Islam - a Russian perspective

Print edition : January 14, 2005

"A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the Rock of Gibraltar to the Banks of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland; the Rhine is not more impassable than the Nile or the Euphrates and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet."

- Edward Gibbon; The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; The Modern Library, 1781; Vol. II, page 801.

GIBBON was relieved that "from such calamities was Christendom relieved by the genius and fortune of one man", Charles Martel. He defeated at Poitiers (Tours), not far from Paris, in 732 the forces of Abd al-Rahman. A few years later, the Arabs returned to invade France, in alliance with Maurontinos, the Duke of Marseilles. But, by 759 their expulsion was complete.

When Prophet Muhammad died in 632, Islam was confined to the Arabian Peninsula. After his death it spread with extraordinary speed from North Africa to Persia. Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 638. By the 13th and 14th centuries Muslims ruled in India, Indonesia and parts of China. In the 8th and 9th centuries Spain, Sicily and parts of France were conquered. Reverses came not long after Baghdad fell to the Mongols in 1055. In Spain, the Christian Reconquista movement conquered the last Arab stronghold, Granada, in 1492. Arab rule had lasted in Spain for nearly eight centuries. However, in 1453 Constantinople fell to the force of Sultan Mehmed II. In European eyes, the Turks had taken over from the Arabs as "the Islamic threat to Christian Europe".

The Ottoman Empire spread from Turkey to Europe. The Turks twice knocked at the gates of Vienna, in 1529 and 1683, but were repulsed. For five hundred years the Ottomans were Europe's most feared enemy. In the first decade of the 19th Century, their Empire spread across North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and the lower reaches of the Danube. In 1918 the Ottoman Empire was liquidated. The British and the French carved it up. Britain acquired Palestine in order, as the archives have revealed, to establish Jewish rule there. Thus was Israel born in 1948. For over 175 years Christendom had launched seven Crusades against Muslim rulers from 1095 to 1270.

Over the centuries European writers from Dante to Muir denigrated the Prophet of Islam. Defeat and humiliation of "the enemy" did not arrest this trend. A school of European scholars, however, dissented and enriched the study of Islam by its labours. Reading the Western, especially the American, press after 9/11, one is struck by its unconcealed prejudice against Muslims and Islam, which Edward W. Said so thoroughly exposed. It is, perhaps, natural to hate those one has wronged. History shapes perceptions, popular as well as scholarly; except for scholars who rise above the past.

How did history shape Russian perceptions of Islam? Hitherto, we had only the West European and American reactions to "the spectre of Islam". We now have a rare exposition of The Great Confrontation as viewed from Moscow. Ilya Gaiduk is a senior research fellow at the Institute of World History, Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow and has also been a fellow of the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, D.C. His book The Soviet Union and the Vietnam War won high praise (Frontline, May 30, 1997).

President George W. Bush once famously called the "War on Terrorism" a "crusade". President Vladimir Putin has not far lagged behind in his characterisation of the war in Chechnya. Fortunately there are those who differ with him. C.J. Chivers and Lee Myers of The New York Times reported the view held by "Russian and international officials and experts" in Moscow recently: "Chechnya's militant separatists have received money, men, training and ideological inspiration from international organisations, but they remain an indigenous and largely self-sustaining force motivated by rationalist more than Islamic goals" and "the principal motivation for Chechnya's guerrillas remains independence" (International Herald Tribune, September 13, 2004).

It would be unfortunate if Russia were to emulate American attitudes. A Report of the Defence Science Advisory Board, an advisory panel of the Pentagon, criticised the U.S. for failing to explain its "diplomatic and military actions to the Muslim world but it warns that no public relations plan or information operation can defend America from flawed policies" (International Herald Tribune, November 25, 2004). The U.S. is in a quagmire of its own creation in West Asia. Russia can yet resolve the Chechen issue.

