“Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms” is a historical survey of centuries of distorted encounters between Christians and Muslims.
By Dr. Sahib Mustaqim Bleher
Nasir Khan, Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms - A Historical Survey, Oslo 2006: Solum Forlag, 487 pages.
“Why then do you call him a prophet and a messenger of God, who was but a voluptuary, defiled to the very core, a brigand, a profligate, a murderer and a robber? Tell me, pray, what do you mean by prophecy and by apostle? God knows you would not be able to tell had you not been taught by the Christian!” But for its greater eloquence this late Byzantine polemic by Bartholomew of Edessa differs little from today’s bile spat out against the prophet Muhammad and Muslims in general by the tabloid press in support of a wider political agenda. In Norway, a little further north from Denmark, where similar polemic was recently directed in pictorial form against the prophet in series of cartoons, a Muslim historian, Dr Nasir Khan, has given us a very useful tool in understanding the mindset of the West when it comes to Muslims and their religion. His book “Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms” is a historical survey of centuries of distorted encounters between Christians and Muslims.
Khan does not hide his own leanings, and to claim complete neutrality would imply a level of dishonesty even for a historian, but he desists from polemicising himself, quoting instead extensively from original sources. If his book causes embarrassment for Western readers it is simply because their history is embarrassing and to be reminded of it may prove painful. For example, Fulcher of Chartres gives the following eye witness account of the Crusades at the end of the 11th century: “This may seem strange to you. Our squires and footmen … split open the bellies of those they had just slain in order to extract from the intestines the gold coins which the Saracens had gulped down their loathsome throats while alive … With drawn swords our men ran through the city not sparing anyone, even those begging for mercy … They entered the houses of the citizens, seizing whatever they found in them … whoever first entered a house, whether he was rich or poor … was to occupy and own the house or palace and whatever he found in it as if it were entirely his own … in this way many poor people became very wealthy.”
Khan does not sensationalise. As a serious historian he tries to offer explanations for how the negative stereotypes of the other came about, including probing into the social and economic causes. He starts his survey by giving a background to the development of early Christianity and its numerous, competing, sects. When Islam started to spread as a new faith from Arabia, Christians mainly viewed it as just another heresy from the officially accepted dogma, like Gnosticism, Manichaeism, or Nestorianism. Until Islam became viewed as more of a serious political threat their efforts against their own co-religionists with differing interpretations of what it meant to be Christian were much more pronounced than those aimed at Islam of which they knew little. However, Islam did not simply collapse and go away as predicted, and with taking Constantinople and pushing Christendom out of much of its previous territory became a serious contender. It was at this time, between the 12th and 14th centuries, that the misrepresentative image of Islam was created which still dominates the European psyche today. At the same time, due to the status afforded to Christians in the Qur’an as people of the book, the Ottoman rulers tolerated the practice of Christianity amongst themselves to a degree that at times emboldened their Christian subjects to openly challenge them and test the waters.
A similar arrogance was displayed in the 9th century by the movement of the martyrs of Cordoba who purposefully tried to blaspheme against the prophet in order to be punished and put to death. Their aim in instigating conflict arose from the deep worry that many Christians were drawn to Islam and its culture and sciences in spite of the bigoted image their church elders painted of it. Paul Alvarus, for example, observes at the time: “My fellow Christians delight in the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the works of Mohammedan theologians and philosophers, not in order to refute them, but to acquire a correct and elegant Arabic style. Where today can a layman be found who reads the Latin Commentaries on Holy Scriptures? Who is there that studies the Gospels, the Prophets, and the Apostles?” Again, this observation of more than a thousand years ago has surprisingly modern undertones in the fear of losing one’s own heritage to a more attractive, albeit misguided, culture.
Khan quotes Grunebaum summing up the Christian approach as follows: “When the Christian looked upon Islam, his primary task was not to study this phenomenon of an alien faith that seemed both akin to and apart from his own but rather to explain the unexplainable, to wit, the artful machinations by which Mohammed had won over his people to the acceptance of his absurd confabulations. There is always, even in the most aggressive and contemptuous discussions of Islam, an element of apologetic self-defence in the utterances of the Christian writers, almost a touch of the propaganda for the home front. It is as if only the most derogatory presentation of the despicable but powerful enemy could allay the suspicion that his case be stronger than it was wise to admit.” And he cites Southern describing their wilful ignorance of the religion of Islam: “They were ignorant of Islam, not because they were far removed from it like the Carolingian scholars, but for the contrary reason that they were in the middle of it. If they saw and understood little of what went on round them, and if they knew nothing of Islam as a religion, it was because they wished to know nothing … They were fleeing from Islam: it is not likely that they would turn to Islam to understand what they were fleeing from.”
