Table of Contents
The West and Islam
Muhammad in Europe: A Thousand Years of Western Myth-Making by Minou Reeves; New York University Press; pages 307; $34.50.
URDU poetry is replete with reproaches at, and complaints to, the Almighty. Iqbal revelled in both. Faiz was not inhibited, either. But none would take liberties with the name and memory of Prophet Muhammad. Hence, the Persian couple: Ba khuda deewana
basho, Ba Muhammad hoshyar (Play madly with God if you wish, but be careful with Muhammad). Unfortunately, few non-Muslims have understood his station in the Muslim psyche and in Muslim lives. The German scholar, Annemarie Schimmel is among the rare
ones who do. Her work And Muhammad is His Messenger (The University of North Carolina Press; 1985) is not a biography but a deep study of "the veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety".
The frontispiece has a moving Urdu quatrain by Sir Kishan Prasad, the poet-Prime Minister of the erstwhile State of Hyderabad who bore the pen-name Shaad: Kafir hunke Momin hun, khuda jaane main kya hun / Mai banda hun unka jo hain Sultan-e-Madina. (Be
I infidel or true believer - God alone knows, what I am. But I know I am the servant of the Prophet who is the ruler of Medina).
Minou Reeves was, until 1979, an Iranian career diplomat. At the time of the Islamic Revolution, she was Queen Farah's international secretary. She won note for her books Behind the Peacock Throne and Female Warriors of Allah: Women and the Islamic
Revolution and is now a Fellow of the Institute of Linguists, London. She has not a trace of the rancour which members of the former ancien regime have for the new order; only understanding and empathy.
This scholarly work renders high service in promoting understanding not only internationally but in plural societies which have a Muslim presence. There is, for instance, a Sangh Parivar outfit which churns out hate literature singling out the Prophet
for attack. Minou Reeves surveys over a millennium's record of European denigration of Muhammad and explains why he was vilified.
While early medieval polemicists felt a threat to the Christian faith, European rulers felt threatened by the spread of Muslim rule. The Church and the state cooperated in the campaign. An ideology of hate was evolved and its traces linger still, as
recent incidents reveal. "Over the course of no less than thirteen centuries a stubbornly biased and consistently negative outlook had persisted, permeating deep levels of European consciousness. In the works of an overwhelming majority of European
writers, Muhammad was portrayed as a man of deep moral faults. Churchmen, historians, orientalists, biographers, philosophers, dramatists, poets and politicians alike had sought to attribute to Islam, and especially to Muhammad, fanatical and
disreputable, even demonic characteristics."
Affinities between Christianity and Islam created problems for European polemicists. "They chose not to attack Islamic theology, which was too seductive in its simplicity and clarity, and which raised too many awkward questions about Christian dogma.
Nor could they cast doubt on the pious practice of ordinary Muslims. Instead, anticipating the worst excesses of tabloid journalism, they personalised the issue and attacked the Prophet of Islam, dispensing with all but the barest knowledge of any facts
and inventing falsehoods. Muslims could not reply in kind, since they are told by the Qur'an to revere Jesus as a holy prophet."
Time did nothing to extinguish the hatred. It exacerbated it in the original site, gave it new forms and spread it among some of the historic victims.
The author does not ignore those like Sale, Carlyle, Rilke, Montgomery Watt and Schimmel who viewed Islam and its Prophet with empathy. Many a Christian scholar devoted a lifetime to the study of Islam. She might have added Karen Armstrong to the list.
(Vide her book Muhammad; Victor Gollancz; 1991).
On Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, she remarks:
"The whole amalgam of myths that had been conjured up in Europe from the Middle Ages by bellicose crusaders by generations of churchmen fearful of a threatening and all-powerful Islam, by reforming men of the Christian Church, by flamboyant writers of
the Renaissance, by champions of Reason in the Enlightenment, by writers, poets and painters intoxicated by the imagined charms of the exotic Orient, by serious biographers unable to shake off their own Christian view of the world, all flash by, all are
echoed in this provocative work: the Venerable Bede, John of Damascus, Paul Alvarus, William Langland, William Dunbar, Higden, Mandeville, Dante, Lydgate, Rabelais, Marlowe, Luther, Prideaux, Pitts, Abbe de Vertot, Voltaire, Hugo, Diderot, Gibbon, Muir,
Byron, Shelley, Southey, Delacroix, Thackeray, the spirit of their words is revived in Rushdie's pages. It is truly Mahound re-born.
"But there is another tradition that lives on, the tradition of Roger Bacon, of John of Segovia, of Lessing, of young Goethe, of Boulainvilliers, of Bolingbroke, of Carlyle, of Dawson, of Reland, of Rilke, of Paret, of Sprenger, of Tor Andrae, of
Bodley, of Montgomery Watt, of Rodinson, of Schimmel. They have sought to understand Muhammad's cause, Muhammad's message, Muhammad's social and political reforms, Muhammad's personality and character in the context of his times and with an open mind.
