Friday, November 28, 2008

A Short History of the Study of Islam in the West

In the Name of God, the Infinitely Good, the All-Merciful

Islam is both a religion and a civilization, a historical reality that spans over fourteen centuries of human history and a geographical presence in vast areas stretching over the Asian and African continents and even parts of Europe. It is also a spiritual and metahistorical reality that has transformed the inner and outer life of numerous human beings in very different temporal and spatial circumstances. Today over 1.2 billion people from different racial and cultural backgrounds are Muslim, and historically Islam has played a significant role in the development of certain aspects of other civilizations, especially Western civilization. Not only Islam is a major presence in today’s world, but its influence is also evident in the history of the Christian West, not to mention that of India and other regions of Asia and Africa. This is why knowledge of Islam is so important for those who are concerned with the situation of contemporary humanity and those who are interested in Western intellectual and cultural history, as well as those who are attracted to the reality of religion and the world of the Spirit as such.

One would think, therefore, that the study of Islam would be widespread in the West and especially in America, which has a notably Muslim minority and, which is now able to project so much power globally including within the Islamic world. Such, however, is not the case, despite the rise of interest in Islam since the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Moreover, much that is presented today in the English language as the study of Islam by so-called experts is strongly colored by various prejudices and ideological biases, although there are exceptions. In fact, although Islamic studies have been carried out in the West for over a thousand years, in each period such studies have been distorted and tainted by a particular set of errors and deviations.
The study of Islam in the West began in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Because this was a time in which Europe was thoroughly Christian, Islam was seen as a Christian heretical doctrine, and its founder as an apostate. Soon the imminent threat to Western Christendom from Islam led many to call the Prophet of Islam as the antichrist, and the Quran itself was translated by order of Peter the Venerable in order to be refuted and rejected as sacred scripture. The Middle Ages were marked by strong religious opposition to Islam. Yet it was at this time that the West showed the greatest interest in the Islamic thought, including philosophy and the sciences, and Islamic education, arts and technology were greatly respected. The first translation into Latin of works of Islamic thought, ranging from philosophy and even theology to astronomy, mathematics, and medicine belong to this period. Formal Islamic studies in the West may in fact be said to have begun during the Middle Ages.

The Renaissance perpetuated religious opposition towards Islam, but also began to show disdain not only for Europe’s own medieval past, but also for Islamic learning, although there were some exceptions. Furthermore, the emphasis on eurocentrism during the Renaissance and the rise of humanism caused many European thinkers of that time to consider people of other civilizations and ethnic groups, including Muslims, inferior. Although Islamic studies were carried on during the Renaissance, and in some places such as Bologna, even within the framework of the older medieval respect for Islamic thought, in many places they were distorted by a sense of Western superiority, characteristics were to continue into the modern period.

The Enlightenment turned against the theological assertions of Christianity and substituted rationalism for a worldview based on faith. Moreover, it further developed the idea that there was only one civilization, the Western one, and that other civilizations were significant only to the extent of their contribution to Western civilization, which the French encyclopedists referred to as the civilization (la civilisation). Obviously in such a situation Islam and its civilization could only play an inferior and secondary role. Although some new translations of Islamic sources were made into European languages at this time and Islamic studies remained an intellectual and academic discipline, little was done to understand the teachings of Islam in their own terms. Many of the leading thinkers of this period, in fact, maintained the older European disdain for Islam, but at the same time tried to make use of some of its teachings to attack Christianity. Such a dual attitude towards Islam is evident in the works of Voltaire, among others.

During the nineteenth century, historicism in its absolutist sense took the center of the philosophical stage with Hegel, who considered all other civilizations stages in the march of Geist in time leading to the final stage, which was supposedly realized in modern Western history. And yet this was also the period when the Romantic Movement began, when many minds, tired of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, turned anew to the Middle Ages as well as to seeking meaning beyond the borders of the West. This was the period when many of the greatest spiritual masterpieces of Islamic literature, especially many of the Sufi classics, were translated into German, English and French and seriously attracted major Western thinkers and writers, such as Goethe, Ruckert and Emerson. This was also the period when the exotic image of the Islamic East, with its mysterious casbahs and harams full of nude females, developed, as reflected in nineteenth-century European art associated with ‘orientalism’.

