Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today

Faces of Muhammad
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 Faces Of Muhammad
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Introduction the Prophet Muhammad d in Western discourse

on october 2, 1808, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Napoleon Bonaparte met in Erfurt. The two men discussed politics and chatted about literature. When Napoleon learned that Goethe had translated Voltaire’s play Mahomet, ou le fanatisme into German, he declared that it was not a good play, that it painted an unworthy portrait of a world conqueror, a great man who had changed the course of history.1

In this discussion, Napoleon and Goethe talked about Muhammad, or perhaps better said, about “Mahomet,” the fictitious scoundrel that Voltaire made into the epitome of fanaticism (in order to attack the Catholic Church), the charismatic leader and military genius who served as a role model for Napoleon; for Goethe he would become, in subsequent writings, the archetypal prophet, a figure that allowed him to explore the interstices between prophet and poet.

 For these three men, as for many other Europeans, “Mahomet” is not merely a distant historical character, prophet of a foreign religion, he is a figure whose story and whose living legacy are a constant source of curiosity, worry, astonishment, and admiration.

Not all European writers on Muhammad show him the admiration and respect that we find in Bonaparte and Goethe, of course. Much of what is written about him is hostile. It would have been easy for me to compile a chronicle of that hostility, a catalog of [ 2 ] introduction

disdain, fear, and insult from the earliest Christian polemical texts against Islam to the shrill declarations of politicians like Geert Wilders, parliamentarian of the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Dutch ex-treme right) who, to discredit Islam, attacks its prophet, whom he calls a terrorist, a pedophile, and psychopath.2 The 2005 contro-versy over the cartoons of Muhammad published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands- Posten illustrate the potentially explosive na-ture of Western views of the Muslim prophet, as do the killing of cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.

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Tinged by the history of European colonialism and orientalism and by terrorism that claims Islam as its justification, the controversy has provoked a flood of polemics and violence.

Muhammad has always been at the center of European discourse on Islam. For medieval crusade chroniclers, he was either a golden idol that the “Saracens” adored or a shrewd heresiarch who had worked false miracles to seduce the Arabs away from Christianity; both these depictions made him the root of Saracen error and implicitly justified the crusade to wrest the Holy Land from Saracen control. Such contentious images, forged in the middle ages, proved tenacious; in slightly modified forms, they provided the dominant European discourse on the prophet through the seventeenth century.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, variants of the image of Muhammad as an “impostor” have been used to justify European colonialism in Muslim lands and to encourage the work of Christian missionaries. This hostility toward Islam and its prophet is an important part of the story that will be told in these pages, but it is only a part. Muhammad occupies a crucial and am-bivalent place in the European imagination; he figures as the embodiment of Islam, alternatively provoking fear, loathing, fascination, or admiration, but rarely indifference.

Indeed, the figure of Muhammad and the text of the Qur’ān could inspire interest and esteem, particularly from those who criticized the power of the Church in European society or who deviated from its accepted dogmas. Sixteenth- century Unitarian Miguel Ser-vet mined the Qur’ān for arguments against the doctrine of the Trinity; condemned by the Catholic inquisition, he escaped only to be burned at the stake in Calvin’s Geneva. In the midst of bloody confessional wars that were tearing Europe apart, some looked to the introduction [ 3 ]

toleration of religious diversity grounded in the Qur’ān and prac-ticed by the Ottomans as a model Europeans should follow. Various authors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in England, France, and elsewhere, portrayed Muhammad as a reformer who abolished the privileges of a corrupt and superstitious clergy, showed tolerance to Jews and Christians, and reestablished the true spirit of monotheism. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he is increasingly portrayed as a “great man,” a sort of Arab national hero, bringing law, religion, and glory to his people. Many of these authors are interested less in Islam and its prophet per se than in reading in Muhammad’s story lessons that they could apply to their own preoc-cupations and predicaments.

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This book is not about Muhammad, prophet of Islam, but about “Mahomet,” the figure imagined and brought to life by non- Muslim European authors between the twelfth and twenty- first centuries. This is why, throughout this book, I distinguish between “Muham-mad” (which I use both for the historical person and for the figure portrayed in Muslim traditions) and the various spellings or deformations of his name found in European languages, which I have reproduced verbatim: Machomet, Mathome, Mafometus, Mouamed, Mahoma, and above all Mahomet. This book, examines the chang-ing faces of Mahomet, the many facets of Western perceptions of the prophet of Islam.

If we are to appreciate the construction of a “European Ma-homet,” we must have some idea about the archetype, the seventh- century Arab Muhammad. Here the historian faces the same prob-lem as with other great religious leaders: it is difficult, often impossible, to distinguish historical fact from pious legend, biogra-phy from hagiography.

Did the biblical patriarchs even exist? Or are they merely mythical figures? Historians have expressed doubt about the existence of Moses, David, and others.3 Jesus, like Mu-hammad, is a historical figure; we know when and where Jesus and Muhammad lived and what their followers believe about them.

The four gospels provide a narrative of Jesus’s life and death, which (de-spite some differences) gives a relatively coherent picture of who Jesus was and what he preached. Yet the Gospels were written be-tween forty and seventy years after Jesus’s death. They reflect not only what the authors remember about Jesus but also the social, [ 4 ] introduction

political, and religious upheavals of the young Christian community. How can the historian use the Gospels to understand Jesus and the movement he founded? Is it possible to sift through layers of devo-tion and mythmaking to find a kernel of historical truth? This is the issue that nineteenth- century European scholars grappled with in their quest for the historical Jesus.4 Their scholarship pro-voked controversy, of course, among some European Christians.

It is still a problem for historians today seeking to understand Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity. It is impossible to avoid the Gospels, for without them we can know virtually nothing about Jesus. Yet by what criteria can one distinguish historical fact from pious legend?

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The historian seeking to understand Muhammad faces similar problems; if anything, his or her task is more daunting. As Maxime Rodinson warned in 1957, “A biography of Mohammed limited only to absolutely unquestionable facts could amount to no more than a few dry pages.”5 The Gospels provide a narration of Jesus’s life; the Qur’ān offers nothing of the sort for Muhammad.

The dating and composition of the Qur’ān have been objects of scholarly debate, but recent scholarship has more or less confirmed important aspects of the traditional Muslim version: written copies of various suras (chapters) of the Qur’ān existed during Muhammad’s lifetime. ʿUthmān, the third caliph (644–56), ordered the compilation of what became the standard, definitive edition of the Muslim holy text.6

The Qur’ānic text was established by about twenty years after the death of Muhammad, at a time when many of the prophet’s companions were still alive. While, as we shall see, many non- Muslim European authors see “Mahomet” as the author of the Qur’ān, for Muslims it is the word of God revealed through Muham-mad. God speaks in the first person, frequently addressing Muham-mad as you in the singular and Muhammad’s audience as you in the plural. As the word of God directed through Muhammad to his Arab listeners, there is no need for the Qur’ān to narrate the life of Mu-hammad. Muhammad is mentioned by name four times in the Qur’ān, which affirms that he is the “Messenger of God” (rasul Allah). The Qur’ān refers to his preaching in Mecca, the hostility of many of the Meccan pagans to his teaching, his flight to Medina,

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