Whilst criticising Islam for alleged loose sexual morals European capitals were awash with debauchery; whilst attacking Islam for its alleged warlike nature in contradiction to the peaceful teachings of Jesus, Christian rulers made ready for war against Islam. The reconquista was the beginning of the Christian counter attack. The conquering Normans took Sicily and Malta back from the Muslims and the Spanish Catholics prepared for pushing the Muslims out of the Iberian peninsula. Meanwhile there were internal conflicts both in Europe and in the Muslim world. The Seljuk Turks pushed from the East into Byzantine and in their advance made inroads into the Christian Levante, eventually capturing Jerusalem. The Berbers of North Africa kept the Spanish attempts in check for some two centuries, but eventually had to recede back to Africa due to internal problems of dissension. When the Spaniards took full control under Isabella they meted out merciless retribution to the infidels, the Jews and the Muslims. Those who escaped the decimation fled to North Africa and Turkey, which is how the famous Jewish city of Thessalonica became established within the Ottoman realm. The papacy in Rome started to press for the crusades with the purported objective of recapturing Jerusalem, but once stripped of the propagandistic justification, the real aims were mainly economic and political. When the first wave of Crusaders moved eastwards they were just as good at plundering the towns and villages of their own co-religionist allies as they were at destroying Muslim towns and villages in their path. Maybe today, we would call it “friendly fire”. The cruelty and barbarism of the crusaders contributed to a shift in the Muslim perception of Christianity and the goodwill previously afforded to the people of the scripture started to evaporate and be replaced by an enemy image.
Whilst the crusades proved highly profitable for the West, enriching cities like Venice, Paris and Turin, and provided the desired achievement of the conquest of Jerusalem, they remained very much a side show for the realm of Islam. The biggest threat to its existence came from the East in the form of the Mongol invasion begun under Genghis Khan. Initially they had marched through the Caucasus and southern Russia in their conquest of the world in which “all cities must be razed so that the world may once again become a great steppe in which Mongol mothers will suckle free and happy children.” They would have overrun Western Europe in the 13th century had it not been for the fact that Batu Khan, who had led the attack on Hungary, had to hurry back upon the news of the death of his uncle Ogodai (Ghengi’s Khan’s son) in order to qualify as a potential successor. Europe was spared and the Middle East lay in the uninterrupted path of advance of the Mongols instead. The crusaders saw this as a divine sign and even tried to make alliances with the Mongols, but since they made such offers preconditional on their conversion to Christianity, they had limited effects. In the end the Mongols were checked by the Mamluks in Egypt and prevented the eradication of Islam, and over time the erstwhile enemy was converted and provided strength to the recovering Islamic caliphate.
With the failure of the crusades and the early beginnings of the Renaissances the Western hopes of conquering Islam gave way to a more conciliatory approach in the hope of converting Muslims to the gospel, placing emphasis, however, less on Church doctrine and scripture and relying more on philosophical arguments. Roger Bacon and St Thomas Aquinas, for example, represent this new methodology. For the centuries to come the Christian dominions remains fearful of the Turkish threat, and when Luther and Calvin led the revolt against Papal authority, they did, nonetheless inherit the same venomous antipathy for Islam. With the new intellectual freedoms gained in the reformation, however, Arabic learning also became popular in the West, and the early Western universities as well as the Western philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries seriously engaged with Arabic literature and sciences. Gradually the image of Islam became a little more complete and less distorted. The respite, however, was short-lived, since European expansionism once more opted for the military solution during the period of imperialism and colonialism justified polemically by social Darwinism calling for the need to convert and civilise the savages of conquered lands. Missionary activity flourished in this political climate.
After two savage world wars, powered by Europe’s industrial killing machine and unprecedented in human cost, the imperialist project faltered and former colonies were given a level of independence, replacing direct with indirect rule. Khan ends his book on a positive note, pointing to serious attempts by Church and secular establishments during the 20th century to re-engage with Islam on the basis of mutual understanding. When looked at a year after the publication of the book, however, it seems that this interlude was as short-lived as previous ones, and power politics and economics once again dominate the relationships between the post-Christian and Islamic civilisations. In their rhetoric the new crusaders in the White House and their allies in Europe and Australia draw on the same old worn clichés of the past. Nasir Khan’s book is an excellent resource to enlighten these confusing times by providing a historic backdrop against which they can be evaluated, and to my knowledge it is the first such attempt. It is an excellent exposition both for Muslim and non-Muslim readers and helps them in understanding both the origins of modern polemics against Islam as well as their ultimate futility.
Dr. Nasir Khan has his own blog at http://nasir-khan.blogspot.com through which he can be contacted.
Dr. Sahib Mustaqim Bleher is a German living in England, a Muslim and a pilot. Please visit his web site at http://flyingimam.blogspot.com