Ilya Gaiduk's scholarly work offers a view of the past and the present, which is refreshingly different from the view widely prevalent in the U.S. and Europe. "The case of Chechnya well illustrates the use of Islam as a tool to fulfil political ambitions" (emphasis added, throughout). The idea for the book occurred to him long before 9/11. He sought to study the diverse forces that worked in history to create "a long and, at first glance, incessant war between European powers and the world of Islam". Was it religion or power that tore apart the two civilisations? This idea of a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West appeared initially in the article "The Roots of Muslim Rage", written by Bernard Lewis, and published in September 1990 in the Atlantic Monthly. It acquired worldwide popularity after the publication in Foreign Affairs of an article by Samuel Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations?" Huntington wrote that in the years ahead the "clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilisations will be battle lines of the future". After 9/11, Lewis gave tutorials to Vice-President Dick Cheney. Edward Said was not the only one to censure Lewis.

William Dalrymple's surgery is as effective in his brilliant review article ("The Truth About Muslims", The New York Review of Books; November 4, 2004). He establishes with copious references that "throughout history, Muslims and Christians have traded, studied, negotiated, and loved across the porous frontiers of religious differences. Probe relations between the two civilisations at any period of history, and you find that the neat civilisational blocks imagined by writers such as Bernard Lewis or Samuel Huntington soon dissolve."

By the late 18th century the Muslim world's misfortunes had begun. Intellectual stagnation preceded military and political decline. The West's progress in science, in which the Arabs were once more advanced, had little impact on Muslim minds. In the 19th and 20th centuries European colonial rule was imposed on Arab and Asian lands with ease, thanks to achievements in science and technology.

"The Christian victories of the last two decades of the seventeenth century and the shift of fortunes in the struggle against the Ottoman Empire cannot be measured only in terms of military and territorial gains. They must be placed in a broader perspective of trends in European development, precursors of the coming expansion of Europe and its future world dominance. After hard times dating from the mid-14th century - when, as a result of the `closing of Europe's internal and external frontiers', society had entered a period of stagnation and even decline; when the Black Death had arrived from central Asia and wiped out one-third of the population in a number of regions and brought progress in every field to a standstill; when Europe's capitalistic innovations had proved inadequate and its economy unable to survive the Hundred Years War and the advancing Ottomans on its borders - the sixteenth century marked the beginning of `an unstoppable process of economic development and technological innovation' which made Europe the world's commercial and military leader."

Friday prayers at a mosque in New York. The Western, especially the American, press displayed unconcealed prejudice against Muslims and Islam after 9/11.-MANDEL NGAN/ AFP

Gaiduk is scrupulously fair in his recall of the past: "The Caliph Umar entered the city in the company of the Christian patriarch Sophronius, after having given him assurances that the lives and property of the Christian population would be respected and their holy places left intact. As if to confirm this promise, he prayed outside the church of the Holy Sepulchre in order to prevent the Muslims from claiming ownership of the church. He also visited the holy places of Judaism and Islam, the Temple and the sacred rock on Mount Moriah. From Umar's behaviour it becomes evident that the Muslims firmly intended to respect the rights of the Jews and Christians for whom Jerusalem was likewise the Holy City" (vide Umar by Shibli Numani; Oxford; pages 157, Rs.225).

HOW and why did the Muslim world lag behind the West? Muslims, in India particularly, would do well to ponder over Gaiduk's answer. It bears quotation, in extenso: "For centuries the Muslim world had displayed its superiority in political, military, and intellectual activities. With a religion considered to be God's final revelation, proud of their conquests and achievements, the Muslims could afford to be insulated. They despised other peoples who had not yet become adherents of the true religion but who eventually were destined to be included in the House of Islam, whether by force or voluntarily. Yet Islam's `iron curtain' isolated Muslims from the outside world and proved to be fateful. When history took a new turn, Islamic civilisation's response to new challenges was insufficient and ineffective... .

"The decay of Islam was not unavoidable, nor can it be attributed to inherent defects of religious obscurantism or political weakness. It is reasonable to conclude that if the processes of modernisation had not occurred in Europe when they did, they could have occurred at another time in the realm of Islam. But events in Christian Europe exerted a strong influence on Islam, compounding its internal weaknesses and in many ways accentuating them. In other words, the period of relative decay that the Muslim world entered in the seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries, and that might have been temporary or even transitory on the way to a new expansion, was significantly transformed by a rapidly developing and expanding Europe... . The Muslims deprived themselves not only of the knowledge and experience of other peoples but, more important, of an understanding of developments in other lands."

