We cannot afford to maintain these ancient prejudices against Islam
In the 12th century, Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, initiated a dialogue with the Islamic world. "I approach you not with arms, but with words," he wrote to the Muslims whom he imagined reading his book, "not with force, but with reason, not with hatred, but with love." Yet his treatise was entitled Summary of the Whole Heresy of the Diabolical Sect of the Saracens and segued repeatedly into spluttering intransigence. Words failed Peter when he contemplated the "bestial cruelty" of Islam, which, he claimed, had established itself by the sword. Was Muhammad a true prophet? "I shall be worse than a donkey if I agree," he expostulated, "worse than cattle if I assent!"
Peter was writing at the time of the Crusades. Even when Christians were trying to be fair, their entrenched loathing of Islam made it impossible for them to approach it objectively. For Peter, Islam was so self-evidently evil that it did not seem to occur to him that the Muslims he approached with such "love" might be offended by his remarks. This medieval cast of mind is still alive and well.
Last week, Pope Benedict XVI quoted, without qualification and with apparent approval, the words of the 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The Vatican seemed bemused by the Muslim outrage occasioned by the Pope's words, claiming that the Holy Father had simply intended "to cultivate an attitude of respect and dialogue toward the other religions and cultures, and obviously also towards Islam".
But the Pope's good intentions seem far from obvious. Hatred of Islam is so ubiquitous and so deeply rooted in western culture that it brings together people who are usually at daggers drawn. Neither the Danish cartoonists, who published the offensive caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad last February, nor the Christian fundamentalists who have called him a paedophile and a terrorist, would ordinarily make common cause with the Pope; yet on the subject of Islam they are in full agreement.
Our Islamophobia dates back to the time of the Crusades, and is entwined with our chronic anti-semitism. Some of the first Crusaders began their journey to the Holy Land by massacring the Jewish communities along the Rhine valley; the Crusaders ended their campaign in 1099 by slaughtering some 30,000 Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem. It is always difficult to forgive people we know we have wronged. Thenceforth Jews and Muslims became the shadow-self of Christendom, the mirror image of everything that we hoped we were not - or feared that we were.
The fearful fantasies created by Europeans at this time endured for centuries and reveal a buried anxiety about Christian identity and behaviour. When the popes called for a Crusade to the Holy Land, Christians often persecuted the local Jewish communities: why march 3,000 miles to Palestine to liberate the tomb of Christ, and leave unscathed the people who had - or so the Crusaders mistakenly assumed - actually killed Jesus. Jews were believed to kill little children and mix their blood with the leavened bread of Passover: this "blood libel" regularly inspired pogroms in Europe, and the image of the Jew as the child slayer laid bare an almost Oedipal terror of the parent faith.
Jesus had told his followers to love their enemies, not to exterminate them. It was when the Christians of Europe were fighting brutal holy wars against Muslims in the Middle East that Islam first became known in the west as the religion of the sword. At this time, when the popes were trying to impose celibacy on the reluctant clergy, Muhammad was portrayed by the scholar monks of Europe as a lecher, and Islam condemned - with ill-concealed envy - as a faith that encouraged Muslims to indulge their basest sexual instincts. At a time when European social order was deeply hierarchical, despite the egalitarian message of the gospel, Islam was condemned for giving too much respect to women and other menials.
In a state of unhealthy denial, Christians were projecting subterranean disquiet about their activities on to the victims of the Crusades, creating fantastic enemies in their own image and likeness. This habit has persisted. The Muslims who have objected so vociferously to the Pope's denigration of Islam have accused him of "hypocrisy", pointing out that the Catholic church is ill-placed to condemn violent jihad when it has itself been guilty of unholy violence in crusades, persecutions and inquisitions and, under Pope Pius XII, tacitly condoned the Nazi Holocaust.
Pope Benedict delivered his controversial speech in Germany the day after the fifth anniversary of September 11. It is difficult to believe that his reference to an inherently violent strain in Islam was entirely accidental. He has, most unfortunately, withdrawn from the interfaith initiatives inaugurated by his predecessor, John Paul II, at a time when they are more desperately needed than ever. Coming on the heels of the Danish cartoon crisis, his remarks were extremely dangerous. They will convince more Muslims that the west is incurably Islamophobic and engaged in a new crusade.
