Islam: Sum of All Heresies?

Last March 2008, the Department of Philosophy of the Ateneo de Manila University sponsored a book presentation,  The Sum of All Heresies: the Image of Islam in Western Thought by Professor Frederick Quinn, adjunct professor of History at the Utah State University. I haven’t attended the presentation, but the book’s synopsis sounds surprisingly apologetic:

Current global tensions and the spread of terrorism have resurrected in the West a largely negative perception of Islamic society, an ill will fueled by centuries of conflict and prejudice. Shedding light on the history behind these hostile feelings, Frederick Quinn’s timely volume traces the Western image of Islam from its earliest days to recent times.

Quinn establishes four basic themes around which the image of Islam gravitates throughout history: the Prophet as Antichrist, heretic, and Satan; the Prophet as Fallen Christian, corrupted monk, or Arab Lucifer; the prophet as sexual deviant, polygamist, and charlatan, and the Prophet as Wise Easterner, Holy Person, and dispenser of wisdom.

A feature of the book is a strong portrayal of Islam in literature, art, music, and popular culture, drawing on such sources as Cervantes’s Don Quixote; the Orientalism of numerous visual artists; the classical music of Monteverdi and Mozart; and more recent cultural manifestations, such as music hall artists like Peter Dawson and Edith Piaf; and stage or silver screen representations like The Garden of Allah, The Sheik, Aladdin, and The Battle of Algiers.

Quinn argues that an outpouring of positive information on basically every aspect of Islamic life has yet to vanquish the hostile and malformed ideas from the past. Conflict, mistrust, and misunderstanding characterize the Muslim-Christian encounter, and growing examples of cooperation are often overshadowed by anger and suspicion.

In this important book, Quinn highlights long-standing historical prejudices but also introduces the reader to some of the landmark voices in history that have worked toward a greater understanding of Islam.

The title of the book should not be Sum of All Heresies.  This phrase was used before by Pope Pius X in his encyclical, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, to describe not Islam but Modernism:

39. It may be, Venerable Brethren, that some may think We have dwelt too long on this exposition of the doctrines of the Modernists. But it was necessary, both in order to refute their customary charge that We do not understand their ideas, and to show that their system does not consist in scattered and unconnected theories but in a perfectly organised body, all the parts of which are solidly joined so that it is not possible to admit one without admitting all. For this reason, too, We have had to give this exposition a somewhat didactic form and not to shrink from employing certain uncouth terms in use among the Modernists. And now, can anybody who takes a survey of the whole system be surprised that We should define it as the synthesis of all heresies? Were one to attempt the task of collecting together all the errors that have been broached against the faith and to concentrate the sap and substance of them all into one, he could not better succeed than the Modernists have done.

So what should be a better title to Professor Quinn’s book? Considering how Islam conquered the ancient Christian lands surrounding the Mediterranean sea–Spain, Carthage, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Syria, Ephesus, Antioch, and Constantinople (now Turkey)–and how this conquest inspired fear in Western Europe, the heir of the Judaeo-Graeco-Roman civilization as represented by Christianity, and how this fear resulted to the Crusades to recover the ancient lands, especially the Holy City of Jerusalem, the proper title to Professor Quinn’s book should have been The Sum of All Fears: the Image of Islam in the Western Thought.

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About Quirino M. Sugon Jr
Theoretical Physicist in Manila Observatory

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