The recent distasteful incident of the Danish cartoons will not be the last time people will try to disparage the character of Prophet Muhammad .
In light of this it is important to understand the history of the Western bigotry against Prophet Muhammad .
In the following article excerpted from "Muhammad - A Biography of the Prophet", Karen Armstrong reflects on a similar incident a few years ago when the book "Satanic Verses" caused a crises in Muslim-Western relations. Ms. Armstrong traces the bitter history of Muslim-Western relations which began with Christian attacks on the character of Prophet Muhammad in Muslim Spain.
It has been difficult for Western people to understand the violent Muslim reaction to Salman Rushdie's fictional portrait of Muhammad in The Satanic Verses. It seemed incredible that a novel could inspire such murderous hatred, a reaction which was regarded as proof of the incurable intolerance of Islam. It was particularly disturbing for people in Britain to learn that the Muslim communities in their own cities lived according to different, apparently alien values and were ready to defend them to the death. But there were also uncomfortable reminders of the Western past in this tragic affair. When British people watched the Muslims of Bradford burning the novel, did they relate this to the bonfires of books that had blazed in Christian Europe over the centuries? In 1242, for example, King Louis IX of France, a canonized saint of the Roman Catholic Church, condemned the Jewish Talmud as a vicious attack on the person of Christ. The book was banned and copies were publicly burned in the presence of the King. Louis had no interest in discussing his differences with the Jewish communities of France in a peaceful, rational way. He once claimed that the only way to debate with a Jew was to kill him "with a good thrust in the belly as far as the sword will go".1 It was Louis who called the first Inquisition to bring Christian heretics to justice and burned not merely their books but hundreds of men and women. He was also a Muslim-hater and led two crusades against the Islamic world. In Louis' day it was not Islam but the Christian West which found it impossible to coexist with others. Indeed, the bitter history of Muslim-Western relations can be said to have begun with an attack on Muhammad in Muslim Spain.
In 850 a monk called Perfectus went shopping in the souk of Cordova, capital of the Muslim state of al-Andalus. Here he was accosted by a group of Arabs who asked him whether Jesus or Muhammad was the greater prophet. Perfectus understood at once that it was a trick question, because it was a capital offence in the Islamic empire to insult Muhammad, and at first he responded cautiously. But suddenly he snapped and burst into a passionate stream of abuse, calling the Prophet of Islam a charlatan, a sexual pervert and Antichrist himself. He was immediately swept off to goal.
This incident was unusual for Cordova, where Christian-Muslim relations were normally good. Like the Jews, Christians were allowed full religious liberty within the Islamic empire and most Spaniards were proud to belong to such an advanced culture, light years ahead of the rest of Europe. They were often called 'Mozarabs' or 'Arabisers'.
The Christians love to read the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the Arab theologians and philosophers, not to refute them but to form a correct and elegant Arabic. Where is the layman who now reads the Latin commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, or who studies the Gospels, prophets or apostles? Alas! All talented young Christians read and study with enthusiasm the Arab books.2
Paul Alvaro, the Spanish layman who wrote this attack on the Mozarabs at about this time, saw the monk Perfectus as a cultural and religious hero. His denunciation of Muhammad had inspired a strange minority movement in Cordova whereby men and women presented themselves before the Qadi, the Islamic judge, and proved their Christian loyalty by a vitriolic and suicidal attack on the Prophet.
When Perfectus had arrived in gaol he had been extremely frightened, and the Qadi decided not to pass the death sentence because he judged that Perfectus had been unfairly provoked by the Muslims. But after a few days Perfectus cracked a second time and insulted Muhammad in such crude terms that the Qadi had no option but to apply the full rigor of the law. The monk was executed, and at once a group of Christians, who seem to have lived on the fringes of society, dismembered his body and began to revere relics of their "martyr'. A few days later another monk called Ishaq appeared before the Qadi and attacked Muhammad and his religion with such passion that the Qadi, thinking him either drunk or deranged, slapped him to bring him to his senses. But Ishaq persisted in his abuse and the Qadi could not continue to permit this flagrant violation of the law.
Ninth-century Cordova was not like Bradford in 1988. The Muslims were powerful and confident. They seemed extremely reluctant to put these Christian fanatics to death, partly because they did not seem in control of their faculties but also because they realized that the last thing they needed was a martyr-cult. Muslims were not averse to hearing about other religions. Islam had been born in the religious pluralism of the Middle East, where the various faiths had coexisted for centuries. The Eastern Christian empire of Byzantium likewise permitted minority religious groups liberty to practice their faith and to manage their own religious affairs. There was no law against propaganda efforts by Christians in the Islamic empire, provided that they did not attack the beloved figure of the Prophet Muhammad. In some parts of the empire there was even an established tradition of skepticism and freethinking which was tolerated as long as it kept within the bounds of decency and was not too disrespectful. In Cordova the Qadi and the Amir, the prince, were both loath to put Perfectus and Ishaq to death but they could not allow this breach of the law. But a few days after Ishaq's execution, six other monks from his monastery arrived and delivered yet another venomous attack on Muhammad. That summer about fifty martyrs died in this way. They were denounced by the Bishop of Cordova and by the Mozarabs, who were all extremely alarmed by this aggressive cult of martyrdom. But the martyrs found two champions: a priest called Eulogio and Paul Alvaro both argued that the martyrs were "soldiers of God" who were fighting bravely for their faith. They had mounted a complex moral assault against Islam which was difficult for the Muslim authorities to deal with because it seemed to put them in the wrong.
