This New Century

Posted by sepoy on August 19, 2005 · 7 mins read

In 1892 The Century, a New York based quarterly magazine, published a small piece by one James S. Dennis. It was probably reprinted from another source. There is nothing special about this piece. Working in the archives of nineteenth century, one sees such writing everywhere. I chose this one almost at random and am recreating it almost completely.

Is Islam the Gospel for the Orient?

That command which Mohammed seemed to himself to hear in the depths of his serious and brooding soul, "Cry, cry in the name of Allah!" and which he interpreted as the voice of the angel Gabriel, inroduces us to a veritable dreamland of history. It is not, however, a land of dreams; rather of realities which have thrilled and torn the world, and strained the religious, social and political systems of men as with the throes of revolution. The good sword of Christendom never struck more telling blows than at Tours and Vienna, when it dashed to earth the Damascus blades of the Saracen and Turkish invaders sweeping into central Europe. Who could picture the course of history had the results been different? Who can estimate the world's indebtedness to Charles Martel and Sobieski, and to the brave men who fought with them for the rescue of humanity from the Koran, the crescent, and the harem - the symbols of religious, political and social degradation? [...]

The thought of our time seems ripening for a true and exact estimate of Islam. A kindly and generous but firm and inflexible judgement upon this historic problem is rapidly forming. Islam shall have all the credit it deserves; it shall be treated with fairness and calmness and courtesy: but never can it have the place of supremacy it claims; it can never even share the honors of Christianity; nor can it presume to be her handmaid in the regeneration of the East. It has done its work, and left its stamp upon the Orient. Its record is of the earth, earthy, althought it has cried and fought in the name of Allah. Its fountainhead is in the depths of the Arabian wilderness; it has flowed only in human channels; it has hardly risen above the ordinary level of religious standards in the Orient; its ethical and social code is only the rude and vulgar heritage of the desert. Its doctrine of one God, while it is the secret of its power and explains to a large extent its magic sway, has not saved it. It has given dignity and nobility to the Moslem creed; but a closer scrutiny reveals the broken, distorted, and inferior representation of the ineffable character of God which we have in Islam. It is God environed with human interpretations, modifications, and readjustrnents to meet the religious and social requirements of the East as understood by a representative Oriental. The Deity is made to sanction what he loathes, and to command a whole system of human formalism. The difference between the Bible and the Koran is the difference between the divine and the human.

Islam, however, is not simply a thing of the past, a relic which we dig up from the prolific dust of those ancient seats of Asiatic power. Islam is here; it is of the nineteenth century; it is a power in our generation; it is something to be studied and understood. It is a political factor in the Eastern question of the very first magnitude. What becomes at once, when opened, the burning question of the straits is usually at first the flash of Islamic fanaticism amidst the inflammable religious elements of the Levant. The government of Turkey has pledged itself to Europe again and again as guaranteeing absolute religious toleration and freedom; but let a Moslem attempt to claim his liberty of conscience to embrace Christianity, and before the ink is dry his doom is sealed. America, to be sure, has little concern with the politics of Europe; but American Christianity has a high mission and a noble field amidst the intellectual and spiritual struggles of down-trodden peoples. Her mission is one of sympathy, and help, and active philanthropy. An Arabic figure-of-speech designates a helpful and gracious ministry as something done by "a white hand". American Christianity is reaching out her white hand of beneficence to the nations of the Orient. She has already carried to the teeming centers of Asiatic lite some of the highest and most helpful elements of our civilization, and is grafting into the intellectual and spiritual movements of the Old World that power which makes for righteousness, which both sweetens and glorifies human life, and gives it its noblest possible impulse and its highest possible destiny. There must be no Monroe doctrine in our American Christianity, bidding us hold aloof from this "white-handed" ministry to those who need so sorely the help of the favored nation whose happy lot has fallen under the light of the westward star a star which, we must not forget, first arose in the East.

