A review of The Western Academic Perspective on Islam, Muslims and Islamic Countries

This review comes with a recommendation!

This review comes with a recommendation!

In this book review, Imranali Panjwani makes an in-depth analysis of Saied Reza Ameli’s Bibliographical Discourse Analysis: The Western Academic Perspective on Islam, Muslims and Islamic Countries (1949 – 2009). In this, he highlights his findings on an increase in Islamophobic rhetoric after 9/11 and the so-called ‘War on Terror,’ and how throughout Ameli’s works, there has been a wide attempt from many scholarly sources to understand Islam and how western rhetoric has displayed it in their literature.

  • Ameli reviewed 23,872 works concerning Islam produced in the West from 1949-2009 .
  • He concluded that 13.4% of these works are Islamophobic and the number post 9/11 has increased drastically.
  • Only 8.6% of the sample make an effort in the academic works to understand Islamic values and tenets and to maintain a dialogue with Muslims despite their diverse value systems.
  • A staggering 48.4% of the works see an Islamic ethos as inferior to a Western ideology and this notion is conveyed in their works.
  • 10.5% of the works intend to not stereotype Muslims and attempt to understand them each in their own diverse historical, social, cultural, political and economic contexts.

Ameli’s extensive four volume set, Bibliographical Discourse Analysis: The Western Academic Perspective on Islam, Muslims and Islamic Countries (1949 – 2009), is an unapologetic and meticulous piece of work which strikes at the heart of how the West has viewed Islam since the seventh century. Whilst the bibliographic samples (which constitute 23,872 items) cover the period from 1949 to 2009, in Volume 1, Ameli offers a concise and engaging introduction to the origins of the historical relationship between the West and Islam, beginning with when, in 628 ce, the Prophet Muhammad invited the Byzantine Emperor, Heraclius, to accept Islam (15), and ending with the continuing effects of post-colonialism on Muslims. Though some scholars in Western academia may find Ameli’s conclusions uncomfortable, his hope is that his work ‘will make even a small contribution to changing the world for the better’.

The primary epistemological basis of Ameli’s research is that:

during the past 60 years, a significant body of knowledge concerning Islam and the Muslim World – books, book reviews, articles, and PhD dissertations – has been produced in the West. Even though a great sum of it claims to be of a scientific standard, well-researched and unbiased, the fact remains that centuries of mistrust, misunderstanding and misrepresentation have had an undeniable impact upon Western thinkers and their scholarly work on Islam.

His method of bibliographical discourse analysis involves ‘taking a critical stance towards text and context’ in order to gather, analyse, and categorise ‘the relevant material in different discourses and sub discourses’ (61). All items, therefore, are critically categorised in accordance with five key discourses to show how Western academia has analysed and represented Islam, Muslims, and Islamic countries: ‘Islamophobia’, ‘Islamophilia’, ‘Islamoromia’, ‘Islamoverita’, and ‘Neutral’. Ameli arrives at these categories by engaging in a conceptual analysis of academic resources that show the context in which the resource was written, the sociopolitical worldview inherent within the resource as well as the very text of the resource which outlines its own aims and contents. These categories will be outlined in the review for the benefit of the reader.

Islamophobia is, as ‘the 1997 Runnymede report suggests, the shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam – and, therefore, to fear or dislike of all or most of Muslims’. Ameli argues that Islamophobia paints Islam as a monolithic, inflexible, distant ‘other’ – a barbaric, irrational, primitive, sexist, aggressive, and intolerant religion. This has its roots in the seventh century (and continued onwards) when many Christians feared that Islam would rival the status of Christianity as a dominant world religion. St. John Damascene, the seventh century monk and priest who was ‘the real founder of the Christian tradition [against Islam]’, claimed that the Qur’an imitated the Old and the New Testament incompletely and that this was to ‘become a pillar of Christian accusations against Islam as a false religion in the centuries to come’. This mistrust was heightened in al-Andalus; while some form of convivencia was enjoyed there, it also had its fair share of tensions. There, some of the Christian clergies attacked the ‘Muslim Prophet as a licentious Arab who promoted lust in the form of polygamous commandment’. The Crusades accelerated the derogatory image of Islam: ‘the image of a savage, dark-skinned Saracen, the pagan enemy of Jesus Christ, did not appear merely as papal propagation to keep the flames of war high; nor was it meant to address the Crusaders only; soon after the First Crusades, it entered Christian art and literature, a space in its imagination’.

