If the same exact criticisms being made against Islam today were also made centuries ago, is it reasonable to automatically dismiss them all as “Islamophobic” — that is, as “unfounded fear of and hostility towards Islam,” as the Council on American Islamic Relations would have it?
This is the question I often ask myself whenever I read pre-modern writings on Islam. Take that elementary schoolbook hero, Marco Polo and his famous memoirs, for example. By today’s standards, the 13th century Venetian merchant would be denounced as a rabid “Islamophobe.” For me, however, his writings contain a far more important lesson — one in continuity — and deserve closer scrutiny.
Before examining Polo’s observations, it should be noted that his anthropological accounts are, by and large, objective. That is, unlike simplistic explanations that portray him as a prototypical “Orientalist” with an axe to grind against the “Other” — specifically non-whites and non-Christians — in fact, Polo occasionally portrays the few Christians he encountered in a negative light (such as those of the island of Socotra) and frequently praises non-Christians, including Muslims.
For example, he hails the Brahmins of India as being “most honorable,” possessing a “hatred for cheating or of taking the goods of other persons. They are likewise remarkable for the virtue of being satisfied with the possession of one wife (p.298).” And he refers to one Muslim leader as governing “with justice” (p.317) and another who “showed himself [to be] a very good lord, and made himself beloved by everybody (p.332).”
That said, Polo clearly had no problem being blunt about Islam (political correctness being nonexistent in the Middle Ages). Whereas he praised the Brahmins for their “hatred for cheating or of taking the goods of other persons,” regarding the Muslims of Tauris, (modern day Iraq), he wrote:
According to their doctrine, whatever is stolen or plundered from others of a different faith, is properly taken, and the theft is no crime; whilst those who suffer death or injury by the hands of Christians, are considered as martyrs. If, therefore, they were not prohibited and restrained by the powers who now govern them, they would commit many outrages. These principles are common to all Saracens (p.63).
In fact, based on the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s numerous raiding expeditions, plundering infidels is quite standard in Islam and treated regularly in legal manuals; the Koran has an entire chapter dedicated to and named after plunder (Surat al-Anfal). As for being a martyr simply by dying at the hands of the infidel enemy, this too has ample support in Islam’s texts and consensus among the ulema. The authoritative Hans Wehr Arabic-English Dictionary translates shahid (martyr) as “one killed in battle with infidels.”
A more telling anecdote follows: According to Polo, a certain “Achmath” (probably “Ahmed”), one of the few Muslims to have had great influence over Kublai Khan, habitually abused the largely non-Muslim subject peoples without the Khan’s knowledge: he put to death anyone he pleased, robbed them of their possessions, and, most notoriously, he and his sons regularly raped and coerced into concubinage countless women. Due to Achmath’s many atrocities, he was eventually assassinated. When the Khan later discovered the extent of Achmath’s crimes, his
attention [went] to the doctrines of the Sect of the Saracens [i.e., Islam], which excuse every crime, yea, even murder itself, when committed on such as are not of their religion. And seeing that this doctrine had led the accursed Achmath and his sons to act as they did without any sense of guilt, the Khan was led to entertain the greatest disgust and abomination for it. So he summoned the Saracens and prohibited their doing many things which their religion enjoined (p.173).