America can do much, by wise effort, and cordial sympathy, and watchful interest, to establish throughout the world the precious principle of religious freedom. Her whole influence should be thrown on the side of religious toleration and liberty of conscience. This is a lesson yet to be learned by almost the entire Eastern world. The glow of American sympathy is to-day doing wonders for whole nations in the Orient. American philanthropy has already planted six colleges and seven hundred schools in the Turkish empire. Every prominent language of the East is throbbing with American literary and religious contributions. American missionaries have within a generation given the Word of God to Eastern peoples outnumbering many times over the population of the United States.

Let American hearts be interested in the welfare of Oriental nations, and enlisted in their behalf in the high services of human brotherhood. An example of national unselfishness as wide as the world and as deep as human want is yet to be given to them. Let America crown her greatness with the beauty and power of this example

Related, see Tebbit attacks 'unreformed' Islam, also Rushdie's The Right Time for An Islamic Reformation. Also related, see White House on Iraq since 2002.


dalal | August 20, 2005

Interesting post. Giles Frazer had a column in the Guardian several days ago raising important questions about Salman Rushdie's call for an Islamic "reformation":,,1550389,00.html Much could be added to it, obviously; the point he makes that the Islam critics like Rushdie feel is in such tremendous need of reform "already resembles a reformed religion a great deal more than Rushdie acknowledges" is, if anything, understated.

sepoy | August 20, 2005

I commented briefly on Rushdie elsewhere, so I will just say tht his article is filled with the same dogmatic, narrow-minded and ill-informed view of Islamic history that he wants "reformed" Muslims to wipe out. As in most discourses of this nature, Islam got fossilized in the 7th century and nothing ever happened until 9/11. what-ever.

kabina | August 20, 2005

what abt his challenge to the legitimacy of islam as a "revealed" religion....what is a believer to do!!

Morcy | August 20, 2005

I sort of commented on this in a post over here, but there are no trackbacks in the CM empire. So, well, there you go. It's nothing special, just some late night connection making via Benjamin, but the point remains rather valid. Even the Democrats/pro-peace/whatever people who act shocked/surprised at how this sort of stuff "still" happens are so doing because they refuse to reinvestigate their fundamental commitments to history. That is, they're as guilty of making broad missteps (what for Bejamin, I suspect, would be of the "historicist" as opposed to "historical materialist" variety, but I'm not that sharp on him) on a fundamental level that will never provide an actual alternative, just the opposite side of the same coin. That the US/Rushdie/whoever use the same language in discussing Islam as they did 100+ years ago, as a result, should not be surprising at all. At least, that's how I read this and the Benjamin I quote over on the other site.

Aamir | August 21, 2005

Morcy's right. i don't know nothing about history but Rushdie is all about distortion. and so are most of the people all around.

Luke | August 21, 2005

What, precisely, is wrong with elevating Charles Martel and others who fought back the Islamic invaders? They were not coming over to Europe to borrow a cup of sugar, you know, they were there to make the muezzin call out across the land - imperialism and bluster all of it. And Rushdie's calls for a 'reformation' (unfortunate word) are prompted by the recent events in London - when a bunch of nihilistic British Pakistani fascists slaughtered 55 people in suicide bombings. So you hate on him because he seeks to examine the roots of this nihilism and volatile mixture of supremacism and violence? Play the victim - ignore the truth. Do you have any articles illustrating the attitude of the Islamic imperialists, on how they were to go out and make the infidel in all his shapes and faiths submit? A discourse that has been prevalent since the inception of Islam and contributes in many ways to the Islamist narrative today, and that may well have fired up the fascist suicide-slaughterers from Leeds? Or is it too racist, colonialist, orientalist etc etc to ask such awkward question?

Saurav | August 24, 2005

Luke, try reading anything by Marc Sageman--it strikes me as more nuanced/rigorous than anything else I've seen by an American author. Ask whatever questions you want, but try finding better sources for a response than Rushdie.

Pro-America Muslims: Good Muslim/Bad Muslim | Greased Cartridge | June 15, 2010

[...] as a “War on Islam,“ and deflects questions of US Imperialism and, one could argue, issues that oft-repeated call for Islamic Reformation on the lines of Western Christianity. Edward Said's prophetic [...]