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Islam and the West: A Case of Selective Memory

Richard Bulliet.

Today, a lack of comprehensive understanding of the long history of Muslim contributions and connections to Western culture leads to misunderstanding and militarization. Moving forward to a better future requires better understanding, says Richard Bulliet.


Distorted by today’s political lenses, European historical memory selectively focuses on past violence perpetrated by Muslims and either forgets Europe’s cultural borrowings from Muslim societies, or regards them as unimportant remnants of a closed chapter in European-Muslim relations.

Fourteen European countries have been wholly or partly under Muslim rule for at least one of the last fourteen centuries. With the exception of Spain, national memory in all of these lands either minimizes this experience or portrays the era of Muslim dominion as one of unrelieved oppression and barbarity.

Violence is the dominant motif of Western histories on Islamic relations. Everyone is reminded on a regular basis that a Muslim army penetrated deep into northern France in 732 before being heroically stopped by Charles Martel at Tours, and another Muslim army laid siege to Vienna in 1529 before being turned back by bad weather and heroic defenders. And they are similarly reminded that their own Crusader ancestors seized Jerusalem from the Saracen unbelievers and held it for almost a century. That Crusader conquest and rule might have involved oppression and barbarity is generally omitted from the story.

From episodes like this, today’s ideologues concoct a myth of unending and merciless hostility between Islam and the West. But even the military tale is selectively told. Who recalls that France’s Renaissance monarch Francis I allied with the Muslim Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent to fight against his Christian rival Charles V of Spain? Who remembers that many generations of Muslim Tatars fought for Christian Polish kings against their Christian foreign enemies?

Closer to the present, Europeans are slow to recall the tens of thousands of Muslim soldiers from West Africa and India who fought and died on the Western Front in World War I against what the French and the British then thought of as the “barbaric Huns”? And who chooses to remember the reliance the United States placed on Afghanistan’s Muslim warriors in their struggle against the “godless atheists” of the Soviet Union in the 1980s?

Muslims who have fought on behalf of Western political interests have been forgotten. Muslims who have confronted the West militarily are remembered. Not only remembered, but taken as examples of an imaginary eternal opposition between Islam and the West.

Meanwhile, the diverse and long-standing peaceful side of European-Muslim relations remains in shadow. When you arise in the morning, your toothbrush and the hard soap you wash with are borrowings from the Muslim world. At breakfast, your orange juice and coffee come from the Muslims, and so does the sugar you put in your coffee and the clear glass and glazed coffee cup you drink from. You read your newspaper. Both paper and the idea of printing are borrowings from Muslim society. What do you do later? Play chess? Eat pasta? Play your guitar? All from the Muslim world.

Beyond daily life, of course, there are myriad other borrowings from Muslim societies, particularly in the areas of medicine, chemistry, and philosophy. Today these are normally treated as irrelevancies from a long ago time. But that seemingly irrelevant long ago time was actually the time of the Crusades that so many think are still highly relevant. The languages of all European countries contain hundreds of words of Arabic, Persian, or Turkish origin, mostly dealing with science (alcohol, algebra), consumer goods (sugar, coffee), and elegant living (lute, damask).

How is Muslim culture enriching us now? Through the phenomenally popular poems of Rumi, one might answer. Through story characters like Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad the Sailor, who have become stock figures in popular entertainment. Through contemporary Iranian films. Through the spiritual experiences of people in the West who convert to Islam. Through the working lives of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who, despite anti-immigrant sentiment and religious hostility, choose not to give in to extremist appeals.

Europe needs to come to grips with its past. This could best be done by a multinational commission charged with reviewing every aspect of the history of Muslims in, and versus, Europe. The parallel history of Europeans in, and versus, Muslims outside of Europe is of equal importance; but that has already been addressed in hundreds of books devoted to imperialism and its beneficial or baleful consequences.

There are two reasons why this urgent chore needs to be addressed internationally. First, a number of countries -- Serbia and Bulgaria come to mind -- have built a myth of demonic Muslim occupation into nationalist ideologies that no longer ring true, however serviceable they may once have been during struggles for independence. These myths need to be reexamined outside the nationalist context. Secondly, Muslims must be granted a role in reconsidering their history within Europe. Modern efforts at reconciliation around the world have amply demonstrated that disputed histories cannot be clarified without participation by the parties concerned.

Throughout contemporary Europe the debate over Islam and Muslims proceeds at a fevered pace. But without a comprehensive understanding of the past, all sides in the debate build on weak foundations. Working internationally to build that comprehensive understanding will serve the future as much as the past.

Richard Bulliet is Professor of History at Columbia University and author of Islam: A View from the Edge and The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization.

Copyright © 2007 Richard Bulliet/Agence Global


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