"The Sum of All Heresies" -The Image of Islam in Western Thought

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2008 »Volume 45 2008 Number 2 »The Sum Of All Heresies The Image Of Islam In Western Thought

Frederick Quinn

Frederick QUINN is a priest of the Episcopal Church in the USA, a historian, and a retired Foreign Service officer.  He is the author of fourteen books on law, religion, and history


The West’s understanding of Islam in the last century shows major changes from earlier times. The sheer growth of Islamic numbers—over a billion Muslims by 2005, only about 18 percent of whom are living in the Arab world—requires a new perspective in the West. Islam has become a major force in Asia from Pakistan to the Philippines. Muslims include six million persons in France, 10 percent of the population, and possibly seven million people in the United States of America. By the century’s end, over three million Muslims from all over the world annually made the hajj, the pilgrimage of the faithful to Mecca. Easier accessibility of world travel and the spread of the Internet means that it is possible to speak of cyber-Islam and of the Internet ummah (community of Muslims) as identifiable, though constantly changing, realities. At the same time, scholarship in everything from linguistics and anthropology to the study of Islamic law and mysticism resulted in an outpouring of new studies, transforming what had been a limited focus on the Middle East to the study of global Islam in all its complexity.1

Islam is a growing political, social, and religious reality. Islamic issues find their way to the forefront as political, military, and economic interests, although we scarcely know what to do with them. And at a local level, the corner shop once run by a Jewish or Korean merchant is now the property of an Urdu-speaking owner who sells the Koran alongside newspapers and doughnuts. Store clerks may converse in Arabic or another Middle Eastern language.

The perception of Islam in the West thus became increasingly different from what had gone before, creating a more subtle, expansive, and complex image than that previously held, but one in which the twin elements of attraction and repulsion remained as enduring aspects of the East-West encounter. Islam is more readily understandable through history, political science, anthropology, and the media. It is a world about which increasing demographic, geographic, and linguistic information—the products of virtually every known scholarly domain—becomes available. We would like to say that as more accurate information emerges, a more balanced picture of Islamic realities and aspirations comes into focus. But that is not always the case.

Lieutenant General William Boykin, the Pentagon’s Deputy Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, said of a leading Somalian Muslim warlord whom he visited in a Mogadishu jail in 1993, "I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol." General Boykin, later in charge of the Pentagon’s hunt for Osama bin Laden, spoke in uniform to several American church groups and told them Islamic terrorists will only be conquered "if we come at them in the name of Jesus." He also stated that Satan was behind the terrorists because "he wants to destroy us as a Christian army" (18).

The possibilities of excerpting such sensationalist quotes about Islam from political and church leaders are numerous. Many illustrate the same point, that Islam was being selectively presented for a distinct purpose—to rally people against a threatening external enemy, thus increasing the politicians’ power or control at home. In short, the worldview we have of Islam has been rarely examined and remains implicit in the ongoing games of world politics.

No single "Islam" ever was known by all Christians and no single transmission line emerged through which an image of Islam was passed from century to century. What gradually crystallized were four somewhat different and at times contradictory models that, with variations, continue to the present. They recur in subsequent centuries with costume changes appropriate to the age and can be classified as (24):

the Prophet as Antichrist, heretic, or Satan;
the Prophet as fallen Christian, corrupted monk, or Arab Lucifer;
the Prophet as sexual deviant, polygamist, and charlatan; and
the Prophet as wise Easterner, holy person, and dispenser of wisdom.

The final image of the Prophet as sage was infrequently employed, and, until recent centuries, appeared only fleetingly. At other times Muhammad was portrayed as a militarily strong, politically cunning, but morally flawed ruler. But not a pushover. No one wanted an opponent who would be defeated in Act One, so the Muhammad of much early Western literature was usually a formidable, threatening figure whose flaws gradually led to his undoing.

