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Islam and the West: Deciphering a Contested History

Ibrahim Kalin

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat.

—Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936)

There are no two world civilizations whose histories have been as closely intertwined as Islam and the West. From the earliest polemics of Theodore Abū Qurrah, Bede, and St. John of Damascus, to the Crusaders, the Andalusian convivencia (coexistence), or the fascination of American transcendentalists with things Islamic in the manner of their German master Goethe, the two worlds of Islam and the West have for the last fourteen centuries negotiated various modes of sharing world history. It is a history filled with clashes and confrontation, competition and challenge, admiration and hatred, acceptance and rejection, and a host of other conflicting feelings, attitudes, and experiences. No matter how one defines the terms "Islam" and "the West"—or whether one chooses to do away with them altogether—the self-perceptions and identity claims of those who live in Muslim and Western societies have been shaped by these checkered histories. That is one reason among many that relations between Islam and the West never seem to lose their relevance for the state of our world—from politics and international relations to interfaith relations and discussions of pluralism. A brief overview of this long history reveals three main areas of interaction: religious, cultural, and political.

The Religious Challenge.

As a monotheistic religion, Islam defines itself as the last of the three great Abrahamic faith traditions. The Qurʾān and ḥadīth (the two canonical sources of Islam) and the later scholarly traditions reveal an acute awareness of Judaism and Christianity. The two sources contain numerous references to Jewish and Christian themes, calling upon Jews and Christians to unite in a robust monotheism against Meccan polytheism and its profligacy. Born into a multireligious and multicultural environment, early Muslims were in contact with the various Jewish and Christian communities of the East in the eighth and ninth centuries.

The polemical works of Byzantine theologians were as much theological in nature as cultural and political. As the lands once under Byzantine rule rapidly became part of dār al-Islām (the abode of Islam where Muslims lived as a majority), Islamic theology posed a set of religious challenges. While Jews and Christians were recognized as the People of the Book (ahl al-kitāb) and were granted some religious freedom—a license no other religion has ever granted—they were invited to a serious theological dialogue, "a common word between us and you" (Qurʾān, Āl ʿImrān 3:64). The fact that Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, among other Biblical figures, were given a prominent place in the Qurʾān and the ḥadīth became a source of consternation for many Christian theologians in the East and later in Europe.

The medieval Christian theologians interpreted the themes common to Islam and the Biblical tradition not as a matter of "creative borrowing," as nineteenth-century Orientalists would call it, but as a sign of outright heresy. St. John of Damascus, known in Arabic as Yūḥannā al-Dimashqī (d. 749), called Islam the "heresy of the Ishmaelites," referring to Arab Muslims as descendants of Abraham's son Ishmael, and called the Prophet of Islam an "impostor." The Christian apocryphal literature on the Prophet Muḥammad was more than polemical. If Embrico of Mainz's (d. 1077) Vita Mahumeti and Walter of Compi�gne's Otia de Machomete a century later are any indication, it was also an elaborate means of constructing a religious "other" for medieval Christendom. The refusal to speak to Muslims on their own terms continued throughout the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment. A section of Pascal's Pens�es called "Contre Mahomet" pits Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammad against one another as embodiments of two contradictory qualities: the former utterly godly and merciful, the latter completely of this world and ruthless. The famous British Orientalist and later Rector of the University of Edinburgh, William Muir (d. 1905), went so far in his weighty Life of Mahomet as to call the Prophet Muḥammad a "psychopath." More recent epithets include "terrorist" (Jerry Falwell) and "demon-possessed pedophile" (Jerry Vines).

There were, however, attempts at what we call today interfaith dialogue. Following the tradition of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) and Ramon Llull (d. 1315), John of Segovia (d. 1458), the so-called "first missionary to Muslims," believed that the only way to counter the menace of Islam was not to build up armies, which the Europe of the time was in any case unable to do, but to convince Muslims to accept Christianity. He thus proposed a most unexpected meeting, a contraferentia, as he called it, of Christian and Muslim scholars to discuss theology. John's meeting never took place, but it was taken up by Nicholas of Cusa (d. 1464) in De Pace Fidei, in which he imagined a meeting of a Jew, an Arab, an Indian, a Persian, a Syrian, a Turk, a Tatar, and an Armenian, each in the end acknowledging the Christian truth.