They have sought to dispel the myths and the stereotypes and to show how Islam embraces values dear to religions that have regarded it as their sworn enemy, while Muhammad himself saw his Faith as the continuation and enhancement of those very
The first two chapters comprise a biographical sketch based on authentic material with assistance from the Koranic scholar and historian of Islam, Dr. P.J. Stewart. The third on "Muhammad's Quest for Spirituality" describes the spiritual and moral
values for which Muhammad lived, fought and died. The rest are a detailed record of denigration of the Prophet by some of the greatest figures in European literature and scholarship and the response of European powers to the spread of Muslim rule.
Twice, in 1529 and 1683, the Ottomans reached the gates of Vienna. The seven Crusades (1095-1270) left an enduring and poisonous legacy. "The name Mahound or sometimes Mahoun, Mahun, Mahomet, in French Mahon, in German Maohmet, which was synonymous with
demon, devil, idol, was invented by the writers of Christian play cycles and romances of 12th Century Europe. In these writings Muhammad does not appear as a prophet or even anti-prophet, but as a heathen idol worshipped by the Arabs." Salman Rushdie
could not have been unware of this when he used that very word in The Satanic Verses, which the author analyses, devastatingly. Her survey, weaving literary and scholarly trends into the clashes of power, has flashes of remarkable insights. In Spain
the Christian Reconguista movement expelled the Arabs from their last stronghold, Granada, in 1492.
The defeat of the Muslims in Spain marked the end of the Arab presence in Europe, only to shift the focus from the Arabs to the Turks. "Muhammad, the prophet of the Arabs, came to be seen as the embodiment of Turkish monstrosity." For, on May 29, 1453,
Constan-tinople fell to the forces of Sultan Mehmed II.
The Ottoman Empire was liquidated in the First World War, but on its ruins a monstrous historic wrong was perpetrated. "On his arrival in Jerusalem General Allenby made a historic remark which indicated that the long-standing animosity between
Christendom and Islam was not over and that the crusading mentality was still alive. Speaking in public, he announced that the crusades were now finally completed. And three years later, in 1920, when French troops occupied Damascus, their commander
marched up to Saladin's tomb in the Great Mosque and cried: 'Nous revenons Saladin!' (We are back Saladin!). The deep-seated contempt for Islam had long displayed itself amongst the French colonialists as a sense of vindictiveness towards the Muslim
populations of the former Ottoman Empire."
The British were no better. There were only 60,000 Jews in Palestine at that time as against 750,000 Muslims, mostly Arabs. But the British Foreign Secretary A.J. Balfour wrote in 1918: "The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it
right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land."
The author rightly remarks: "The modern conflict between Muslims and Jews was triggered by Western colonial dictates and by Zionism. It radicalised Islam and divorced it once again, as in the Medieval Ages from its mother-faiths, Judaism and
Christianity. Islam had been forced into isolation, provoking anti-European feelings amongst its followers. The Balfour Declaration had reinforced the Jewish people's awareness of its ancient claim, rooted in the religious history of Israel and the
destruction of its state by the Romans in 70... the first Jewish-Muslim territorial and ideological conflict since the advent of Islam... was in the making."
In 2001, Israel is reluctant to permit a Palestinian State on one-third of that land. The sensitivities of the entire Muslim world have been inflamed by Israel's brutal repression and expansionism. The author traces the growth of "the new Islamic
radicalism" in recent years.
Once, when students at the Aligarh Muslim University burst out in anger at a vilificatory writing, the then Vice-Chancellor Dr. Zakir Hussain reminded them of the AMU founder's response to Sir William Muir's book on the Prophet. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan
wrote in 1870, in reply, his masterly Essays on the Life of Muhammed (Idarah-i Adabiyat-i Delli; 1981 reprint).
The author makes a powerful plea for reconciliation: "Coming closer to the present day, it becomes plain to see how these images, so deeply rooted in the Western consciousness, have helped to ignite the suspicion and resentment towards the West that
manifests itself in Islamic fundamentalism. Far from being a recent phenomenon, this emerged in response to European colonialism in the Islamic Orient from North Africa to Indonesia, and most crucially to the establishment of Israel in the heart of the
Near East. Today the attraction of Islamic Fundamentalism reaches beyond revolutionary Iran, to Turkey, Egypt and - dramatically close to Europe - to Algeria. Its impact has been so great in recent years that, even as more balanced pictures of Muhammed
and his religion have begun to appear in Western writings, they have been eclipsed by images of a radical, anti-Western and violent Islam that once again bears the hallmarks of the age-old prejudices. It is as if the wheel of history has turned full
circle back to the age of the Crusades and Holy Wars.
Reconciliation must be at both levels - intellectual and political. It is time the West and, particularly, the United States realised the dire necessity of devising a new order based not on force but on respect for the people's rights, sentiments and