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the Message Continues ... 10/80



Newsletter for April 2008



Article 1 - Article 2 - Article 3 - Article 4 - Article 5 - Article 6 - Article 7 - Article 8 - Article 9 - Article 10 - Article 11 - Article 12


The Legacy of Orientalism – The Quran, Islamic History and Western Scholarship

by Aqeel M. A. Imam



Part 1


The heritage of Islam, both in its spirituality and geographical location, lies very close to that of the West. As one of the three Abrahamic religions,

its Semitic roots are the same as those of Judeo-Christianity, and it also shares with the West a common ground in Ancient Greek philosophy.

Yet it appears to the West rather alien, at times even menacing. This perceived “otherness” is as much a product of the West-East conflict in the

Middle Ages, the Crusades; the secularising and moving on of Europe from its Semitic heritage following the Enlightenment and renewed interest

in its heritage of the pre-Christian, Classical Age of Greece and Rome, at the same time not forgetting European hegemonic expansion of the

18th and 19th centuries that saw the rise of a new field of research called “Orientalism”.

 The term “Orientalism” has been used to describe the subjects and works of scholars who specialized in the languages, cultures, histories and

societies of the “Orient”, an idea, a creation by Europe that included the Middle East and the rest of Asia. It’s in this sense that the term is being

used. For North Americans, the Orient has a different meaning as it refers to China, Japan and South East Asia.


The Orientalists, as we understand them, first made their debut in 18th century Europe, with Germany leading the field. Other Europeans

followed and included Britain, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Russia, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Many of these nations either were

already colonial powers or engaged in colonial expansion, which added to their interest in the peoples of the “mysterious” East, conquered or

yet to be conquered. But conquest was not necessarily the main reason for such interest. Germany could barely lay claim to an empire outside

of Europe; its colony in Namibia, South West Africa, hardly counts in this regard as it made no significant impact on the rise of German

Orientalism, yet Germany emerged as the leader in the field. But undeniably, those countries that were engaged in empire building found

Orientalism a useful tool. Conversely, Oreintalism benefited from an expanded European interest and hegemony in the East, allowing the

Orientalist to visit regions that would otherwise have been inaccessible and harder to explore. 

As the Middle East, as well as India with its large and politically dominant Muslim population, came under increasing European control, 
the Orientalist turned his attention increasingly to Islam, its history and its sacred text, the Quran. These of course are sensitive areas and the 
reputation of many Orientalists and Arabists has not helped in the negative image associated with the term Orientalism and its associated 
activities. The general image conjured by the term Orientalist meant, and still means, a European who had by him the Bible and worked for the 
domination of his religion and that of the West.   
Post-Enlightenment Europe has had a rather long tradition in attempts at debunking the past - even its own. It was first seen in the textual, 
historical and archaeological analysis of the Bible and biblical lands when some1 scholars started to question the historicity of the Bible. 
A preference was seen by these people for the rational and materialistic philosophers of Ancient Greece and the practical enterprises of the 
Roman world, which went hand-in-hand with the growth of the natural sciences in Europe and its industrialisation, rather than the mystical and 
spiritual discourses of the Old and New Testaments. Religion remained very important at the popular level and efforts were made by colonial 
powers to convert the conquered peoples, but its understanding had begun to change in the hands of the rationalists and the materialists. 
The Quran and Islamic history also came in for systematic analysis but this story had a much slower and more complicated start than at first 

The first Asian language to be taught in Europe was Hebrew. From the early Middle Ages this Biblical language, followed by Syrio-Aramaic

and Chaldean, was known to European theologians (1). Better knowledge of these languages was a key to a better understanding of the Old

Testament, but for later generations this also proved to be vital for textual analysis of the holy text.  By the time the Crusades were in full swing

in the 13th century, Arabic, another Semitic language, appeared on the list. By the 15th century there were many chairs in European universities

dedicated to the teaching and learning of Arabic language and translation of Arabic texts. Spain and Portugal due to their long history under

Muslim rule, the so-called “Moors”, had an even longer presence of both Arabic and Hebrew.