Moreover, this period marked the beginning of official oriental studies, including Islamic studies, in various Western universities often supported by colonial governments such as those of Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Russia. Oriental studies, in fact, developed as an instrument for furthering the policy of colonial powers, whether they were carried out in Central Asia for use by the Russian colonial officer or in India for the British government. But there were among the orientalists in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century also a number of noble scholars who studied Islam both objectively and with sympathy, such as Thomas Arnold, Sir Hamilton Gibb, Louis Massignon, and Henry Corbin. Later Western orientalists who belong to this tradition include Marshall Hodgson, Annemarie Schimmel, and several other important scholars. But the main product of the orientalists’ manner of studying Islam remained heavily biased not only as a result of the interests of those powers it was serving, but also through the absolutization of current Western concepts and methodologies that were applied to Islam with the sense of superiority, going back to the Renaissance definition of the “European man.”1

The last half of the twentieth century witnessed a major transformation in Islamic studies in the West, at least in certain areas. First of all, a number of acutely intelligent and spiritually aware Westerners who realized the spiritual poverty of modernism began to seek wisdom in other worlds. Some turned to objective and unbiased study of the deepest teachings of Islam, which confirmed for them the reality of the presence of a perennial Sophia at the heart of heavenly inspired religions. This group, which includes Rene Guenon, Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt, Martin Lings, Gai Eaton, Michel, Valsan, William Chittick, Michel Chodkiewicz, James Morris, Vincent Cornell, and many other notably contemporary Western writers on Islam, has produced a wholly new type of literature in the West as far as Islam is concerned. It has created a body of writings rooted in the authentic teachings of Islam, yet formulated in the intellectual language of the West and based on the confirmation – not the denial – of the spiritual teachings on which traditional Western civilization itself was founded.

Furthermore, during this same period authentic representatives of the Islamic tradition, those who were born and brought up in that tradition, began to study Western thought and languages and gradually to produce works in European languages on Islam that were not simply apologetic (as had been the earlier works in English of a number of Indian Muslim writers), but explained clearly and without compromise the teachings of Islam in a manner comprehensible to Westerners. Needles to say, during this period there also appeared a large number of completely modernized Muslim writers who wrote about Islam not from within Islamic worldview, but from the point of view of the ever changing categories of modern and, more recently, postmodern Western thought.

Finally, younger generations of scholars have appeared on the scene during the past few years who are both Muslim and Western. Either they are Muslims born in the West or Westerners who have openly embraced Islam, have lived in the Islamic world, and know it well from within. Scholars belonging to this category are now beginning to occupy a number of academic positions in Europe and America and to produce pertinent works of an authentic nature on various aspects of Islamic studies.

Despite the presence of such groups, however, the anti-Islamic approach to Islamic studies continues in many circles. Some academics continue to apply non-Islamic, and in fact purely secularist, concepts drawn from various currents of Western philosophy and social sciences to Islam. And then there are the political ideologues, who often have little knowledge of Islam yet are presented as experts on the subject; from them one hears the most egregious anti-Islamic statements touted in the media and in popular books as authentic knowledge of Islam. They are joined in this chorus by a number of Christian voices from extremist groups who speak as if they were living in twelfth-century France at the time of the Crusades, but who are at the same time completely devoid of knowledge of traditional Christian theology, not to mention Christian humility and charity.

Each period of the study of Islam in the West has produced its own literature usually colored by the prejudices of the period, which have been for the most part anti-Islamic. There is, in fact, no religion in the world about which Western authors have written so much and at the same time in such a derogatory way as Islam. And yet, despite the persistence of this genre of writing and in fact its increase since the tragedies of September 11, 2001, authentic works on Islam based on truth and the intention to create mutual understanding rather than hatred, works of the sort that were practically nonexistent in the earlier part of twentieth century, are now readily available in the English language.

