Denigration, vilification and Worse
In Karen Armstrong's book, Muhammad: A Biography, a marvelous job has been done of documenting and analyzing Western attitudes toward Muhammad (S). The following is a brief summary of the chapter titled "Muhammad the Enemy" in her book.
The rise of Islam was a political threat, and a religious catastrophe to the Christian world of that time. Muhammad (S) was immediately labeled as the antichrist, the great pretender, whose reign would herald the Last Days. The prevalent view was that the antichrist would establish his rule in the temple of Jerusalem and mislead many of the Christians with plausible doctrines. In the Christian mind Muhammad (S) appeared to fit the prophecy of the antichrist perfectly. In a fear-ridden fantasy, Muhammad (S) was portrayed by the Christians as an impostor, a charlatan, a lecher, and Islam was portrayed as the religion of the sword. This fictional portrait of "Mahound" (synonym for devil) persisted at a popular level for a long time. Islam also raised a troubling theological question for the Christians: Where was the need for Islam and how could God allow this "impious faith" to prosper when He had already given the world a chance for salvation through His grace and the vicarious atonement of Christ?
By the end of the eleventh century, as Europe was beginning to rise, the wars of Reconquista had begun. In 1085, Alfonso VI conquered Toledo back from the Muslims, and in 1095, Pope Urban II (1088-1099) summoned the knights of Europe to liberate the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem and proclaimed the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont. Songs written at the time of the Crusades show the depth of ignorance about Islam. Muslims were depicted as "idol worshippers," bowing down before a trinity of "Apollo (the ancient Greek and roman god of prophecy, poetry, and music sometimes identified with the god of light and truth or sun), Tervagant (French word for a violent and overbearing fictional deity attributed to Muslims; it's English derivative termagant means quarrelsome or shrewish), and Mahomet!"
In 1099 when the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem, Muslims were brutally massacred. The official words used to describe them were "filth" and "vermin." At a time when the positive myths of King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Charlemagne were evolving in the West, the negative myth of "Mahound" the enemy was already firmly established. The creation of an evil myth may have been necessary in order to define the myth of the "noble" Christians. Walter Lippmann, the notable columnist and social scientist, speculates that we tend to define "self" by first stereotyping "the other." Hence Islam became the despised reaction to benevolent Christianity. Muhammad (S) was claimed to have concocted miracles like that of the "white-bull," which terrorized the population and finally appeared with the Qur'an between its horns. One explanation given for the divine revelations he was receiving was that they were the result of epilepsy. Another story tells of a heretical monk named Sergius who presumably taught Muhammad (S) a distorted version of Christianity.
The stereotyping was not confined to Muhammad (S) and the Muslims. At the same time, Christians evolved terrifying fantasies about Jews who were allegedly killing children and mixing their blood with Passover bread. In fact, the first Crusaders began their journey to Jerusalem by massacring Jewish communities along the Rhine valley. In the Lateran councils in 1179 and 1215, Muslims and Jews were linked together as common enemies. They were to wear distinctive clothing and not to appear on the streets during Christian festivals or hold public office. This type of early branding can be seen later in history during the Second World War.
Early in the 14th century Pope Clement V (1305-14) declared the Islamic presence on Christian soil as an insult to God inciting further waves of violence and hatred. In 1492, Ferdinand and and Isabella conquered Granada and Spanish Muslims were given a choice of either conversion to Catholicism or deportation from their native land. Those who converted to Catholicism were nevertheless persecuted as crypto- Muslims for many years.
There were signs of a schizophrenic attitude towards Muslims at the time. In Dante's "Inferno," Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) are in limbo with the virtuous pagans like Euclid, Ptolemy, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, while Muhammad (S) himself is in the eighth circle of the hell with the schismatics.
In the sixteenth century, Luther saw the Pope and the Catholic Church as the real enemies of true Christianity. This, according to Luther, had allowed the Christians to be open to Islam. Many of the Christians including Luther continued to see Islam as a failed version of Christianity.
At the end of the seventeenth century, and the early eighteenth century, during the Renaissance period (the age of Enlightenment), the Bibliotheque Orientale written by Barthelmy d'Herrbelot, appeared with the following disappointing description under the entry "Mahomet."
"This is the famous impostor Mahomet, author and founder of a heresy, which has taken on the name of religion, which we call Mohammadanism"... surely not an enlightened description of Muhammad (S).
In the next century relatively fair interpretations of Islam started appearing in the West. In 1708, Simon Ockley, the well-known English Arabist, published the first balanced book, History of the Saracens, that gave a just account of the history and spread of Islam. In 1734, George Sale published a fairly accurate translation of the Qur'an titled The Koran, commonly called the Alcoran of Mohammed.... However, he appended to this translation, a highly vituperative essay titled A Life of Mohammed. In this essay he wrote " when the character of Mohammed is attentively surveyed----it is so shocking that it is a wonder that the country of his nativity has not been buried in oblivion. Any country would have blushed to produce such a monster."
During this century, another "fantasy" about the Prophet began to emerge. According to this new fantasy, Muhammad (S) was a great military hero not unlike Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, who had made up the religion to become the master of the world. Needless to stay it fed into the stereotype of Islam as a militant religion.
At the end of the eighteenth century, Edward Gibbon, the greatest English historian of his time and author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788) , which praised the monotheism of Islam and started giving the Muslim venture its proper place in history. Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) , Scottish essayist, historian, and an influential social critic defended the Prophet in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and Heroic in History, but dismissed the Qur'an as the most "wearisome, confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long windedness, entanglement, ---- insupportable stupidity in short."
