Posts Tagged ‘Muslim-Christian relations’

Book Review: Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms (Khan)

October 17, 2015

Editor’s Note: This is a recent  review by Jacob J. Prahlow of my book Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms: A Historical Survey.

This book can be downloaded by clicking on the following link.

— Nasir Khan, Editor


Book Review: Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms (Khan)

History is contested. Though far from a novel statement, we often need to be reminded that the past is not as clean and easy as our history textbooks make it out to be. This is especially true in matters of religious history and conflict, where seemingly everyone wants to contribute their two cents to hot button issues. Occasionally, however, someone will produce a historical narrative that—while outside the mainstream—remains valuable enough to warrant consideration. Nasir Khan’s Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms may be one such book.

In Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms: A Historical Survey (Oslo: Solum Forlag, 2006), Khan traces the history of Christianity and its interactions with Islam, admittedly writing from the perspective of a Muslim historian and political analyst. Weighing in at nearly five hundred pages, Khan’s tome-like work stands as one of the most thorough treatments of Islamic-Christian in recent decades. After three chapters on early Christianity and the pre-Islamic world, Khan devotes two sections to the rise of Islam and early doctrinal differences between Christianity and Islam and two chapters on political influence and spread of Islam. Next come two chapters on the Crusades, a section on Islamic interaction with the Mongol empire, and three chapters on “shifting perceptions” of Islam and then rise of Enlightenment perspectives. Perceptions of Islam closes with two chapters on late-nineteenth and twentieth century interactions between Islam and Christianity.

There is much of value in this volume. In the first place, it is well written and easy to follow, something that cannot be said of every attempt at a historical survey. Khan does an especially admirable job providing a Muslim perspective on the history of Christianity, world history, and Muslim-Christian relations. Books that provide other ways of engaging history—even if they are ultimately disagreeable—are integral to properly engaging the complexities of the past. In this vein, Khan provides a good sense of Muslim interpretations of important events—the Crusades in particular—and how these events continue to shape Muslim perceptions of the West. Finally, he offers some solid reading in the general history of Middle East. Overall, there is much that students of history will find useful in Khan’s presentation.

However, much here also stands in need to critique. Two primary issues loom large throughout this volume: the assumption of modernity and its harshest critiques of Christianity without reciprocity toward Islam and a fundamentally faulty understanding of early Christianity. In the first place, Khan takes a thoroughly modernist approach to history—Marxist it seems, both in term of approach and the laudatory citation of Marx and Lenin. This historiography relies heavily upon considerably older scholarship, especially when it comes to discussing the ills of Christianity. Khan’s primary authorities when considering the history of Christianity are Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Gibbon. Further, he relies on ‘First Quest’ Historical Jesus scholars—Wrede and Renan primarily—when talking about the historical Jesus. This would be problematic in itself, but Khan also almost entirely avoids similarly dated and perspectival criticisms of Islam. This approach to scholarship is simply not acceptable for something published as recently as 2006. Second, Khan’s chapters on early Christianity are filled with numerous inaccuracies, the most troubling of which is a flawed understanding of the Trinity. For a writer who consistently criticizes Christians for not coming to a proper understanding of Islam,[1] this is disappointing.

Overall, Khan’s work stands as something of a mixed bag. The most valuable use of Perspectives of Islam may be that it offers a good indication of “where we’re at” in terms of Muslim-Christian dialogue. Whereas many interfaith-minded authors seem to put the best face possible on any given situation, Khan gives what appears to be his honest opinion, no holds barred. In that sense, this book may serve as a valuable source for where Christians and Muslims need to seek further clarification and understanding. This book comes recommended for those thinking about Muslim-Christian dialogue, and those who already possess a solid foundation in the history of Christianity. For other readers, Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms should only serve as piecemeal source or an example of Muslim perspectives on the history of Christianity.

All opinions in this review belong solely to the reviewer.

[1] For one example of this, see page 329.

Invaders of the mind

February 28, 2009
James Buchan on how an intellectual infiltration helped to civilise us

The theory of permanent Muslim-Christian enmity, though it flourishes in the caves of Tora Bora and parts of the American academy, was long ago exploded by the historians. In this clear and well-written book, Jonathan Lyons delves into all sorts of musty corners to show how Arabic science percolated into the Latin world in the middle ages and helped civilise a rude society.