Ameli’s approach in giving an overview of how the demonised image of Islam developed gives the reader an idea of the kind of themes used in the West to attack Islam. He does, however, mention that the Enlightenment period saw a re-evaluation of the Crusades by Hume, Gibbon, and Diderot, who argued that it was an act of folly on the part of extremist Christians. Regardless, Islamophobia today is nourished by the media, and Ameli goes further by stating it is institutionalised. The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons (2005) and the Innocence of Muslims trailer (2012) only confirm Ameli’s argument. This is substantiated by the number of works in Western academia which are Islamophobic: ‘out of 23,872 works in our voluminous sample, 3,191 ones (13.4%) bear the label Islamophobia’. It is noteworthy that since the events of 9/11 and the so-called ‘War on Terror’, the number of Islamophobic works has increased dramatically, and is continuing to do so.

Ameli’s next discourse within his bibliographic examination is ‘Islamophilia’. This ‘implies an effort in the academic works to understand Islamic values and tenets and to maintain a dialogue with Muslims despite their diverse value systems. In this view, conscious attempts are made to iron out any history-long prejudices prior to scientific investigation of Islam and Muslims’. Works in this category are generally sympathetic towards Islam, emphasise its commonalities with other religions, and reveal its fundamentally peaceful nature. Despite the noble aims of these works, Ameli concludes that ‘out of 23,872 works in our sample, 2,042 (8.6%) engage themselves in the above mentioned Islamophile modi operandi’. This is a rather low percentage in comparison to the other discourses. It is possible to argue that because the manner of these works is not adversarial they do not provoke responses from Islamophobic works which employ a bolder and sharper linguistic tone.

It is here that arguably the most interesting discourse is analysed, ‘Islamoromia’. Works in this category:

“contextualise Islam in the bosom of the Roman tradition embodying the West in general and from a historical perspective […] [and] […] try to compare [the] Islamic ethos with Western values; while the jury is still out on the debate, many works in this category – thinking, evaluating and comparing Islam with and in a Western mindset, pronounce their favour for Western values and norms as superior, the more practical and less ornamental side of the binary.” (49)

Not only do works in this section represent the highest percentage of all the discourses (11,563 items constituting 48.4% of the total) but show where the real battle of ideas lies. When one scans the bibliographies in all four volumes, one is able to see the subtlety of these works which ‘try to present […] the desirable domesticated Islam which poses no threat to the Western value system, on the one hand, and does not, as a result, engage in the clash of civilisations, on the other’. Authors of such works may be Muslim or non-Muslim; but, the author says, this is not of significance. The key issue, according to Ameli, is whether the majority of works in this section represent ‘the postcolonial approach to the Orient’ which shows ‘a gradual shift from hard colonisation in the East to soft colonisation of the East’ (39)

It appears that, out of all the discourses, the aforementioned section was the hardest for Ameli to categorise simply because detecting the subtle literary techniques and intellectual epistemologies of the authors are both difficult and time-consuming. As Ameli admits, ‘the jury is out on the debate’, meaning that research findings can be interpreted in many different ways. Muslim and non-Muslim scholars working in Western academia may have a genuine reason to consider Western values as superior whilst others may do so in order to purposefully demonstrate the inferiority of Islam. In my view, however, the hardest group to classify are those scholars that sincerely wish to examine the origins of Islam at a universal level and its capability from within to continually develop its interpretations in response to new moral challenges and contribute to humanity. Here, there is no issue of Islamoromia; rather the issue is one of true philosophical creativity driven by the search for wisdom.

The next discourse, ‘Islamoverita’, consists of ‘works [that] intend to avoid stereotyping either Islam or Muslims by simply generalising what is already known about one singular aspect to the whole object of their study’ and ‘dedicate much effort to understand[ing] Islam and Muslims as distinguishable entities, and to study[ing] each in their own diverse historical, social, cultural, political and economic contexts’ (54-55). Similar to Islamophilia, these represent a low percentage – 10.5% or 2,510 items out of the total sample. It appears that the publication of works of this nature – as important as they are in analysing Islam, Muslims, or Islamic countries from their own standpoint – is either relatively stagnant or falling gradually. This is in stark contrast to Islamoromic works, the publication of which is increasing at a relatively substantial rate.

The final discourse, ‘Neutral’, appears to offer some hope in analysing Islam as objectively as possible, though Ameli admits that truly objective works are impossible simply because every person has an interest, bias, or historical background from which they write. Regardless, works in this category involve a ‘study [of] Islam in relation to the contributions it has made historically to [the] sciences, medicine, philosophy and pure sciences in different regions, time periods and in relation to other civilisations’. They are termed as Neutral because they are not framed around political biases, historical interpretations, or cultural (mis) representations. Ameli’s findings are hopeful here: ‘this category includes a considerable 19.1% of the total sample (4,566 works out of 23,872 ones)’; he adds that ‘almost every two out of ten works the Western academia produces about Islam take conscious steps away from partisan politics, historical hatred and institutionalised biases against it’. Therefore, whilst Islamophobic works are on the rise and Islamoromic works are being produced at a relatively constant level, a notable proportion of scholars in Western academia are taking interest in the intellectual contributions which have arisen out of Islamic civilization itself. A useful example which Ameli cites is George Saliba’s Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance (MIT Press, 2011).

I can also attest to the presence of the aforementioned category in Western academia, having reviewed Humberto Garcia’s Islam and the English Enlightenment 1670-1840 (The John Hopkins University Press, 2011). The book explores sympathetic literary representations of Islam by major British writers such as Henry Stubbe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Shelley, who was impressed by the Prophet Muhammad’s socio-political achievements in Mecca and Medina in the seventh century; these ideas found their way into British literature and influenced Protestant Britain’s own evolution in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, and helped redefine Whig principles and challenge Anglican authority. Therefore, Ameli’s work is useful in identifying which books may fall into the five discourses as above.

In sum, I would highly recommend Ameli’s work. He has been courageous enough to tackle a sensitive subject in Western academia – the politicisation of Islam, Muslims, and Islamic countries. Whatever one’s intellectual attitude towards Islam, one must appreciate the depth and detail of this four volume set which is littered with graphs, data, and analyses. It is a useful reference book for identifying secondary sources on Islam within Western academia and, for those interested, for engaging with the critical debate of how Islam should be represented, taught, and properly researched. Here, Ameli presents a rather startling finding from the items he examined: ‘only a tenth (2,526 out of 23,872) have, away from historical prejudices and scientific enslavement, tried to present Islam as it truly is and to understand diversity among Muslims and their identities, free from a common will to oversimplify and generalise’. This not only shows the need for greater scholasticism in analysing Islam but points to a long and rather unsettling history of how Islam has been viewed in the West: ‘what the West conceives of Islam today is the result of its direct and indirect relations with Islam, distorted and demonised, through a vast temporospatial purgatory expanding from West Asia to North Africa and well into Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages/ Renaissance centuries. We harvest today what was sown in the past’.

by Imranali Panjwani of Kings College London, UK.

This article was originally published in the Journal of Shi’a Islamic Studies (JSIS), Autumn 2013, Vol. VI, No. 4.