Islam-Roots of Misunderstanding

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IN THE LAST ISSUE, WE HIGHLIGHTED SOME GENERAL aspects of Islam to demonstrate the nature of misunderstanding about Islam in the West. In this issue, we draw our reader’s attention to some roots of this misunderstanding. Next month, we’ll focus on the history of Islam.

Europe first confronted Islam’s political, military, and religious challenge the 7th century. European Christianity had already possessed a rich and colourful stock of interpretations, symbols, and myths, and had constructed a set of categories that determined the religious other amidst its brutal conflicts with corrupted Judaism, perverted heresies, and paganisms. Islam was now to be fitted into the existing categories of Jew, pagan, and heretic. Elements that didn’t fit in these schemes were to be ignored. Christianity’s early knowledge of Islam, therefore, was governed by a theological model that regulated the image and position of the other within Christian theology. George Bernard Shaw, the celebrated British dramatist and intellectual, once said, “The Mediaeval Ecclesiastics either through ignorance or bigotry painted Muhammadanism (Islam) in the darkest colours. In fact, they were trained both to hate the man Muhammad and his religion. To them he was anti-Christ. I have studied him, the wonderful man, and in my view, far from being an anti-Christ, he must be called the saviour of humanity.”

To many Christian theologians, Islam was “the work of devil,” the Qur’an “a tissue of absurdities,” and Muhammad (on whom be peace) “a false prophet,” “an imposter,” or “antichrist.” The Muslims were some sort of brutes with hardly any human qualities.

This image of Islam continued throughout the crusade period, but the Arabs were replaced by the Turks following the expulsion of Muslims from Spain in the 15th century. George Sale, an early 18th century translator of the Qur’an, wrote in the introduction to his translation: “I imagine it almost needless either to make an apology, or to go about to prove it a work of use as well as curiosity. They must have a mean opinion of the Christian religion, or be ill-grounded therein, who can apprehend any change from so manifest a forgery… But whatever use an impartial version of the Koran may be, in other respects it is absolutely necessary to undeceive those who, from the ignorant or unfair translations which have appeared, have entertained too favourable an opinion of the original, and also to enable us effectually to expose the imposture.”

The imposture view of the Prophet continued to modern times. Professor Phillip K. Hitti, a contemporary historian of the Middle East, writes about the very recent past: “Unfortunately during the last decade or two, in particular, the impact of the West has not been all for the good. There is a striking contrast between the humanitarian ideas professed by Western missionaries, teachers and preachers, and the disregard of human values by European and American politicians and warriors; a disparity between word and deed; an over-emphasis on economic and nationalistic values. The behaviour of the so-called advanced nations during the last two wars waged on a scale unknown in history; the ability of Western man to let loose these diabolic forces which are the product of his science and his machine and which now threaten the world with destruction; and with particular relation to the Near East, the handling of the Palestine problem by America, England and other nations – all these have worked together to disillusion the man of the Near East who have been trying to establish an intellectual rapprochement with the West. It is these actions of the West which alienate him and shake his belief in the character of the Western man and his morality on both the private and the public levels.”


Towards the end of the 20th century, some scholars in the Western world have worked really hard to correct misconceptions regarding the Qur’an and of Prophet Muhammad. What follows are the opinions and views of some of the well respected personages of the secular West:
The celebrated English writer Washington Irving in his book “Life of Muhammad,” while referring to Qur’an, says “The Qur’an contains pure, elevated, and benignant precepts, which in the words of Dr. Strengass ‘ is one of the grandest Books ever written’ and in the words of Goethe ‘attracts, astounds and enforces our reverance’.” 
The celebrated English novelist, H. G. Wells in his “Outline of World History” observes “Islam from the outset was a fair proof against the theological elaborations that have perplexed and divided Christianity and smothered the spirit of Jesus. And its third source of strength has been in the meticulous prescriptions of methods of prayer and worship, and its clear statement of the limited and conventional significance of the importance ascribed to Mecca… Islam created a society more free from widespread cruelty and social oppression than any society had ever been in the world before.”
Thomas Arnold, in his book “Caliphate” refers to the spirit of equality and brotherhood as preached by the Prophet of Islam, when he says “Whatever be the race, colour, rank, or antecedents of the worshipper, he is received into the brotherhood of believer and takes his place as an equal among equals. Islam is a great political power, whose effect the world will feel more and more in proportion as the ends of the earth are brought closer and closer together. Islam is the only solution for all the ills of the world. This is no idle boast on my part. For it is in Islam only that the idea of real material League of Nations has been approached in the right and practical way.”
Michael Hart, the American astronomer-historian, in his 1992 work “The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History,” acknowledges there is none greater than Muhammad, and in his considered opinion Muhammad is the most important and influential person since times immemorial, who shaped the course of future history by pioneering successfully the greatest revolution recorded in the Annals of Mankind. He observes, “He was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and the secular levels.” Among the 100 most influential individuals in the world history after ranking Prophet Muhammad first, he lists the following names in order of importance among the top ten: Isaac Newton, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Confucius, St. Paul, Ts ai Lun, Johan Gutenberg, Christopher Columbus and Albert Einstein.
Unfortunately, following the Cold War some Western authors have attempted to find a villain in Islam. This is evident in the work “The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the New World Order” by Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington. This is peculiar, as it was the Muslim countries that allowed the West to have the forward military bases in their countries, making themselves vulnerable in the event of outbreak of hostilities, but are these days under the constant threat of being labelled as ‘terrorist havens.’
Source: The Expat October 2005
This article has been edited for

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