Islam vs. modern political categories
by Ken Myers
“In the great medieval French epic of the wars between Christians and Saracens in Spain, the Chanson de Roland, the Christian poet endeavors to give his readers or, rather, listeners some idea of the Saracen religion. According to this vision, the Saracens worshiped a trinity consisting of three persons: Muhammad, the founder of their religion, and two others, both of them devils, Apollin and Tervagant. To us this seems comic, and we are amused by medieval man unable to conceive of religion or indeed of anything else except in his own image. Since Christendom worshiped its founder in association with two other entities, the Saracens also had to worship their founder, and he too had to be one of a trinity, with two demons co-opted to make up the number. In the same spirit one finds special correspondents of European and American newspapers describing the civil war in Lebanon in terms of right-wing and left-wing factions. Just as medieval Christian man could conceive of religion only in terms of a trinity, so his modern descendant can conceive of politics only in terms of a theology or, as we say nowadays, ideology, of left-wing and right-wing forces and factions.
“This recurring unwillingness to recognize the nature of Islam, or even the fact of Islam, as an independent, different, and autonomous religious phenomenon persists and recurs from medieval to modern times. We see it, for example, in the nomenclature adopted to designate the Muslims. It was a long time before Christendom was even willing to give them a name with a religious meaning. For many centuries, both Eastern and Western Christendom called the followers of the Prophet ‘Saracens,’ a word of uncertain etymology but clearly of ethnic and not religious connotation, since the term is both pre-Islamic and pre-Christian. In the Iberian Peninsula, where the Muslims whom they met came from Morocco, they called them Moors; in most of Europe, Muslims were called Turks, or, farther cast, Tatars, another ethnic name loosely applied to the Islamized steppe peoples who for a while dominated Russia.
“Even when Europe began to recognize that Islam was a religious and not an ethnic community, it expressed this realization in a sequence of false analogies, beginning with the names given to the religion and its followers, Muhammedanism and Muhammedans. The Muslims do not, and never have, called themselves Muhammedans or their religion Muhammedanism, since Muhammad does not occupy the same place in Islam as Christ does in Christianity. This misinterpretation of Islam as a sort of mirror image of Christendom found expression in a number of different ways — for example, in the false equation between the Muslim Friday and the Christian Sunday, in the reference to the Qur’ān as the Muslim Bible, in the misleading analogies between the mosque and the church, the ulema and the clergy, and, coming more directly to our present concern, in the imposition on Muslim history and institutions of Western notions of country and nation and of what goes on within them. Thus, for example, in Gibbon’s fascinating account of the career of the Prophet, Muhammad and his contemporaries were inspired by ‘patriotism and love of liberty,’ two concepts that somehow seem inappropriate to the circumstances of seventh-century Arabia. For many centuries, Europe called the lands of the Ottoman Empire Turkey, a name that the inhabitants of those lands did not apply to their own country until the final triumph among them of European political ideas, with the proclamation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
“Modern Western man, being unable for the most part to assign a dominant and central place to religion in his own affairs, found himself unable to conceive that any other people in any other place could have done so and was therefore impelled to devise other explanations of what seemed to him only superficially religious phenomena. We find, for example, a great deal of attention given by eighteenth-century European scholarship to the investigation of such meaningless questions as ‘Was Muhammad sincere?’ or ‘Was Muhammad an Enthusiast or a Deceiver?’ We find lengthy explanations by nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century historians of the ‘real underlying significance’ of the great religious conflicts in Islam among different sects and schools in the past, and a similar determination to penetrate to the ‘real’ meaning of sectarian and communal struggles at the present time. To the modern Western mind, it is not conceivable that men would fight and die in such numbers over mere differences of religion; there have to be other ‘genuine’ reasons underneath the religious veil. We are prepared to allow religiously defined conflicts to accredited eccentrics like the Northern Irish, but to admit that an entire civilization can have religion as its primary loyalty is too much. Even to suggest such a thing is regarded as offensive by liberal opinion, always ready to take protective umbrage on behalf of those whom it regards as its wards. This is reflected in the recurring inability of political, journalistic, and academic commentators alike to recognize the importance of religion in the current affairs of the Muslim world and in their consequent recourse to the language of left-wing and right-wing, progressive and conservative, and the rest of the Western vocabulary of ideology and politics.
“Until the revolution in Iran, there was a steadfast refusal on the part of the Western media to recognize that religion was still a force in the Muslim world. Since then, there has been a tendency to move to the opposite extreme, and some who previously could not see Islam at all now seem to have difficulty seeing anything else. The two are equally misleading. Islam is a living reality, and its importance as a political factor is immense. But having accepted Islam as a fact, we should remember that there still are other facts. Like other people, Muslims seek ways to protest and rebel against political oppression and economic privation; like other people, Muslims react and respond in ways that are familiar to them. Whatever the cause — political, social, economic — the form of expression to which most Muslims have hitherto had recourse to voice both their criticisms and their aspirations is Islamic. The slogans, the programs, and to a very large extent the leadership are Islamic. Through the centuries, Muslim opposition has expressed itself in terms of theology as naturally and spontaneously as its Western equivalent in terms of ideology. The one is no more a ‘mask’ or a ‘disguise’ than the other. If, then, we are to understand anything at all about what is happening in the Muslim world at the present time and what has happened in the past, there are two essential points that need to be grasped. One is the universality of religion as a factor in the lives of the Muslim peoples, and the other is its centrality.”
— from Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (Oxford University Press, 1993)