We simply cannot afford this type of bigotry. The trouble is that too many people in the western world unconsciously share this prejudice, convinced that Islam and the Qur'an are addicted to violence. The 9/11 terrorists, who in fact violated essential Islamic principles, have confirmed this deep-rooted western perception and are seen as typical Muslims instead of the deviants they really were.
With disturbing regularity, this medieval conviction surfaces every time there is trouble in the Middle East. Yet until the 20th century, Islam was a far more tolerant and peaceful faith than Christianity. The Qur'an strictly forbids any coercion in religion and regards all rightly guided religion as coming from God; and despite the western belief to the contrary, Muslims did not impose their faith by the sword.
The early conquests in Persia and Byzantium after the Prophet's death were inspired by political rather than religious aspirations. Until the middle of the eighth century, Jews and Christians in the Muslim empire were actively discouraged from conversion to Islam, as, according to Qur'anic teaching, they had received authentic revelations of their own. The extremism and intolerance that have surfaced in the Muslim world in our own day are a response to intractable political problems - oil, Palestine, the occupation of Muslim lands, the prevelance of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, and the west's perceived "double standards" - and not to an ingrained religious imperative.
But the old myth of Islam as a chronically violent faith persists, and surfaces at the most inappropriate moments. As one of the received ideas of the west, it seems well-nigh impossible to eradicate. Indeed, we may even be strengthening it by falling back into our old habits of projection. As we see the violence - in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon - for which we bear a measure of responsibility, there is a temptation, perhaps, to blame it all on "Islam". But if we are feeding our prejudice in this way, we do so at our peril.
Karen Armstrong is the author of Islam: A Short History
Topics: Iman (Faith And Belief), Islam, Pope
I do NOT need saving - leave us non-islamics alone and mind your own business.
I stand firm in my KNOWING that there are MANY Gods, and I do NOT need a prophet - I get direct comunication within my Soul from the Ultimate God.
Thank you Rob from USA for your objectivity on topics and discussion of this nature. Yes, all forms of violence are condemned and Islam is a religion that value lives and honour the dignity of individuals.
Don't be perturbed by what you saw on the media Rob, for there are billions more Muslims out there that upholds to the true teachings of Islam.
And I respect Christians as well, in fact I had my elementary education in a Roman Catholic school before I pursued further studies abroad. I take off my hats for the Catholics brothers, who were the administrators of the school, they were tolerant in the management of the institution. Perhaps a reflection of their faith too.
Personally I am deeply ashamed of the the atrocities committed by those of the Christian faith over the years and know that Jesus will condemn their actions and reject them as true followers. Similarly, I'm sure that many devout Muslims are ashamed of some behaviors of their "followers" and certainly the extremists' violent campaigns today.
I believe there are rather few people of any major religion that truly understand and humbly seek the self-sacrifice and spirituality offered by their faith.
Unfortunately, religion often becomes a vehicle for uniting the masses. I simply don't believe that Islam is inherently violent. And Christians have no basis for categorically accusing them as such.
The current conflicts are typical of all races and generations of "spiritually shallow" or outright wicked people who claim to belong to any religion. They violate the deepest foundations of their religion while proclaiming they uphold it.
You people are hypocrites of the highest order stinking of blind prejudice. You speak of opposing tyranny when in fact you are its greatest supporters, just ask any Iraqi, Palestinian or Lebanese.
What I dont understand is why there is so much hate when we are all living on the earth and are children of Adam? Priests and popes and imams should not generate hate for people and communities. God says, "I have created you into nations and tribes that you may love one another and not hate each other. The best among you is the one who is most righteous."Quran
Christians in the world know so little about the prophet and the Quran. The prophet respected all people. When a christian delegation came to him in Medina, he invited them in the mosque. When it was time for christians to pray, he let them pray there. When muslims were persecuted in Mecca, he send them to a christian king in Abbysinia where he knew they would not be harmed. When a funeral of Jew would pass by he would show respect. There are hundereds of other examples about his behaviour towards nonmuslims.
If people think Islam spread by a sword, then why are christians and Jews converting to Islam in America? No one is forcing them here. Infact the muslims are scared here as so many innocents have been jailed after 9/11 for the action of a few bad guys from Saudi Arabia. But Iraq got bombed. Why? Type up 9/11 controversy on the internet search and you will find so many wierd theories. Are they true?
