Perceptions and Misperceptions of Islam
Nasir Khan, January 18, 2015
In the wake of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo’s publishing of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that many Muslims world-wide regard derogatory and provocative, and the killings of the staff of the weekly and international reactions to these events, I am posting the ‘preface’ to my book ‘Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms: A Historical Survey (2006)’. This book provides a historical context of perceptions of Islam for the last thirteen/ fourteen centuries.
As the price of the book in Norway, USA and UK is somewhat high for many readers, I have put it for free downloading on my website Peace and Justice Post <https://sudhan.wordpress.com/free-download-of-the-book-per…/>
This book is a historical survey of the views and perceptions of Islam that emerged in the Christendoms from the eight-century to the present time. My main purpose has been to investigate the historical role of the polemical writings of Christian writers who confronted Islam as a religious and political enemy of Christianity on the basis of their own theological pre-commitments. Consequently, they succeeded in creating and reinforcing a distorted picture of Islam that became deeply rooted in the culture and psyche of the West, and had far reaching consequences for the relations between the power-blocs of Christianity and Islam since the Middle Ages.
During my research-work on this theme over a number of years, I became aware that, although, some prominent Western scholars and historians such as Sir Richard Southern, William Montgomery Watt, Albert Hourani, Norman Daniel, Bernard Lewis and Maxime Rodinson, have made enormous contribution to our understanding of the Western attitudes towards Islam in the Middle Ages, there was a need for a full survey of such views and perceptions over the last fourteen centuries of Christian-Muslim encounters. To meet this need, I undertook this historical survey, and have broadened both the subject matter and the time span for this book. In order to cover a wide range of issues within the compass of a single volume I also had to delimit the number of polemicists and other writers who wrote on Islam. However, instead of a cursory mention of some of the leading Christian apologists of the early centuries, I have given them more space within the following major geographical divisions and specific polemical tradition: (a) the Oriental Christians under Muslim rule, (b) the Byzantine Empire, (c) Catholic Spain under the Muslim rule, and (d) the Catholic West and Protestant countries. I have used original texts, wherever possible, for the exposition of these writers’ views. In this way, these writers speak for themselves. My reason for following this approach was the conviction that we can best comprehend the history of Christian-Muslim encounters from the early times by examining concrete circumstances and particular writers whose views became influential in shaping the attitude of one religious tradition towards the other.
I have made frequent use of direct quotations from both the primary sources and the secondary literature. Moreover, I have tried to place anti-Islamic polemic within the context of major historical events and movements. On the other hand, I have not thought it appropriate to refer to all the vulgar calumnies of the apologists directed against the Prophet Muhammad and Islam, specific charges that might shock the sensibilities of a reader, no matter what his or her own orientation towards religion or the founders of religions. Still, it is possible that some may feel offended. But historical facts have to be faced as they stand. If I had omitted all such horrid views, I would have missed the whole point of explaining how the distorted images of Islam took shape.
Every writer is a product of the social and cultural matrix of his age. The polemical writers against Islam had their own theological presuppositions, convictions and concerns. In a like manner, such pre-commitments do not disappear in modern writers either. For instance, Professor Montgomery Watt, a priest of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, and Dr Norman Daniel, a committed Catholic, who have written with great sympathy and understanding a number of scholarly works on Islam, are also believers in the ultimate truth of Christianity, that is, its fundamental dogmas. As a result, when it comes to the question of judging the fundamental Islamic belief in the unity of Godhead, they measure it against the doctrine of the Trinity. Since the two theological doctrines seem to be at variance with each other, they uphold and justify the Trinity to be the truth about One God. It can readily be admitted that such a perspective, deeply subjective as it inevitably is, is difficult to avoid or overcome.
