Maxime Rodinson, “Western Image and Western Studies of Islam”

Maxime Rodinson in his piece discusses how the Western perception of Islam especially on its academic studies had evolved throughout the history from the Middle Ages when the conflict manifested to the era of the universalism of the 20th century. His main argument is that the image and studies of Islam have never been steady and continuously shaped not only by the interaction and transaction flows between the West and Islam but also the dynamic within Western societies itself especially when it shifted to the direction of more secular and individualized society. Moreover, this product of social interaction had generated improper view and distortion in the past, and only recently it started to develop self-critique in a small number of scholars that provides a more healthy scholarship. Therefore, as in other social sciences, Rodinson suggests that the accepted view of Islam even the ones resulted from academic setting should always be open for discussion, debate, and redefinition.

Rodinson categorizes the fluctuating relationship between the West and Muslims into several historical periods. He starts by elaborating the period where conflict manifested between the two worlds: the Christian world and the Muslim world(8th – 12th centuries); continues to the growth and fading phase of a less hostile image of Islam (13th – 14th centuries); peaceful coexistence when the enemy became a partner due to increasing transaction flows (15th – 16th centuries); the stage of turning from peaceful coexistence to objectivity during the development of western academic institutions (16th – 17th centuries); the era of mental trend (17th – 18th centuries); the stage of clinging to imperialism and specialization (19th century); finally, the shaking phase of European ethnic fanaticism in the 20th century.

His method reminds me of critical theory (the Frankfurt School) which tries to approach culture by seeking the social, historical and ideological forces that produce and sustain it rather than seeing it as something that objective, coherent, and cumulative. Contrary to Fazlur Rahman who seems accepted that misunderstanding in studying human affairs or religion is part of the normal state, Rodinson stresses that historical and social relations are responsible for this improper understanding. He

elaborates more detail how the image of Islam was being formulated in each stage. In the beginning, there was a very minimum interest in understanding Muslims and their history except that those were enemy and threat to their survival. The hateful characters of Islam were presented to mobilize political support of the Crusades. The images produced were mostly improper and inaccurate. The increasing economic interdependence brought more peaceful relationship or coexistence. The decaying image of Christianity among westerners created another level of the image of Islam. At this period, the West had started to perceive Islam not as merely in the political, military and economic entity but also as an idea. The coexistence moved the image from subjectivity closer to objectivity. Nevertheless, it did not necessarily remove issues in dealing with Islam as an academic study. The development of western academic institution which was set up as a reactionary of Church domination (secularization) and was constructed in pursuit of perfection in detail (specialization) still produced an incomplete image of Islam argues Rodinson. This process partly explains the current discrepancy of romantic idea of Islam resulted from philological study and the post-colonial Muslim societies resulted from other social sciences as Muhsin Mahdi’s article (Nanji ed., 1997)

The problem with the social analysis of culture is the fact that this method neglects the role of ideas and human agency in the social structure. In Rodinson’s essay, the historical and social interaction between the Two Worlds undermines the role of human’s intellect. The intellect that indeed capable of transforming its circumstances. Rodinson’s analysis gives a tiny portion of how Western scholars itself as individuals alter the image of Islam and Islamic studies in the West. According to Rodinson, culture is a superstructure of material aspects which defined by Marxist as people’s relations to production. Nevertheless, it is a useful enterprise to understand how we construct “the other.” Rather than problematizing the differences and contradiction between doctrines as a literary approach of culture or religion, the image itself is a product of social processes.

So how should we study Islam or Muslims in contemporary days? Taking from what has been said related to the critical method provided by Rodinson, we need to move beyond philology-centric of Islamic studies

toward more interdisciplinary approach. It does not necessarily mean to abandon philology training, but we need to have a collaborative effort of the historian, social scientists and other scholars from different disciplines to have a complete view of Islam and Muslims. Fazlur Rahman mentions the need to combine the expertise of the classical orientalist and the newer social scientific approaches. Working in silos is not sufficient anymore.

It seems that this would give us a clearer future path of scholarship in Islamic Studies. Nonetheless, I would like to argue that we need to understand more on how people of the current days in general learn and producing information. In the era of globalization and social media, the authority of traditional institutions: state, market, university, church have been continuously challenged. It is questionable whether the interdisciplinary approach in the academic circles as IIIT will be sufficient to tackle the current issues such as Islamophobia, incarceration, income inequality, and lack of social trust. Information does not transmit within a single flow and a small speed. Currently, it spreads widely and quickly. More importantly, the contemporary humans are more exposed to information, ideas, and images rather than our social material circumstances. Rodinson’s materialistic approach is useful but not sufficient. We need to think more deeply about how the globalization shapes the way we understand each other cultures.

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