While Nicholas of Cusa's interfaith conference did not lead to a movement of interfaith dialogue, it did represent a new and creative point of view. Today, Muslim-Christian relations are an important part of Islam-West relations. Numerous interfaith initiatives and dialogue programs are taking place at different levels and between different communities. Ever since the declaration of the historic Nostra Ætate , the Catholic Church has been engaged in various dialogue initiatives with Muslims. The most recent and prominent meeting took place November 4–6, 2008, at the Vatican when a delegation of Muslim scholars attended a meeting with Catholic scholars and met Pope Benedict XVI. Numerous other interreligious initiatives are under way between Muslims, and Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox Christians, as well as with Jewish communities in Muslim-majority countries and in Europe and the United States.

The Cultural Divide.

Culture is another contested area in the history of Islam-West relations. The influence of Islamic culture and civilization on medieval Europe was decisive and largely irresistible. Medieval Europeans hated Islam as a religion but admired it as a culture and civilization. The works of Muslim philosophers, theologians, scientists, belletrists, poets, storytellers, artists, and mystics penetrated the European cultural landscape from the ninth to the sixteenth century. St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest Christian thinker of the Middle Ages, spent much of his intellectual career refuting what he considered the heresies of (Latin) Averr�ism, a much contested school of thought founded by the European followers of the Andalusian Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd, known in the West as Averr�es (d. 1193). While the ideas of Ibn Rushd were officially banned by the order of Bishop Tempier in 1277, other areas of the world including the Andalusian cities of C�rdoba, Granada, Toledo, and Seville enjoyed a culture of tolerance and critical inquiry in which Jewish, Christian, and Muslim seekers of knowledge studied in the same schools, conducted research in the same libraries, and studied the heavens from the same observatories. It was in Toledo that many Arabic works including the Qurʾān were translated into Latin, leading eventually to what Charles Haskins has called the "Renaissance of the Twelfth Century."

Even the Crusaders, who were among the first European Christians to set foot in the lands of Islam, could not help but admire the advanced, vibrant, and clean cities of the Muslim east. The captivating stories and descriptions of Usāmah ibn Munqidh's Kitāb al-ʿItibār are as much a testimony to the Muslim views of the Crusaders as the European perceptions of Muslims in the twelfth century. As early as the ninth century, a Spaniard named Alvaros was voicing a heightened sense of cultural insecurity:

My fellow Christians delight in the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the works of Mohammedan theologians and philosophers, not in order to refute them, but to acquire a correct and elegant Arabic style. Where today can one find a layman who reads the Latin commentaries on Holy Scriptures? Who is there that studies the Gospels, the Prophets, the Apostles? Alas! The young Christians who are most conspicuous for their talents have no knowledge of any literature or language save the Arabic; they read and study with avidity Arabic books; they amass whole libraries of them at a vast cost, and they everywhere sing the praises of Arab lore.

Despite such warnings, medieval Europe maintained its love-hate relationship with Islamic culture. Dante's Divine Comedy contained references to prominent figures of Islam from the Prophet Muḥammad and Ibn Sīnā to Ibn Rushd and Saladin (Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Ayyūbī). Saladin, hailed as a chivalrous commander and just ruler, was romanticized in Walter Scott's The Talisman (1825) and treated favorably in Ridley Scott's movie The Kingdom of Heaven (2005). Dante's interest in Islamic themes, however, went beyond populating his Hell with Muslim figures. The Spanish scholar Miguel Asín Palacios traced the influence of Islamic themes in Dante's work in his Islam and the Divine Comedy and claimed that the main plot of the Divine Comedy was in fact inspired by the miʿrāj tradition of the nocturnal journey of the Prophet Muḥammad into heaven and hell.

The cultural relations between Islam and the West took a drastically new turn when Europe arose as the dominant and unchallenged force of the modern era. From politics and education to science and art, modern European culture changed Islam-West relations once and for all. Combining a Judeo-Christian past with a secular present, Western culture has created a rift between Westernized elites and traditional communities in the Muslim world.