It was a direct consequence of what Iqbal aptly called the closing of the gate of ijtihad (reason) in the Muslim world. Even more important than territorial acquisitions was the preponderance of the European powers in technology, productivity, commerce and intellectual activity. What Gaiduk writes of the Ottoman empire is as true of the Moghul Empire, other rulers in India and, for that matter, other countries in Asia. After tracing the expansion of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Portugal in Asia and Africa, he turns to another European power, Russia. It "quickly expanded its possessions at the expense of Muslim states. By 1828 the Russian Tsars had established their rule over most of the territory that now forms three Trans-Caucasian States - Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan - which had previously belonged to the Ottoman or Persian empires or had been contested by them. By mid-century the Russians were generally able to crush popular resistance in the Caucasus, in the long war against Adyges, Kabarda, Chechens, Ingush, and Dagestanis. They now turned to Turkestan, inhabited by nomad tribes and a sedentary population, a region of fertile oases controlled by the emirate of Bukhara and the Khanates of Kokand in the Fergana Valley and of Khiva in Khorezm to the south of the Aral Sea. The Russian conquest of the area began in 1855 when a column under the command of General Mikhail Chernyaev moved into Turkestan, seizing Tashkent in May 1865 and Samarkand in May 1868. After the defeat of his forces at the battle of Zerabulak, the emir of Bukhara was obliged to sign a treaty by which his state was placed under Russian protection. Khiva's turn came in 1873, and Kokand was invaded in 1875 and the Khanate - Russia's most dangerous enemy in Central Asia abolished. The conquest was rounded off between 1873 and 1881 by the occupation of the Turkmen country." The great game between British and Russian Empires had begun. It was to have fateful consequences for India's borders in the north-west.

The hour of decline did throw up Muslim thinkers of first rank bar a few like Camal al-Din al Afghani, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Chiragh Ali who was even more daring than Sir Syed. "As Islam lost its position in the world and gradually retreated under the pressure of an expanding Europe, Muslims sought explanations. Why was it that a once-flourishing and powerful civilisation, which had demonstrated its superiority for centuries and had radiated the light of its cultural and spiritual achievements to the remotest corners of the world, now had succumbed before the advance of a previously weak and barbarous Europe?" That question haunts them, still; but it does not prod much introspection, except among a minority.

And what a past it was: "Can one overestimate the great service of Islamic civilisation? It preserved for Europe - when it was rapidly disintegrating under the pressure of the barbaric invasions - ancient Greek philosophy, geography, astronomy, and medicine; and it supplemented these libraries of thought with its own knowledge, which was respected by St. Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura da Bagnoregio, and praised by the great medieval poet of the Divine Comedy, Dante Aligieri. Islam played a key role in the formation of European civilisation, though it did so unwittingly. Much depended on the ability of Europe, like that of a pupil, to absorb what was useful and develop it. Islam at first was a willy-nilly tutor, but it became a willy-nilly pupil when Europeans preponderated in science, technology, politics and culture."

Gaiduk's reflections on the present situation are tinged with empathy. He criticises his country's policies in Central Asia in the past and explains how they fuelled fundamentalism and praises Iran's President Mohammed Khatami for his advocacy of a dialogue between civilisations. His book is one of the most insightful works to appear in recent years.

Andrew Wheatcroft's book on the same subject, a product of a decade's labour, is a straightforward history of the conflict between Christendom and Islam in many lands from 638 to 2002. His is also a plea for dialogue and reconciliation. The book is ably researched and profusely illustrated.