Islam is not only a religion; it is also the creator and living spirit of major world civilization with a long history stretching over fourteen centuries. Islamic history concerns the historic existence of the people of many lands, from North Africa to Malaysia, over vast spans of time. It has witnessed the creation of some of the greatest empires and the integration into a single social order of many diverse ethnic and linguistic groups. Islamic history has, moreover, directly affected the history of Europe for over a millennium and has been in turn deeply affected by the West since the advent of the colonial period. Islamic history has, furthermore, been profoundly intertwined with the history of India since the seventh century and with certain aspects of Chinese history for the past millennium (and to some extent even before that, going back to the century following the rise of Islam).

Islam created a civilization that has covered the middle belt of the Old World for over a millennium. This civilization produced great intellectual figures, a distinct art and architecture, dazzling achievements in science and technology, and equitable social order based on the teachings of the Quran. Its thinkers, poets, musicians, and artists created works that deeply influenced Western as well as Indian and even to some extent Chinese art and thought. Its scientists formulated theories and carried out practices that were widely emulated by Western scientists during the Middle Ages and even the Renaissance.

The contributions of Islamic science are so great and complex that they cannot even be summarized in a proper and meaningful way in a short essay of this kind. Suffice it to say, for some seven centuries (the eighth through the fourteenth and fifteenth century), Islamic science was from the point of view of creativity, at the forefront of science considered globally. Not only did Muslims synthesize Greco-Alexandrian, ancient Mesopotamian, Iranian, Indian, and to some extent Chinese science, but they created many sciences or added new chapters to the ancient sciences. For example, in mathematics they expanded the study of the geometry of the Greeks and created the new disciplines of trigonometry and algebra. Likewise, in medicine they furthered the studies of Hippocratic and Galenic medicine while diagnosing and distinguishing new diseases, discovering new remedies, and proposing new theories. The same can be said for numerous other sciences, from alchemy to astronomy, from physics to geology. The global history of science has as one of its central chapters Islamic science, without which there would have been no Western science. And yet Islamic science had an understanding of nature and the role of the sciences of nature in the total scheme of knowledge that was very different from what developed in the West with the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution2.

In trying to understand Islam and Islamic civilization, it is essential to remember not only the diversity of the arts and the sciences, but also the diversity of theological and philosophical interpretations of Islamic doctrines and even of Islamic Law. There is nothing more erroneous that thinking that Islam is a monolithic reality and that Islamic civilization did not allow the creation or subsistence of diversity. Although a sense of unity has at all times dominated everything Islamic, there has always existed a diversity of interpretations of the religion itself as well as various aspects of Islamic thought and culture. The Prophet of Islam even considered the diversity of views of the scholars of the Islamic community a blessing from Allah3. When one studies Islamic civilization, one sees not only differences of language and dress, writing and singing, color of skin and physical features, cuisine, and response to different climatic conditions, but also different interpretations of verses of the Holy Quran, sayings of the prophets, and tenets of the Divine Law as well as theological and philosophical questions. And yet a remarkable unity predominates in the civilization, as it does in the religion that created that civilization and has guided its history over the ages.

The norm in the Islamic world today, despite all the political tragedies that have befallen it, is not what many in the media and popular literature in the West claim. It is not religious extremism or ‘fundamentalism’; nor is it secularist modernism. The norm is traditional Islam4, in comparison to which both secularist modernism and ‘fundamentalism’ are extremes. At the present juncture of human history, it is of the utmost importance for Westerners who seek understanding and goodwill to comprehend clearly the norm with respect to which all forms of extremism must be measured. And it is important to distinguish authentic knowledge of the subject matter at hand from ideologically distorted accounts of it.

1 For further reading, please refer to The Essentials of Western Anthropology by Ken Morris.
2 For further reading, please consult The Need for a Sacred Science by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Classification of Knowledge in Islam by Osman Bakar, and History of Western Thought by Robert Bogdan.
3 Sahih Muslim, Book 39, No. 6773.
4 By traditional Islam I mean it is based on the Divine teachings guided by the Holy Quran and the authentic traditions of Prophet Muhammad S.A.W.

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