In fact, the translation movement from Arabic to Latin and Castilian, started by Raymond Bishop of Toledo, in the 12th century (2), acted as a

spur for the learning of Arabic in Europe. Many Greek and Roman authors had been translated into Arabic; some works of the European

Classical Age survived only in Arabic, for example, Aristotle’s De Anima (a treatise on The Soul) in its complete form was found only in its

Arabic translation as the original Greek had been lost in antiquity, and Apollonius’ later books on the geometry of conic sections could only be

found in their Arabic translations.      

Although the terms Orientalism and Orientalist were abandoned after they acquired a depreciatory meaning in the last third of the 20th century,

the legacy of Orientalism is still with us. The most manifest example of this is the continued labelling of the East, especially the world of Islam,

as the “other” – an alien, seemingly aggressive world that continues to resist the power of the West and its increasing globalisation. The political

theory of the “clash of civilizations” propounded by Samuel Huntington, is in the grand tradition of the Orientalism of yesteryear. According

to Huntingdon the ever-declining culture of the globally dominant West needs to combat threats from the East, primarily in the form of Islamic

and Confucian, and even to some extent Indian, civilizations. Western societies therefore need to defend themselves by an increased reliance

on military strength and political alliances to bring in Eastern Europe and Latin America as a balance to the demographically increased advantage

in favour of the Asian nations.

The Ancient World and the “Clash of Early Civilizations”
Some scholars look back to the ancient world when they wish to analyse the present. A few even going as far back as the late Bronze Age to 
look for an East-West conflict when Greater Mycenae clashed with the Hittite empire of Anatolia (Asia Minor) and its allies on its western coast; 
a conflict that lasted for over a century and a half. The legendary city of Troy or Hisarlik, as it is now known (3), was once allied to the Assuwan 
confederacy that first clashed with the Hittite empire and then Mycenae. This war represents to them the first recorded clash between the East 
and the West in the ancient world. The Greek poet Homer, thought to be originally from Asia Minor himself, wrote about this momentous 
conflict centuries afterwards in the 8th century BCE in a highly stylised and idealised poem called “The Iliad”(from “Iliyos”, the Homeric Greek 
version of the earlier name “Wiliyos”, probably derived from the Hittite-Assuwan name “Wilusa” or “Wilusiya ”, that was once a Hittite 
dependency (4)).    
Recent excavations at Hisarlik (Troy) by a team led by the late Manfred Korfmann seem to indicate that Troy VI and VII, both show evidence 
of violent destruction (5). 
But the poem of Homer was never meant to be a faithful representation of an historical event other than the period to which it relates and a few 
other details it reveals. Instead it was meant to be a primer of Greek mythological heroes and of “Homeric morality”, an integral part of the 
religion of the Ancient Greeks.  If the Trojan War could be mythologized then so could the later Greco-Persian wars of the 5th century BCE - 
and they were. With the rise of Greco-Roman empires the threats, perceived or real, from the East receded but never disappeared. Asia Minor 
and the Middle East remained at various times regions where the shifting military and spiritual frontiers between the West and the East existed 
and struggled for dominance. Like earlier conflicts these too were mythologized, giving the impression that somehow they are representations 
of a permanently polarized world. The Crusades of the Middle Ages were no exception to this.
The rise and collapse of the Macedonian Empire of Alexander eventually gave rise to the ascendancy in the East of the Parthians in Iran and 
Rome in the West. 
The new empires of Partha and Rome clashed in 53 BC at the Battle of Carrhae in Asia Minor. Once again an age-old East-West conflict 
occurred. Rome suffered an ignominious defeat with the complete destruction of its legions and the death of their general, Marcus Crassus. 
This West-East clash was repeated throughout the life of these empires and those that succeeding them, viz. the empires of Byzantinian and 
Sassanian dynasties. 
Byzantium (Eastern Roman Empire) and Sassanian Iran fought for nearly four centuries (between 243-627 CE) and tried not only to wrest 
control of colonies from each other but also managed to destroy large civic centres within each other’s frontiers. This ongoing duel weakened 
both empires and it was in this historical context that a people appeared out of Arabia, in the first third of the 7th century, with a new and 
vigorous monotheistic creed, drawing on many traditions of the ancient Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Christianity. Yet this new creed was 
in many ways distinct and came under attack from the old and established Byzantine Church.
St. John Damascene and the first Christian Critique of Islam      
Although attempts at debunking Islam, the religion that came from the depths of the East, and its scripture, the Quran, stretch back beyond the 
Middle Ages when Latin translations of the book first started to appear in the 12th century, the first serious “critique” of Islam in the on-going 
East-West rivalry came not from Europe but Asia. Muslim conquests of Syria and Egypt, both originally under Byzantine rule, gave impetus to 
those loyal to their old masters and believers in an older religion to attack the new faith. Islam was labelled a Christian heresy and, quite 
incredibly, even called a form of Arianism. A 4th century Christian called Arius believed that God the Son was inferior to God the Father, that 
Jesus was born of a woman, suffered like all mortals and eventually died. Saint John of Damascus (d ~749 CE)*, whose full name was Yahya 
ibn Mansoor, was also a “school friend” Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah, and later became an administrator during the rule of Abdul Malik ibn Marwan 
(r. 685-705) and Yazid II  (r. 720-724). 
After Abdul Malik ordered that Arabic instead of Greek be made the language of administration, John or Yahya ibn Mansoor found himself 
more restricted and when by the time of Yazid II active discrimination against the Christians became common place, John left his post as a 
public servant in 724 CE for the monastery of Mar Saba, Palestine, near Jerusalem, to study theology and philosophy. He is considered one 
of the great Apostolic Fathers of the Byzantine Church and his writings have a special significance for this church. He was fluent in Greek and 
Aramaic, and knew Arabic well enough to read the Quran, noting parallels between certain Quranic stories and those of the Old and New 
Testaments. He therefore dismissed the Quran and regarded Islam as a mixture of Christian Arianism, Judaism and some other beliefs. 
Growing up under early Umayyad rule must have added to his confusion as to what this new religion was given that many Muslims 
under the pay of Umayyads themselves were either ignorant on doctrinal matters or were busy distorting them.  
Saint John wrote what has been described as a monumental work in Greek by the name of The Fount of Knowledge(6). 
Its importance being the first great Summa of theology to appear in either the East or the West and it is still regarded by some as the single 
most important work in Greek patristic literature. Most of what he wrote concerned schismatic movements within the church and other problems 
of Christology like iconoclasm. However, it was also in this context of schisms that in the second part of his work entitled, Heresies in Epitome, 
he gives his account of the origins of Islam and Muslims. As the work is of considerable importance, giving an invaluable insight into an 8th 
century Christian’s view of Islam, it is worth looking at in greater detail. John’s critique of Islam, or “the heresy of the Ishmaelites,” as he 
called it, is relevant even today as the language and tone he uses is very much that came to be used by many Orientalists in the 19th and 
20th centuries. He says:

 “There is also the superstition of the Ishmaelites which to this day prevails and keeps people in error, being a forerunner of the Antichrist. They are

descended from Ishmael, who was born to Abraham and Hagar, and for this reason they are called both Hagarenes and Ishmaelites. They are also called

Saracens -derived from Sarras kenoi, meaning ‘the destitutes of Sara’, because of what Hagar said to the angel: ‘Sara hath sent me away destitute.’

These used to be idolaters and worshiped the morning star and Aphrodite, whom in their own language they called Khabar (7), which means great.

And so down to the time of Heraclius (8) they were very great idolaters. From that time to the present a false prophet named Mohammed has appeared

in their midst.”

The use of terms such as “superstition”, “the Antichrist”, “people in error” and “false Prophet”, all are what you hear these days from the mouths of many

fanatical evangelists and Islamophobes or bellicose politicians when they come to describe Islam, Muslims and the Prophet.

Further on John notes the similarity between certain stories of the Old and New Testaments and passages in the Quran. He refers to the Prophet of Islam thus:

“This man, after having chanced upon the Old and New Testaments and likewise, it seems, having conversed with an Arian monk, devised his own heresy.

Then, having insinuated himself into the good graces of the people by a show of seeming piety, he gave out that a certain book had been sent down to him

from heaven.”

These again are the same “criticisms” you see by Islamophobic scholars today and Oreintalists of earlier times, levelled against the Prophet, i.e. that he was

heretical and insincere. 

