AUTHOR: Muhammad Asad
Quite apart from spiritual incompatibility, there is yet another reason why Muslims should avoid imitating Western civilization: many of its historical experiences are deeply tinged by a strange animosity towards Islam.
To some extent this also is an inheritance from Europe’s antiquity. The Greeks and the Romans regarded only themselves as “civilized”, while everything foreign, and particularly everything living to the east of the Mediterranean, bore the label “barbarian”. Since that time the Occidentals have believed that their racial superiority over the rest of mankind is a matter of fact; and the more or less pronounced contempt for non-European races and nations is one of the standing features of Western civilization.
This alone, however, is not enough to explain its feeling as regards Islam. Here and here alone, the Western attitude is not one of mere indifference, as in the case of other “foreign” religions and cultures: it is one of deep-rooted and almost fanatical aversion; and it is not only intellectual but bears an intensely emotional tint. The West may not accept the doctrines of Buddhist or Hindu philosophy, but it will always preserve a balanced, reflective attitude of mind with regard to those systems. As soon, however, as it turns towards Islam, the balance is disturbed and an emotional bias creeps in. With very few exceptions, even the most eminent of European orientalists have been guilty of an unscientific partiality in their writings on Islam. In their investigations it almost appears as if Islam could not .be treated as a mere object of scientific research, but as an accused standing before his judges. Some of these orientalists play the part of a public prosecutor bent on securing a conviction; others are like a counsel for the defense who, being personally convinced that his client is guilty, can only halfheartedly plead “mitigating circumstances”. All in all, the technique of the deductions and conclusions adopted by most of the orientalists reminds us of the proceedings of those notorious Courts of Inquisition set up by the Catholic Church against “heretics” in the Middle Ages: that is to say, they hardly ever investigate historical facts with an open mind, but start, in almost every case, from a foregone conclusion dictated by prejudice. They select the evidence according to the conclusion that they a priori intend to reach. Where an arbitrary selection of witnesses is impossible, they cut parts of the evidence of the available witnesses out of context or “interpret” their statements in a spirit of unscientific malevolence, without attributing any weight to the presentation of the case by the other party, that is, the Muslims themselves.
The result of such a procedure is the .strangely distorted picture of Islam and things Islamic that faces us in the orientalist literature of the West. This distortion is not confined to one particular country; it is to be found in England and in Germany, in America and in Russia and in France, in Italy and in Holland – in short, wherever Western orientalists turn their attention to Islam.’ They seem to be tickled by a sense of malicious pleasure whenever an occasion – real or imaginary – arises for adverse criticism. And as those orientalists are not a special race by themselves but only exponents of their civilization and their social surroundings, we must necessarily come to the conclusion that the Occidental mind, on the whole, is for some reason or other prejudiced against Islam as a religion and a culture. One of these reasons may be the antique view which divided the entire world into “Europeans” and “Barbarians”; and another reason, more directly connected with Islam, can be found by looking back at the past, and particularly at the history of the Middle Ages.
The first great clash between a united Europe, on the .one side, and Islam, on the other, namely, the Crusades, coincided with the very beginning of European civilization. At that time this civilization, still in alliance with the Church, had just begun to see its own way after the dark centuries which had followed the decay of Rome. Its literature was just then passing through a new blossoming spring. The fine arts were slowly awakening from the lethargy caused by the warlike migrations of the Goths, Huns and Avers. Europe had just emerged out of the crude conditions of the early Middle Ages; it had just acquired a new cultural consciousness and, through it, an increased sensitivity. And it was exactly at that extremely critical period that the Crusades brought it into hostile contact with the world of Islam. There had been, to be sure, conflicts between Muslims and Europeans before the age of the Crusades: the Arab conquests of Sicily and Spain and their attacks upon Southern France. But those wars took place before Christian Europe’s awakening to its new cultural consciousness, and therefore they had in their time, at least from the European point of view, the character of local issues and were not yet fully understood in all their importance. It was the Crusades, first and foremost, that decided the European attitude towards Islam for many centuries’ to come. The Crusades were decisive because they fell in the period of Europe’s childhood, as it were, a period when its peculiar cultural traits were asserting themselves for the first time and were still in the process of evolution. As in individuals, so also in nations the violent impressions of an early childhood persevere, consciously or subconsciously, throughout later life. They are so deeply embossed that they can only with difficulty, and seldom entirely, be removed by the intellectual experiences of a later, more reflective and less emotional age. So it was with the Crusades. They produced one of the deepest and most permanent impressions on Europe’s mass psychology. The universal enthusiasm they aroused in their time cannot be compared with anything that Europe had ever before experienced, and with hardly anything that came afterwards. A wave of intoxication swept over the whole continent, an elation which overstepped, for some time at least, the barriers between states and nations and classes. It was then, for the first time in history, that Europe conceived itself as a unity – and it was a unity against the world of Islam. Without indulging in undue exaggeration we can say that modern Europe was born out of the spirit of the Crusades.