Historical Roots

Conceptually, the initially negative image of Islam begins long back in Europe’s history, centuries before the Prophet’s birth, when fearful images of strangers and the world beyond Europe’s homelands were already in place. Possibly that had been so since earliest times, but clearly such imagery of the Eastern enemy at the gates existed in Greek and Roman times, and was alive in the early Middle Ages. The Greeks had created a self-image in relation to the Asian peoples on their frontiers, such as the invading Persians. It was a contrast between "civilized" and "barbarian," the "liberty-loving" Greeks confronting "warlike" Asian despots.

Roman writers also assembled an arsenal of vividly negative images about "the robbers of Arabia" and "the wolves of Arabia" long before the Prophet’s birth. The civilized versus barbarian dualism was thus established by at least the fourth century, reinforced by the continual decline of the once-dominant Western Roman Empire. No clear distinction was yet made among outlying Eastern ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups (25).

Islam in the Bible

The Bible was employed as the great anti-Islamic text. Compiled centuries before the Prophet’s birth, it made no mention of Muslims, but its apocalyptical passages would soon be used against Islam (25). They contained graphic descriptions of the "abomination that desolates" foretold in the prophet Daniel (9:27, 11:31, and 12:11). The temple would be profaned and the wise "shall fall by the sword and flame, and suffer captivity and plunder" (11:33). Matthew later elaborated on Daniel in a central New Testament passage (24:15–31). The desolating presence had now entered the holy place, and people must flee immediately for their lives, followed by great suffering. Further confusion would come from the appearance of false prophets and messiahs cleverly resembling Christ:

Then if anyone says to you, "Look! Here is the Messiah!" or "There he is!"—do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible even the elect. Take note, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say, "Look! He is in the wilderness," do not go out. If they say, "Look! He is in the inner rooms," do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather (Mt 24: 23–28).

In addition to false prophets, there was also the Antichrist, a figure in the Johannine Epistles (1 Jn 2:18, 4:3). Muhammad, the letters of whose name, by numerological analysis, added up to 666, the sign of the Antichrist, was targeted with that name.

A Balance Sheet of Positives and Negatives on Islam

When Islam appeared as a bewildering new political and religious reality, it was easy to give it the inferior status of those who came from the lands east of Eden. Not all news from the East was negative, though. In the realms of scientific knowledge, particularly medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and in philosophy, Islamic texts were eagerly translated and used by Western scholars. The spread of Arabic influences to Western theology and letters resulted in a dramatic shift in perspectives toward Islam in the half century after 1230, and for a few centuries the accumulated results of Arabic science and philosophy were widely used by writers in the Christian West (27-28).

A signal event was the translation of the Koran into the European languages. The Koran was inadequately translated from French into English in 1649 by Alexander Ross (1592–1654), whose style was described as "uncouth and his tone … harsh and uncompromising (66)." Ross’s work was based on a version by André du Ryer, a French diplomat-linguist. Du Ryer (ca. 1580–1672) lived in Egypt as a vice consul and in Constantinople as interpreter and secretary to the French ambassador (1630–1634). He completed a translation of the Koran in 1647 that was soon translated into English, Dutch, German, and Russian. Reflecting the conventional Catholicism of his time, he described the Koran’s meaning as being "as ridiculous as the text." Both the poetry and the division of the original into chapters were ignored, and du Ryer employed Christian religious language and ecclesiastical style to translate Islamic concepts. Ritual ablutions became "washing away of sins" and so on (66).

Edward Gibbon on Islam (1788)

But by the eighteenth century a more complex and positive picture of Islam was emerging (71-72). No European figure of that era held a more omniscient perspective as a historian than Edward Gibbon (1737–1794), for whom Islam had several positive attributes, and who as a child had been infatuated with the Arabian Nights. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire(1788) and Thomas Carlyle’s later lecture (1840) on the Prophet Muhammad as a hero are the two major works in English before the twentieth century to present Islam in a comparatively favorable light, along with other major religious figures and movements. Gibbon’s Arabs and their Prophet were set in the wider context of the rise and fall of the Greek and Roman empires, and of other conflicts in the Mediterranean world.