The Muslim world has, over the last two centuries, adopted four major positions with regard to the rise of Western modernity. The first is a total adaptation of Western culture as the culmination and common heritage of human history. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey and Shah Reza Pahlavi in Iran sought to modernize their countries by adopting Western culture and institutions. The second position is outright rejection and denouncement of Western culture as cultural imperialism. This attitude is generally couched in the language of conservative Islamism as in the case of modern Wahhābī and Salafī movements. But it is equally a statement of identity politics which sees the West as a selfish and materialistic culture.

The third position is critical engagement with Western cultural values and institutions advocated by reformist Muslim thinkers. From the Ottoman intellectuals Namik Kemal and Mehmed Âkif Ersoy to their colleagues the Iranian Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and the Egyptian Muḥammad ʿAbduh, the reformists sought to unlink the Western value system from the material achievements of Western civilization, that is, science, technology, democracy, and constitutionalism. Their assumption was based on a clear distinction between an objective material civilization, which was represented by the modern West, and spiritual values, which the Muslim world did not need to borrow from the West. While this view is still widely held in the Muslim world, extreme modernization and globalization have made such distinctions impossible.

The fourth position can be described as traditional Islam in which the majority of traditional ʿulamāʾ as well as ordinary Muslims believe that a more elevated ethical and spiritual dialogue with the West (and the rest of the world) is possible while maintaining one's cultural tradition. In the case of Alija Izetbegović, the Muslim philosopher-president of Bosnia, this means placing Islam outside the categories of East and West. As his Islam Between East and West seeks to show, even though the Muslim sense of time and space differs from that of the West, the Islamic and Western worlds can to a certain extent be brought together. In his Traditional Islam in the Modern World, Seyyed Hossein Nasr argues that while the Western and Muslim worlds have different historical experiences and cultural traditions, they can trace their religious history to a shared spirituality. But all of these call for a reformulation of contemporary Islamic thought which has been shaped by its encounter with the modern secular West. The Muslim world is confronted today with the steady invasion of Western culture and shares with the rest of the world a sense of cultural loss and disempowerment.

The World of Politics.

Like religion and culture, the political and military histories of the Islamic and Western worlds are deeply intertwined. Islam's encounter with the Byzantine Empire was a watershed event in both Islamic and European history. It was no secret that the first Muslim community clearly favored the Byzantine Empire over its arch rival the Sassanid Empire because the former was Christian and its Christian king Heraclius was held in high esteem in early Islamic scholarship. Given the development of Europe as we know it, Henri Pirenne's thesis in his Mohammed and Charlemagne (English translation, 1939) still merits consideration. If the Islamic conquests of the eighth and ninth centuries had a decisive impact on the formation of Europe, one cannot study the history of the Mediterranean, the Balkans, the Baltic regions, and Western Europe without studying the northward and westward expansion of various Muslim empires. One case in point is the history of Umayyads in Andalusia, and another is the long military and political engagement of the Ottoman Empire in Europe where all sorts of apocalyptic expectations and stories about the "terrible Turk" were widely circulated, as evidenced in Martin Luther's letters "against the Turks."

Political history is always more than the history of rulers and commanders. In 1458, only five years after the fall of Constantinople (one of the forsaken jewels of medieval Christendom), Pope Pius II extended an unprecedented invitation to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II Fatih to convert to Christianity in order to bring all Christendom under his rule. The Pope's proposal was to make the Ottoman sultan the "emperor of East and West." If he heard it at all, Fatih must have smiled at the Pope's suggestion that his westward march depended on accepting a "small amount of water" in which to be baptized.

From the battle of Lepanto (1571) to the second siege of Vienna (1683), Ottoman military power weakened and gave way to European powers as the new forces of global dominance. The rapid expansion of the European colonial system shook the Muslim world from West Africa to the Philippines. By the middle of the nineteenth century, large parts of the Muslim world were under direct European control. The most dramatic shock, however, came with Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798. In contrast to the loss of the "peripheries" of the Muslim world, the heartland of Islam was now under French occupation. Napoleon's famous edict in Alexandria and the response he got from the Egyptian historian ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Jabartī in his ʿAjāʾib al-athār fī al-tarājim wa-al-akhbār makes for one of the fascinating encounters between Islam and the West at the end of the eighteenth century. Napoleon's mission civilisatrice was countered by al-Jabartī's utter rejection of everything French and European. Not only were the French ruler's armies abhorrent, al-Jabartī wrote, but his praise of Islam, its Prophet, and the Ottoman Sultan was deceitful. There was one way left for al-Jabartī and his generation of Muslims to fight the domineering armies of the French Republic, and that was to take refuge in their unshakable belief in Islam.

