Islam and the West: a historical background

“This article is re-published in light of the latest vilifying remarks made by the Pope of the Vatican against Islam and its Prophet, Muhammed (may Peace be Upon him.) 

Historically fear and hatred were the two main features characterizing Western Christian perceptions of Muslims. In Chanson de Roland, the great medieval French epic of the wars between Christians and Muslims, the Christian poet envisioned the religion of Islam  as a trinity consisting of the Prophet Muhammed and two other entities, both of them Devils, Appolin and Tervagant.


This  conceptualization, comic as it is, was typical of the manner in which Christian Europe viewed Islam and Muslims for several centuries.


Interestingly enough, some of these perceptions have lingered in some way or the other to this  day.  In fact,  classical historical western canards about Islam and the Prophet Muhammed have witnessed a conspicuous revival in some western religious circles, especially among fundamentalist evangelical Christians, especially in the United States . Some of these evangelicals, for example, have been disseminating the canard that Muslims worship  “a moon-god” and that “Allah” is actually a pre-Islamic Arabian pagan deity.  In 2004, Pat Robertson, head of the Christian Broadcasting Network and founder of CNN, said in a speech in Hertzlya, north of Tel Aviv, that the  conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was actually  a conflict between the Judeo-Christian God and the Islam’s God-moon.!!


This totally vindictive un-objective discourse, says Nammoura, reflects fears by these evangelicals that Islam constitutes the main threat and obstacle to their dispensationalist ideology.


“They see Islam, not Buddhism, not Hinduism, not Judaism, as the main geopolitical threat, this is why they come up with this rubbish.”

Heavy legacy

For many centuries, both Eastern and Western Christendom called Muslims Saracens. In the Iberian Peninsula ,  they called Muslims Moors, and people of the Iberian culture continued to call all Muslims “Moors” even if they met them in South East Asia . (e.g. the  Moro Liberation Front in the Southern Philippines ). In Most of Europe, Muslims were called Turks, and a convert to Islam was said to have “turned Turk”  even if the conversion took place in a place as far away as India .


The massive crusades by the Franks  against the Muslim East did succeed in demythologizing some of Western perceptions of Islam.


However, some of the  classical European misconception  about Islam persisted, even among the more educated class.


Translation of the Quran


In 1649, the first English translation of the Quran was published in London . This translation by Alexander Ross was based on a 1647 French translation by Andre du Tyer, who had been French consol in Egypt . Ross, utterly ignorant of Arabic and no great master of French, added an appendix to his “translation” of the Quran,  titled “A needful caveat or admonition for them who desire to know what use may be made of, or if there be danger in reading the Alcoran.” It begins as follows:


“Good reader, the great Arabian Imposter now at least after a thousand years, is…arrived in England , and his Alcoran, or Gallimaufry of Errors (a brat as deformed as the parents, and as full of  heresies as his scald-head was of scurffe) hath learned to speak English. I suppose this piece is exposed by translators to the publike view, no otherwise than some Monster brought out of Africa, for people to gaze, not to dote upon; and as the sight of the Monster, or Mishapen creature, should induce the beholder to praise God, who hath not made him such; so should the reading of this Alcoran excite us both to bless God’s judgments, who suffers so many countries to be blinded and inslaved with this misshapen  issue of Mahomets braine.”


Ross’s views of Islam and the Quran were representative of his time. He was addressing a civilization which had had its mind made up about Islam for a thousand years, and the verdict was negative.

Although Ross’s conceptualization of Islam reflected the overall European rejection and fear of it, a few of his contemporaries , strangely enough, treated Islam much more objectively.

For example, Henry Stubbes, born in England in 1632, wrote several manuscripts on the Islamic faith entitled “Account of the Rise and Progress of Mahometanism, with the Life of Mahomet and a Vindication of Him and His Religion from the Calumnies of the Christians.”

Stubbes ridiculed the medieval Christian legends about Muhammed as “rubbish” e.g. that he had the falling sickness, i.e., was an epileptic, and that Muhammed’s inspiration came to him via a pet pigeon which used to eat peas from his ear.

In one of these manuscripts, entitled “the Character of Mahomet and Fabulous Inventions of the Christians Concerning him and his religion,” Stubbes presented a remarkable image of the Prophet, considering the general anti-Islamic prejudices and misperceptions of that time. He wrote:

“I doubt not but by this time your curiosity will prompt you to enquire after the portraiture of this extraordinary person. His great soul was lodged in a body of Middle size, he had a large head, a brown complexion but fresh color, a beard long and thick but not grey, a grave aspect wherein the aufulness of majesty seemed to be tempered with admirable sweetness which at once imprinted in the beholder’s respect, reverence and love. His eyes were quick and sparkling, his limbs exactly turned, his mien was great and noble, his motion free and easy, and every action had a grace so peculiar that it was impossible to see him with indifference.”

But, to reiterate, stubbes’ ideas on Islam were by no means popular, not within contemporary intellectual and religious circles, no in society at large. This probably explains the fact that his treatise was no published until 1911.