John’s reference to the story of the Prophet Mohammad in his youth accompanying his uncle Abu Talib to Syria, when he is supposed to have met the Christian

(heretical) monk

Bahira (or in some accounts Sergius), is central to his understanding of the new religion. He regarded this event to be critical in the development of Islam, stating

that the monk taught

his new acquaintance all he knew about Arianism. However, he does accurately admit that Islam is a monotheistic belief, that Islamic Jesus son of Mary was a

prophet and that the Quran

denies the crucifixion and death of Jesus:

“He says that there is one God, creator of all things, who has neither been begotten nor has begotten (9) …. 

Jesus, who was a prophet and servant of God and he says that the Jews wanted to crucify Him in violation of the law, and that they seized His shadow

and crucified this. But the Christ Himself was not crucified, he says, nor did He die, for God out of His love for Him took Him to Himself into heaven (10).”

 All of the above are what the Orientalists, many of whom were believing Christians, would have found totally unacceptable. Consequently they reacted by

issuing their own criticisms against Islam, Muslims and the very person of the Prophet Mohammad. These days we see uncannily similar objections being levelled

against the same.

John Damascene then goes on to lead a polemical discussion against Islam in view of what was being presented as a critique of Christianity of his times by the

heretical Ishmaelites” or “Hagarenes” (Muslims). He found it very hard to accept that a genuine prophet could appear in a land other than Biblical land and

that he would come “unannounced” (11).

According to him, a commonly held Christian belief then and even now amongst many evangelists, is that the arrival of Prophet Mohammad was not foreseen

in the holy scriptures of the Jews and the Christians. During the discussions he claims to have had with the Muslims of his day, he found them not only wanting

in religious knowledge of earlier scriptures but also the subtleties of their own religion. He was thus able to run rings round them. For example he could not get

a satisfactory answer as to why “al-Hajar al-Aswad” (the Black Stone) in the wall of the Ka’ba is venerated by Muslims, yet they accuse the Christians of idolatry

for their belief in the Trinity and veneration of the cross:

“They furthermore accuse us of being idolaters, because we venerate the cross, which they abominate. And we answer them: ‘How is it, then, that you

rub yourselves against a stone in your Ka’ba and kiss and embrace it?’ Then some of them say that Abraham had relations with Hagar upon it, but others

say that he tied the camel to it, when he was going to sacrifice Isaac (12) …. Then we say: ‘Let it be Abraham’s, as you so foolishly say. Then, just because

Abraham had relations with a woman on it or tied a camel to it, you are not ashamed to kiss it, yet you blame us for venerating the cross of Christ by which

the power of the demons and the deceit of the Devil was destroyed.”

In his desperation to prove that the new religion is false, John accuses Muslims (Hagarenes) of idolatry:

“This stone that they talk about is a head of that Aphrodite whom they used to worship and whom they called Khabar (7). Even to the present day,

traces of the carving are visible on it to careful observers.”

John Damascene quite mistakenly assumed that the stone might still have some deific or sacred value for the Muslims while in fact it didn’t. Its veneration was

more a part of the Sunnah than any regard for the object itself. But this may have never been satisfactorily explained to him. He also observed, quite correctly,

that this new “sect” has certain dietary laws and that consumption of alcohol was forbidden:

“And, while he ordered them to eat some of the things forbidden by the Law, he ordered them to abstain from others. 
He furthermore absolutely forbade the drinking of wine.” 
Intellectual attacks on Islam continued after John Damascene, especially from other Middle East Christians. This in a way is understandable 
as these people, unlike Christians in the Latin West, felt most vulnerable since they were under Muslim rule and also at the receiving end of 
Muslim polemics. John’s book was not translated into Latin until the early 12th century and even then did not initiate an immediate interest 
by the West in Islam. Thomas Aquinas and his contemporaries are said to have become adherents of this text and its effects initially seemed 
to be confined to academia and theological schools. 
Amongst the Near Eastern Christian critics of Islam that followed John Damascene was one called Abdul Masih al-Kindi (13). In his effort to 
prove Muslims wrong, he wrote “al-Risalah” or “The Letter” which was part of a dialogue with a supposed Muslim who had put forward an 
“unconvincing case for conversion to Islam”, as al-Kindi asserts. The detailed reply written by al-Kindi is worth reading as it goes over the same 
criticisms of Islam we see levelled against it even in the 21st century. These include spreading the religion by the sword, the issue of abrogation 
of verses (nasikh wa mansookh), and even the idea of Islam being a heretical faith with an Antichrist agenda.  The contents of al-Kindi’s 
“al-Risalah” became part of the West’s anti-Muslim literature despite its seriously defective arguments based on dubious “facts”, outright 
fabrications and pure slander. But given that there was very little else known about Islam in Europe, these distorted ideas continued to be 
circulated and became a became part of the West’s faulty understanding of the Prophet Mohammad, Islam and the Muslims. 