  1. The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization
  2. by Jonathan Lyons
  3. 248pp,
  4. Bloomsbury,
  5. £20
  1. Buy at the Guardian bookshop

He tells how Arab advances in astronomy, mathematics, engineering, navigation, geography, medicine, architecture, chemistry, gardening, finance and verse passed into Europe by way of the Crusader kingdoms, Sicily and Spain and prepared the ground for both the Renaissance and the scientific advances of the 16th and 17th centuries. This infiltration of ideas has left traces in our language, from alcohol, algebra and algorithm to the Arabic names of the bright stars Betelgeuse and Aldebaran.

With the fall of the Roman empire in the west, Europe lost touch with much of its classical inheritance and was isolated by the Arab invasions from the Byzantine empire where some ancient learning survived. Lyons recounts how early medieval Christendom was unable accurately to measure the time of day for monastic offices, or fix the date of Easter, while dogmatic schemes of scripture and hierarchy left little scope for natural science. Aristotle’s influence was confined to the logic and rhetoric of the schools. Bishop Isidore of Seville promulgated the idea that the Earth was flat.

In contrast, when the Arabs conquered Iraq in the first half of the seventh century AD, they came upon living schools of Hellenistic learning in natural science and medicine, along with Indian mathematics and astronomy that had come by way of Iran. Systematic reasoning, driven out of Muslim jurisprudence in favour of precedents from the Prophet’s life and conduct, found a new field of inquiry in ancient geography and cosmology. After the founding of Baghdad in AD762, the Abbasid caliphs established a library and a team of translators at the Beit al-Hikma, the “House of Wisdom” of Lyons’s title.

A famous early catalogue of Arabic books known as the Fihrist lists as many as 80 Greek authors in Arabic translation, chief among them Aristotle, the mathematician Euclid and the medical philosophers Hippocrates and Galen. For this natural philosophy, the Arabs coined the word falsafa, and called its practitioners falasifa. The great Arabic philosophers such as Ibn Sina in Iran (known in Latin Europe as Avicenna, who died in 1037) and Ibn Rushd in Spain (Averroes, who died in 1198) found ways of inserting Aristotelian natural philosophy and Ptolemaic cosmology into a scriptural monotheism, which was precisely what the Latins needed. As Lyons writes, “Arabic replaced Greek as the universal language of scientific inquiry”.

He begins with a vivid contrast. In 1109, 10 years after the Crusaders sacked Jerusalem and put Muslims, Jews and eastern Christians to the sword, Adelard of Bath, a well-born scholar, set off for Antioch not to kill Muslims but, as he put it, “to investigate the studies of the Arabs” (studia arabum). As so often in medieval biography, a few “facts” are made to work hard, and some scholars (though not Lyons) doubt Adelard ever mastered Arabic. Nonetheless, he is thought to have taken part in translations from Arabic of Euclid’s geometric system, the elements, and the astronomical tables of al-Khwarizmi, and composed such original works as On the Use of the Astrolabe. For Lyons, Adelard is the “first man of science”. Such was the prestige of Arabic learning in England, according to a startling passage here, that partisans of King Henry II, during the quarrel with Rome over Thomas Becket, threatened the king would convert to Islam.

The new learning spread. By the middle of the 12th century, Euclid and Pythagoras are arrayed with the Virgin on the west front of Chartres cathedral. Lyons summons up a world of itinerant scholars such as Michael Scot, who (in the words of one monk) “in Paris seek liberal arts, in Orléans classics, at Salerno medicine, at Toledo magic, but nowhere manners and morals”. Scot found his way to the Arabising court of one of the “baptised Sultans”, the Emperor Frederick II, where he translated Arabic commentaries on Aristotle and helped promote the great mathematician Leonardo of Pisa. Leonardo, generally known as Fibonacci, gave a systematic account of the Arab/Indian numerical system and “the sign 0, which the Arabs call zephyr”, or rather sifr – and which we call the zero.

For the orthodox, these men reeked of brimstone, and Dante placed Michael with the wizards in the eighth circle of hell. St Thomas Aquinas brought a measure of peace to the church, but the systems of Aristotle and Ptolemy became rigid and brittle till they shattered in the Copernican revolution of the 16th century.

Why Muslim science and medicine remained in their medieval state in certain regions well into our lifetimes belongs to another book. For all Lyons’s wonder and admiration, the falasifa were always out of the mainstream of Muslim thought; they are best understood as a sort of sect, like the Shia, and were just as vulnerable to charges of heresy. The only small blemish in this fine book is that Lyons has printed a beautiful page of al-Biruni’s Arabic treatise on mathematics back to front, so the text can only be read in a mirror.

• James Buchan’s latest novel is The Gate of Air, published by Maclehose Press.