Poor people are being bombed everywhere and their natural resources taken for Global control and expanding empire. They have no food , their children no school. They have been put back to stone age. Is this what a good christian government does to the entire population for the crime of few. Justice will bring peace and love. Christians , Jews and muslims should want the same thing for others what they want for themselves.
i had a lot of respect for the catholic church and Pope. The Pope should invite people to dialogue with love not with hate or hurt. (audience of 5 billion m
You've not been listening to your role model (George Bush Jr) of recent 'm sure? Paraphrasing his (GB jr) statement on Pres. Ahmadinejad; you gotta believe everybody's words for what they are, in this world of today.
You got that?
So if the pope said anything I've got to believe him wether he was quoting or ortherwise. Afterall President Ahmadenijad may be quoting as it were, when he called for the elimination of the state of Israel. Words speak louder than action or, is it?
THE WORLD HAS CHANGED HIS 9 11 are we forgetting that? So mind what you say!
I am not clear on what Richard and Robert McCall wrote, but I assume that their comments were not too flattering or kind either. Never mind, I can try to understand their reasons for so doing.
In defense of Karen Armstrong, the author of this article, I say this, it doesn't matter at all, ( in as far as academic exercise and factual matters are concerned ), what her faith is, because the learned author faith is something personal and private to her. Her choice is something that deserves respect.
Robert McCall e-mail response is hardly objective, at a point which he said to the following ".... the author should think what here ( his own spelling mistake, he actually meant her ) social position would be in Islam...."
While I would not be provoke by such prejudices, at the same time Robert's ignorance on Islam and what he actually saw in some of today's Muslim countries are understandable. I'll delve with it at later time. But let me just say here that the real and true Islam respects the dignity of women, allows her to work as long as her husband consented and as long as it does not affect her other primary responsibilities, encourages women to gain as much education and knowledge as men, ( remember that Sayyiditina Aishah ( r.a ) was a very knowledgable individual ).
There are no tenets in the Quran and hadith that denies women any of those in life, and in fact men have heavier and greater burden than women.
And if time permits, I shall write again on other points raised by the two e-mail writers in their responses to this article.
I have seen many Muslim cartoons and claymations from tv channels in the middle east that portray jews and christians horribly, and no jews and christians are burning flags of middle eastern countries and killing people over it.
If the Catholics rioted and killed everytime their faith was ridiculed in Hollywood, the west would be a bad place.
I am not of any particular faith but a supporter of free speach, acceptance and tolerance. Deal.
I have read a number of Karen Armstrong's books and I have found them extremely valuable to my education. Many thanks to the author.
All history is part of our present and thus cannot be ignored in our search for understanding. The truth will be revealed and the consequences felt soon enough. Praise God.
Dear R. Baines, Firstly thank you for your perception that Muslims are generally peaceful people. I also understand your skepticisms on some events notably the recent one being the kidnapping of the two journalists and what they claimed as their forced conversion to Islam.
I answer it this way, firstly I leave it to ALMIGHTY GOD, for HE is the ALL KNOWER, HIM being the OMNIPRESENCE, HE knows the truth. Secondly even if it is true, I believe that those who kidnapped the reporters were over zealous, and their zeal had brought them to faults and errors, with no sense of wisdom.
Thirdly, this group was a small or break away faction of the other main stream group, which in return this group had no capable leaders which can guide them in their course and struggle. Until now we do not know who the leader of this splinter group is and what their objectives are and similarly I do not know what their motives were.
Then I wish to make comparisons to other militants group world wide, particularly the former IRA, did they killed thousands in retaliation or in what they perceive as patriotic struggle to free their country from the British rule ? And yet, nobody or even myself for that matter would jump the opportunity to brand Catholicism with violence, because I know that these are not so the case.
And I had mentioned many times on the hey days of the past British empire, they came to the far East with their guns and canons, they introduced Anglican Christianity to those regions but yet history does not jump to the conclusion that the faith was spread by guns and canons.
And so did the Spanish conquistadors who went to Latin America, they brought along Catholicism there but again no one perceived that their faith was spread by the might of their sword and shield.
Hence let us be objective and fair in our judgments of history and I trust that you have those fairness and objectivity.
events. Specifically, the comments that were made by some parties
in the Islamic world. This prejudice has arisen because of the
destructive acts & attitudes by Islamic extremists coupled with the
unwillingness of the moderate factions of Islam to criticize these
First of all Islam is NOT an animate being. It cannot respond to the Pope. But if you were to say correctly: Some Muslims response to the Pope... then your words might actually have a faint weight amount of weight to it.
