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Ever the twain shall meet 

In the first of a series of articles on the occasion of Ramadan, Eric Walberg traces the historical roots of Western-Islamic misunderstanding since Christianity's great rival swept across the Middle East and beyond in the 7-8th cc, culminating in continued attempts to conquer the Muslim world, both physically and spiritually

 

The world today is experiencing unprecedented crisis, with war raging and environmental degradation threatening the entire planet. Who is responsible? The West argues that its agenda of extending US hegemony, capitalism and trade is the answer to the crisis, but is stymied by a backward and fractious Muslim world unwilling to embrace modernity. For its part the world of Islam sees the West as irreligious, continuing its age-old struggle to undermine the dar al-salam (the house of peace). Having strayed from the "straight path" long ago, it continues to do the bidding of Iblis (Satan). Clearly relations between East and West continue to be plagued by mistrust and misunderstanding; however, the fact of the global village means we must on the contrary strive to understand and trust the eternal "other".

Western, i.e., Christian and now secular, views of Islam have varied considerably, ranging from the traditional bigotted dismissal as idolatry of the Prophet Mohammed (most strange in that it is in the first place a refutation of polytheism) to disparagement as a Christian sect or heresy. One of the more sympathetic views of Islam popular in the West is that it is an adaptation of Christianity for Arabs, that Mohammed was the Arabs' prophet, though in fact Arabs constitute only a minority of the world's Muslims.

Relations between the Christian world and its younger monotheistic cousin were plagued with misunderstanding from the start. Mohammed's revelation burst into the world six centuries after the previous prophet, Jesus, at a time when Christianity was on the decline, riven by sectarianism -- not just Catholicism vs Eastern Orthodoxy, but Nestorian, Copt and other sects which arose largely over the question of the divinity of Jesus. It swept aside the increasingly complaisant Christian sects with its bold assertion that the "people of the book", the Jews and Christians, had lost their way, that their scriptures were distorted and that, yes, Jesus was the prophetic Messiah, but not the son of God, a credo it saw as dangerously close to polytheism.

The breathtaking military victories of the Islamic armies and proselytising of the faithful convinced the vast majority of conquered peoples to adopt this powerful religion, converting from paganism, Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism as the new faith extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Islam proved to be a far more formidable force than Hinduism, Buddhism or Christianity because of its central tenet of the unity of the temporal and spiritual realms -- one's life has no meaning without faith. Yet in the heart of temporal Islam, the Middle East, Christians, Jews and others continued to profess their faiths, enjoying a peaceful coexistence with Muslims. In fact, until the collapse of Muslim rule after WWI, in every land ruled by Muslims dar al-salam seemed to flourish.

The westward march of Islam was stopped in Spain and on the fringes of Byzantium by Emperor Charlemagne in the 9th c. The confrontation between Catholicism and Islam, however, continued, culminating in the tragic Crusades of the 11- 13th cc and the 15th c expulsion of Muslims from Spain, leaving a legacy of mutual hostility that still haunts us. While Pope John Paul II apologised to the Eastern Orthodox Church for the sack of Byzantium in the 4th Crusade, he somehow managed to forget to apologise for all the Crusades to Muslims.

And while it was the Catholic Church that instigated the brutal Crusades against the Muslim world, the conventional wisdom in the West was and is that it is Islam that is inherently violent and intolerant. That Islam is idol worship, though this too is the very opposite of the truth. Shakespeare's Juliet is accused of being a "whinning mammet" (doll or idol) by her insensitive father, ironically suggesting the bigotry of medieval European society more than being a condemnation of Islam. Dante puts Mohammed in his 9th circle of Hell as a sower of religious discord.

So it is no surprise that for the Muslim world, European Christianity and its secular heirs are seen as continuing their age-old hostile struggle to control the Middle East, nay, the world, via the modern political and economic system of global capitalism, with its aggressive project to control world markets and its addiction to technology, which the Muslims view as a Godless secular assault on all that is holy.

Relations with Orthodox Christians were much better, and have remained so up to the present. When the early Byzantines were first confronted by the Prophet's armies in the 7th c, they assumed that Islam was merely a variant of Christianity: Islam accepts much of the Old and New Testaments, obeys the Mosaic laws about circumcision and ablutions, and venerates both Jesus and the ancient Jewish prophets. For many years Muslims and Christians prayed together in the churches of Middle Eastern cities, notably, the Basilica of St John in Damascus, where Christians and Muslims worshipped together for 50 years before it was formally converted into the Ummayad Mosque. As late as 649 AD, a Nestorian bishop wrote: "These Arabs fight not against our Christian religion; nay, rather they defend our faith, they revere our priests and saints, and they make gifts to our churches and monasteries."

Indeed, the greatest theologian of the early church, St. John of Damascus (d. 749), who grew up in the Ummayad Arab court of Damascus -- the centre of the Islamic world at the time -- was convinced that Islam was at root not a new religion, but instead a new variation of Christianity.

But John was an Orthodox Christian, and in some ways Islam itself could be seen to have grown out of the largely Orthodox Christian environment of the late antique Levant. Its rituals are strikingly similar to those of the eastern Orthodox Christian. William Dalrymple in From The Holy Mountain describes how the bowing and prostrations of Muslim prayer are related to the older Syrian Orthodox tradition that is still practised in pewless churches across the Levant. The architecture of the earliest minarets, which are square rather than round, derives from the church towers of Byzantine Syria, while Ramadan, at first sight one of the most distinctive of Islamic practices, bears startling similarities to Lent, which in the eastern Christian churches still involves, as it once did in the Catholic Church as well, a gruelling all-day fast. If a monk from 6th c Byzantium were to come back today it is probable that he would find much more in common with a modern Muslim than he would with, say, a contemporary American Evangelical. Yet this simple truth has been lost by our tendency to think of Christianity as a thoroughly Western religion rather than the Oriental faith it is.