Gibbon was aware of the main Latin, French, and English language sources available for Islam in his time, and dismissed the grossest myths then in circulation, such as that the Prophet’s tomb was suspended by magnets. Gibbon’s Muhammad was a good, unexceptional man during his years in Mecca, but once he accepted the role of prophet and political leader after the hijrah to Medina, he became an ambitious politician given to fraud, fanaticism, and cruelty. Even though it was both cautionary and negative in places about Muhammad, it was still the most advanced historical commentary on Islam in its time (71-72):

According to the tradition of his companions, Mohammed [sic] was distinguished by the beauty of his person, an outward gift which is seldom despised, except by those to whom it has been refused. Before he spoke, the orator engaged on his side the affections of a public or private audience. They applauded his commanding presence, his majestic aspect, his piercing eyes, his gracious smile, his flowing beard, his countenance that painted every sensation of the soul, and his gestures that enforced each expression of the tongue. … His memory was capacious and retentive; his wit easy and social; his imagination sublime; his judgment clear, rapid, and decisive. He possessed the courage both of thought and action; and, although his designs might expand with his success, the first idea which he entertained of his divine mission bears the stamp of an original and superior genius.

The Thousand and One Nights

Of growing popularity through succeeding centuries were The Thousand and One Nights, sometimes called the Arabian Nights, colorful and suspenseful Oriental tales that enjoyed a lasting vogue among European readers (80-84). Almost void of religious content, some were adventure stories or bawdy yarns, others were philosophical or moral tales, and still others were boldly drawn satires. The work contributed to but did not cause the growing interest in the Orient. The tales influenced many Western writers in modern times for their content and technique, but it is difficult to make a case for their religiosity. Interlarded in the Arabian Nightswere pious stories that could have come from many folk cultures, and a few short Islamic-specific accounts. The tales were in turn bawdy, misogynous, virtuous, heroic, adventurous, and comic, often displaying the "fun-under-the-turban" school of lowlife humor. The works circulated in translation from 1704 to 1717 from the French version of Antoine Galland (1646–1715), and hastily translated sections soon appeared in English, but it was not until 1778 that a complete translation was published in English.

Thomas Carlyle and "The Prophet as Hero" (1840)

The image of Islam in the West underwent several dramatic changes in the nineteenth century, more than in any previous hundred years’ span. On balance, the old negatives about Islam remained, but to them were added a wealth of new information, more detailed and tolerant in perspective, plus a steady outpouring of new details about languages, cultures, and societies than had ever been previously available.

In the vanguard of those who found good things to say about Islam was the popular writer-lecturer Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881). On Friday, 8 May 1840, he gave a much-heralded talk in his London series, "On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History." The lecture was on "The Hero as Prophet. Mahomet: Islam" and it soon earned a place in history as the first major public presentation of its kind, unqualifiedly supportive of Islam and the Prophet.

This was an age of heroes in literature, and Carlyle had chosen Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Shakespeare, Luther, and Carlyle’s fellow Scotsman, Robert Burns, for other places in his pantheon. For Carlyle, Muhammad was neither a heretic nor an impostor, but a legitimate world religious leader (105-106):

The word this man spoke has been the life-guidance now of a hundred-and-eighty millions of men these twelve-hundred years. A greater number of God’s creatures believes in Mahomet’s [sic] word at this hour than in any other word whatever. Are we to suppose that it was a miserable piece of spiritual legerdemain, this which so many creatures of the Almighty have lived by and died by? I, for my part, cannot form any such supposition. A false man found a religion? Why, a false man cannot build a brick house! It will not stand for twelve centuries, to lodge a hundred-and-eighty millions; it will fall straightaway.

Carlyle praised Muhammad’s sincerity, and described his history, personality, and teachings. The author closed his talk with these words: "The Great Man was always as lightning out of Heaven; the rest of men waited for him like fuel, and then they too would flame."

John Henry Newman and "The Evil Empire" (1853)

An opposite point of view was expounded by John Henry Newman (1801–1890). As a child, Newman remembered, he had wished the magic stories of the Arabian Nights were true, but as an adult he had nothing favorable to say about Islam in The Turks in Their Relation to Europe, nine lectures Newman gave at the Catholic Institute of Liverpool in October 1853. Newman’s Turks were the original Evil Empire, and he hoped they would be "surrounded, pressed upon, divided, decimated, driven into the desert by the force of civilization."

