The curse of the infidel

A century ago Muslim intellectuals admired the west.

Why did we lose their goodwill? 

Karen Armstrong

Thursday June 20, 2002

The Guardian,4273,4444362,00.html 


See the profile of this author at:


On July 15 1099, the crusaders from western Europe

conquered Jerusalem, falling upon its Jewish and

Muslim inhabitants like the avenging angels from the

Apocalypse. In a massacre that makes September 11 look

puny in comparison, some 40,000 people were

slaughtered in two days. A thriving, populous city had

been transformed into a stinking charnel house. Yet in

Europe scholar monks hailed this crime against

humanity as the greatest event in world history since

the crucifixion of Christ. 

The crusades destabilised the Near East, but made

little impression on the Islamic world as a whole. In

the west, however, they were crucial and formative.

This was the period when western Christendom was

beginning to recover from the long period of barbarism

known as the Dark Ages, and the crusades were the

first cooperative act of the new Europe as she

struggled back on to the international scene. We

continue to talk about "crusades" for justice and

peace, and praise a "crusading journalist" who is

bravely uncovering some salutary truth, showing that

at some unexamined level, crusading is still

acceptable to the western soul. One of its most

enduring legacies is a profound hatred of Islam. 

Before the crusades, Europeans knew very little about

Muslims. But after the conquest of Jerusalem, scholars

began to cultivate a highly distorted portrait of

Islam, and this Islamophobia, entwined with a chronic

anti-semitism, would become one of the received ideas

of Europe. Christians must have been aware that their

crusades violated the spirit of the gospels: Jesus had

told his followers to love their enemies, not to

exterminate them. This may be the reason why Christian

scholars projected their anxiety on to the very people

they had damaged. 

Thus it was, at a time when Christians were fighting

brutal holy wars against Muslims in the Near East,

that Islam became known in Europe as an inherently

violent and intolerant faith, a religion of the sword.

At a time when the popes were trying to impose

celibacy on the reluctant clergy, western biographies

of the prophet Mohammed, written by priests and monks,

depict him, with ill-concealed envy, as a sexual

pervert and lecher, who encouraged Muslims to indulge

their basest instincts. 

At a time when feudal Europe was riddled with

hierarchy, Islam was presented as an anarchic religion

that gave too much respect and freedom to menials,

such as slaves and women. Christians could not see

Islam as separate from themselves; it had become, as

it were, their shadow-self, the opposite of everything

that they thought they were or hoped they were not. 

In fact, the reality was very different. Islam, for

example, is not the intolerant or violent religion of

western fantasy. Mohammed was forced to fight against

the city of Mecca, which had vowed to exterminate the

new Muslim community, but the Koran, the inspired

scripture that he brought to the Arabs, condemns

aggressive warfare and permits only a war of

self-defence. After five years of warfare, Mohammed

turned to more peaceful methods and finally conquered

Mecca by an ingenious campaign of non-violence. After

the prophet's death, the Muslims established a vast

empire that stretched from the Pyrenees to the

Himalayas, but these wars of conquest were secular,

and were only given a religious interpretation after

the event. 

In the Islamic empire, Jews, Christians and

Zoroastrians enjoyed religious freedom. This reflected

the teaching of the Koran, which is a pluralistic

scripture, affirmative of other traditions. Muslims

are commanded by God to respect the "people of the

book", and reminded that they share the same beliefs

and the same God. Mohammed had not intended to found a

new religion; he was simply bringing the old religion

of the Jews and the Christians to the Arabs, who had

never had a prophet before. Constantly the Koran

explains that Mohammed has not come to cancel out the

revelations brought by Adam, Abraham, Moses or Jesus.

Today, Muslim scholars have argued that had Mohammed

known about the Buddhists and Hindus, the native

Americans or the Australian Aborigines, the Koran

would have endorsed their sages and shamans too,

because all rightly guided religion comes from God. 

But so entrenched are the old medieval ideas that

western people find it difficult to believe this. We

continue to view Islam through the filter of our own

needs and confusions. The question of women is a case

in point. None of the major world faiths has been good

to women but, like Christianity, Islam began with a

fairly positive message, and it was only later that

the religion was hijacked by old patriarchal

attitudes. The Koran gives women legal rights of

inheritance and divorce, which western women would not

receive until the 19th century. The Koran does permit

men to take four wives, but this was not intended to

pander to male lust, it was a matter of social

welfare: it enabled widows and orphans to find a

protector, without whom it was impossible for them to

survive in the harsh conditions of 7th-century Arabia.

There is nothing in the Koran about obligatory veiling

for all women or their seclusion in harems. This only

came into Islam about three generations after the

prophet's death, under the influence of the Greeks of

Christian Byzantium, who had long veiled and secluded

their women in this way. Veiling was neither a central

nor a universal practice; it was usually only

upper-class women who wore the veil. But this changed

during the colonial period. 

Colonialists such as Lord Cromer, the consul general

of Egypt from 1883 to 1907, like the Christian

missionaries who came in their wake, professed a

horror of veiling. Until Muslims aban doned this

barbarous practice, Cromer argued in his monumental

Modern Egypt, they could never advance in the modern

world and needed the supervision of the west. But Lord

Cromer was a founder member in London of the Men's

League for Opposing Women's Suffrage. Yet again,

westerners were viewing Islam through their own

muddled preconceptions, but this cynicism damaged the

cause of feminism in the Muslim world and gave the

veil new importance as a symbol of Islamic and

cultural integrity. 

We can no longer afford this unbalanced view of Islam,

which is damaging to ourselves as well as to Muslims.

We should recall that during the 12th century, Muslim

scholars and scientists of Spain restored to the west

the classical learning it had lost during the Dark

Ages. We should also remember that until 1492, Jews

and Christians lived peaceably and productively

together in Muslim Spain - a coexistence that was

impossible elsewhere in Europe. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, nearly every

single Muslim intellectual was in love with the west,

admired its modern society, and campaigned for

democracy and constitutional government in their own

countries. Instead of seeing the west as their enemy,

they recognised it as compatible with their own

traditions. We should ask ourselves why we have lost

this goodwill. 

 Karen Armstrong is the author of Muhammad: A

Biography of the Prophet (Weidenfeld); The Battle for

God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam

(HarperCollins), and Islam: A Short History



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