The Curse of the Infidel
By Karen Armstrong
A century ago Muslim intellectuals admired the west. Why did we lose
their goodwill? Karen Armstrong (The Guardian) Thursday June 20, 2002 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 destabilized 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
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 abandoned 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 - 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 (Weidenfeld).