The legacy of colonialism continues to make a profound impact on Islam-West relations today. Many Muslim countries fought wars of liberation against European powers but after independence found themselves dependent upon their former colonizers. The current distribution of global power, once wielded by Europe and now by the United States, fuels a sense of alienation, frustration, and mistrust in the Muslim world. In addition to pressing policy issues, Samuel Huntington's implicit claim in his Clash of Civilizations (1996) that there is a collision between the fundamental values of Islamic and Western worlds and that "Islam has bloody borders" was viewed as epitomizing a point of view that justifies the current global power imbalance to the detriment of non-Western cultures and societies. The events of September 11th and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have further increased tensions between various Muslim and Western groups. Many in Europe and the U.S. see extremist groups in the Muslim world as a threat to the existence of international security and to the future of Western civilization. Many in the Muslim world see the "war on terror" as a war on Islam and Muslims. As Esposito and Mogahed show in Who Speaks for Islam (2008), the overwhelming majority of Muslims subscribe to the universal principles of human rights, rule of law, and democracy, which are also Western values. But they also want the West to respect Islamic culture, religion, and tradition. This entails a more reasoned and balanced discussion of Islam-West relations than equating Islam and Muslims stereotypically with terrorism, violence, irrationalism, oppression, or cultural backwardness. In this regard, Islamophobia, the unfounded fear of Islam and Muslims, and the hatred arising from that fear are a major source of tension.

Relations between Islam and the West are constantly changing. A new element in this long and varied history is the rise of Muslim communities living in the West. While seeking to be active participants in their societies, the Muslim communities of the West are also struggling with issues of integration, discrimination, and minority rights. As their negotiation of a space within Western societies is a process that concerns both worlds, their potential to play the role of bridge-builders is increasing. Tariq Ramadan's To Be A European Muslim (1999), for instance, invites Muslims living in the West to call Europe and the U.S. their cultural and political "home." Like many of his counterparts, Ramadan's plea is for Muslims to salvage Islam from being a phenomenon of immigration and for Muslim communities to claim a vital place for themselves in the Western world.

Looking Ahead.

Future relations between Muslim and Western societies will be shaped by three differing views. The first view is held by those who see Islam and the West as locked on an unalterable collision course with the two holding irreconcilable worldviews and political theologies. They see clash and confrontation as the only path between the two, and there is no shortage of either on the Western or the Muslim side. The second view, held by Westernized elites and governments, considers the current tensions as useless and based on old-fashioned theologies. It holds that the remedy for the Muslim world is more modernization and more secularization, by which Muslim societies, it is assumed, will enter the international community of "civilized" nations. The third view, held by scores of scholars, intellectuals, and community activists in both Muslim and Western worlds, argues for critical engagement and eventual reconciliation between the worlds of Islam and the West.

From international politics and religion to media and education, there is a vibrant process under way to renegotiate the legacy of Western modernity and chart a new way for future relations. Both grassroots movements and high-level leadership engagements such as the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations seek to bridge the religious, cultural and political gap between Muslim and Western communities. Such critical engagement and a possible move toward historical reconciliation will involve revisiting the current self-perceptions of the Islamic and Western worlds and their views of one another. This is a daunting task but one that is essential for global peace.

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Related Content

Subject Entries

Ahl al-Kitab
Contemporary Islam
European Colonialism and the Emergence of Modern Muslim States
The Globalization of Islam
Islam and Christendom
Muslim-Christian Dialogue
Ottoman Empire
Revival and Renewal


Jamal al-Din al-Afghani
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
Mehmed Akif Ersoy
Ibn Rushd

Primary Source Documents

Dialogue Between East and West
Islamic Faith and the Problem of Pluralism: Relations Among the Believers
An Islamic Response to Imperialism
The Need for Civilizational Dialogue
Our Decline and Its Causes
Reflections on Islam and the West: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow


Christianity and the Ottoman Empire
Islamic Modernism and Islamic Revival
The Spread of Islam
Oxford University Press

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