Written by: Hilal Görgün, PhD
Orientalism is the “scientific discipline” that deals with the material and spiritual culture of the East, as well as the history and languages of the region; these studies reach back to the beginning of history and follow their development through modern times. The ‘Orientalist’ is a person who studies the East, practicing this ‘science’.
The emergence of Orientalism as an academic discipline goes back to the Ecole speciale des langues orientales founded in France by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1795 (before Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign); this was followed in Germany by the establishment of the Deutsche Morgenlaendische Gesellschaft in 1845, with other institutions in Europe being set up later. Orientalism developed, as the greatest critic of it, Edward W. Said remarked, in the service of colonialism. According to the sociologist Wolf Lepenies, the recipient of the 2006 the German Publishers Association Peace Prize, Orientalism emerged as “Rivalry Studies” (Gegnerforschung).
In fact, the founders of Orientalism themselves made it clear that in its emergence it was based on the mentality of “helping the friends, harming the enemies”. This was stated by the famous German statesman Bismarck when opening the department of Orientalische Sprachen (Eastern Languages) in 1887 -this department would later be affiliated with the Auslandswissenschaften, which was occupied with the “cultural ideologies of foreign communities” during World War II.
In the post-war period, the center of Orientalism moved to the United States where it did not take on a more humane direction; rather it came more and more under the influence of political projects and different ideologies. The best example of this situation today is the Orientalist and historian Bernard Lewis, who is one of the ideologues of what is known as the neo-conservative movement (otherwise known as ‘neo-cons‘).
In terms of the historical development of Orientalism, we know that well before it emerged as an academic discipline, Westerners had been interested in the emergence of Islam as a civilization and its history, as well as the life of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). However, this interest had in general stemmed, with few exceptions, from polemical purposes and had overwhelmingly been based on slander and denigration, rather than being scientific research or an attempt at a search for the truth. Orientalist academics would later use these early sources, and approached Islamic history and religion, including in particular the Quran and the hadiths (sayings of the Prophet), by drawing upon these non-scientific polemical works. For this reason, it would be useful to first look at these earlier developments in Orientalism before analyzing their views on the Prophet of Islam.
Since the very beginning studies on Prophet Muhammad in the West have been based mostly on various prejudices and calumnies. The biased views about Islam and its Prophet were initially produced and disseminated by the religious establishments and politicians of the Judeo-Christian world, who had lost their power to a large extent due to the expansion of Islam, in response to the conversion of large numbers of people into this new religion. The main purpose of these incorrect statements was to mislead people into staying away from Islam by creating a false image of the religion and Prophet Muhammad. Thus, such denigrated images of the Prophet as being “mentally ill“, a “liar”, a “fake prophet” and an “anti-Christ”, none of which had any factual historical basis, were produced and re-produced throughout the centuries in the West. In fact, there has emerged a substantial literature under this heading (see Alphandery).
Montgomery Watt, a leading Orientalist himself, says that among all the greatest men in history, no one has been denigrated as much as Prophet Muhammad (Muhammad at Madina, p. 324). In this sense, the history of what has been said and written about Prophet Muhammad is fascinating if one examines it as a history of calumnies, slander and misunderstanding. For example, for a long time Prophet Muhammad had been misnamed “Maphomet“, “Baphomet” and “Bafum“, all of which are laden with negative meanings, and Muslims were said to be pagans with “Mahomet” being one of the idols that they worship -a few examples of the widespread and deep misconceptions about Islam and its prophet.
One of the leading figures who initiated the campaign of denigration against Prophet Muhammad was John of Damascus (d. 750 AD), a Christian priest. In the last sections of his book, De haeresibus, John discusses Prophet Muhammad and sees him, just like those Orientalists who followed him throughout the entire Middle Ages did, as a “heretic” or a “fake prophet” who deceived the people around him by using Christian sources with the help of an Arian priest, rather than the prophet of a new religion. Moreover, Prophet Muhammad’s marriages and the wars he fought are discussed in this book in a biased way; these baseless criticisms later became the (sole) basis of other Orientalists who for the most part simply repeated what John had said before them. In fact, this still continues today.
