The Return of Islam

Bernard Lewis – 01.01.1976

In the great medieval French epic of the wars between Christians and Saracens in Spain, the Chanson de Roland, the Christian poet endeavors to give his readers, or rather listeners, some idea of the Saracen religion. According to this vision, the Saracens worshipped a trinity consisting of three persons, Muhammad, the founder of their religion, and two others, both of them devils, Apollin and Tervagant. To us this seems comic, and we are amused by medieval man unable to conceive of religion or indeed of anything else except in his own image. Since Christendom worshipped its founder in association with two other entities, the Saracens also had to worship their founder, and he too had to be one of a trinity, with two demons co-opted to make up the number. In the same spirit one finds special correspondents of the New York Times and of other lesser newspapers describing the current conflicts in Lebanon in terms of right-wing and left-wing factions. As medieval Christian man could only conceive of religion in terms of a trinity, so his modern descendant can only conceive of politics in terms of a theology or, as we now say, ideology, of left-wing and right-wing forces and factions.

This recurring unwillingness to recognize the nature of Islam or even the fact of Islam as an independent, different, and autonomous religious phenomenon persists and recurs from medieval to modern times. We see it, for example, in the nomenclature adopted to designate the Muslims. It was a long time before Christendom was even willing to give them a name with a religious meaning. For many centuries both Eastern and Western Christendom called the disciples of the Prophet Saracens, a word of uncertain etymology but clearly of ethnic not religious connotation, since the term is both pre-Islamic and pre-Christian. In the Iberian peninsula, where the Muslims whom they met came from Morocco, they called them Moors, and people of Iberian culture or under Iberian influence continued to call Muslims Moors even if they met them in Ceylon or in the Philippines. In most of Europe, Muslims were called Turks, after the main Muslim invaders, and a convert to Islam was said to have “turned Turk” even if the conversion took place in Marrakesh or in … read more


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