In any case let me point to where you lead to a faulty conclusion based on your assumptions and understanding of Islam/Muslims.
Instead of looking for "proofs" of Islam in its authoritative sources, such as etiquette of Prophet Muhammad (s), his rightly guided companions, and the holy Qur'an; we are victims of the newsmedia who choose to highlight only the loudest, violent, and extreme Muslim protestors.
What about the millions of Muslims who also felt deeply hurt by the Pope's flagrantly anti-Islamic comment but protested by writing a letter of voicing their astonishment? Or even those who overlook one of his misstatements (though I hardly doubt he mis-spoke).
To Judge a religion by the acts of some of its followers is a false paux and will lead to continuation of stereotypes and prejudices (pre-judgment).
If Islam says, "Thous shall not kill." "And there is no compulsion in religion" and we see a Muslim man or a group kill; then he is in clear violation of his own Scripture and religion no matter what justification he uses to justify his murder.
Instead of holding him accountable for that, we see people passing sweeping judgments (right-wing neocons on FoxNews, MSNBC, CNN Headline News, and radio) and accepting the poison.
As Ms. Armstrong says, the very poison that led to Christian belief of Jews killing their own children and sucking their blood. Instead, this time in a less flattering way its "Muslims are terrorists so lets profile them. Lets do the un-American thing and wire their mosques intimidating the practice of freedom to worship."
So lets talk to someone who is actually a Muslim about Islam and not just TV.
Dear Brian, I understand your confusion, and let me assure you that there is nothing in Islam that compel you to be a Muslim. As it is mentioned in the Holy Quran " There is no compulsion in religion......"
As a Muslim, one can only invite others to Islam otherwise there is no coercion or compulsion, in fact it is wrong to compel anyone to accept the Islamic faith. GOD ALMIGHTY confers discretion or freedom of choice on individuals.
You are putting a point on the reaction of Muslims, you said that there was violent reactions. Yes, there were few aggressive reactions here and there but these were small in numbers. The rest were just demonstrations, is it wrong to demonstrate as an expression of anguish and frustration ? Demonstrations happens everywhere worldwide on a daily basis, not just by Muslims, but also by workers unions against capitalist exploitations, political activists, the anti war movements, green peace and these list goes on and on.
I am not saying that such demonstrations are proper because I believe that to some extent the pope could be misjudged by what he quoted from the Byzantine Emperor, but then again these are sensitive subjects that prickled the emotions of others.
In my e-mail response on the article " Pope's speech on faith and reason " I have voiced strong opposition on violence and again I repeat these violence, ( yes they are wrong ) are few in numbers compared to the normal daily demonstrations.
Thanks Islamicity for this most enlightening of article by a rare non-Muslim expert.
Or in another words, she is an "expert" who didn't find enlightenment overnight after 9/11 on Islam, but rather someone who had a comprehensive understanding of Islamic culture, its history, and its pepole. She is a well-established non-Muslim scholar whose literary credentials are firmly rooted and well-recognized by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Again kudos with all sincerity.
I had an opportunity to become very friendly with one of the catholic guy from Columbia. He was a PhD scholar in one of the reputed university in europe. One day we started chatting about religion and to my utter surprise I heard from him that he was taught not to interact with any protestant or muslims, as the later will tend to convert him to their belief! It was no less than a shock for me as I did not expect someone so educated guy can beleive in such things! That is a kind of superstition, and all of us should avoid that. Keep reading the way of others people belief, may be we can save at least someone, which will be equivalent to saving the whole humanity...May God bless you.
Carter Lake, Iowa
John Paul II. I think it's tragic what this pope has said. I am a
revert to Islam from Catholicism and still hold my former faith in
the highest regard so I feel this pope is hurting nott only
Muslims, but also his followers and is destroying the efforts of
interfaith tolerance Pope John Paul II strived to build.
I first of all thanx the writer for such good article with nice views,may ALLAH reward you accordingly.My view is that it should have better if we could all understand some thing before we criticise it for example for muslim to criticise other religions he should first understand them and vice versa.I think if such people werenot ignorant about Islam we wouldnot here such statements. If that is checked in addition to respect of others such ancient prejudices against Islam will be avoided.Thanks keep updating us in such ways.
There is no coercion in Islam - but some may get the good hidaayah (guidance), insha'Allah.
"Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out Clear from Error: whoever Rejects Evil and believes In Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy handhold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things."Quran 2:256)