As a writer, Newman invites comparison with Gibbon, whom he sometimes cited, and in omniscience of viewpoint Newman presented Turkish history with magisterial sweep but inaccurate information. His categories of civilization versus barbarism, North versus South, tropical versus temperate climates were ones imaginative writers had employed since the Middle Ages.

The lectures were set against the backdrop of the Crimean War, a new crusade against the Turks, who Newman said had been a threat to Europe since at least the eleventh century. Civilized Europe was called to rescue the barbarous East. The Turks were "the enemy of God and Man" but could only menace a divided Europe that had deserted Catholicism and the pope. Predictably, Newman recalled the Crusades with nostalgia, but in a curiously inaccurate twist said they represented Christian European warfare. His final thunderbolts were that Islam’s deficiencies were the same as Protestantism’s: both were stern, cold, legalistic, and fatalistic religions. Newman’s study of the Turks was deeply flawed by both an almost total dependence on inaccurate sources and by bending history, geography, ethnography, and religion to all favor a single thesis—the need for papal supremacy.

France: Louis Massignon

In more modern times, a landmark statement about Islam came during the Vatican II deliberations of the mid 1960s. The person most responsible for shaping the Roman Catholic Church’s landmark Vatican II (1964) conciliatory declaration toward Islam was the French spiritual adventurer Louis Massignon (1883–1962), who died just as the Council’s first session convened in October 1962. Nostra aetate’s ("Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions") view on Islam (#3) deserves quoting in its entirety, for in a short statement it reversed more than a millennium’s officially sanctioned religious hostility.

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.

The Council’s original preparatory documents made no mention of Islam or other world religions, but in its September-December 1963 meetings discussed what to say about Judaism. Several Middle Eastern bishops, including the Greco-Melkite Patriarch Maximos IV, responded that if a section on Christian-Jewish relations was included, there should be one on Christian-Muslim relations as well, especially considering the sensitivity of Israel as an issue among Arab states. It was during the Council’s third session (September-December 1964) that the document Nostra aetate was approved, based on Massignon’s conciliatory statement about Muslims.

Massignon was born of an old Breton family in comfortable circumstances in Paris, to a devout Roman Catholic mother and non-believing successful sculptor father. A gifted linguist, Massignon became fluent in at least ten Semitic languages, including Arabic and Hebrew. He went to Algeria in 1901 at age eighteen to improve his Arabic, and completed a Sorbonne degree that year. At the Collège de France, Massignon taught Sociology of Islam, a chair he occupied from 1926 until his retirement at age seventy-one in 1954.

On 28 January 1950, Massignon was secretly ordained a priest in the Byzantine-Melkite Rite in Cairo. Massignon, married and the father of three children, in 1949 had transferred his affiliation from the Latin to the Melkite rite of the Greek Catholic Church, with the personal permission of Pope Pius XII. The Greek Catholic Church permitted married clergy, but that was not the reason for Massignon’s attraction to it. He was determined to experience the life of the Arab Christians among whom he had lived and with whom he had shared his religious life. Never interested in parish ministry, he intended to say the mass in Arabic for the deeper unity of Muslims and Christians each day at dawn.

Islam of the Stage and Silver Screen

Motion pictures, a new and influential cultural force, spread across the globe by the mid-twentieth century. With magic wands, motion picture directors, writers, actors, and musicians gave a waiting world instant images of overseas worlds. The technology was there, as were waiting audiences, yet the messages were—for all their technical skill in presentation—surprisingly conventional. They reproduced images of Islam as a pagan religion thriving in backward cultures peopled by romantic desert chiefs on powerful steeds.

Several themes were worked and reworked in such films—the desert as a place of romance in The Garden of Allah and The Desert Song; the casbah as a place of mystery and lawlessness in Algiers and The Battle of Algiers; and the Arab chief as sexual conqueror in The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik. Arabs were backward, comic figures in Casablanca and Raiders of the Lost Ark. There was the magic carpet Orient in Harum Scarum and Alladin. A few films, such as Lawrence of Arabia and Khartoum, made an honest effort to portray strengths and weaknesses in the colonial-indigenous relationship. None of these created a new image of Islam in the twentieth century. All drew on existing material, presented graphically in the new medium (149-155).

