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Book Review
Islam-west relations
By Yoginder Sikand

Title of the Book: Muslims and the West—Encounters and Dialogue
Editors: Zafar Ishaq Ansari & John L. Esposito
Publisher: Islamic research Institute, Islamabad and Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown, Year: 2001
Pages: 353
ISBN: 969-408-219-6
Price: Not mentioned

If for many in the West Islam has today emerged as the new, menacing ‘green peril’, in much of the Muslim world the West is seen as having embarked on a new Crusade against Islam, many times more threatening than its predecessor. In the heat of ardently voiced passions, rational discourse and the possibilities of dialogue between the two civilisations are completely ignored. The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, followed by the indiscriminate bombings of Afghanistan by the USA, have only worked to further harden the deeply rooted mistrust and suspicion that many Westerners and Muslims have of each other. In an increasingly shrinking and inter-dependent world, such visceral hatred bodes ill for global peace and stability, and, as this timely book argues, must be combatted with all the force that we can muster.

This book is a collection of papers presented at a seminar held at Islamabad, participated by scholars from the West and from various Muslim countries. It thus provides a variety of different perspectives on the vexed issue of relations between the Muslim world and the West. They all, however, share a common concern that dialogue and positive encounter must take the place of radical rhetoric and strife in the Muslim-West interface.

Ismail Ibrahim Nawwab’s essay on Muslims and the West seeks to provide a general historical context within which present-day Muslim-West relations can be properly understood. He argues that both Muslims and the West bear a historical burden that might seem to militate against positive relations between the two civilizations. Thus, he writes, the history of the Crusades, of centuries of Christian anti-Muslim polemics, of threats to Christendom from a rapidly expanding Muslim empire only to be followed by Western colonialism throughout almost all of the Muslim world, and present-day Western neo-colonialism, have all had a crucial bearing on the way that Muslims and Westerners view each other. The task before us, he seems to suggest, is to view the question of Muslim-West relations in their totality, and this includes the positive side of this encounter, be it the Qur'anic injunctions related to peace and friendship with the People of the Book, or the remarkable Spanish experiment, where Muslims, Christians and Jews all contributed towards the development of a remarkably rich civilisation under Arab and Berber rulers.A new genre of literature must seek to highlight these positive and mutually enriching aspects of the Muslim-West encounter, Abdur Raheem Kidwai contends. In his masterly survey of English literature from early medieval times onwards, he shows how Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and the Muslims as a community have been subjected to rebuke and revile, being demonised and castigated as irredeemably evil. While there have indeed been notable exceptions to this rule, general hostility towards Islam is still a powerful undercurrent of the discourse of significant sections of the mass media in the West. With the immensely greater influence of the mass media today than ever before, it has become increasingly urgent to address the issue of the public representation of Islam and Muslims, if Muslim-West relations are ever to be salvaged. No one can argue with Kidwai on this point, but his silence on the representations of the West and Christianity in significant sections of the Muslim-owned media is unfortunate, and makes his argument seem somewhat one-sided.

The manner in which Muslims and the West perceive each other, historically as well as today, is dealt with at greater length in other papers included in this volume. Particularly interesting is Muhammad Khalid Masud’s article titled ‘Naming the Other: Muslim and European Names for Each Other’. In reply to Shakespeare’s rhetorical question ‘What’s in a Name?’, Masud contends that a name is of the utmost significance, containing in a single word centuries of deeply-rooted historical memory. He discusses the various terms that Muslims and Westerners/Christians have used for each other, uncovering layers of prejudice and misunderstanding. A new nomenclature, that each would recognise, he says, is the starting point of any project to help improve relations between the two peoples and the civilisations they represent.

The role of religion in moulding the perceptions that Muslims and Westerners/ Christians have of each other is recognised as central by almost all the contributors of the book. Jane Smith, in her piece on Christian missionary views of Islam in the last two centuries, discusses the subtle changes in the manner in which Christian evangelists have sought to understand and interpret Islam. From a position of outright hostility, condemning Islam as unadulterated falsehood, many Christian writers and theologians have begun arguing for a more balanced understanding of the faith. While for some this is seen as a more refined tool for Christian missionary work, others stress the need for Christians to recognise that God’s revelation to human beings cannot be considered to have ended with Jesus Christ. Some Christian theologians even go to the extent of recognising Muhammad as a prophet, albeit not in the manner that Muslims understand the concept of prophethood. In all, Smith says, the tension between the missionary mandate and the dialogical imperative continues to divide Christian opinion on the issue of Christian-Muslim relations. If Christians need to radically revise their own deeply-entrenched views about Islam and Muslims, Muslims must also undertake to review the way in which they respond to the religious ‘other’. As Mustansir Mir argues, Muslims could learn much from the way in which some Christians and Jews have responded to the challenges of modernity, and with the demands of reason, science, democracy and human rights. Muslims, as inheritors of a rich legacy, might have valuable contributions to make in the direction of developing new understandings of the role of religion in the modern world, but they could also gain from the experience of others, Mir remarks. Ahmat 

Davotoglu voices a similar view in his paper, arguing that because Muslims and Christians are now increasingly forced to live together, this must lead to new understandings of the self and the other in order to build a stable and mutually enriching pluralistic world.

The much-debated issue of ‘Islamism’, or ‘political Islam’, is discussed in four interesting pieces included in this volume. Tama Sonn argues, repeating much of what has already been written by others, that continuing Western neo-colonialism poses perhaps the greatest hurdle in the path of improving relations between the Muslim and western worlds. The question of social justice, then, is central to any quest for world peace and stability, something that the dominant Western powers refuse to recognise. Muzaffar Iqbal makes much the same point, focussing on the collaboration of the West in the subjugation of Muslim peoples, and insisting on the centrality of social justice for marginalised peoples in the quest for peace and true dialogue. Yvonne Haddad argues likewise, seeing Islamism as an ideology of resistance against internal oppression and external, Western hegemony, as a means for the empowerment of the subaltern. Vali Reza Nasr introduces a word of caution here, however. In his brilliantly crafted piece on States and Islamisation, he shows how states in Muslim countries might seek to jump on the Islamist bandwagon and hijack it for their own purposes, using it to bolster the power of sagging, fragile regimes, and thus denuding it of its potential as a means for genuine social transformation and justice. No one concerned with the way that the relations between the West and the Muslim world can afford to ignore this book. Although most of the articles deal with the issue at hand in very general terms, and suffer from a fundamental error in assuming the Muslims and the west to be two monolithic wholes [interestingly, sharing this assumption with Samuel Huntington and other prophets of doom], they contribute in a significant way in enriching our understanding of the myriad ways in which Muslims and the West can work together for a more just and peaceful world order. Religion, these authors seem to suggest, can be interpreted in diverse ways, and the task before socially engaged and concerned believers is to explore possibilities of interpretations of religion that, rooted in a genuine understanding of their faith, can play a significant role in the quest for harmonious inter-faith and inter-civilisational relations.

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