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The West & Islam

Print edition : May 04, 2007 T+T-

Until the Crusades, there was considerable intellectual and cultural exchange between Islam and Christianity.

THE Crusades were one of the formative episodes in world history and a defining moment in the relations between the Christian and Muslim worlds. They were never the same again thereafter. Two facts are often overlooked. Europe's antipathy towards Islam and its Prophet, Muhammad, long preceded the Crusades. Earlier, there was considerable intellectual and cultural exchange between the two civilisations. It continued in significant respects thereafter but the Crusades left deep scars, aggravating the antipathy of old.

Books on the Crusades can make a large library. Steven Runciman's three-volume A History of the Crusades, published half a century ago, dominated the field. Christopher Tyerman of Oxford has written a tome that can justly claim companionship with it. It draws on the most recent scholarship and offers fresh insights, demolishing myths galore. It has a certain political relevance now that the United States is trying to mould West Asia into a region of pliable satellites. From 1096 to 1500, European Christians fought to recreate the region and failed. It began in 1095 as a call for the reconquest of Jerusalem. Francis Bacon described it as a "rendezvous of cracked brains that wore their feather in their head instead of their hat".

In the author's view: "The crusade did not disappear from European culture because it was discredited but because the religious and social value systems that had sustained it were abandoned. Pragmatically, as a way of managing international relations it no longer suited the politics, diplomacy and war of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Fundamentally, the western Christian church lost its attempt to control civil society. Christianity thrived; Christendom was dead. With it died one of its most distinctive features, the crusade." Imperialism replaced religious crusade. We now witness crusades of a different kind.

Oleg Grabar, Professor Emeritus of Islamic Art and Architecture at Princeton, first went to the Dome of the Rock, a masterpiece of world architecture, in 1953 and continued to write on it for five decades. In this excellently illustrated and erudite book, he places art in its historical and religious context, emphasising the inscription on the monument rather than the biased opinions of the chronicles; he makes the building itself speak in the several successive dialects it employed - construction, decoration, architectural or urban setting.

The Dome of the Rock is a beautiful Muslim shrine in the walled Old City of Jerusalem. It consists of two sections imbricated into each other. The first is a tall cylinder (20 metres in diameter and 25 m in hight) set over a large natural rocky outcrop, topped nowadays by a gilded dome made of aluminium alloy. The second is an octagonal ring (about 48 m in diameter) of two ambulatories on piers and columns around the central rock. The building is lavishly decorated both inside and outside.

The interior displays artfully composed panels of veined marble, an astounding variety of mosaic compositions (primarily Arabic writing and vegetal motifs), gilt wooden beams, and a ceiling of leather embossed with ornament. On the exterior are additional marble panels and a spectacular array of faience tiles with writing as well as vegetal or geometric ornament.

The rocky outcrop under the Dome is usually abbreviated as the Rock, the vast surrounding space as the Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). Muslims regard it as the Qibla-e-Awwal, (the first kaaba) before they turned to the Kaaba at Mecca for prayer.

"The Dome of the Rock belongs to a unique series of monuments in the history of art that includes the Pantheon in Rome, the Alhambra in Granada, the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and the Taj Mahal. All of these monuments survived conquests and major changes in the surrounding culture and yet continued to flourish with their new associations. But this aesthetic judgement is not sufficient to explain the wealth of associations that accrued to the Dome of the Rock over twelve centuries of Islamic rule. A further reason can be found in the rich texture of Islamic culture during these centuries."

Jerusalem is truly unique as a city invested with sanctity in the eyes of Jewish, Christian and Muslim worshippers alike. Young historian Zachary Karabell's recall of the period of cooperation and coexistence between the faiths is timely.

Spain expelled Jews after the defeat of the Muslim Kingdom of Granada. They were shunned in Europe but were accepted by the Ottomans and flourished in Turkey, "a warm embrace that contrasted sharply with what they had left behind". The narrative begins with the birth of Islam and ends with the American occupation of Iraq. It tends to be sweeping and the comments also are superficial at places. The author's aim is to teach. It is history with a noble purpose, but a purpose, nonetheless.

The last chapter "Is Dubai the Future?" testifies to the superficiality. "Muslims, Christians, and Jews have been so enmeshed in a framework of conflict and so determined to view not only history but the present through that lens that they risk missing the next wave of history. Many parts of the world that are emerging in the twenty-first century have not been party to that history, and are neither interested in nor constrained by it, China most of all. ... Peace is woven into our collective past; it is there to be seen in our messy present; and it will be there in our shared future." He notes the wound the creation of Israel inflicted, yet underestimates its consequences and those of Western policies since then to this day. Another historian Richard Fletcher's chronicle is confined to the earliest encounters between Christians and Muslims. He largely confines his conclusions to the Epilogue.

"Christians first encountered Muslims as conquerors: it is readily intelligible that they should have perceived Islam as inherently martial. Given the intellectual and religious climate of the age, the only manner in which Christians could explain Islam in a fashion convincing to themselves was an ... aberrant form of Christianity... Seen from Baghdad in, say, the year 900, the Christian world was a jumble of confused sects and petty monarchies squirming about in an unappealing environment. The Islamic community had no rival in its wealth, its technology, its learning and its culture as well as in its faith. A lofty disdain was the only intelligible attitude for Muslims to adopt towards Christians... Attitudes laid down like rocks long ago continue to shape their moral environment for many centuries thereafter."

But Europe changed. The Muslim world stagnated. Muslim aloofness had the effect of obscuring from view what was afoot. "If travellers like Ibn Batutah had visited Christendom they might have observed what was going forward; but they didn't. If Ibn Khaldun had turned the piercing beam of his intelligence upon the societies of Western Europe he would have found much to ponder; but he didn't. The rise of the West took the world of Islam by surprise. Given Islamic disdain for the West, perhaps it had to happen thus." Fletcher rightly attributes the decline of the Muslim world to its insularity and neglect of the West. This thought-provoking book should be read by those who are obsessed with only one side of the tragic history.