Almost sixty years later, the Walt Disney blockbuster film Aladdin (1992), the studio’s top-grossing film that year, opened with the following lines (151-152):

Oh, I come from a land
From a faraway place
Where the caravan camels roam.
Where they cut off your ear
If they don’t like your face,
It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.

After protests from the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the last three lines were softened:

Where it’s flat and immense
And the heat is intense
It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.

The text could have been lifted from any one of innumerable twentieth-century films about the Middle East. Little about Islam as a religion or culture was mentioned in such films, but writers, actors, and directors drew from the ancient storehouse of stock images, presenting them with increasing technical mastery and storyteller’s refinement.

Summing Up

The basic image of Islam in the West was in place by the Middle Ages and continues to the present. It contains four elements. Religiously, Muhammad was either the Antichrist or a fallen Lucifer-like figure, a cardinal who failed to be elected pope, so he turned on the church. Personally, he was a flawed human being, unable or unwilling to contain his sexuality; he was polygamous or a predator, depending on the account. Politically, he was either a major leader who united the desert tribes for the first time ever or a greedy despot. Finally, and contradicting what had been said before, he was an original source of the wisdom of the East for some and the last and greatest prophet of divine revelation for others, giving him a lasting place in history.

Gradually new, more informed appraisals were added in successive epochs; they were added, however, as layers or overlays to the extant images of Islam long in place, and not as full replacements for the older prejudices and fears Westerners held about Islam. These never fully disappeared, but were submerged to reappear at various times of real or imagined threat. Conceptually, increased tolerance and understanding of Islam was not linear and upward but resembled more the contrasting themes and variations of a musical composition that, after once being played, may reappear later in a somewhat different form.

What has emerged is a new image of Islam in the West as an active force, a global political-militant presence seemingly preaching a brand of extremist religion and ideologies that appears to be in sharp conflict with Western values. Yet while extremists claim the limelight, far more significant in its long-term implications is the Islamic activism of what might be called with some accuracy "shopkeeper Islam," the religious expressions of moderate, middle-of-the-road clerics, teachers, merchants, professionals, and government workers. Representing a growing population throughout the Islamic world, many such members consciously disavow the West, at least in its present relationships, for its secularism and militarism, but do not condone violence. Disenchanted with their own corrupt, nonresponsive governments that fail to deliver jobs, basic public safety, or educational and medical services, such people increasingly see Islamic-governed societies as a source of hope. When bumper stickers on bolt-rattling northern Nigerian taxis proclaim, "Islam Is the Answer," the not-so-hidden message is that corrupt, ineffective state governments should give way to Islamic-ruled ones (164-166).

Prince Charles and the "Unity of Faiths"

One of the most impressive efforts in recent times to bridge the gap between Muslims, Jews, and Christians came in a speech on the "Unity of Faith" that Crown Prince Charles of Great Britain gave at historic al-Azhar University in Cairo on 21 March 2006. Drawing on the common roots of the three Abrahamic faiths, he noted, "I do not want you to imagine for one moment that I think they are one and the same. There are differences, and we should celebrate them. But in the things that matter most, we have a common root." His speech was also about the challenge of interpreting sacred texts, the "difficult and subtle art that gave rise in Islam to great principles of interpretation and great schools of jurisprudence." He concluded with a thoughtful passage that could serve as a starting point among those who would work for greater understanding among Muslims, Jews, and Christians (172):

When all we can hear in sacred texts is simple certainties, when all we can see in God’s multicolored world is black and white, we begin to divide humanity into simple oppositions: the good and the evil; the pious and the profane; us and the enemy. And this then leads to hatred and violence. For it is then that we lose the single most important principle that unites the Abrahamic faith: in Judaism, "Love your neighbor as yourself"; in Christianity, "All things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you to them"; and in Islam, "No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself."