About Images & Intersections

The profound and complex intersections between Muslim societies and other traditions constitutes one of the most important, yet still often neglected, areas of research in Islamic Studies. Islam first defined itself in dialogue with Judaism and Christianity in the imperial matrix of Late Antiquity. After the Arab conquest of massive amounts of territory in Africa, the Levant, Iran, and Central Asia, the Muslim elite ruled a vast multicultural empire from Spain to the frontiers of China, encompassing a variety of older communities and cultures. How Muslims came to understand and portray others; how those others – both inside and outside the boundaries of the world of Islam – came to understand and portray Muslims; and how Muslims and non-Muslims interacted in a variety of settings – all of these processes exerted a deep influence on the development of Islamic society and culture.

Detail, The Idol ‘Mahomet’ Worshipped by Saracens by Pierre Remiet (d. 1396), manuscript illumination from the Miroir Historial of Vincent de Beauvais, Books 25-32 (Français 52; courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France)

To investigate the nature of the interactions between Muslims and others, we must first understand the nature of Muslim communities’ representation of others – as well as those communities’ representation of Muslims themselves as other. Our historical accounts of Muslims’ perceptions of non-Muslims cannot be taken as unvarnished truth, but rather as a system of representation that allowed communal spokesmen to speak to their coreligionists and construct ideal patterns of behavior by using the other as a foil, or to draw on the familiar to render the strange more comprehensible. Such systems of representation are often complex and difficult to understand: thus, Christians often portrayed Muslims as heretical Christians, or as basically equivalent or even identical to Jews; this Jewish accusation has a deep history in Islamic tradition as well, as both Sunnis and Shiʿa accused each other of deviating from the path of true Islam by becoming too Jewish. Complex patterns of representation persist today, as, for example, the portrayal of Muslims and Islam in Western media often serves complex political and ideological agendas.

Detail, Isaiah’s dream of Muhammad and the Messiah, manuscript illumination from the Athār al-baqiyya (Chronology of Ancient Nations) of al-Bīrūnī, Iran or Iraq, 14th c. (Or. Ms. 161, f. 10v; courtesy Edinburgh University Library)

At the same time, beyond the screen of literary representations, we must recognize that real Muslims, Jews, and Christians interacted in a variety of ways, and these exchanges have been of great consequence for the development of the cultures of each group and the overarching development of the social institutions, intellectual products, and economies of their shared Near Eastern-Mediterranean civilization. These processes of contact, appropriation, adaptation, and assimilation have not only continued but accelerated in the 21st century; in the global present, there is no clear-cut, absolute boundary between Western and Islamic society and civilization, and both geographical and cultural frontiers have dissolved in the age of globalization. Given the deep impress of Western culture and values throughout the world – including the Islamic world – and the significant presence of Muslim citizens in North America and Europe, understanding the historical legacy of interactions between Muslims and various others, as well as the continuing power of images and representations, is more pressing than ever.