According to Philip Hitti, author of  “the Arabs”, the Christian medieval image of Islam was the aggregate product of a confluence of streams of multiple sources in Syro-Byzantine, Hispano-French, Sicillio-Italian and crusading literature.

This totally anti-Islamic literature conceptualized Muslims as pagans worshiping a false prophet who worked out his doctrine from Biblical sources under the tutelage of an Arian Monk. Such fabulous misrepresentations were caricatured not only in religious and literary works, but also in art. Dante in his  “Divine Comedy”  was thus  prompted consequently to consign the Prophet  and his son-in-law Ali, to the ninth hell reserved for sowers of scandals and schism.

Gradual change

Western perceptions of Islam began to change slowly as more Europeans came in contact with Muslims. However,  these perceptions remained basically negative due to the  fundamental doctrinal differences between Islam and Christianity. However, with the rise of  Orientalism in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Europeans (and some Americans)  began to view the world of Islam less imaginatively. European explorers, archaeologists and even missionaries began to tour the Islamic lands as the political influence of the West increased in various Islamic regions mainly due to the constant deterioration of the political and military influence of the Ottoman state, which led eventually to its collapse and downfall following WWI.


Folowing the downfall of the Ottoman state, or perhaps as a result of it, European powers occupied or came to control the bulk of Muslim lands in the Middle East . At this time, European attitudes morphed from fear and hatred to patronization and contempt.

Although European occupation of the Arab lands was seen mainly within the framework of European colonial expansionism, its religious dimensions were very conspicuous. After General Allenby conquered Jerusalem on December 10, 1917 , Christians everywhere expressed their euphoric  rejoicing at the “Christian” victory against the “infidel” Turks.

An article published in 1917  in the catholic magazine “ America ” captioned “Crusaders in Khaki,” congratulated Christians that the Holy Land was finally in Christian hands.

“Over the Mosque of Omar, the crescent has been lowered before the cross. A sigh of relief and a hymn of gratitude have gone up form the nations that sill worship Christ…They can sign their Te Deum, for Bethlehem and Gethsemane, Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher are once more in Christian hands.”

Arrogance and hegemony

According to Mahmoud al- Nammoura, a Palestinian writer who has written two books on western-Islamic relations, the adoption of the Balfour declaration by Britain  in 1917 encapsulated western hostility and contempt toward Islam.


“The religious dimension in that infamous declaration was very apparent. The fact that Britain viewed the creation of a national home for Jews in Palestine at the expense of  its Christian and Muslim inhabitants reflected utter disregard for the rights and survival for the Arabs.”

Nammoura,  however, explains “current western attitudes” vis-à-vis Islam and Muslims,  in cultural, not  religious terms.

He says the current hostility toward Islam in many western circles is an _expression of “cultural arrogance” and “civilizational hegemony.”

This view is supported by another Muslim intellectual, Bassam Jarar, considered one of the most prominent Islamic thinkers in occupied Palestinian territories.

He argues that “growing vilification of Islam” in some western circles is “a subconscious reflex to Muslim resilience and steadfastness in the face of the West’s cultural onslaught.”

“They can’t easily come to terms with the fact that a militarily and politically defeated umma (community) is asserting a pro-active presence in the heart of the West and is aspiring to present itself as an alternative to western civilization.”

When asked if the ongoing crisis was a vindication of Samuel Huntington’s theory of “conflict of civilizations,” Jarar said a conflict between the Islamic and western civilizations was not “inevitable.”

“It is not inevitable if they are (westerners) faithful to democracy. Let them allow the free market of ideas to take its course.”

Jarar believes that while the cartoon crisis has a negative aura, and might rekindle old prejudices,  it will eventually have a positive income.

“I believe this is going to be a good lesson for both Muslims and Westerners. It might lead to a greater understanding in the long range.”

 A western view

Fr. Peter Du Burl of the Bethlehem University, a Catholic University funded by the Vatican,  Believes that Christian anti-Muslim attitudes should be viewed within the context of a complex relation between Islam and Christianity.

“As you know, a Christian who has not seriously studied Islam cannot take the Holy Quran at face value; there are too many  contradictions to Christian beliefs.”

Burl thinks it is wrong to overlook or marginalize the religious dimension in the west-Islam relationship, contending that it is wrong to view the west as living in a “post-religious era.” “I think the west is more religious than some Mulims would think and the Muslim east is more secular than some Muslims would admit..”

Non the less, dur Burl, who has been living in the West Bank for many years, believes that the road to western -Muslim understanding, though long and painful, is never the less, not blocked.

 “The Islamic mission to the world comes into conflict with other missions, and such ‘missions’ have much to learn from one another. We are in the process of learning now, very painfully. The enemy is always reduced to a stereotype; who is easier to kill.”

 He recognizes though that Christian perceptions of Muslims and Muslim perceptions of Christians do  involve “stereotypes” which  he said ought to be dis-embedded  and replaced by real discourse, exchange, self-knowledge, learning about others and prayers.

“If there is to be a greater understanding in the long range, it has to start with critical respect for the religious component in both cultures. In many ways, the ‘west’ is a handy myth that helps undifferentiated minds and hearts to focus on an enemy.” (end)

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