The gradual consolidation of Western imperialism after the 15th c meant the inevitable colonisation of the Muslim world: India, Malaysia and Indonesia in the 18th c, and Egypt and north Africa by the mid-19th c. Only with the total collapse of the Ottoman empire at the end of WWI was this process completed with Palestine, Arabia, Mesopotamia and Persia becoming, in effect, Western colonies.

Islam for the most part reacted peaceably to the imperialist onslaught, certainly not aggressively, unlike its now more powerful "other", though nonetheless fighting back bravely. The history of the Muslim world in the past century and a half is a litany of heroic if tragic and largely unsuccessful attempts to resist the invader.

To confront the renewed Western threat, the Ottoman and Persian Empires, the two states that still enjoyed some measure of autonomy in the early 19th century, undertook military reforms. But a military response required modern science, technology, training and methods of organisation. Muslim reformers such as Abbas Mirza and Amir Kabir in Persia and Midhat Pasha in the Ottoman Empire sent students to European schools, and introduced educational and administrative reforms, even as Western economic, political and social penetration of the Muslim world continued unabated. The Muslim world has in fact strived seriously to understand its "other" in the past two centuries, a process that has not been reciprocated, with ignorance of Islam and the history of the Muslim world rampant in the West, and arguably the underlying cause of the tragic confrontation between East and West we witness today.

In the second half of the 19th century, anti-colonial unity and reform in the Islamic world gathered momentum. Seyyed Jamal Ud-Din Asadabadi (known as Al-Afghani), one of the earliest revolutionaries who championed pan-Islamic thought, was credited with fomenting revolts in India, Iran, and Egypt against the British and local potentates. His political aspirations represent the dominant themes of modern Islamic politics ever since: Islamic unity, reform through the use of ijtihad (reasoning), science and education, and resistance to foreign domination and the un-Islamic rulers who collaborate with it, combined with an impulse to return to the pure Islam of the days of the Prophet. Two eminent Muslim scholars who continued along these lines were Mohammed Abduh and Rashid Reda of the Al-Azhar University, who took up the challenge of reform of the Sharia through a judicious exercise of ijtihad.

At the same time, Islam presented the closest rival to Marxism in its revolutionary ideological potential. Like Marxism, Islam believes in the unity of theory and practice. Unlike Marxism, however, it provides a belief in the afterlife that gives meaning to the human conditions of death, suffering, and evil. Islam, like Marxism and unlike Buddhism, takes history seriously. Unlike Christianity, Islam recognises no demarcation between the spiritual and temporal realms. The unity of temporal and spiritual authorities in early Islam is the ideal state to which modern Islam would like to return, either with the imposition of the rule of the ulama (religious scholars) as practiced in Iran or as suggested by Maulana Abdul Maududi in Pakistan, or alternatively, by the leadership of such lay Islamic organisations as the Ikhwan al-Muslimin. 

By the 1970s, people all over the Muslim world were becoming dissatisfied with secular Western-inspired ideologies which had not delivered what they had promised. Abbas Madani, one of the founding members of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), wanted to create an Islamic political ideology for the modern world. The initial success of the FIS in the local elections showed that the people wanted some form of Islamic government but this ended in a Western- supported coup and ongoing violent opposition to the secular regime. It was a clear message to Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, where secular governments have long been aware of the growing religiosity of their countries. Earlier, Islam was thought to be passé. Now secular governments in the Middle East realise that if there were truly democratic elections, an Islamic government might well come to power. In the republics of Central Asia, Muslims are also renewing their faith after decades of Soviet suppression.

Yes, the need for reform and adaptation to the new reality of the industrial revolution and Western imperialism was and is pressing, but the logic of reform is not necessarily the agenda of the "other", as both the Soviet Union and the West learned the hard way. Indeed the saying, "Be careful what you ask for; you might get it" is an apt word of caution to Western calls for reform of the Muslim world.

As the 2nd Christian millennium drew to a close, some Muslims have made sacred violence an Islamic duty. These fundamentalists (and not only) call Western colonialism and post-colonial Western imperialism al-Salibiyyab: the Crusade. The colonial crusade may have been less violent than the original ones, but its impact has been more devastating. The powerful Muslim world has been reduced to a dependent patchwork of nation states, and Muslim society has been gravely weakened through enforced modernisation Western-style, giving rise to this intolerant fundamentalist reaction.

It is not true, however, that Muslims are now uniformly filled with hatred of the West. Muslim societies have already adopted many Western features in health, education and the economy. European culture, and the pressures of globalisation and secular mass culture are incessant, an ever- present challenge to Muslims to maintaining the unity of the physical and spiritual realms. Muslims want modernity, but not one that has been imposed upon them by America, Britain or France, which they see as spiritual wastelands. Yusuf Abdallah Al-Qaradawi, currently director of the Centre for Sunnah and Sirah at the University of Qatar, argues the West must learn to recognise the Muslims' right to live their religion and, if they choose, to incorporate the Islamic ideal in their polity.

The West may not have been entirely responsible for the appearance of extreme forms of Islam, but it has certainly contributed to this development, from its first forays into the Muslim world in the 11th c onwards. It tried war and more recently Christian and secular proselytising, but the resiliance of Islam continues to astound and frustrate the West. Despite all its problems, the Muslim world today is confident it is on the "straight path", as now being celebrated during this holy month of Ramadan.

And as Western society continues its decline spiritually, it can learn a lot from Islam, something which an increasing trickle of Westerners are doing as the ideas of Islam percolate through the ether. This process of enlightenment is the subject of the remaining articles in this series.

 

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