Help for Heroes

A Western Response

Nancy Mitford takes a perceptive and ironic look at the reaction of 18th-century French 'society' to the Enlightenment's great philosophe. The author was one of the 'bright young things' who cut a dash in literary society between the wars, but then found more permanent fame through her elegant novels that displayed a sharp observation of class and

I agree with much of what Dr Akbar Ahmed says in his contribution to Cross Current in the last issue of History Today. Points of disagreement are minor and need not be discussed here. In today's world it is certainly important that non-Muslims should be aware of errors and inadequacies in how they perceive Muslims, and that Muslims should be aware of how they are seen by non-Muslims.

Dr Ahmed distinguishes two earlier encounters between Islam and Western civilisation, that from the rise of Islam to the repulse of the Ottomans from Vienna in the seventeenth century, and that of the period of colonialism. For most of the centuries of the first encounter it was Islam that was aggressive and threatening. The immediate ancestor of Western civilisation was Western Europe rather than the Byzantine empire, and it is important to realise that Western Europe in the eighth century and for long afterwards was inferior to its Muslim opponents not only militarily but also culturally. The Muslims were far ahead of the Westerners in all the arts of gracious living. This was still the position in the twelfth century when Western Europe was becoming stronger militarily and its scholars were making a serious study of Islam. Though the scholars had much correct information, what they produced in the end can only be described as a distorted image or perception of Islam. They saw it as a religion that spread by the sword and encouraged sexual indulgence, and they presented a very unflattering picture of Muhammad. In effect what they were saying was that, while Islam might be superior in military and cultural matters, Christians were superior in morals and religion.

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