Inventing a Myth: The Medieval Islamic Civilization through Western Perspectives
Gehan M. Anwar Esmaiel Deeb

Due to the huge expansion of the Islamic Civilization in the Medieval times, its scientific, philosophical and literary fruits were transmitted to Europe, first to Spain and then to Italy. The tolerance of Islam was evident in these regions where a spirit of freedom permitted Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars to mingle freely and pursue a cultural convivencia. However, many Western writers have ignored or distorted such a civilization by presenting a horrific and an exaggerated image of Islam and the Muslims. The main topic of the present paper has not been dealt with in depth. In this respect, it aims to trace three Western attitudes and review critical studies about the Medieval Islamic civilization, its direct or indirect impact on Western thought, and its manifestations in the Western literary writings, fiction or non-fiction, from the Medieval times to the present. The paper attempts an exploration of the prejudiced views of some works that embody previous Western biases against Islam and the Muslims, shedding light on how the constant falsification of the earlier images and stereotypes produced a myth that, according to Edward Said, was invented by the West, i.e., the primitive inferior "Other" in contrast with the civilized superior West. By mixing fiction with facts, many new myths are added. The paper is structured into three divisions. The first division is an introduction giving a historical background and dealing with two questions: What is the definition of civilization? What does this term characterize in Western writings that display the influence exerted by Medieval Muslim scholars and the changes they brought about? It is an attempt to explore how Western attitudes shaped by ancient stereotyping, prejudice and aversion are reflected in the portrayal of Islam that was conceived as heresy in the Medieval Ages and the Muslims who were viewed as pagan, infidel, violent and sensual. This distorted image was conveyed by Western writers’ own imagination and creativity. The second division is concerned with another type of writers whose attitude is two-fold; they displayed recognition of the merit of the Islamic civilization but at the same time reflected explicit aversion through using recurring stereotypes of Islam and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Such contradictions are reconciled in the poetic works of Dante and Chaucer, and the theatrical representation of the Islamic Other employed by Voltaire. Although ideas of identity and values of the West were emphasized, the western perspective on the east and Islam, as that of the Romantic writers in the 18th century, revealed a slight change particularly after Lord Byron’s "seeming positive attitude to Islam". For the first time in the West, a Muslim can be seen as a decent fellow, and not only the stereotyping 'infidel' who represents tyranny and evil of former centuries. Furthermore, conflicting attitudes of Western writers continued to be created due to a fascination with the exotic or images of the East in the next two centuries. Fictitious, or factual and specific Oriental characters, locations and events are directly referred to with some distortion and fallacy from a biased perspective. A good example of this is Samuel Johnson's Rasseless (1985). The third division explores other popular Western writers who, out of their considerable research or direct contact with the East, show a tremendous respect for the Muslims and their Civilization. Despite the distorted images represented in real life, a different image of Muslims is constructed. Sir Walter Scott’s historical fiction The Talisman (1824) emphasizes their noble conduct, tolerance, honesty, generosity and humane treatment, and their respect for other peoples’ beliefs, represented in the benevolent character of Saladin. Non-fiction writings also present a historical truth without being antagonistic portraying the Medieval Islamic world as far more advanced than Europe. They give us an insight into the debt Western culture owes to the Islamic civilization; its existence. The conclusion is a summing up of the ideas and points discussed in the paper.

Full Text: PDF      DOI: 10.15640/ijll.v2n4a9