In the following article we shall see how the pre-and post-Renaissance Europeans developed an interest in the study of Islam, how they reacted to this new

knowledge and created their own image of Islam. Norman Daniel in his classic study first published in 1960 wrote on how Western attitudes about Islam from

medieval times to the present are born of a medieval conflict and how to this day the relationship between Islam and The West remains one of confrontation

and misunderstanding (14).

 References and Notes  

*  His name appears variously as follows in different sources:
 Arabic ابن منصور  يحيى  )Yahyā ibn Mansūr; )

Greek: Ιωάννης Δαμασκήνος or Iôannęs Damaskęnos;

Latin: Iohannes Damascenus or Johannes Damascenus                                                                                                             

1)   Beryl Smalley, The study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, Oxford, 1983.

 2)   Arzobispo Raimundo de Toledo Escuela de Traductores [1130-1187] 

3)   Hisarlik / Troy 

4)   Iliyos (Troy) 

5)   Trojan War 

6)   St. John Damascene’s The Font of Knowledge  by-saint-john-of-damascus-frederic-h-chase-jr.jsp 

7)   The word should be transliterated as “kabir”. It is not clear whether John  Damascene himself got this wrong - would be surprising as he is supposed to have 

      known Arabic – or else the translator(s) from Greek to English misunderstood. 

8)   Heraclius (Harqul in Arabic) Byzantine Emperor, was one of the persons to whom  the Prophet sent a letter inviting him to Islam.   

9)   Quran, Surah 112

10) Quran, Surah 4:157-158  

11)  This has been disputed by many Muslims, some of  whom have maintained that in the four verses below, the word "comforter", translated from the word

"Paraclete" ("Ho Parakletos" in Greek) and variously interpreted as "an advocate", one who pleads the cause of another, one who councils or advises another

from deep concern for the other's welfare, is a reference to the Prophet Mohammad (SAWA). In these verses we are told that once Jesus (peace be upon him)

departs, a “Paraclete” shall come. He will glorify Jesus, and he will guide mankind towards truth. The Christians of course assert that this "Paraclete" is identified

in John 14:26 as the Holy Ghost.

John 14:16 "And I will pray to the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever"  

John 15:26 "But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, [even] the Spirit of truth, which proceeds from the Father, he shall testify

of me" John 14:26 "But the Comforter, [which is] the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your

remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you." John 16:7-14 "Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the

Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you. And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and

of judgment . . . . How be it when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear,

[that] shall he speak: and he will show you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show [it] unto you."

The point about the Bible foretelling the Prophet’s arrival remains contentious and is unlikely to be resolved. It is discussed further here: 

12)  Genesis 22:6  

        In the Quran this story is related in Surah 37:100-107  

13)  Abdul Masih ibn Ishaq al-Kindi wrote an apology of Christianity to a Muslim friend called Abd-Allah ibn Ismail al-Hashimi while in the court of the Abbaside

Caliph Al-Mamun. An edition of the text was prepared by the English Orientalist Sir William Muir and first published in 1880:

Some scholars maintain this Apology represents a forgery. 

    [This al-Kindi should not to be confused with the 9th century Muslim philosopher Abu Yusuf Yaqub ibn Ishaq al- Kindi: ] 

14)  Islam and the West: The Making of an Image by Norman Daniel     Daniel/dp/1851681299/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1205695788&sr=1-1 

      [Of course Bernard Lewis, an Orientalist of the old school, has presented his own views  on the same in his book: Islam and the West






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