The biography of the Prophet of Islam also concerned the priests and others who lived in the Byzantine Empire. Some of the important sources from this era include Refutatio Mohammedis (which is also mentioned in some sources as Refutation du CoranConfutatio Alcorani), written by Nicetas Byzantium in the 9th century, and the Chronographia, which was written by Theophanes the Confessor (758 – around 816) and discovered and compiled by Anastasius Bibliothecarius.
On the other hand, the Christians and Jews in Spain also played an important role in the dissemination of negative views and misunderstandings about Islam and Prophet Muhammad in the West. Despite the fact that these groups had access to correct information about the Prophet and the truth about Islam, as they had lived under the administration of Muslims, they created a literature full of lies, denigration and false stories, possibly due to their enmity against their Muslim administrators. For example, the Eulogius of Cordova’s Liber Apologeticus Martyrum, written in the 9th century, basically drawing on Latin manuscript, is one such work.
Another important factor that led to the further dissemination of the misconceptions about Prophet Muhammad and Islam in the West is, of course, the Crusades. Within this framework, the studies of the Bishop of Cluny, Petrus Venerablis (d. 1156, also known as Peter the Venerable or Peter of Montboissier) aimed to provide a foundation for many previously written refutations against Islam; these are now known as the “Toledo-Cluny collection”. One of the earliest examples of its kind, this collection includes such ‘studies’ as Liber generationis Mahumet, Doctrina Mahumetand Summa totius haeresis Saracenorum as well as a Latin translation of the Quran, and a Latin translation of an apologetical pamphlet (Epistola Saraceni or Rescriptum Christiani) written in the 3rd (AH) / 9th (AD) century by Abulmasih ibn Ishaq al Kindi in order to defend Christianity. Vincent de Beauvais (d. 1264), too, drew on this pamphlet in composing his compilation, Speculum Historiale (Vol. XXIII, Chapters XXIV – LXVIII), where he brought together different stories regarding Prophet Muhammad that were found in various monastic chronicles and transmitted across generations -a compilation which had great influence on later generations in the West. This important pamphlet was later published in English as The Apology of al Kindî by a leading Orientalist, Sir William Muir (London 1882).
The very long poem (consisting of thousands of lines) written by the priest Konrad in the middle of the 12th century, known in Europe as Chanson de Roland, Rolandslied, or the Song of Roland, is a very important work in terms of the cultural history of Europe. It describes how a close companion of Roland betrayed and killed Charlemagne during the war he conducted against Muslims in Andalusia in 778. This long poem contains a lot of negative -and untrue- stories about Muslims, among which is the particularly interesting claim that Muslims worshiped three major idols by the names of Muhammad, Apollin and Tarvagant. Similarly, the famous Italian writer Dante Alighieri, in his work, The Divine Comedy (La divina commedia), which he wrote in 1306 – 1321, depicts Prophet Muhammad on the 9th floor of the hell, along with Ali.
In European Renaissance literature, Islam is defined as the religion of the Turks, and Prophet Muhammad is also discussed in this context. Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, wrote many books and delivered a number of sermons about the Turks and ‘their’ beliefs. In his work entitled Eine Heerespredigt wider den Türken, he sees the Turks as the “worshippers of Satan” and as a curse sent by God to punish the Pope. Moreover, in many other works written in this period, Prophet Muhammad is described as the prophet of the Turks and the author of the Quran.
The 17th and the 18th centuries witnessed a rapid increase in the number of books on Prophet Muhammad and Islam in Europe. However, these books were mostly a repetition of earlier works written by previous generations, which were full of calumnies and lies about Islam and its prophet. It is thus difficult to understand and explain the assertions about and denigrations of Prophet Muhammad in Western sources and books which insulted Muslims and presented them as pagans that were prevalent during the Middle Ages without understanding the history of the Church, as well as the political and social history of the West in general.