Before that time there had been Anglo-Saxons and Germans, French and Normans, Italians and Danes: but during the Crusades the new political concept of “Christendom“, a cause common to all European nations alike (and by no means identical with the religious concept of “Christianity“) was created: and it was the hatred of Islam that stood as godfather behind the new creation…
It is one of the great ironies of history that this first act of collective consciousness, the intellectual constitution, so to say, of the Western world was due to impulses entirely and unreservedly backed by the Christian Church, whereas most of the subsequent achievements of the West became possible only through an intellectual revolt against almost everything that the Church stood and stands for.
It was a tragic development, both from the viewpoint of the Christian Church and from that of Islam. Tragic for the Church, because it lost, after such a startling beginning, its hold over the minds of Europe. And tragic for Islam, because it had to bear the fire of the Crusades, in many forms and disguises, through long centuries afterwards.
Out of the unspeakable cruelties, the destruction and the debasement which the pious Knights of the Cross inflicted upon the lands of Islam which they conquered and subsequently lost, grew the poisonous seed of that age-long animosity which has ever since embittered the relations between East and West. Otherwise, there was no inherent necessity for such a feeling. Though the civilizations of Islam and of the West differ in their spiritual foundations and their social aims, they surely should be able to tolerate one another and to live side by side in friendly intercourse. This possibility was given not only in theory but in fact. On the Muslim side there always existed a sincere wish for mutual tolerance and respect. When the Caliph Harun ar-Rashid sent his embassy to Emperor Charlemagne, he was mainly prompted by that desire and not by a wish to profit materially by a friendship with the Franks. Europe was at that time culturally too primitive to appreciate this opportunity to its full’ extent, but it certainly showed no dislike of it. But later on, of a sudden, the Crusades appeared on the horizon and destroyed the relations between Islam and the West. Not because they meant war: so many wars between nations have been waged and subsequently forgotten in the course of human history, and so many animosities have turned into friendship. But the evil caused by the Crusades was not restricted to the clash of weapons: it was, first and foremost, an intellectual evil. It consisted in poisoning the European mind against the Muslim world as a whole through a deliberate misrepresentation, fostered by the Church, of the teachings and ideals of Islam. It was at the time of the Crusades that the ridiculous notion of Islam as a religion of crude sensualism and brutal violence, of an observance of formalities instead of a purification of the heart, entered the mind of Europe, to remain there for a long time.
The seed of hatred was sown. The enthusiasm of the Crusades soon had its sequels elsewhere in Europe: it encouraged the Christians of Spain to fight for the recovery of that country from the “yoke of the heathens”. The destruction of Muslim Spain took centuries to be accomplished. But precisely because of the long duration of this struggle, the anti-Islamic feeling in Europe deepened and grew to permanency. It resulted in the extermination of the Muslim element in Spain after a systematic, merciless persecution; and that victory was echoed by the rejoicings of all Europe – although its after-effect was the destruction of a most brilliant culture and its supersession by medieval ignorance and crudeness.
But even before the last remnant of Muslim Spain, the Kingdom of Granada, had been re-conquered by Christian Spain in 1492, a third event of great importance marred the relations between the Western world and that of Islam: the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. In the eyes of Europe, the Byzantine Empire had still retained something of the old Greek and Roman glamour and was regarded as Europe’s bulwark against the “barbarians” of Asia. With its ultimate fall, the gateway of Europe was thrown open to the Muslim flood. In the warlike centuries that followed, the hostility of Europe against Islam became a matter not only of cultural but also of political importance; and this contributed to its intensity.