Malise Ruthven's books Islam in the World and Islam: A Very Short Introduction were highly praised. Azim Nanji is Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. They have compiled a Historical Atlas of Islam since its birth to the present times. It is a work of learning and labour. Both, the texts and the accompanying maps, help one to understand how history unfolded itself in the far-flung reaches of the Islamic World from Africa to China, across the Balkans, Central, South-East Asia. Merely to mention some of the chapters is to appreciate the magnitude of the effort - Sufi Orders 1100-1900; expanding cities; impact of oil; water resources; the arms trade; Muslims in Western Europe and North America; Islamic Arts; Muslim cinema; Internet use; democracy, censorship, human rights and civil society; modern movements, organisations and influences. It is an invaluable and indispensable work.

POLITICAL confrontation and intellectual stagnation marked the recent past. What of the present? Gilles Kepel, Professor of Middle East Studies at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris, wrote a notable work The Revenge of God describing the rise of fundamentalism in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim world. His book Jihad takes off from 9/11 to trace the emergence of "the militant Islamic movement" in the last 25 years in what he calls "a religious era" in Egypt, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Algeria and various other countries. He paints with a broad brush on a broad canvas, not least in the chapter on Osama bin Laden. The point about the "decline of Islamism" is well taken. Prof. Oliver Roy's The Failure of Political Islam remains by far the best work on this subject.

Kepel rightly avers that at the dawn of the millennium, the initiative was with these regimes that had emerged victorious from confrontation with the Islamist movement. Only, there was no central Islamic movement in these countries, but local groups, which spoke in the name of Islam to promote their political agenda. This is not to deny liaisons; but the movement in Indonesia, for example, has nothing to do with its counterparts in, say, Egypt or Afghanistan. He ably demonstrates that "violence in itself... has proved to be a death trap for Islamists as a whole", but he does not reflect much on the fragmented state of the movement.

The War for Muslim Minds is much more sound in its analyses. Kepel begins with a thorough exposure of American neoconservatives' calculations on redrawing the map in West Asia. These "self-declared champions of Israel as a predominantly `Jewish State' saw the Oslo peace process as a trap" for Israel. In think tanks, in the media and on university campuses they began drawing up schemes and proceeded to lobby for regime changes in Iraq, Iran and Syria. 9/11 was seen "as a tragic opportunity to sell their radical new deal for the Middle East [West Asia] to the shell-shocked Bush Administration."

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, praised for his advocacy of a dialogue between civilisations.-MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL/ REUTERS

Islamism that used violence has failed. But its outlook and strategy are not shared by young second-generation Muslim immigrants in Europe who have never lived in a predominantly Muslim country and who have experienced personal freedom, liberal education and economic opportunity in democratic societies. Kepel insightfully opines "the most important battle in the war for Muslim minds during the next decade will be fought not in Palestine or Iraq but in these communities of believers on the outskirts of London, Paris, and other European cities, where Islam is already a growing part of the West. If European societies are able to integrate these Muslim populations, handicapped as they are by dispossession, and steer them toward prosperity, this new generation of Muslims may become the Islamic vanguard of the next decade, offering their co-religionists a new vision of the faith and way out of the dead-end politics that has paralysed their countries of origin."

One wishes Kepel had considered the role liberal Islamists play in moulding the minds of Muslims who are prepared to study and reflect. It is only fair to point out that integration of Muslims in European societies, especially the young, depends at least as much on European governments and societies as on the Muslims and their leaders. Their progress will be of immense relevance to Muslims of India and vice versa.

There are, fortunately, men of wisdom and goodwill in both civilisations, who advocate the path of conciliation. Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York, who was born to American parents in Iran, is a highly respected figure. He renders service in drawing attention to two neglected features - diversity in the Muslim world and the voices of moderation in its midst. Among them is Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan. He does not stop at dispelling myths about Islam and Muslims but proceeds to advocate a "universal ethic of human understanding" in an effort to promote inter-faith dialogue.

One can only hope that Muslims of India will bestir themselves and reflect on the causes of their intellectual stagnation and the rise of "leaders" who feast themselves on their sad condition today like parasites.

The Great Confrontation: Europe and Islam Through the Centuries

Historical Atlas of Islam The War for Muslim Minds: Islam & the West Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam

Infidels: The Conflict between Christendom and Islam 638-2002

Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith To Be A Muslim: Islam Peace and Democracy

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor