According to Berg, "Here we arrive at a piece of common ground occupied by historian of Islam and modernist Muslim alike. Both typically share a text-based positivism -- the truth of what once happened can be comprehended because it is preserved in books; put uncharitably, it is a 'fetish for facts' that is satisfied only by adducing textual evidence" (p. 116).
Consequently, much of the Western scholarship devoted to the study of the Prophet Muhammad over the years has also been sought to understand the Islamic faith by examining the historical accuracy of the fundamental traditions that have evolved over the centuries concerning the Prophet Muhammad and the first generations of Muslims. In this regard, Berg (2000) writes that, "The first specialists in the field showed much trust in the Muslim traditions but since the second half of the nineteenth century there has been increasing skepticism about the reliability of Muslim traditions. The dispute that developed in Western scholarship on this issue was dominated by the skeptics" (p. 211).
Although there have been attempts over the years in the West to refute such outright skepticism, it would seem that some Western scholars are either intimidated by the extant traditions and literature concerning the Prophet Muhammad because they violate or are contrary their own personal Judeo-Christian religious beliefs or simply because they have not been convinced of the historical accuracy of the Islamic dogma, particularly in the post-September 11, 2001 climate that pervades the West. For example, Brown (2000) advises, "Christianity, or other world religions to commentators who have found a new threat to 'our way of life' after the end of the cold war. Indeed, it might be maintained that the present-day West has returned to its centuries-old image of Islam as the traditional enemy vaunting a religion of the sword. Jihad (holy war) ranks alongside kismet as one of the few Arabo-Islamic terms long recognized in the West" (p. 3).
As is the case with such basic belief systems around the world, though, for the faithful, no evidence is necessary and for the skeptics, there will never be enough evidence to sway them otherwise. In this regard, Berg emphasizes that, "There is no middle ground between the two positions" (p. 212). In addition, Berg maintains that "Scholars from each position put forward circular arguments and can therefore only convince other scholars who share their own assumptions" (p. 212). This ethnocentristic view of others is not restricted to the West, though, and as Murata and Chittick (1994) point out, "In the same way, it is common for traditional Muslims to think that their own religious activities are the most normal and natural activities in the universe, since they are simply doing what everything in creation does constantly, given that 'to Him has submitted whoso is in the heavens and the earth'" (pp. 6-7). Therefore, while Western scholarship concerning the portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad can perhaps be understood in this context, there are some important trends in this perception that have followed hard on the heels of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 that have been highly influential more recently that have attempted to refute the divine aspects of the Prophet Muhammad and the origins of Islam's most holy text. For example, Warraq emphasizes that, "The western critical attitude, with which some western educated Muslims have become imbued, hides an a priori presumption no Muslim can accept, namely the negation of the heavenly origin of the Koranic revelation and the actual prophetic power and function of the Prophet" (p. 115). A corollary of this type of thinking would be for Islamic adherents to attempt to refute the divine source of the Holy Bible and the inspiration of its writers, primarily Moses, in ways that would undoubtedly be enormously offensive to the Judeo-Christian faith.
Nevertheless, and perhaps not surprisingly, many Western scholars continue to subscribe to the more radical views of Islam that have emerged in recent years today. For instance, Brown adds that, "Firmly rooted in the Western subconscious is the image of Islam as a peculiarly aggressive and impenetrably xenophobic religion" (2000, p. 3). Likewise, Strawson criticizes much of the Western scholarship that has been devoted to the study of Islam because of its one-sided approach: "The West has seized the grand-stand seat of international order and from its position surveys the world with an imperial eye. In fixing its gaze on human rights, the West divides the world into the viewed and viewers, the monitored and the monitors" (1997, p. 32). In recent years, though, there have been some shifts in Western scholarship as it pertains to the study of the Islamic faith. According to Murata and Chittick, "Most Western scholarship of a more recent vintage has dropped the assumption of cultural superiority. Positive evaluations are much easier to find than they were fifty years ago" (p. xviii).
The research showed that the past thirteen centuries have witnessed Western scholarship running the entire gamut of vilification to adoration of the Prophet Muhammad based on differing views of the historical accuracy of the Islamic faith's foundation and changing Western perceptions of the religion itself. Because there are two fundamentally different civilizations involved in this analysis, it should come as no surprise that many of the views in the Western scholarship have been shaped in large part by fear and misunderstanding, and these misperceptions and differences have been further exacerbated following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The research also showed that the views expressed in the Western scholarship have been highly influential in the politicization of the Islamic faith since its foundation, and there have been truly violent reactions to portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad in the Western media that have been contrary to the Islamic dogma. In the final analysis, these fundamental differences in religious thought are not going to go away any time soon, but the increased attention being devoted to the study of the Islamic faith in the West may help overcome some of the ethnocentristic views that have characterized the analysis to date.
Berg, Herbert. 2003. Method and Theory in the Study of Islamic Origins. Boston: Brill.
Brown, L. Carl. 2000. Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics. New York: Columbia University Press.
Cleary, Thomas. 2001. The Wisdom of the Prophet. Boston: Shambhala Books.
Hourani, Albert. 1991. "Islam in European Thought," in Islam in European Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Huband, Mark. 1998. Warriors of the Prophet: The Struggle for Islam. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Murata, Sachiko and William C. Chittick. 1994. The Vision of Islam. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.
Smith, Jane I. 1999. Islam in America. New York: Columbia University Press.