With all this, Europe profited considerably by these conflicts. The Renaissance, that revival of European arts and sciences with its extensive borrowing from Islamic, mainly Arabic, sources, was largely due to the material contacts between East and West. Europe gained by it, in the domain of culture, far more than the world of Islam ever did; but it did not acknowledge this eternal indebtedness to the Muslims by a diminution of its old hatred of Islam. On the contrary, that hatred grew with the passing of time and hardened into a custom. It overshadowed the popular feeling whenever the word “Muslim” was mentioned; it entered the realm of popular proverbs, it was hammered into the heart of every European man and woman. And what was most remarkable, it outlived all cultural changes. The time of the Reformation came, when religious factions divided Europe and sect stood in arms against sect: but the hatred of Islam was common to all of them. A time came when religious feeling began to wane in Europe: but the hatred of Islam remained.
It is a most characteristic fact that the great French philosopher Voltaire, who was one of the most vigorous enemies of the Christian Church in the eighteenth century, was at the same time a fanatical hater of Islam and its Prophet. Some decades later there came a time when learned men in the West began to study foreign cultures and to approach them sympathetically: but in the case of Islam the traditional aversion almost always crept as an irrational bias into their scientific investigations, and the cultural gulf which history had unfortunately laid between Europe and the world of Islam remained unbridged, The contempt for Islam had become part and parcel of European thought.
It is true that the first orientalists in modern times were Christian missionaries working in Muslim countries, and the distorted pictures which they drew of the teachings and the history of Islam were calculated to influence the Europeans in their attitude towards the “heathen”; but this twist of mind perseveres even now, when the orientalist sciences have long since become emancipated from missionary influences, and have no longer a misguided religious zeal for an excuse. Their prejudice against Islam is simply an atavistic instinct, an idiosyncrasy based on the impression which the Crusades, with all their sequels, caused on the mind of early Europe.
One could well ask: How does it happen that such an old resentment, religious in its origin and possible in its time because of the spiritual predominance of the Christian Church, still persists in the West at a time when religious feeling there is undoubtedly at a very low ebb?
But to a modern psychologist such seemingly contradictory phenomena are not at all astonishing. He knows now that a person may completely lose the religious beliefs which were imparted to him during his childhood, while some particular superstition, originally connected with those now discarded beliefs, still remains in force and defies all rational explanation throughout the whole life of that person. . Such is the case with the Western attitude towards Islam. Although the religious feeling which was at the root of the anti-Islamic resentment has in the meantime given way to a more materialistic outlook on life, that old resentment itself remains as a subconscious factor in the mind of Western man. The degree of its strength varies, of course, in each individual case, but its existence cannot be disputed. The spirit of the Crusades – in a much diluted form, to be sure – still lingers over the West and influences its attitude towards the Muslim world and all matters Islamic.
In Muslim circles we often hear the assertion that the Occident’s hatred of Islam, due to those violent conflicts in the past, is gradually disappearing in our days. It is even alleged that the West shows signs of an inclination towards Islam as a religious and social teaching, and many Muslims quite seriously believe that wholesale conversions of Europeans and Americans are imminent. This belief is not, by itself, unreasonable for us who hold that of all religious systems Islam alone responds to the true needs and possibilities inherent in human nature and, therefore, also to the true exigencies .of human society . We have, moreover, been told by .our Prophet that ultimately Islam would be accepted by all mankind. But, unfortunately, there is not the slightest evidence that this could happen within the conceivable future.
So far as Western civilization is concerned, a turning towards Islam could possibly, come about after a series of terrible social cataclysms which would shatter the present cultural self-conceit of the West and change its mentality so thoroughly as to make it apt and ready to accept a religious explanation of life. Today, the Western world is still completely lost in the adoration of its material achievements and in the belief that comfort, and comfort alone, is a goal worth striving for. Its materialism, its denunciation of a religious orientation of thought are certainly increasing in force, and not decreasing as some optimistic Muslim observers would have us believe.
