The Need to Deconstruct the Dominant Narratives about Islam and Muslims
Nowadays, many Orientalists, among others, speak of Islam as if it began in the late 1970s with the Iranian Revolution or in the 1990s with the rise of certain radical groups in some parts of the Muslim world, or as is now the case with some conflicts in the Middle East. Islam is being framed and portrayed in such a way that many Westerners today see it as something foreign and incompatible with the West, thus having nothing to offer to the rest of the world. As a result of these imposed misconceptions, the underlying assumption has become that Muslims live in a stagnant world “and pre-modern tradition that has failed to respond to the challenges of modernity; essential values, such as progress, science, reason, freedom, and equality, have not yet set in.”
However, a close look at the history of Islam reveals that Islam, as a faith and civilisation and as a way of life, has been anything but stagnant, backward, irrational and intellectually inactive or unproductive. In fact, many such fabricated claims can easily and best be refuted by the Qur’an itself, which frequently calls upon humanity to study, reflect, learn reason and discover the bounties of the Creator.
As a result of this divine encouragement for hard work, knowledge and service to humanity, thriving great centres of learning sprung up in almost every major city in the Muslim world soon after the advent of Islam. For example, the ‘House of Wisdom’ was founded in Baghdad in the eighth century as a major centre of learning and original research in humanities, medicine and sciences. By the mid-ninth century, it housed the largest library of books in the world. This was in stark contrast to the intellectually, culturally and economically stagnant ‘Dark Ages’ that much of Europe was experiencing. Although this topic is beyond the scope of the work, the point of note here is that, whether we want to accept it or not, the modern world is indebted to Muslim civilisation since its earliest days.
Writing on an issue which many Western historians avoid addressing, Mark Graham points out that the great contributions of Islam to the Western world have been consistently ignored. He adds that this in fact “is a story that needs to be told… It is the story of how a precious heritage of knowledge [especially from the ancient Greeks] was not simply preserved but reconstituted and re-imagined. And it is the story of how medieval Europe gave birth to the Renaissance.” He continues, “[This] is the story of how Islam created the modern world” and imparts the following advice to Western readers:
We must begin learning history by unlearning the cultural “truths” we have been taught about Islam… These paradigms have nestled in the muck of our collective unconscious for centuries… It was because Islam was so successful that our culture made it seem like a failure. It was because we owed Muslims so much that we pretended we owed them nothing… The Islamic world and the “West” are (and always have been) an intricately-bound system of cultural and religious interaction.
Graham closes with the words:
It is time for memory to triumph over collective amnesia. Islam belongs to the West as much as the Egyptians and the Greeks. We are the heirs of Ibn Rushd and al-Razi as much as we are the heirs of Plato and Hippocrates…It is in the writing of that new history that we might finally unlearn what has pulled us apart and learn anew what we share as the children of Abraham and Aristotle.
From such works, it becomes apparent that Islamic civilisation not only contributed to that of the West, it forms an integral part of the latter. However, this is a reality that continues to be intentionally excluded from most Western educational curricula. The grand old narrative has to change because history is not ‘black and white’ as has been portrayed for centuries in the Western world; it is a mosaic of colours and materials from different parts of the world.
Flamur Vehapi is a researcher, poet, literary translator, academic and a success coach. He received his A.A. and B.S. in Counseling Psychology with a minor in History, and in 2013, he received his M.A. in Conflict Resolution from Portland State University. In 2009, Vehapi received the Imagine Award for Community Peacemaking. Currently, he is an Education and Leadership PhD student at Pacific University. Vehapi taught social sciences at Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University, and more recently he taught at various institutions in the Middle East. His publications include The Alchemy of Mind and A Cup with Rumi, both collections of spiritual poems, and his most recent books are Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam, The Book of Albanian Sayings, The Book of Great Quotes, Verses of the Heart, and two translations of Sami Frashëri’s books. He has worked as a contributing writer for the PSU Chronicles. Vehapi and his family currently live in Oregon.