Islam & the West

Back when the War on Terror began, George Bush referred to it as a “Crusade.”  Informed that the word had rather a different meaning to Muslims, he dropped it.  I doubt, however, that Mr. Bush nor any of his advisors had any idea how central the word is to the world view of those Islamists we like to call fundamentalists.

Are you sitting comfortably?  I have been accused of answering every question by saying, in effect, well, first there was a rock.

Base calumny, of course.  In this case, first there was a date..

According to our calendar, it was in 622 AD (or CE) that Mohammed fled from Mecca to Medina to escape his enemies.  It was an act that was to have such consequences that the Muslim world dates their calendar from that point.  So, to figure out any Muslim date from our calendar, simply subtract 622 and add the letters “AH” (After the Hijra or flight).

According to this new calendar, it was in 473 AH (1095 AD) that Pope Urban II announced the first of the series of invasions we now call the Crusades.  For the next two hundred years or so, a fair proportion of the military power of feudal Europe was focused on a narrow strip of land on the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

One consequence was that, for the next 900 years or so, hundreds of songs, stories, and full-bore epics would be told and retold in the West about the Crusades, concentrating on the heroic bravery or of the brutal barbarity of the “Frankish” knights, depending on the bias and goals of the authors.

So, looking at it from the European end of the telescope, the Crusades were about the biggest and most consequential things that happened in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, making Venice a great naval power, crippling once-mighty Byzantium, and centralizing power in the hands of royalty, thereby laying the groundwork for the nation-states of Europe.

Given all that, it is perhaps surprising to learn how the Crusades looked from the other end of the telescope.  By 473 AH, the Ummah (literally, the “nation”) of Islam had miraculously spread over much of the known world.  West to east, the Ummah stretched from Islamic Spain all the way past the Oxus River into central Asia.  Northward, it included all of Byzantine Anatolia and was spreading ever further towards Eastern Europe.  In the opposite direction, Islam was sweeping south through both Africa and India.

Had you been a resident of Baghdad when the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099, you would properly have regarded the invasion of the Franks (all Crusaders were known as Franks, al-Faranj, which no doubt pleased the English and some others) as a minor incursion on the borders of a mighty state.

Of course, looking at a map of Islam in that period, it looks like anything but a unified state.  The once cohesive and unitary Ummah of the years just after the Prophet had divided and then subdivided again into a patchwork of caliphates and tribal territories.  But whatever the political divisions, to our average Muslim in Baghdad, it was all unified as the Dar es Islam, the House of Submission-to-the-One-True-God.

Beyond its place as a religious, political, or even military power, Islam was by far the most sophisticated and advanced civilization in the western world.  With a few minor exceptions, Islam led the world in science, mathematics, architecture, agriculture, medicine, chemistry, metallurgy, and every other area of technology.  Now, it happened that much of the lands of Islam overlapped the ancient Greek and Roman empires, but simple inheritance is not the whole story.  Rather like the post-war Japanese, Islam had not only absorbed and adopted the best from the classical world, she had significantly improved everything she touched.

In the West, we have the legend that the best of the classical world was preserved during the Dark Ages by pious monks painstakingly copying ancient manuscripts by candlelight.  Some of that happened, to be sure, but the truth is that the monks were far more interested in preserving religious material than they were the pagan past.  It is simply a fact that the re-discovery of the knowledge of the classical world that did so much to fuel the Renaissance was mostly based on texts preserved and imported from the Muslim world.

So, too, with technology.  Of course we know Islam served as the conduit for new technologies from China, such as paper, porcelain, the compass, and gunpowder.  But beyond her role as a carrier, Islam gave Europe everything from sugar cane and improved plumbing to astronomy and higher mathematics.  All of these were from the native technology of the Dar es Islam.

Seeing the Ummah in that light, the minor invasion of a few unwashed Franks into the Levant and their temporary triumph was hardly anything to threaten the Muslim world.  And, in fact, for centuries afterward the Crusades were treated in Islamic history as a minor incident of no consequence.  Far more harmful, from their point of view, were the Mongol invasions that followed.  Whereas the Crusaders left a few castles behind to commemorate their presence, the Mongols left a swath of devastation that reached all the way to Baghdad (sacked in 1258, with 800,000 killed, and again in 1401).

But such was its strength that Islam survived even the Mongols.  After all, the whole western part of the Ummah was left relatively untouched.  Even after the renewed destruction in 1401 by Timur-i-Lang (Timur the Lame or Tamerlane), Islam was still easily the most advanced, civilized, and wealthy land west of China.

From the Muslim point of view, this was only natural.  The phenomenal growth of the Dar es Islam, its unity, and its success as a civilization was all believed to be a visible and miraculous sign of the truth and power of Islam itself.  The Islamic House was successful precisely because it worshipped Allah and was therefore both inherently superior and blessed by Him.

It was that assurance which sustained the Islamic world through conquests from without and civil wars within.  It was also that assurance that would, all too soon, give rise to the great central question of Islamic history:  If Allah powered, guided, and sustained the Islamic community and raised it above all the others, how then to explain its relative slide from that position over the last two hundred years?

