Responses to Islamic Awareness

Orientalism, Misinformation and Islam

Mr Squires begins by saying:

Any open-minded person embarking on a study of Islam, especially if using books written in European languages, should be aware of the seemingly inherent distortions that permeate almost all non-Muslim writings on Islam. At least since the Middle Ages, Islam has been much maligned and severely misunderstood in the West. In the last years of the Twentieth Century, it does not seem that much has changed even though most Muslims would agree that progress is being made.

To some extent, this is true. However, the Islamic world also has many misconceptions about the west in general and Christianity in particular. The misconception and misrepresentation of Christianity dates back to Muhammad. For example, when Muhammad claimed that Christians believed that Mary was equal to God, he either did not understand the teachings of orthodox Christianity, or he intentionally misrepresented orthodox beliefs in order to set up a "straw man" argument. Many Muslim websites contain intentional misrepresentations of Christian beliefs, most of which the Muslims borrowed from atheists and Jehovah's Witnesses! One of my main goals in engaging in dialogue with Muslims, and other Christians, is to gain, and share, more knowledge about both faiths and their philosophical and historical foundations.

He continues:

I feel that an elegant summary of the West's ignorance of Islam and the motives of Orientalism are the following words by the Swiss journalist and author, Roger Du Pasquier:

The West, whether Christian or dechristianised, has never really known Islam. Ever since they watched it appear on the world stage, Christians never ceased to insult and slander it in order to find justification for waging war on it. It has been subjected to grotesque distortions the traces of which still endure in the European mind. Even today there are many Westerners for whom Islam can be reduced to three ideas: fanaticism, fatalism and polygamy.

This statement is, to some extent, true. For most of history, western Christians and Muslims lived near to, but very separate, from each other, with the Mediterranean between them. There has been much ignorance and misunderstanding in both communities throughout the years, and, generally speaking, each group has a distorted view of the other. Completely blaming the west for the misunderstandings between these two civilizations is intellectually dishonest and will never bring about mutual understanding and respect.

Unfortunately, most Americans do hold stereotypes of Muslims based on what they see on television. Also, some Muslims work diligently to re-enforce the negative stereotypes. For example, Ayatollah Khomeini was quoted as saying:

"In order to achieve the victory of Islam in the world, we need to provoke repeated crises, restore value to the idea of death and martyrdom. If Iran has to vanish, that is not important."

There is a Muslim family in my neighborhood. Very few people in the neighborhood speak to these people and they do the same in return. I made an effort to befriend this family. Many of my American neighbors distrust these folks because they are "different" and may be terrorists or religious fanatics. The Muslim family also harbors stereotypes and prejudices against westerners, believing that we are all alcoholics and sex perverts. In fact, these folks found it odd that I do not drink! My friendship with these good people has helped break down my stereotypes as well theirs.

Of course, there does exist a more cultivated public whose ideas about Islam are less deformed; there are still precious few who know that the word Islam signifies nothing other than 'submission to God'. One symptom of this ignorance is the fact that in the imagination of most Europeans, Allah refers to the divinity of the Muslims, not the God of the Christians and Jews; they are all surprised to hear, when one takes the trouble to explain things to them, that 'Allah' means 'God', and that even Arab Christians know him by no other name.

"Less deformed" -- interesting semantics! The connotative meaning of Islam is much broader, involving issues of history, theology, philosophy, and law. Also, I do not know any Christians who claim that Muslims believe Allah refers to any deity other than the God of Abraham - although the character and behavior of God in the Bible is very different than the character of God as portrayed in the Qur'an.

Islam has of course been the object of studies by Western orientalists who, over the last two centuries, have published an extensive learned literature on the subject. Nevertheless, however worthy their labours may have been , particularly in the historical and philological fields, they have contributed little to a better understanding of the Muslim religion in the Christian or post-Christian milieu, simply because they have failed to arouse much interest outside their specialised academic circles.

Sad, but, for the most part, true. However, I believe that this is changing as more scholars are beginning to focus on the earliest history of Islam as well as on the textual history of the Qur'an.

