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A Third Encounter of the Close Kind

Akbar Ahmed, one of Pakistan's leading scholars, reflects on the links - past, present and future - of the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds.

Gibbon recounts a chilling Muslim story in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. When the first Muslims erupted from the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century and reached Alexandria, they sent a message to the caliph asking for instructions regarding the famous central library. 'If the books are in accordance with the Quran, they are unnecessary and may be destroyed; if they contradict the Quran, they are dangerous and should certainly be destroyed', replied the caliph.

This is, of course, an untrue story. But it suggests the formation of the negative images of Islam early in its history. It tells us how non-Muslims saw Muslims; also how Muslims are not able to see how the world sees them. The blind spot of Muslims, the incapacity to see how others see them, has historically created a false sense of self-sufficiency in Muslim society.

But the pictures of Muslims, throats hoarse and death in their eyes, burning books in Bradford are not a figment of the imagination. Others reinforce the Bradford ones: Libyans killing policewomen in London, Palestinians hijacking passenger planes, Iranians seizing foreign embassies and Indonesians blowing up the Borobudur temple in Java. It is V.S. Naipaul's vision of Islam and Muslims: 'Rage was what I saw... Muslims crazed by their confused faith' (Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, 1981).

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