The nature of Islam made this descent much more threatening to Muslims than it would have been for a Christian society.  Rather like the Hebrews of the Old Testament, in Islam the divine was and is experienced in the form taken by the community.  Collective conduct was identified with religion far more than in Christianity.  In Christianity, orthodoxy of dogma was prime.  In Islam, the collective was.  Orthopraxy not only gave a surety of divine protection for the group;  far more importantly, it affected every Muslim’s personal piety.  The logical corollary was that Allah’s abandonment of the community implied not only a defect in the community, but a flaw in the relationship of each individual with Allah.

Up until the nineteenth century, most Muslims, even of the intellectual classes, were able to ignore the apparent superiority of western technology because of their faith in their own cultural superiority and their special relationship with Allah.  But the colonial invasions of the West changed all that.  India led the way with millions of Muslims falling under the British Raj.  But it was the nineteenth century that saw more and more Islamic lands and peoples fall under the governorship of western Christians.

As the western countries raced to peg out their own spheres of influence, Africa, with its millions of pious Muslims, was cut up like a patchwork of party favors.  The Far East, with the exceptions of China and Japan, was divided next.  With the end of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the heartland of Islam itself was vivisected.  Syria and Lebanon went to France.  Saudi Arabia and Jordan (TransJordan) were British puppets.  Iran, caught between the Soviet Union and the West, was a client state of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.  And so on.  Only Turkey, the only secular state in the region, managed to maintain any real independence.

This was beyond the capacity of even the most sanguine Islamic intellectual or theologian to ignore.  The Christian world had not merely moved ahead in technological and military terms.  It had literally invaded and conquered the Ummah.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century this crisis was the critical topic in the Muslim intellectual world.  To describe the crisis, they revived an ancient term: They called the takeover by Christian colonialists the Second Al-Salibiyyah: The Second Crusade.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the impact this victorious Crusade had on the Muslim world.  As westerners, we would calmly say the Ummah was simply facing the existential question of how a medieval culture was to deal with the modern world.  They saw it in rather different, and far more critical, terms.  Nothing less was at stake than how to preserve and reform the nature of Islam itself

By and large, two schools of thought emerged.  The first was secular and said that the Muslims had closed themselves off while the Christian world moved ahead.  The solution, they said, was for young Muslims to go to western colleges, learn all they could, and return to bootstrap the Ummah into a position where they could compete on an even field against the Christian West.

The second school took exactly the opposite approach.  Their explanations of why the Ummah had fallen behind sounded like the lamentations of the Old Testament prophets.  Allah had left us to the mercy of His enemies because we had ceased to be true to the Prophet’s original message.  The solution, they said, was to turn away from the outer world and return to the fundamental truths of the first days of Islam.  Today, we see the narrow puritanism of the Wahabis as the most famous products of this call to turn the clock back..

Whomever or whatever one chooses to blame, the first solution led, in time, merely to nationalizing the oil fields and the creation of a collection of petty dictators, while the second (as an indirect product of the first) led eventually to a massive proselytizing campaign of fundamentalist madrasas throughout Asia financed by Wahabi oil money.

Somehow that didn’t solve the problem.  Allah did not intervene.  The West advanced still faster.  And although fantastic amounts of creative energy and money were spent on the Cold War, it was another byproduct of the West that now swept through the Islamic world: the Communication Revolution.  It was this upheaval that aroused the Jeremiahs of Islam into their current near-hysteria.

Despite the slide of the Dar es Islam in terms of world power, from a purely religious point of view, it had been going from strength to strength.  Country after country acquired an Islamic majority while none of the traditional Muslim countries ever converted to anything else.  Whoever controlled the nominal political power, the Dar es Islam and even the conservative Sharia law spread its control of the streets of the Third World.

Before the Communications Revolution, it was not clear how much that very control was contingent upon the insular nature of the world of the streets.  It had been the nature of the Third World that poverty brought isolation.  The Revolution, with its cell phones, its CDs, and its satellite televisions, suddenly began opening windows that ran directly from the Third World into the First.

It would be hard to imagine things more repugnant to conservative Muslims than what the Revolution vomited onto their doorsteps: hedonism, consumerism, sexual liberation, secularism, just to name a few.  If the most pious of the Ummah had always forecast that the Christian West would eventually descend into corruption and sin, they hardly expected it to suddenly be offered in its most tempting form on every street corner of the Dar es Islam.

Here is the spiritual crisis that the most pious (or paranoid) of the Muslim world sees today.  Having seen the failure of the political and educational solutions to the problem of confronting the West, they now see the hope of greater piety and devotion being corrupted by the temptations offered through the communication tools of the West.

This invasion, as they see it, threatens the very soul of Islam.  The fear and revulsion it raises has bred a special breed of fanatics who have bent nearly every tenet of Islam for what they see as their higher good.  Anything is justified if it helps to repel this, the last and worst invasion of all:  the Third al Sabibiyyah.  All the Third Crusade needed for completion was the physical invasion by western armies of the Dar es Islam.

So Mr. Bush’s innocent use of that word, Crusade, which I imagine he saw as a simple, positive term to describe the level of our resolve to fight terrorism, was accidentally the perfect reflection of our general ignorance (and indifference) to the spiritual world of Islam.  Far more importantly, to a vast number of Muslims, it was a simple and anything-but-positive declaration of our intent to carry the Third Crusade to its victorious conclusion.  To those who saw the West as intent upon corrupting and conquering Islam, the word was proof positive.

You could practically hear the triumphant “Aha!” all the way from here.

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