Western Images of Islam, 1700-1900

By Almond, Philip | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Western Images of Islam, 1700-1900


Almond, Philip, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


   A silent great soul; he was one of those who cannot but be in
   earnest; whom Nature herself has appointed to be sincere.
   While others walk in formulas and hearsays, contented enough
   to dwell there, this man could not screen himself in formulas;
   he was alone with his great soul and the reality of things.
   Such sincerity, as we named it, has in truth something of
   divine. The word of such a man is a voice direct from
   Nature's own Heart. (1)

On Friday 8 May 1840, Thomas Carlyle addressed an audience of politicians, philosophers, men of letters and clerics. His subject was the Hero as Prophet, his exemplar Muhammad. Influenced by Goethe's West-Eastern Divan and by Herder's and Schlegel's perspectives on Islam, puzzled by the Quran, but inspired by the Arabian Nights, Carlyle found in the inner experience of the Arabian prophet, that quintessential quality of his Great Men--sincerity.

Carlyle's image of the Prophet as hero was both cause and effect of a significant shift in attitudes to Islam and its founder which occurred during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe, a shift which in its most general terms may be characterised as one from Islam as a Christian heresy and Muhammad a fraud and charlatan, to Islam as an authentic expression of religion and its founder a man of sincerity and genuine piety. This is not to deny that older images of Islam remained, nor that more ancient attitudes towards Muhammad persisted, as they indeed have done to now. But it is to argue that the construction of Islam, along with Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, as one of the great religions reflected the development of a secular view of history, and signalled the decline of Christian "sacred history".

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the traditional image of Muhammad as "anti-Christ" had become passe, and in the general framework of Victorian discussions of the Prophet has somewhat an air of quaint antediluvianism. Anti-Christ he may not have been, but the issue of his imposture remained crucial. Thus, at the end of the seventeenth century, there appeared two works which in their attitudes to Muhammad typified Western images of the Prophet in the early Enlightenment. One of these was Pierre Bayle's Dictionnaire historique et critique. Bayle was concerned to argue against the notion that Muhammad was sincerely deluded by the devil into the belief that he was a prophet. For Bayle, more preferable was the naturalistic explanation that he was, quite simply, an imposter. (2) Bayle's account is interesting for two reasons. On the one hand, it is an early example of the shift from theological to naturalistic accounts that gathered pace in the following two centuries. But on the other hand, it is a clear indication that there was to be no correlation between naturalistic or secular accounts of Muhammad and sympathetic responses to him.

The imaginative congruity of "Muhammad" and "imposture" was re-inforced in d'Herbelot's Bibliotheque orientale, the first systematic attempt to make the Orient a coherent part of the intellectual furniture of the west, (3) which declared, "this is the famous imposter Mahomet, Author and Founder of a heresy, which has taken on the name of a religion that we call Mahometan". (4) The "imposter" was to remain the "scientific" way of distinguishing the prophet from other Muslims of the same name until the early part of the Victorian period. (5)

Most influential of all was Humphrey Prideaux's 1697 work The True Nature of Imposture Fully Displayed in the Life of Mahomet. (6) Prideaux's work was a pastiche of elements drawn second-hand from Arable sources and from anti-Muslim Christian polemic. But the life of Muhammad was nevertheless constructed on an historical framework, although very archaic images of Muhammad and Islam were imposed upon it. Many, even of Prideaux's contemporaries, were puzzled by his unhappy blending of the historical and the polemical.

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