One is forced also to concede that Oriental studies in the West have not always been inspired by the purest spirit of scholarly impartiality, and it is hard to deny that some Islamicists and Arabists have worked with the clear intention of belittling Islam and its adherents. This tendency was particularly marked for obvious reasons in the heyday of the colonial empires, but it would be an exaggeration to claim that it has vanished without trace.

Scholars have often been used to further the interests of country and empire. Then again, so has religion.

This having been said, it should come as no surprise that learning about Islam in the West especially when relying on works in European languages has never been an easy task. Just a couple of decades ago, an English speaking person who was interested in Islam, and wishing to limit their reading to works by Muslim authors, might have been limited to reading a translation of the Qur'an, a few translated hadeeth books and a few dozen pamphlet-sized essays. However, in the past several years the widespread availability of Islamic books written by believing and committed Muslims and the advent of the Internet have made obtaining authentic information on almost any aspect of Islam much easier. Today, hardly a week goes by that a new English translation of a classic Islamic work is not announced. Keeping this in mind, I would encourage the reader to consult books written by Muslim authors when trying to learn about Islam. There are a wide range of Islamic book distributors that can be contacted through the Internet.

This is true. When I was in Junior High-school, in Ohio during the mid 1970's, it was nearly impossible to find a copy of the Qur'an. In fact, I had to order a copy and wait six weeks for it to arrive! To make matters worse, the supplier only sold George Sales' terrible translation. Both Muslims, and Christians who study Islam, can be thankful for the Internet which has sites containing searchable multiple Qur'an translations as well as the Hadith.

The remainder of this article attacks the bigotry and motives of "Orientalism". Mr. Squires, as well as Edward Said before him, ask some very good questions concerning this brand of scholarship. Many of the reactions of our Muslim friends are the result of the subjugation and humiliation under which the Arab world, as well as non-Arab Muslims, suffered during imperialism. Said's Orientalism gave the Arab and Muslim world an argument against the west as well as the intellectual and cultural influence of the west. Some young intellectuals turned this argument into a tool of revenge against the scholarship of the west.

Unfortunately, there is more involved in this problem than the prejudices of the west. The term "Orientalist" has become another name (like racist or sexist) that an aggrieved group can call those who question that group's "sacred history". The west, whether we are talking about those who are religious or those who are secular, has its own unique world view and looks at the world through the lens of that world view. Therefore, western scholarship has essentially produced apologies and criticisms of Islam and Islamic thought in an attempt to explain the religion to the western audience. Dr. Saifullah, Mr. Squires, and other contributors to this site, also hold a unique world view and analyze Christianity according to that view. In fact, Muslims, unlike Jews and Christians, have put an intellectual embargo on the Qur'an which cannot be breached. Even a small degree of analysis can be very dangerous, Nasr Abu Zaid is a recent example of the unwillingness of many Muslims to analyze their world view. The study of human history suffers greatly as a result of these attitudes.

The debate over "Orientalism" is irrelevant these days for several reasons. First, western political and military imperialism is no longer a force in much of the Islamic world, therefore, the west has no practical motives in perpetuating the philosophy of "Orientalism". Second, and most encouraging, is the fact that a new breed of scholars came on the scene during the 1970's and they have moved the debate concerning the interpretation of Islamic history out of the realm of religious polemics and into the fundamental framework of historiography. The most important issue now is determining how Islamic civilization came to be and whether the traditional accounts are historically correct. In other words, did Islamic civilization evolve from the teachings of Muhammad and the Qur'an, or did Islamic traditions create these teachings? After all, the earliest Quranic inscriptions were written on the Dome of the Rock (688 AD) and the earliest history of Muhammad was written by Ibn Ishaq a century latter. As more histories were written in the Abbasid period, (circa 750) more "facts" about the life of the Muhammad emerged. Unfortunately, these stories are far too similar to the sacred histories of the peoples of other Semitic civilizations to be trusted. So the search for better source documents, as well as archeological research continues.

It is interesting to note that Edward Said believes that no adequate Islamic response has, to date, been made to the revolution in Western scholarship on Islamic civilization. This secular approach gives us the hypothesis that Islam (as we know it) took over 200 years to formulate and evolve. Islam, according to this new trend, did not instantly and spontaneously come from Muhammad.

Andrew Vargo

Further reading: Edward Said's Orientalism Revisited, Orientalism, anyone?

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