The European Middle Ages, a period that covers many centuries, was a time that was not unfamiliar with paganism; a large portion of Europe did not encounter Christianity until the 12th century. With the process of the re-christianization of Spain as a result of the collapse of the Umayyad Empire in Andalusia, a process called “reconquista“, there occurred an increase in the publications against Islam and Prophet Muhammad in Europe.
Furthermore, with the Crusades, the literature that accused Prophet Muhammad of being the anti-christ and depicting Muslims as pagans also expanded considerably. The enmity against Muslims went so far as to blame them for the killing of Christians, when they had actually died at the hands of pagans or other Christian groups in Europe. In 12th century Europe, it was the church officials in particular who were responsible for inventing and disseminating the (false) idea that Muslims were pagans in their verbal and written culture.
Furthermore, the characterization of Muslims as pagans in the Christian and Western literature of the Middle Ages had some social and political consequences as well. For instance, killing Muslims and the confiscation of their property were actions justified in religious terms, and Muslims had to undergo an intense process of religious, social and political oppression, which included being sent to exile or executed, as in the case of the Moriskos (the Muslims in Spain) during the reconquista.
In addition, Christians used the image of the Muslim ‘pagans’ as the external common enemy to unite and solve the conflicts among themselves. In the entire literature of the Middle Ages, Prophet Muhammad was depicted mostly either as an “idol of Muslims” or as a heretic.
Another reason why members of the Christian Church invented so many untrue allegations about Prophet Muhammad and Islam is because most Christians often perceived Islam as a rival religion. The fact that the geography of Islam expanded in a very short period of time on several continents as a result of the large numbers of people choosing Islam as their religion -even the Mongols who invaded and destroyed the Islamic world in the 13thcentury converted to Islam shortly after their invasion- led to a great reaction and anger within the Catholic Church. So, in order to maintain their congregations, many leading Christians started denigration campaigns against Islam and Prophet Muhammad, claiming that Islam was an extremist religion that had nothing to do with God’s word.
On the other hand, with the emergence of Orientalism as a “scientific” field in the 19th century and its development as such in the 20th century, many of the classical works on the history of Islam, including books in the sirah (traditional Muslim biographies of Prophet Muhammad) and maghazi (a genre of prophetic biography in Islamic literature), which were written by such leading figures as Ibn Hisham, Waqidi, Ibn Sa’d, and al Taberi, were translated into Western languages. Despite the fact that the early Orientalists had access to these classics, which they made extensive use of in early studies, they did not hesitate to twist the truth by distorting many important topics and facts about Islam and Prophet Muhammad.
The Islamic classics in sirah, hadith, tafsir (the interpretation of the Quran) and others were interpreted freely and in a manner that was not accurate or consistent with reality by these Orientalists in the name of ‘criticism’. A leading example of this attitude is the fact that they assumed that it was the Prophet who had written the Quran; as a result, they often reduced the latter to an autobiographical account of Prophet Muhammad. Similarly, these Orientalists assumed -and even explicitly argued- that the hadiths did not belong to Prophet Muhammad, but were “fabricated” later on by different groups and individuals. Instead of listing every opinion put forward by the Orientalists, some of which went so far as to be nonsensical allegations, we will try to summarize them in terms of their general characteristics.
First of all, in Orientalist studies it was assumed (and argued) that what Prophet Muhammad had brought was not original; rather he ‘composed’ this religion as a collage of Judaism, Christianity, and even Mandaeanism, receiving different ideas from each of these older religions. In his book, What has Muhammad Received from Judaism? (Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen?, Bonn 1833), Abraham Geiger claims that Prophet Muhammad copied many things from Judaism, including different concepts, beliefs and stories, and tries to prove this by comparing the Quran with different Judaic texts.
