 'the Muslim segment of human society can only flourish if Islam is strong and vital, is pure and creative and sound. ' (Islam in Modern History, Princeton and London, 1957.,  pp. 304-5) Part of the Western problem is that for centuries Muhammad has been seen as the antithesis of the religious spirit and as the enemy of decent civilisation. Instead, perhaps, we should try to see him as a man of the spirit, who managed to bring peace and civilisation to his people.  

 

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