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Bridging The Divide Between The United States And The Muslim World Through Arts And Ideas: Possibilities And Limitations

Appendix IV: Background Paper
Cultural Awareness In A Time Of Crisis

THE ARTS OF ISLAM IN THE EYES OF THE WEST: A HISTORICAL VIEW

Around the time of the American Revolution, the historian Edward Gibbon penned one of the most commonly quoted lines about relations between Islam and the West. He wrote that if the Frankish king Charles Martel had succumbed to Saracen invaders at the Battle of Tours in 732, “Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pupils might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.” 2 The appeal of this quotation has been its combination of exoticism and succinctness in encapsulating an apparent truism of European history: struggle between Europeans and Muslims is and always has been inevitable, and the consequence of European defeat in the struggle would be cultural annihilation and inundation by Islam.

People who share Gibbon’s apocalyptic vision commonly cite a long list of Crusades against the Saracens and a similar series of Ottoman forays into eastern Europe, the latter culminating, symbolically, not just in the occupation of more and more Christian land but in sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683, in which Christian defenders reenacted the heroic role of Charles Martel’s Franks in holding back the Muslim tide. But Gibbon’s followers fail to observe that Muslim rule did not normally result in the annihilation of peoples and cultures, any more than Crusader rule in the Holy Land resulted in the destruction of Muslim society there. To be sure, when Muslims and non–Muslims have lived together, harmony is not an inevitable outcome. At its best, however, cohabitation has worked quite well, as is demonstrated in accounts of the era of Muslim rule in Spain, the long period of peaceful relations between Muslims and Confucianists in China, and twelve centuries of generally peaceful coexistence and cultural exchange (660–1860) between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East.

Sadly, Gibbon–esque grand narratives of religiously based cultural hatred have a vividness that sometimes overshadows, in the popular memory, the myriad instances of cohabitation, mutual respect, and cultural exchange that would flesh out an honest and balanced account of Islam and the West.

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