This appeared very strange to most of my Western friends. They could not quite picture to themselves how a man of Western birth and upbringing could have so fully, and apparently with no mental reservations what-ever, identified himself with the Muslim world; how it had been possible for him to exchange his Western cultural heritage for that of Islam; and what it was that had made him accept a religious and social ideology which – they seemed to take for granted – was vastly inferior to all European concepts.
Now why, I asked myself, should my Western friends take this so readily for granted? Had any of them ever really bothered to gain a direct insight into Islam – or were their opinions based merely on the handful of clichés and distorted notions that had been handed down to them from previous generations?
Could it perhaps be that the old Graeco-Roman mode of thought which divided the world into Greeks and Romans on one side and ‘barbarians’ on the other was still so thoroughly ingrained in the Western mind that it was unable to concede, even theoretically, positive value to anything that lay outside its own cultural orbit?
Ever since Greek and Roman times, European thinkers and historians have been prone to contemplate the history of the world from the standpoint and in terms of European history and Western cultural experiences alone. Non-Western civilizations enter the picture only in so far as their existence, or particular movements within them, have or had a direct influence on the destinies of Western man; and thus, in Western eyes, the history of the world and its various cultures amounts in the last resort to little more than an expanded history of the West.
Naturally, such a narrowed angle of vision is bound to produce a distorted perspective. Accustomed as he is to writings which depict the culture or discuss the problems of his own civilization in great detail and in vivid colours, with little more than side glances here and there at the rest of the world, the average European or American easily succumbs to the illusion that the cultural experiences of the West are not merely superior but out of all proportion to those of the rest of the world; and thus, that the Western way of life is the only valid norm by which other ways of life could be adjudged – implying, of course, that every intellectual concept, social institution or ethical valuation that disagrees with the Western ‘norm’ belongs eo ipso to a lower grade of existence.
Following in the footsteps of the Greeks and Romans, the Occidental likes to think that all those ‘other’ civilizations are or were only so many stumbling experiments on the path of progress so unerringly pursued by the West; or, at best (as in the case of the ‘ancestor’ civilizations which preceded that of the modern West in a direct line), no more than consecutive chapters in one and the same book, of which Western civilization is, of course, the final chapter.
When I expounded this view to an American friend of mine – a man of considerable intellectual attainments and a scholarly bent of mind – he was somewhat skeptical at first.
‘Granted,’ he said, ‘the ancient Greeks and Romans were limited in their approach to foreign civilizations: but was not this limitation the inevitable result of difficulties of communication between them and the rest of the world? And has not this difficulty been largely overcome in modern times? After all, we Westerners do concern ourselves nowadays with what is going on outside our own cultural orbit. Aren’t you forgetting the many books about Oriental art and philosophy that have been published in Europe and America during the last quarter-century… about the political ideas that preoccupy the minds of Eastern peoples? Surely one could not with justice overlook this desire on the part of Westerners to understand what other cultures might have to offer?’
'To some extent you may be right,' I replied. ‘There is little doubt that the primitive Graeco-Roman outlook is no longer fully operative these days. Its harshness has been considerably blunted – if for no other reason, because the more mature among Western thinkers have grown disillusioned and skeptical about many aspects of their own civilization and now begin to look to other parts of the world for cultural inspiration. Upon some of them it is dawning that there may be not only one book and one story of human progress, but many: simply because mankind, in the historical sense, is not a homogeneous entity, but rather a variety of groups with widely divergent ideas as to the meaning and purpose of human life.
Still, I do not feel that the West has really become less condescending toward foreign cultures than the Greeks and Romans were: it has only become more tolerant. Mind you, not toward Islam – only toward certain other Eastern cultures, which offer some sort of spiritual attraction to the spirit-hungry West and are, at the same time, too distant from the Western world-view to constitute any real challenge to its values.’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘Well,’ I answered, ‘when a Westerner discusses, say, Hinduism or Buddhism, he is always conscious of the fundamental differences between these ideologies and his own. He may admire this or that of their ideas, but would naturally never consider the possibility of substituting them for his own. Because he a priori admits this impossibility, he is able to contemplate such really alien cultures with equanimity and often with sympathetic appreciation.
But when it comes to Islam – which is by no means as alien to Western values as Hindu or Buddhist philosophy – this Western equanimity is almost invariable disturbed by an emotional bias. Is it perhaps, I sometimes wonder, because the values of Islam are close enough to those of the West to constitute a potential challenge to many Western concepts of spiritual and social life?’
And I went on to tell him of a theory which I had conceived some years ago – a theory that might perhaps help one to understand better the deep-seated prejudice against Islam so often to be found in Western literature and contemporary thought.
‘To find a truly convincing explanation of this prejudice,’ I said, ‘one has to look far backward into history and try to comprehend the psychological background of the earliest relations between the Western and Muslim worlds. What Occidentals think and feel about Islam today is rooted in impressions that were born during the Crusades.’
‘The Crusades!’ exclaimed my friend. ‘You don’t mean to say that what happened nearly a thousand years ago could still have an effect on people of the twentieth century?’
