Book Review: Islamophobia is not new… it has been there for a millennia

27th Dec 2019
Book Review: Islamophobia is not new… it has been there for a millennia

Faces of Muhammad – Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to today. By John V. Tolan. Pp 263. Princeton University Press. 2019. HB. £25

I had always assumed Islamophobia was a tale of our times only. Reading this book has put our struggle into context and explains the deep entrenchment of this ideology.

The book is a dense historical account and if you are not familiar with the religious politics of the Middle Ages it is a hard book to follow. Faces of Muhammad connect the different perceptions of the Prophet in the Western hemisphere and attempts to show the diverse ways in which he was viewed depending on the political realities on the ground.

The perception of Islam, and as a result Muhammad, is like a football that gets a kicking wherever it goes. In the competing religious and political factions in the Middle Ages, the mockery of Muhammad is used as a tool to reduce the ‘other’ to the level of the ridicule, highlighting his marriage with Hazrat Khadijah as a tool used to wield control over the Arabs, his inability to rationally receive revelations as he was overtaken by epileptic fits amongst other derogatory claims.

It was wretched to read, and I had to constantly remind myself that this was a scholarly piece of work and that these depictions are a part of the narrative of the Orientalist authors.

In the latter part of the book, history becomes more relatable and therefore a bit easier to read. Tolan has dedicated a whole chapter to Bonaparte and his favourable perception of the Prophet and how he (Bonaparte) saw himself as the new prophet. Another chapter on how the nineteenth-century Jewish scholars have studied the Prophet.

For each thinker he goes on into their education background which is useful but goes into the detail of their teachings about Judaism – orthodox or reformist – to the Jewish community without going into how the perception of Muhammad factored into their ideologies. Throughout the book, Tolan delves into a lot of detail.

Tolan takes a lot of effort to show how historical narratives are shaped and spread. The same pattern still prevails and impacts the perception of Islam, the Prophet and Muslims today; what begins as a joke ends as an irrefutable truth over time. An initial message based on an untruth propagated so quickly that even if that initial untruth is corrected a false narrative has already spread beyond containment.

The entrenchment of Islamophobic thoughts is not as new a thought as I had initially thought. The negative imagery of the Prophet has been going on for millennia, but if we as Muslims truly wish to change that, we need to make a more concerted effort in influencing the narratives that talk about us. These effects go far beyond our lifetimes, and we are naive to think that if we lie low and off the radar that it will not affect us and our children.

Aasiya I Versi

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