As I mentioned in part one of this post, there were religious and secular factors that contributed to the cultural division between the West and East. Now, I will recount the role that religion played in the separation of Europe from the Middle East.
One of the primary religious tensions that contributed to the West’s aversion to Arab-Islamic culture lays in the similarities that exist between Christianity and Islam. Belief in one God, a sense of right, wrong, and just punishment, the belief in the existence of Jesus as a prophet – all are key tenets of both Islam and Christianity. However, the differences that exist between the religions could not be reconciled – at least not in the social mindset during the 12th-14th century. For instance, Islam failed to acknowledge Jesus as divine, and Muhammad foretold that good deeds on Earth would be repaid with materialistic items and sexual rewards in heaven. These are just two of the differences between the two religions that were sources of contention during the pre-modern period. If this religion so close in creed to Christianity failed to accept Jesus and his divinity, could it be considered valid? Indeed, it had a lot of support in the far east. Does this mean that European Christianity was going to see a challenge by the rise of Islam, which in scholars’ view, was a fraudulent, shadow form of their own religion? What effect on European unity would the presence of Islam have in Western society? All of these questions pushed western leaders and religious figures in power to adopt a stance of isolation from Islam and the Arab people. Islam and its spread posed a threat to Christian and European culture; it was to be avoided.
However, this policy of ignorance was hard to fulfill on the borders where the East and West met. In Spain, for example, arabic culture slowly permeated into spanish culture. Arabic poetry, architecture, literature, and art became a subtle, yet undeniable element of slavish life. The romance and the sensuality of arab culture was an attractive feature for many Spaniards who came in contact with it, and common people began to take more interest in learning about their Western [and southern] neighbors (Southern, 21). Through reading stories about arab lands, and through the verbal retelling of these tales, the common people of Europe began to form caricatures of Arabic, and of Islamic culture that they expected all Arabs and Muslims to fulfill. These prejudices and expectations are the foundation of many of the biases that existed up until present, even in America. For example, a common misconception was that all Arabs believed in Islam. Another generalization that was made was that arab culture valued and placed a large emphasis on material goods [precious metals, gems, etc.]. In fact, many of these misbeliefs were not corrected until the 18th and 19th centuries when more extensive efforts were made to understand Middle Eastern culture.
Another contributing factor to religious tension of the time was the power of the Papacy. The first crusade serves as a strong indicator of the influence of the Church on European policy and conduct during the late Medieval and early Renaissance period. The fact that the church was able to mobilize enough resources to launch a holy war for control of the Holy Land signifies just how much influence this institution had over political life, common people, and the economy. Thus, when the secular unity of Europe as a continent grew thin due to war, economic tension, and competition for expansion, the Church tried to reunite the people of the West through Christianity. Islam and those who believe in it had no place in Western affairs; their ‘schismatic’ influences would only hurt European culture (Southern, 3). Religion, was in fact the hammer driving the social wedge between western and eastern society.