Can Obama marry the history of Islam
with the politics of today?
Associate since 1991
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June 9, 2009
LONDON - Dante's portrayal of Mohammed in hell is one, if not the most, of Western literature's most egregiously racist, not to mention blasphemous, offerings - one that leaves Salman Rushdie's 'Satanic Verses,' in the shade. But until 9/11 and Germany and France's block on Turkey's accession to the European Union, there might have been good reason to think that the West was slowly but surely getting over its long rooted prejudice.
Under presidents George Bush Senior and his successor, Bill Clinton, America began its earnest attempts, after years of neglect, to woo the Arab peoples. George Bush Junior undid all that.
Now, in his masterful speech at the University of Cairo, President Barack Obama has not just turned the clock back to better days, in contradiction, he has pushed it forward as fast as no one could have imagined a year ago. It was a personal triumph for Mr Obama and, judging by the audience's reaction and that of millions of Muslims around the world glued to their television sets, a triumph for all living Muslim people. At last, they were perceived by the West's most important leader as being on parity with the Christian and Jewish peoples. The Muslims themselves may never have doubted the profound intrinsic qualities and virtues of their faith, but Westerners long had. Obama's speech was as much aimed at a home audience as it was to the Islamic world. He proved without a doubt that he is the son and grandson of the Islamic faith.
It perhaps reminds us to think of how in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Christian scholars were compelled to realize they had to learn from Islam. The Arab corpus that incorporated Greek, Persian and Roman learning was translated into Latin. Adelard of Bath's translation of the Arabic version of Euclid's "Elements" made Western scientific scholars aware of the most influential handbook on geometry ever written. Thanks to Muslim scholarship, Western philosophers were able to acquaint themselves with Aristotle and his arguments that the world was intelligible without revelation.
We have to go back to the fifteenth century to see influential Christian thinking on the theological virtues of Islam. The Spaniard, John of Segovia, who died in 1458 and the German, Nicholas of Cusa, who died in 1464, were particularly influential. John translated the Koran and sought to foster academic conferences at which scholars from the two religions could meet and debate. Unfortunately, the primate of Spain ignored him and continued with his policy of forced baptisms.
Nicolas was a cardinal yet wrote a work that argued that the Koran is compatible with the New Testament. Compare this with Pope Benedict's ill chosen words in his speech at his old university in which he slighted Islam for its supposed violent tendencies. There was more that bound the two religions together, Nicolas argued, than separated them. Since human intellect would never plumb ultimate truth it had to rely on mystical intuition and seekers in both religions could find it in their own way.
This thinking caught the imagination of many intellectuals, yet it wasn't enough to overcome conservative and militaristic impulses on both sides.
Perhaps the two philosophers left only a small, long forgotten, mark on Christian theology and practice. Nevertheless, in the 600 years since, as Islam spread very fast, one of its most intriguing aspects was Islam's tolerance for Judaism, an attitude not always reciprocated. The Koran requires that Muslims should respect the Ahl al-Kitab, 'The People of the Book'. Muslims in India were also compelled to be tolerant of Hindus. The Taj Mahal with its fusion of Islamic and Hindu styles is a testament to its benign attitude.
Mohammed himself treated Christian beliefs with something approaching affection. Mary, Christ's mother, is mentioned more in the Koran than in the Gospels. Mohammed accepted that Jesus was born of a virgin and references to Jesus and his teaching are found repeatedly in its pages. But he did not accept that Jesus was the Son of God. Nor that he died on the cross. 'They killed him not, nor crucified him. But it was made to appear so.'
When his early troupe of followers was persecuted by traditional Arab rulers he chose Christian Abyssinia as a place of refuge for them. The prophet's daughter, Rugayyah, and fourteen others travelled by boat down the Red Sea to Abyssinia.
It is within the bounds of possibility that Obama is beginning a new chapter in the long running relationship between Islam and the Christian and Jewish worlds.
The job for him now is to harness history and theology to modern day politics.
Copyright © 2009 Jonathan
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