The "colonial spirit," driven by a belief in racial superiority, and a mission to civilize the barbaric native inhabitants of the conquered territories, characterized the nineteenth century. During the French Revolution, Islam continued to be seen as "the opposite of us." In the Qur'an, the European authors during the French Revolution concluded, there was "neither a principle for civilization nor a mandate that can elevate character."
In the nineteenth century Washington Irving (1783-1859), one of America's more admired writers of fiction and folklore was fascinated by Prophet Muhammad's (S) persona and wrote a biography of him. Irving became interested in Islam when he arrived in Spain as diplomatic representative of the U.S. during the winter of 1823. From entries in his diary we learn that Irving spent at times whole days writing the legend of "Mahomet". In 1831 he submitted a complete manuscript for publication that because of disagreements with the publisher remained unpublished until 1849.
The self-righteous, intolerant, Crusader mentality of the twelfth century, which regarded Muslims as a hated enemy and Muhammad (S) as an impostor, continued into the twentieth century. When the British General, Edmond Allenby arrived in Jerusalem in 1917 he announced "Now, the Crusades are over". Similarly demonstrating the animus of Christianity against Islam, the French commander Gouravd on arrival to Damascus in 1920, immediately marched to Saladin 's (Sultan Salahuddin Ayyubi) tomb and cried, "Nous revenous, Salladin."(We have returned O Saladin!).
Although European Christendom harbored many myths about Muhammad (S), and continued to regard Muslims as their enemy, the Muslim world itself was relatively unaware of the extent of Christian prejudice and animosity toward them until just 200 years ago (the Crusades had a relatively local impact upon Muslims). After all, the Qur'an had taught the Muslims to respect the Jews and Christians as the "People of the Book". They assumed incorrectly that this sentiment would be automatically reciprocated. Initially, as the Muslims started realizing the extent of this prejudice, their feelings were mixed; there was a great admiration for Western liberalism (most notable Muslim intellectuals in the past century or two were liberal), as well as increasing sense of dismay at being the targets of unjustified stereotyping. As the "double standards" and "selective morality" of the West became more widely evident, more recently during the political and religious conflicts in Palestine, Bosnia, Kosova and Chechnya, much of the initial goodwill towards it was lost.
The West continues to generate new stereotypes of the Muslims, such as the oil rich sheik of the '70's, the fanatical Ayatollah of the 1980's, and the religion which kills creativity and freedom of speech, after the Rushdie affair. Some scholars continue to publish prejudicial essays and books on Muhammad (S) and the Muslims. There is a refreshing trend of a growing number of scholars, however, who are making an honest and non-prejudicial attempt at understanding Islam. They are generally objective, fair and empathetic in their writings. These include, Louis Massignon, H.A.R. Gibb, Henri Corbin, Marshall G.S. Hodgson, william G. Milward, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Annmarie Schimmel, Ralph Braibanti, John L Esposito, John O Voll, Yvonne Haddad, Karen Armstrong, and many others. Although they remain a minority, they represent a historically significant phenomenon.
The Other Extreme: Near Deification
As the West distorted the image of Muhammad (S), it experienced a different transformation in parts of the Muslim world acquiring a cosmic status. Wilfred Cantwell Smith's observation describes quite accurately the attitude of many Muslims toward Muhammad (S) when he says, "Muslims will allow attacks on Allah. There are atheists, atheistic publications, and rationalistic societies. But to disparage Muhammad (S) will provoke from even the most 'liberal' sections of the community, a reaction of blazing vehemence."
The Qur'an itself is quite clear about the role of the Prophet. He is neither a divine presence nor an angel, but a human being and a Messenger:
"-Say: Glory to my Lord! I am aught but a man, sent as a Messenger." (Qur'an 17: 93)
"They ask thee, 'When is this Hour (the Day of Judgment) to happen?' Of which you speak so often? (Say) Its time is known only to thy Lord- thou art but a warner to those who pay heed.". (Qur'an 79: 42-45.)
Yet, among many works of devotional writings and poetry, the Prophet's persona became nearly divine. The religion of Allah (Din of Allah), in a way, was seemingly replaced by the religion of Muhammad (S) (Din of Muhammad (S)). The veneration extends even to the preservation and periodic of viewing of relics like the Prophet's hair. (For example a well-known shrine in Kashmir is called the Hadrat Bal Masjid: Mosque of the Prophet's hair).
This excessive veneration may be understood better by a typical quote from a renowned Persian poet, Mawlana Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami (1414-1492).
"The sky became curved because of prostration before Muhammad
The ocean is only a water bubble from Muhammad's generosity.
The moon is a reflection of Muhammad's beauty.
Musk is a little whiff from Muhammad's mole and tresses."
As Annmarie Schimmel observes with uncommon insight, this type of veneration of great religious leaders is understandable and not uncommon. She further elucidates that "the charisma of a true religious leader can be better recognized from such legends (legends crystallized around a nucleus of factual material) than from dry facts of his life" .
Although the love, affection, respect and loyalty for him is genuine and passionate and touching to behold, some Muslims don't realize that in their acts of excessive veneration, they come dangerously close to deification. Paradoxically, these attitudes negate both the Qur'an and Muhammad's (S) intent as to how he should be remembered. Muhammad's (S) hope was that he would be remembered as the final Messenger of the Lord almighty, the Warner, the Teacher, the Exhorter and the Exemplar par excellence, but not someone to be hero worshipped or deified: a subtle but important distinction. His greatest attribute may have been that he was unafraid to be a human. He appeared to be conscious of the fact that to deify a person is to create an excuse not to emulate him or aspire to reach the standards of excellence set by that individual, thus violating the fundamental expectation that his example would be followed.