On the other hand, Alois Sprenger polemically discusses the Prophet’s name, claiming that the name “Muhammad” had not been given to him when he was born, but that he later adopted it after the migration. He also speculates about the early years of the prophethood, and claims that Prophet Muhammad learnt many things about God and religions which he later synthesized into the Quran. He explains the moments of trembling that the Prophet sometimes experienced when receiving revelation -like many other Orientalists, as a symptom of epilepsy, and even goes so far as to claim that they were an indication of his “religious madness”. Finally, Sprenger interpreted the account of Archangel Gabriel, who disguised himself as a man and brought the revelation to the Prophet, as a person who was deceiving and exploiting Muhammad.
Sprenger also claimed that when he was in his forties Prophet Muhammad emulated the Christian priests by withdrawing into solitude; that when he “wrote” the 35th verse of the Surat Al-Nur (the Light) he was inspired by the lights of the churches he had seen during his travels in southern Arabia. Moreover, Sprenger asserted that in his later years Prophet Muhammad “inserted” the stories of Prophet Moses and the Pharaoh into the Quran after he learnt the details; however, according to Sprenger, he did not completely understand this story!
On the other hand, Sir William Muir, the author of a four-volume biography of Prophet Muhammad which has been influential within Orientalist literature since the middle of the 19th century, is one of those Orientalists who practiced Orientalism as “Rivalry Studies” (Gegnerforschung). A diplomat and missionary working as an officer in the British colonial administration in India, Muir’s primary purpose was to convert Muslims to Christianity. He even founded a city called “Muirabad”, inspired by the city “Allahabad” in India. In his book on Prophet Muhammad, The Life of Mahomet(I-IV, London 1858-1861), which he wrote drawing on classical Islamic biographies of the Prophet, he simply repeated the lies and allegations that had been attributed to the Prophet by earlier Orientalists. Despite the fact that he does mention in the book some positive aspects of the Prophet, which were unavoidable, such as his trustworthiness, his sense of justice, and his struggle against pagan values in the Arabian Peninsula, he directs serious accusations against the Prophet during the post-prophethood period, since his essential aim is to ‘prove’ that Prophet Muhammad was not a real prophet, but a liar.
For example, he repeats the insults and denigrations about Prophet Muhammad, claiming that he used to talk to himself and that he often experienced epileptic seizures etc. Towards the end of the second volume, he discusses, entirely on the basis of speculation, the possible sources of the information that Prophet Muhammad -whom he sees as the author of the Qur’an- had gathered about Christianity. When it comes to the Medinan period in particular, Muir intensifies his speculations and allegations about the Prophet in order to insult him further.
However, it should also be noted that the ideas that Sprenger and Muir put forward about Islam and its prophet are not entirely negative. At the beginning of his work, Sprenger emphasizes the significance of studying Islam in terms of the fact that Islam is the only universal religion whose emergence phase is known by historians. For this reason, he says, the emergence of Islam as a universal religion should concern all those who would like to know how a religion first emerges. He also notes that Muslims have made great contributions to the universal culture of mankind via their valuable studies and the cultural products of their civilization. Likewise, Muir acknowledges the fact that there is no doubt about the authenticity of the transmission of the Quran (i.e. it has never been changed since the beginning); he even disproves, through a discussion of several examples, those who express doubts about the authenticity of the Quran.
Some Unbiased Studies on the Prophet Muhammad in the West
Though the exception, there are some unbiased studies about Prophet Muhammad in the West as well. The first work known in the West that contained a positive interpretation and positive arguments about Prophet Muhammad is Henry Stubbe‘s An Account of the Rise and Progress of Mahometanism with the Life of Mahomet and a Vindication of Him and His Religion from the Calumnies of the Christians, (ed. by Hafiz Mahmud Khan, London 1911, references below are to the Lahore 1954 edition of the book). A close friend of the famous philosopher Thomas Hobbes, Stubbe wrote his book in 1671, shortly after the 30-year wars (in which Europeans fiercely fought against each other), but could not publish it when he was alive for a variety reasons. Therefore, a book that was written to defend Islam and Prophet Muhammad against the false accusations of the Christians was not available to the reader for many years.