It is still common for Western people to take it for granted that Muhammad had simply "used" religion as a way of achieving world conquest or to assert that Islam is a violent religion of the sword, even though there are many scholarly and objective studies of Islam and its Prophet that disprove this myth of Mahound
The martyrs came from all levels of society: they were men and women, monks, priests, laymen, simple folk and sophisticated scholars. But many seem to have been searching for a clear, distinct Western identity. Some appear to have come from mixed homes, with a Muslim and a Christian parent; others had been urged to assimilate too closely with Muslim culture - they had been given Arab names3 or had been pushed into a career in the civil service - and felt disoriented and confused. The loss of cultural roots can be a profoundly disturbing experience and even in our own day it can produce an aggressive, defiant religiosity as a means of asserting the beleaguered self. Perhaps we should remember the martyrs of Cordova when we feel bewildered by the hostility and rage in some of the Muslim communities in the West and in other parts of the world where Western culture threatens traditional values. The martyr movement led by Alvaro and Eulogio was as bitterly opposed to the Christian Mozarabs as to the Muslims and accused them of being cultural defectors. Eulogio made a visit to Pamplona in neighboring Christendom and came back with Western books: texts of the Latin Fathers of the Church and Roman classical works by Vergil and Juvenal. He wanted to resist the Arabisation of his fellow Spaniards and create a Latin renaissance which looked back with nostalgia to the Roman past of his country as a way of neutralizing the influence of the dominant Muslim culture. The movement fizzled out when Eulogio himself was put to death by the Qadi, who begged him to save his life by making a token submission to Islam - nobody would check his subsequent religious behavior - and not give in to this "deplorable and fatal self-destruction" like the other "fools and idiots".4 But Eulogio merely told him to sharpen his sword.
This curious incident was uncharacteristic of life in Muslim Spain. For the next 600 years members of the three religions of historical monotheism were able to live together in relative peace and harmony: the Jews, who were being hounded- to death in the rest of Europe, were able to enjoy a rich cultural renaissance of their own. But the story of the martyrs of Cordova reveals an attitude that would become common in the West. At that time Islam was a great world power while Europe, overrun by barbarian tribes, had become a cultural backwater. Later the whole world would seem to be Islamic, rather as it seems Western today, and Islam was a continuous challenge to the West until the eighteenth century. Now it seems that the Cold War against the Soviet Union is about to be replaced by a Cold War against Islam.
Eulogio and Alvaro both believed that the rise of Islam was a preparation for the advent of Antichrist, the great pretender described in the New Testament, whose reign would herald the Last Days. The author of the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians had explained that Jesus would not return until the "Great Apostasy" had taken place: a rebel would establish his-rule in the Temple of Jerusalem and mislead many Christians with his plausible doctrines.5 The Book of Revelation also spoke of a great Beast, marked with the mysterious number 666, who would crawl out of the abyss, enthrone himself on the Temple Mount and rule the world.6 Islam seemed to fit these ancient prophecies perfectly. The Muslims had conquered Jerusalem in 638, had built two splendid mosques on the Temple Mount and did indeed seem to rule the world. Even though Muhammad had lived after Christ, when there was no need for a further revelation, he had set himself up as a prophet and many Christians had apostatized and joined the new religion. Eulogio and Alvaro had in their possession a brief life of Muhammad, which had taught them that he had died in the year 666 of the Era of Spain, which was thirty-eight years ahead of conventional reckoning. This late eighth century Western biography of Muhammad had been produced in the monastery of Leyre near Pamplona on the hinterland of the Christian world, which trembled before the mighty Islamic giant. Besides the political threat, the success of Islam raised- a disturbing theological question: how had God allowed this impious faith to prosper? Could it be that he had deserted his own people?
The diatribes against Muhammad uttered by the Cordovan martyrs had been based on this apocalyptic biography. In this fear-ridden fantasy, Muhammad was an impostor and a charlatan, who had set himself up as a prophet to deceive the world; he was a lecher who had wallowed in disgusting debauchery and inspired his followers to do the same; he had forced people to convert to his faith at sword point. Islam was not an independent revelation, therefore, but a heresy, a failed form, of Christianity; it was a violent religion of the sword that glorified war and slaughter. After the demise of the martyr movement in Cordova, a few people in other parts of Europe heard their story, but there was little reaction. Yet around 250 years later, when Europe was about to re-enter the international scene, Christian legends would reproduce this fantastic portrait of Muhammad with uncanny fidelity. Some serious scholars would attempt to achieve a more objective view of the Prophet and his religion, but this fictional portrait of "Mahound" persisted at a popular level. He became the great enemy of the emerging Western identity, standing for everything that "we" hoped we were not. Traces of the old fantasy survive to the present day. It is still common for Western people to take it for granted that Muhammad had simply "used" religion as a way of achieving world conquest or to assert that Islam is a violent religion of the sword, even though there are many scholarly and objective studies of Islam and its Prophet that disprove this myth of Mahound.
Excerpted from "Muhammad - A Biography of the Prophet" by Karen Armstrong.
1. John of Joinville, The life of St Louis, trans. Rene Hague and ed. Natalis de Wailly (London, 1955), p. 36.
2. Paul Alvaro , Indiculus Luminosus, quoted in R. W. Southern, Western Views of Islam in the Middle Age (London, 1962), p. 21.
3. Perfectus was probably a Latin version of the Arab name al -Kamil (the Complete One); other martyrs were called Servus Dei, which must be a translation of Abdallah (the Slave of God).
4. Paul Alvaro, Vita Eulogii, quoted in Norman Daniel, The Arabs and Medieval Europe (London and Beirut, 1975), p. 29
5. II Thessalonians 1:4 - 8. The author was not St Paul; the letter was written years after PaulÕs death.
6. Revelation 19:19
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