At the same time, I am aware that any attempt to answer questions about the truth or falsity of a belief or religious doctrine falls beyond the scope of historical analyses. But this does not mean that a historian should also avoid the question of how and why some belief arose and in what ways it has influenced society. What, to a believer, may be an unquestionable and sacrosanct truth is very often shaped and conditioned by social and cultural traditions. In the final analysis, such phenomena are a matter of belief, opinion and perspective, very often seconded by an appeal to
authority in one shape or the other. I make no attempt to adjudicate between any opposing theological formulations, interpretations or claims. My approach to such controversial issues is primarily historical. Apart from pointing to some obvious
logical inconsistencies that I have come across in the arguments of polemicists, I have not analysed the rationale of their religious or theological presuppositions, nor have offered any alternate solutions. I have also intentionally avoided any discussion or critique of religious propositions in their various forms, which nevertheless can meaningfully be subjected to a rational scrutiny in analytic philosophy.
But the question of Christian theological presuppositions has an important bearing on historiography. Some modern Christian historians, who, in the last few decades have looked at the history of the misperceptions of Islam in the West, have been and are committed to the truth of Christian dogmas. Apart from giving traditional explanations about how these sacred dogmas have roots in the New Testament, and were given definitive formulations and shape by the Fathers of the Church, they simply gloss over modern research in the history of early Christianity that has thrown new light on how Christian dogmas came into existence. As such important bodies of research have remained confined only to a small community of specialists and academics, most readers are unaware of their existence. I find laudable
the historical inquiries, approach and concerns that have solely focused on the theme of the Western attitudes to Islam. Nevertheless they fall short of presenting a full picture. My own view is that to understand Christian-Muslim encounters in the theological sphere, of which the polemical writings of the Christians form only a part, the reader should also have a clear historical picture of how the Christian dogmas evolved, because these became the theological presuppositions of Christian belief and the criteria for repudiating Islam and the prophetic mission of Muhammad. This also enables us to compare the standpoints of two religious traditions towards each other, and thus we can situate the polemical views in their proper place and settings. In this light, I have presented the history of the rise of Christianity and the conflicts in the early Church in the first two chapters of this book. These form an essential part of the present book for understanding the subsequent attitudes in the Christendoms towards other faiths. But they can also be read on their own. They deal with an immensely exciting area for study and reflection. Due to the shortage of space, I have presented only in a summary form the views and results of the research of some leading scholars on the history of the early Church. I believe that this information will enable readers to form their own opinion on how Christianity’s doctrines evolved and assess their role as essential presuppositions that played a major part in shaping the outlook of
Christian apologists towards Islam in a wider historical perspective. It also shows how religious doctrines about the realm beyond the material world are conceived and shaped by human agency.
What are the Qur’anic views of Jesus and the Christian dogmas? Unfortunately, even some of those Western writers who have approached Islam with greater sympathy have hesitated to bring forth openly what the Qur’an says on the matter, while some others have offered their interpretation of the Qur’an with a view to defending Christian dogmas for which one finds little support in the Qur’an. Obviously, such views are motivated to defend and preserve what one believes to be the true dogmas. In Chapter 5, I have outlined the Qur’anic views of Jesus and some of the Christian dogmas. Whether or not one agrees with these views is the least of my concerns, but the Qur’anic texts are quite explicit on these points, and it is only fair that the Qur’anic perspective as an expression and culmination of pure monotheism should be judged on the basis of what it clearly proclaims.
It is commonly assumed that one’s religious beliefs are not subject to any objective scrutiny or assessment, but that does not mean that common sense and basic principles of logic presupposed in all human thought and discourse should be discarded to uphold what to a believer may be a ‘religious truth’. Neither am I advocating that the dogmas of one religious tradition in some esoteric way are superior to or better than the other. Intellectual honesty requires that a proposition that is logically inconsistent and contradictory should not be passed on as logically valid.
In the case of both Christianity and Islam, an old monotheistic tradition is their common root and denominator. But how did the concept of One God and his attributes come to be looked at and interpreted in two religions, and set them up at odds against each other? Obviously, the emphasis had shifted to highlighting their differences, not their many similarities and agreements.