‘But it does! I know it sounds incredible, but don’t you remember the incredulity which greeted the early discoveries of the psychoanalysts when they tried to show that much of the emotional life of a mature person – and most of those seemingly unaccountable leanings, tastes and prejudices comprised in the term “idiosyncrasies” – can be traced back to the experiences of his most formative age, his early childhood? Well, are nations and civilizations anything but collective individuals? Their development also is bound up with the experiences of their early childhood. As with children, those experiences may have been pleasant or unpleasant; they may have been perfectly rational or, alternatively, due to the child’s naïve misinterpretation of an event: the moulding effect of every such experience depends primarily on its original intensity. The century immediately preceding the Crusades, that is, the end of the first millennium of the Christian era, might well be described as the early childhood of Western civilization…’
I proceeded to remind my friend – himself an historian – that this had been the age when, for the first time since the dark centuries that followed the breakup of Imperial Rome, Europe was beginning to see its own cultural way. Independently of the almost forgotten Roman heritage, new literatures were just then coming into existence in the European vernaculars, inspired by the religious experience of Western Christianity, fine arts were slowly awakening from the lethargy caused by the warlike migrations of the Goths, Huns and Avars; out of the crude conditions of the early Middle Ages, a new cultural world was emerging. It was at the critical, extremely sensitive stage of its development that Europe received its most formidable shock – in modern parlance, a ‘trauma’ – in the shape of the Crusades.
The Crusades were the strongest collective impression on a civilization that had just begun to be conscious itself. Historically speaking, they represented Europe’s earliest – and entirely successful – attempt to view itself under the aspect of cultural unity. Nothing that Europe has experiences before or after could compare with the enthusiasm which the First Crusade brought into being. A wave of intoxication swept over the Continent, an elation which for the first time overstepped the barriers between states and tribes and classes.
Before then, there had been Franks and Saxons and Germans, Burgundians and Sicilians, Normans and Lombards – a medley of tribes and races with scarcely anything in common but the fact that most of their feudal kingdoms and principalities were remnants of the Roman Empire and that all of them professed the Christian faith: but in the Crusades, and through them, the religious bond was elevated to a new plane, a cause common to all Europeans alike – the politico-religious concept of ‘Christendom’, which in its turn gave birth to the cultural concept of ‘Europe’.
When, in his famous speech at Clermont, in November 1095, Pope Urban II exhorted the Christians to make war upon the ‘wicked race’ that held the Holy Land, he enunciated – probably without knowing it himself – the charter of Western civilization.
The traumatic experience of the Crusades gave Europe its cultural awareness and its unity; but this same experience was destined henceforth also to provide the false colour in which Islam was to appear to Western eyes. Not simply because the Crusades meant war and bloodshed. So many wars have been waged between nations and subsequently forgotten, and so many animosities which in their time seemed ineradicable have later turned into friendships.
The damage caused by the Crusades was not restricted to a clash of weapons: it was, first and foremost, an intellectual damage – the positioning of the Western mind against the Muslim world through a deliberate misrepresentation of the teachings and ideals of Islam. For, if the call for a crusade was to maintain its validity, the Prophet of the Muslims had, out of necessity, to be stamped as the Anti-Christ and his religion depicted in the most lurid terms as a fount of immorality and perversion.
It was at the time of the Crusades that the ludicrous notion that Islam was a religion of crude sensualism and brutal violence, of an observance of ritual instead of a purification of the heart, entered the Western mind and remain there; and it was then that the name of the Prophet Muhammad – the same Muhammad who had insisted that his own followers respect the prophets of other religions – was contemptuously transformed by Europeans into ‘Mahound’.
The age when the spirit of independent inquiry could raise its head was as yet far distant in Europe; it was easy for the powers-that-were to sow the dark seeds of hatred for a religion and civilization that was so different from the religion and civilization of the West. Thus it was no accident that the fiery Chanson de Roland, which described the legendary victory of Christendom over the Muslim ‘heathen’ in southern Frnace, was composed not at the time of those battles but three centuries later – to wit, shortly before the First Crusade – immediately to become a kind of ‘national anthem’ of Europe; and it is no accident , either, that this warlike epic marks the beginning of a European litreture, as distinct from the earlier, localized literatures: for hostility toward Islam stood over the cradle of European civilization.
It would seem an irony of history that the age-old Western resentment against Islam, which was religious in origin, should still persist subconsciously at a time when religion has lost most of its hold on the imagination of Western man. This, however, is not really surprising. We know that a person may completely lose the religious beliefs imparted to him in his childhood while, nevertheless, some particular emotion connected with those beliefs remains, irrationally, in force throughout his later life –
‘ – and this,’ I concluded, ‘is precisely what happened to that collective personality, Western civilization. The shadow of the Crusades hovers over the West to this day; and all its reactions toward Islam and the Muslim world bear distinct traces of that die-hard ghost…’
My friend remained silent for a long tome. I can still see his tall, lanky figure pacing up and down the room, his hands in his coat pockets, shaking his head as if puzzled, and finally saying:
‘There may be something in what you say… indeed, there may be, although I am not in a position to judge your “theory” off hand… But in any case, in the light of what you yourself have just told me, don’t you realise that your life, which to you seems so very simple and uncomplicated, must appear very strange and unusual to Westerners? Could you not perhaps share some of your own experiences with them? Why don’t you write your autobiography? I’m sure it would make fascination reading!’
Excerpt taken from The Road to Makkah: The Story of a Story by Muhammad Asad, also previously known as Leopold Weiss.