Today’s globalised context, provoked by colonisation, decolonisation and immigration has brought negative European perceptions of Islam and its Prophet to the attention of Muslims.
Was Mohammad a heretic and an imposter or a reformer and a statesman?
In European culture, the Prophet of Islam has, more often than not, been vilified as a pagan idol. In the early Middle Ages, Islam was portrayed as a perversion of Christian teachings. Not merely a heresy but the sum of all heresies. Its founder was said to be “the chosen disciple of the devil.”
A caricature of the Prophet, which accompanies a work by Peter the Venerable, a 12th-century abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy — “Summa totius haeresis Saracenorum” (“A summary of the Entire Heresy of the Saracens”) — shows him as a siren, a monstrous combination of the human and the bestial. His purpose was to lure the unwary to their doom. This was at a time when the assumption was that the Saracens were like the Vikings or the Magyars and calls were frequent to the faithful to join the Crusades.
Yet by the 18th century, most portrayals of Mohammad were positive. In the late 16th century, Reformist polemicists explained the spread of Islam by the corruption of the established church, which led them to portray the Prophet of Islam as a champion of reform.
Mohammad is a “saint” only in comparison with the pope, yet Martin Luther introduces “a note of relativism that marks an important change in European discourse on Mohammad and Islam.”
Islam is viewed by some as one “sect” among others. John Tolan writes in “Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today” that because they were “plagued by violence and religious strife at home, Europeans looked to the Ottoman Empire not only as a threatening military power but also as a model of political unity and stability and of tolerance for religious diversity.
European Christian writers, Protestant and Catholic, saw the Turks as a double threat who could both conquer and seduce unwary European Christians. He adds: “Ottoman Istanbul was both an enemy capital and a bustling cosmopolitan city. The Ottoman Emperors seemed to have found ways to tolerate religious diversity and peaceful coexistence that Europe, riven by religious strife, was unable to put in place.”