Countering Islamophobia in the Early Eighteenth Century

From Firenze University Press Journal: Diciottesimo Secolo

Ann Thomson, European University Institute

Can we talk about ‘Islamophobia’ in the 18th Century, and even more about ‘countering’ it? Much has been written about how 18th-century Euro-peans viewed the Muslim world and Islam itself, and there has been considerable disagreement on the subject, ranging from Edward Said’s stance on Orientalism, to those French scholars who claimed that the Enlightenment was essentially sympathetic towards Islam. I have oft en argued that such generalisations are too simplistic and that we encounter a wide range of opinions and stances. In this article, under what can be seen as a deliberately anachronistic title, I would like to discuss some voices who were far from being dominant but who do exemplify this variety; they both indicate that other stances were possible and encourage us to reconsider how we think about the history of Europe’s relations with the Muslim world.

This is not to deny that the underlying European view of both this world and its religion was generally one of hostility, towards the main challenger to Christianity, represented since the 15th Century by the Ottoman Empire, whose expansion was still seen as a danger to Europe at the beginning of the 18th Century. While this attitude is often referred to, particularly in the Muslim world, as crusading, it often was in fact a more deep-seated general fear and suspicion rather than a desire for conquest and domination. The Orientalism denounced by Edward Said and often criticised, was probably more characteristic of the following century (and even here needs to be nuanced). The 18th Century saw a wider range of opinions and a large amount of curiosity about a world which was both familiar and alien.Recently, there has been more study of European writings on the Muslim world, which does bring out this diversity and the detailed knowledge of it possessed by 18th-century Europeans. I myself have often emphasised the way Islam was used, and often instrumentalised, in internal European debates, and this subject has more recently been surveyed over a longer period by Noel Malcolm.

In the present article, however, I want to look at a slightly different aspect of European interest in the Muslim world, namely writings by those whose aim was to try to present it more accurately to a European audience and to correct deformations and misinterpretations; a few of them even went as far as openly opposing European hostility and denigration. I do not wish to claim that these were anything other than a minority of dissenting voices or to claim that the ‘Enlightenment’ (whatever one means by the term) was sympathetic to Islam, but I think it is worth recovering these voices and reflecting on what they meant.Majority 18th-century opinion, both in popular representations and among the intellectual élite, tended to continue the traditional Christian hostility towards Islam as a false religion and its prophet as an impostor. This was coupled with an acute awareness of the Otto-man Empire as a permanent threat both in the Mediter-ranean and on land in the east of Europe, although as the century progressed this fear started to lessen as the Ottomans encountered military defeat. However, at the same time, the development of the study of Arabic, Per-sian or Ottoman and the founding of university chairs in various European countries in the 17th Century led to greater knowledge and the translation of Arabic works as well as the Quran. Thus the growth of erudition and a greater concern with accuracy led in some quarters to greater objectivity, despite the ritual repetition of hostility.

Scholars such as Edward Pocock, who held the first chair of Arabic at Oxford University in 1663 or Barthélemy d’Herbelot, whose Bibliothèque orientale, based on Arabic sources and published by Galland in 1697, became a widely respected reference work in the 18th Century, contributed to these developments, which were however not without dangers; George Sale, who trans-lated the Quran into English, prefaced with a less hostile life of the Prophet, was accused of irreligion or even of being a secret Muslim. Islam was used in anti-Catholic and more widely irreligious works, which emphasised, for example, the greater toleration existing in the Ottoman Empire than in many Christian, especially Catholic, countries — although one cannot interpret all such uses as being necessarily evidence of irreligion, deism or freethinking. While Pierre Bayle, a defender of toleration, frequently expresses in his Dictionary the usual hostility towards the Prophet, generally presented as an impostor, he also however compares the Turks, who are tolerant despite the Quran’s injunction to fight the infidels, with the Christians’ persecution of heretics which is contrary to the teachings of Christ. And the Irish freethinker John Toland wrote in Nazarenus (1718): «shou’d the Grand Seignior insist upon it, they might with as much reason and safety be tolerated at London and Amsterdam, as the Christians of every kind are so at Constantinople and thro-out all Turkey». Another comment found in several writers is that Islam is a more sublime religion than Christianity and presents a more exalted view of the deity.


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