How the West’s depiction of Prophet Mohammad has come a full circle
Was Mohammad a heretic and an imposter or a reformer and a statesman?
In European culture, the Prophet of Islam has, more often than not, been vilified as a pagan idol. In the early Middle Ages, Islam was portrayed as a perversion of Christian teachings. Not merely a heresy but the sum of all heresies. Its founder was said to be “the chosen disciple of the devil.”
A caricature of the Prophet, which accompanies a work by Peter the Venerable, a 12th-century abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy — “Summa totius haeresis Saracenorum” (“A summary of the Entire Heresy of the Saracens”) — shows him as a siren, a monstrous combination of the human and the bestial. His purpose was to lure the unwary to their doom. This was at a time when the assumption was that the Saracens were like the Vikings or the Magyars and calls were frequent to the faithful to join the Crusades.
Yet by the 18th century, most portrayals of Mohammad were positive. In the late 16th century, Reformist polemicists explained the spread of Islam by the corruption of the established church, which led them to portray the Prophet of Islam as a champion of reform.
Mohammad is a “saint” only in comparison with the pope, yet Martin Luther introduces “a note of relativism that marks an important change in European discourse on Mohammad and Islam.”
Islam is viewed by some as one “sect” among others. John Tolan writes in “Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today” that because they were “plagued by violence and religious strife at home, Europeans looked to the Ottoman Empire not only as a threatening military power but also as a model of political unity and stability and of tolerance for religious diversity.
European Christian writers, Protestant and Catholic, saw the Turks as a double threat who could both conquer and seduce unwary European Christians. He adds: “Ottoman Istanbul was both an enemy capital and a bustling cosmopolitan city. The Ottoman Emperors seemed to have found ways to tolerate religious diversity and peaceful coexistence that Europe, riven by religious strife, was unable to put in place.”
In revolutionary England, both the Royalists and the Roundheads drew parallels between Oliver Cromwell and Mohammad, asking whether he was a rebel against legitimate authority or the bringer of a new and just order. By the 18th century, Voltaire saw Mohammad as an archetypal religious fanatic only to claim him as an enemy of superstition a few years later.
Goethe hailed Napoleon as “Mahomet der Welt” after the latter’s victory at Ulm and they discussed the Prophet’s life when they met at Erfurt two years later. Napoleon saw him as a role model — a brilliant general, orator and leader and, as the author notes, believed that “great reputations are only made in the Orient. Europe is too small.”
In the years that followed, Mohammad fascinated Victor Hugo, Thomas Carlyle and others “in large part because he allows these authors to explore themes important in the romantic movement — genius, heroism, devotion — outside the constraints of Christian history,” Tolan says.
Mohammad has worn many faces because he has acted as a mirror for those who wrote about him. Their portrayals reveal more about their own concerns, particularly in the period of medieval Christendom, than the historical reality of the founder of Islam as Tolan explains in his fascinating book that sets aside the historical Mohammad and Muslim portraits of God’s messenger to focus on Mohammad as European men have depicted him over the centuries.
Tolan shows a Mohammad made of gold, worshipped in Jerusalem as the Antichrist: a man who tricks his followers by means of assorted ruses and who is lecherous and stained in blood. For Peter the Venerable, one of the most prominent church clerics of his day, Mohammad was “detestable.”
Tolan explains that “many of these authors were interested less in Islam and its Prophet than in reading into Mohammad’s story lessons they could apply to their own preoccupations and predicaments. Peter the Venerable was anxious to reclaim Spain from the Moors as he was to combat heresy in Christendom.
By 2011 the editor of Charlie Hebdo, heir to two centuries of strong French anti-clericalism, delighted in satirising religion. Catholicism might well have been their principal target but they were happy to ridicule Islam and its Prophet.
The editor vowed that the mockery would not cease until “Islam had been rendered as banal as Catholicism.” This, he believed, was treating Muslims as equals — the only problem was they, in French society, were not treated as equals.
Yet, as Tom Holland has noted, if the editor of Charlie Hebdo “was chiefly interested in the figure of Mohammad as a mirror held up to his own preoccupations, then no longer is the mirror quite as distant as it once was.”
The killing in 2015 of 12 of Charlie Hebdo’s staff members by two gunmen bent on revenge served to demonstrate that “Western perceptions of the Prophet of Islam” no longer exist in isolation from the Muslim world. This had been made abundantly clear in 1989 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned Salman Rushdie to death for blasphemy. The author was well-informed about the long history of Christian misrepresentations of Mohammad but that cut little ice with the Iranian leader.
Today the anti-Islamic blogosphere draws on what the Middle Ages said of Mohammad. History has come full circle. The author, however, hardly touches on these subjects; he feels more comfortable in the company of intellectuals. Yet his fascinating book is far more topical than Tolan seems to think.
Islam today plays the role formerly given to Soviet Communism as the principal rival and threat to Western democracy and civilisation. Such simplistic schemas not only blind us to understanding the variety and richness of Islamic cultures but also serve as a convenient scapegoat that helps us avoid looking critically at our own — European and American — responsibilities for the inequality, injustice and violence in the world.
Today’s globalised context, provoked by colonisation, decolonisation and immigration has brought negative European perceptions of Islam and its Prophet to the attention of Muslims and incites resentment, reproach and violence.
Yet, as Tolan’s learned book demonstrates: “Mohammad and Islam are integral elements of European culture. Nothing can alter that historical truth.”
John V. Tolan, “Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today,” Princeton University Press, 2019.