It is said that modern science begins to admit the existence of a uniform creative power behind the visible framework of Nature; and this, those optimists allege, is the dawn of a new religious consciousness in the Western world. But this assumption only betrays a misunderstanding of Western scientific thought. No serious scientist can or ever could deny the probability of the universe being due, in its origin, to some single, dynamic cause. The question, however, is, and always was, as to the qualities which one could attribute to that “cause”. All transcendental religious systems assert that it is a Power possessing absolute consciousness and insight, a Power which creates arid rules over the universe according to a definite plan and purpose, without being itself limited by any law; in a word, it is God. But modern science as such is neither prepared nor inclined to go so far (in fact, this is not the domain of science) and leaves the question of the consciousness and independence – in other words, the divinity – of that creative power quite open. Its attitude is something like this: “It might be, but I don’t know it and have no scientific means of knowing.” In the future this philosophy may perhaps develop into some sort of pantheistic agnosticism in which soul and matter, purpose and existence, creator and created are one and the same. It is difficult to admit that such a belief could be regarded as a step towards the positive, Islamic conception of God: for it is not a farewell to materialism but simply its elevation to a higher, more refined intellectual level.
As a matter of fact, the West has never been farther from Islam than it is today. Its active hostility to our religion may be on the decline; this, however, is not due to an appreciation of the Islamic teachings but to the growing cultural weakness and disintegration of the Islamic world. Europe was once afraid of Islam, and this fear forced it to adopt an inimical attitude towards everything that had an Islamic color, even in purely spiritual and social matters. But at a time when Islam has lost most of its importance as a factor opposed to European political interests, it is quite natural that with diminished fear the West should also lose some of the original intensity of its anti-Islamic feelings. If these have become less pronounced and active, this does not entitle us to conclude that the West has “come closer” to Islam; it only indicates its growing indifference to Islam. None the less, the greatly increased wealth of the Muslim world, due to its huge oil resources and its subsequent importance in the realm of world economics and politics, has brought with it a considerable Western interest in the world of Islam, especially in the field of arts and history. But as a religion, Islam is still a more or less unknown quantity in the West, and this in spite of the frequent Muslim-Christian meetings, colloquia and seminars.
By no means has Western civilization changed its peculiar mental attitude. It is at present as strongly opposed to a religious conception of life as it was before; and, as I have already said, there is no convincing evidence that a change is likely to take place in the near future. The existence of Islamic missions in the West and the fact that some Europeans and Americans _have embraced Islam (in most cases without fully understanding its teachings) is no argument at all.
In a period in which materialism is triumphant all along the line, it isonly natural that a few individuals here and there who still have a longing for a spiritual regeneration eagerly listen to any creed based on religious conceptions. In this respect Muslim missions do not stand alone in the West. There are innumerable Christian mystical sects with “revivalist” tendencies, there is the fairly strong Theosophical movement, there are Buddhist temples and missions and converts in various European and American cities. Using exactly the same arguments as the Muslim missions use, those Buddhist missions could claim (and do claim) that Europe is “coming closer” to Buddhism. In both instances the assertion is ridiculous. The conversion of a few individuals to Buddhism or Islam does not in the least prove that either of these creeds has really begun to influence Western life on any appreciable scale. One could go even further and say that none of these missions has been able to arouse more than a very moderate curiosity and that mainly due to the fascination which an “exotic” creed exerts upon the minds of romantically-inclined people. Certainly there are some notable exceptions, and some of the new converts are earnest seekers after truth; but exceptions are not enough to change the aspect of a civilization. On the other hand, if we compare the number of those exceptional conversions with the number of Westerners who are daily flocking towards purely materialistic creeds, such as Marxism, we are able to appreciate more correctly the real trend of modern Western civilization.
It may be, as I have pointed out before, that the growing social and economic unrest, and possibly a new series of world wars of hitherto unknown dimensions and scientific terrors will lead the materialistic self-conceit of Western civilization in such a gruesome way ad absurdum that its people will begin once more, in humility and earnest, to search after real spiritual truths: and then a successful preaching of Islam might become possible in the West.
But such a change is still hidden behind the horizon of the future. It is a dangerous, self-deceiving optimism, therefore, for Muslims to talk of Islamic influences as being on their way to conquer the spirit of the West. Such talk is in reality nothing but the old Mahdi-belief in a “rationalist” disguise – the belief in a power that would suddenly appear and make the tottering structure of Muslim society triumphant on earth. This belief is dangerous, because it is pleasant and easy and tends to lead us away from the realization of the fact that we are culturally nowhere, whereas Western influences are today more potent than ever in the Muslim world; that we are sleeping, while those influences undermine and destroy Islamic society everywhere. To desire the expansion of Islam is one thing; and to build false hopes on this desire is another.