Jonathan Lyons: A New Model for Understanding the World of Islam

Islam Through Western Eyes, by Jonathan Lyons

“This model, then, calls for the compilation of a new, hidden history of Islam that fills in those areas declared off limits by the anti-Islam discourse. But, first, we must radically rephrase the West’s favorite polemical question—What’s wrong with Islam?—to a less comfortable query: What’s wrong with us?”—Jonathan Lyons

We conclude our week-long feature on Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism by Jonathan Lyons by excerpting, fittingly enough, from the conclusion. In the final chapter Lyons offers a new way for the West to approach the Muslim world:

I propose a new model for approaching the world of Islam—a “hidden history,” as it were, of its practices, beliefs, and culture. To begin with, we must acknowledge that the established Western discourse of Islam does not—or, at the very least, does not necessarily—reflect the reality of Islam itself, what I have referred to earlier as “Islam qua Islam.” Rather, this discourse is the product of a process that has embedded a particular discursive formation in Western thought. Here, then, are the roots of what Sutton and Vertigans have identified as the prevailing “caricature of Islam” (2005:31). Chapters 4, 5, and 6 established ample grounds for such an assertion, and many more examples beyond the scope of this inquiry might likewise be marshaled in support.

Next we must deliberately remove the central pillars of the thousand-year-old anti-Islam discourse and examine what remains behind. Or, to return to the question posed at the outset, we must ask, When we open this particular window, what is it that we see that has not been seen before? Were we to set aside these central notions—that Islam is inherently violent and spread by the sword; that Muslims are irrational, antiscience, and thus antimodern; and that they are sexually perverse and hate women—as flawed representations of the nondiscursive reality of Islam, then whole new vistas of possible relationships between East and West will begin to open up before our eyes.

From this vantage point, we can now begin to recognize the emerging outlines of the West’s enormous debt to Islamic science and philosophy and the accompanying need to reexamine the way we think about the history of ideas entirely. We can start to discern the deep fault lines that run through the predominant notion of Islam as inherently violent and the way this notion distorts the West’s understanding, conceals its own motives and interests, and renders appropriate and successful policy responses virtually impossible. And we can at last acknowledge that the near-total inadequacy of our understanding of gender relations in Islamic societies has obscured contemporary Islam’s claims to its own, non-Western idea of modernity.

This task involves shifting the broader problem of East–West relations from the traditional view of intercultural rivalry to one of intracultural contest. Rather than delimit what is a boundary between East and West, we should create one large interactive space that stretches across much of the globe. In effect, this shift would mark a return to the view of the world captured in one of the most remarkable landmarks in the history of ideas: the atlas produced by the Muslim scholar Muhammad al-Idrisi in the mid-twelfth century by commission of the Christian king of Sicily, which was then multifaith—Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox.

The effort to place Islam and the West in the same cultural space, a shared universe foretold in the lapis lazuli shades of al-Idrisi’s mappa mundi, flows naturally from Max Weber’s classic analysis of both Christianity and Islam as “Western” religions. By opening up space for the civilization of Islam in the idea of Western culture, we are suddenly faced with a compelling new model of relations between the two—one of continuous interaction of cultures locked in relations for one thousand years—in which it is hard to say where one ends and the other begins. This model, then, calls for the compilation of a new, hidden history of Islam that fills in those areas declared off limits by the anti-Islam discourse. But, first, we must radically rephrase the West’s favorite polemical question—What’s wrong with Islam?—to a less comfortable query: What’s wrong with us?

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