In the first two chapters of the book, Stubbe gives general information about the first centuries of Christianity and Judaism; then in the third chapter, he presents a description of the history and geography of the Arabian Peninsula, as well as giving some information about the Saracens (Muslims). In the rest of the book other chapters (4 – 10) include the following titles: “Developments after the Birth of Muhammad”, “Migration to Medina”, “The Wars”, “Muhammad’s Farewell Pilgrimage and his Death”, “Muhammad’s Character and the Accusations of the Christians”, “The Quran and Muhammad’s Miracles”, and “The Justice of the Wars of Muslims”. In the book, Stubbe says that Prophet Muhammad was an extraordinary individual; he also presents a description of the physical features of the Prophet based on the classical, authentic sources of Islam (p. 149 ff). He also notes that the Prophet had a superior talent and capacity in the art of both war and peace, not in line with descriptions found in Christian accounts.
Furthermore, he gives information about the genealogy of the Prophet and indicates to some misunderstandings that arose from the misreading of his name by some Orientalists (p. 151). Stubbe also argues that the teachings of Prophet Muhammad are entirely consistent with the laws of nature, just like the original Christian and Jewish teachings in their earlier phases (p. 183). Moreover, he says that the claim that Prophet Muhammad disseminated his teachings by the sword is a calumny; the wars he fought were aimed at re-storing the old, original religion, rather than instituting a new one (p. 192). According to Stubbe, Prophet Muhammad’s teachings were centered on the idea that paganism should be eliminated all over the world, that God is one and has no partners. Again, according to Stubbe, when Muhammad sought to end paganism, he never forced anyone to enter Islam; in fact, Muhammad himself wrote some letters that sanctioned the protection of Christians and Jews in the Arabian Peninsula (p. 193).
The second important figure who discussed Prophet Muhammad in a positive manner is the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Author of the West – East Diwan (West – Östliche Diwan), Goethe expressed his positive feelings and interpretation of Islam and its prophet in poetic form. In his poem entitled Muhammad’s Song (Muhammeds Gesang), which he wrote in 1773, he praises the Prophet; he also uses the phrase “Muhammad, the best of the mankind” (Oberhaupt der Geschöpfe – Mohammed). Goethe also started to write a book on Prophet Muhammad, but was not able to finish it before he died. Due to the very positive view of Islam and the Prophet in this work, some have argued that Goethe had converted to Islam before he died.
Another figure who was able to stay away from the denigration campaign and calumnies against the Prophet Muhammad in his studies was the British historian and author Thomas Carlyle, who, though much younger than Goethe, corresponded with the latter and translated his work into English. In his book, entitled On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History, which he wrote in the 1840s, he analyzes Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) within the category of the great leaders who changed the history of the world. Carlyle argues that none of the allegations put forward against the Prophet of Islam up until that time were true, for his incredible achievements in creating a great civilization, as well as the fact that there were many wise men with a great characters who were followers of Prophet Muhammad, is enough to disprove the negative allegations against him. He also notes that accusing the Prophet of being a ‘fake prophet’ creates more problems than it solves.
In the 20th century there was an abundance of publications on Prophet Muhammad. Those accounts that tried to be “fair and objective” also inherited the general argument and the essential (negative) view of the Orientalists about the Prophet and Islam, although it is also a fact that these more academic studies, particularly in the second half of the 20th century, contain fewer of the denigrating allegations that were so common in earlier works.
However, the reason why there was a decrease in the negative accounts of Islam and Prophet Muhammad in the West has more to do with the Cold War, which took up the entire second half of the last century, than with ‘academic honesty‘. The fact that in the post-Cold War period there was a great increase in the number (and circulation) of publications and media images that reflected the classical negative view on the basis that Muslims were the enemy of the West attests to this fact. This is particularly true for Anglo-American Orientalism in the aftermath of the September 11th tragedy that had nothing to do with Islam or Prophet Muhammad.
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