West, Concept of in Islam

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Muslim awareness of the region called "the West" reflects the changing historical nature of the West itself over the centuries. In the early centuries of Islamic history, Muslims knew of the existence of lands and peoples north of the Mediterranean, but they were identified primarily in ethnic and geographical terms and described as primitive. By the time of the Crusades (the twelfth and thirteenth centuries), the most common term used by Muslims for Western Europeans was al-ifranj or "Franks." This term implied a Christian and foreign identity and a relatively barbarian lifestyle.

In the early modern era there was a growing awareness of European societies. However, there was not a single generic cultural concept—like "the West"—that Muslims regularly used for European societies, although there was recognition that Europeans (often still "Franks") were Christians and therefore unbelievers. Until the nineteenth century, whatever identifying labels were used, Muslim conceptualizations of the West involved a sense of peoples and regions that were ignorant infidels and inferior to the civilization of Islam.

The situation changed dramatically in the nineteenth century. As European states expanded control over much of the Muslim world, Muslims' visions of the West were filtered through the lens of experiencing European imperialism. The West became identified with modernity. Muslim reformers sought European advisors and models as a part of their efforts to modernize society. There was recognition of the greater material prosperity of European societies and of the stronger military power of European states when compared with Muslim societies.

By the late nineteenth century there was a growing conceptualization of Western Europe as an entity. Earlier Muslim reformers had worked simply to adopt European techniques and ideas within their own societies but by late in the century, some Muslim intellectuals, like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897), began to argue that Muslim thought and societies could be modernized without having to become culturally European and that there were distinctive differences between Christian-based European civilization and Muslim civilization. As this conceptualization developed, many Muslims began to define "the West" as a materialist civilization, as distinguished from the spiritually strong "Eastern" civilizations like Islam.

During the first half of the twentieth century, for many Muslims, the West became the model for reform and material development. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's vision of transformation of Turkey during the 1920s, for example, was explicitly based on a concept of the West as a model. These concepts of the West tended to be liberal in mode but by the middle of the twentieth century the West also became a source for radical programs of societal transformation. Although radical Arab socialist movements like the Ba ath in Syria made some symbolic gestures to Muslim identity, their programs of socialist revolution involved concepts of the West that reflected Marxist and other Western radical ideologies.

By the 1960s, many Muslims began to have new concepts of the West. Influenced by major crises of Western civilization like the two world wars and the Great Depression, Western self-criticism, and Muslims' own sense of self-assertion following the decline of Western imperialism, many Muslims were more willing to be critical of the Western model, even in terms of material dimensions of life. The fixation with copying Western models was seen as weakening Muslim society, and an influential Iranian intellectual, Jalal Al-i Ahmad, called it the disease of being intoxicated by the West (gharbzadeghi). New movements of Islamic resurgence began to be explicitly anti-Western in both political and cultural terms, while arguing that modern Western technology and science were still important for Muslims. This new type of position was already clearly articulated in the mid-1960s by the Egyptian militant ideologue, Sayyid Qutb (executed in 1966), in his book Milestones. Just as the concept of the success of the West was an important part of the logic of Muslim modernizing reformers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the concept of the failure of the West was an important part of the ideological logic of the late twentieth-century Islamic resurgence.

Late in the twentieth century a new concept of the West developed among some Muslims. As Muslim minority communities became significant parts of Western societies, European and U.S. Muslims began to identify themselves as authentically "Western" as well as Muslim. Scholars like Tariq Ramadan argued forcefully for the effective existence of a legitimate "European Islam." At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a new concept of the West as a location for truly Islamic life was emerging along with the more traditional concepts of the West as somehow being in opposition to, and completely different from, Islam.

See alsoCrusades ; European Culture and Islam ; Islam and Other Religions .


Ahmad, Jalal Al-e. Gharbzadeghi (Weststruckness). Translated by John Green and Ahmad Alizadeh. Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 1997.

Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, and Smith, Jane I., eds. MuslimMinorities in the West: Visible and Invisible. Walnut Creek, Calif: Altamira Press, 2002.

Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Lewis, Bernard. The Muslim Discovery of Europe. New York: Norton, 1982.

Voll, John O. "Islamic Renewal and the 'Failure of the West.'" In Religious Resurgence. Edited by Richard Antoun and Mary Elaine Hegland. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1987.

Von Laue, Theodore H. The World Revolution of Westernization:The Twentieth Century in Global Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

John O. Voll

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West, Concept of in Islam