A universal, comparative history of the study of religions is still far from being written. Indeed, such a history is even hr from being conceived, because its components among the legacies of non-Western scholars have hardly been discovered. One such component, perhaps the most significant one, is the contributions made by Muslim scholars during the Middle Ages to this discipline. What is generally known and what has been documented in this field consists entirely of the contribution of Western scholars of religion. Even these Western scholars belong to the post-Enlightenment era of Western history.
There is little work dealing with the history of religions which does not claim the middle of the nineteenth century CE as the beginning of this discipline. This may not be due only to the zeitgeist of the modem West that entails aversion, downgrading, and undermining of everything stemming from the Middle Ages; its justification may also be found in the intellectual poverty of the Christian West (Muslim Spain excluded) that spans that historical period.
Although most works dealing with this field include some incidental references, paragraphs, pages, or short chapters on the contribution of the past, according to each author’s estimation, all of these studies are categorized under one of the two approaches to religion: philosophical or cubic. All of the reflective, speculative, philosophical, psychological, historical, and ethnological theories of the Greeks about the nature of the gods and goddesses and their origins, about the nature of humanity’s religion, its raison d’etre, and its function in society are described as philosophical quests for truth. It is maintained that the Greeks’ contribution to the study of religion showed their openness of mind and their curiosity about other religions and cultures. Their approach to religion was, however, a philosophical one. Thus all Greek endeavors to comprehend religious phenomena are reduced to the categories of allegory, psychology, history, or euphemism?
The contribution of the Christian West to the study of religion during its early and middle ages is explained in terms of an apologetical or polemical nature. Its approach to religious phenomena was based on a cultic approach, because it had an intolerant and exclusive attitude towards other religions. In comparing the Greek and the Christian attitudes towards other religions, Eric Sharpe writes:
The Greek philosophers were committed to a quest for information, and a quest for truth; the Christian theologians were committed to a soteriology, and within a cultic framework to a quest for perfection. Both found themselves in contact with other forms of belief, and reacted in radically opposite ways, one positively, the other negatively.
When we consider the period of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the post-reformation, we again find that Western scholars did not add anything directly to the history of religions. Their immersion in Classical studies, natural religion, pietism, and deism paved the way for the rationalist approach of the Enlightenment. The romanticism of the post-Enlightenment period, with its emphasis on the irrational aspects of religion, was a reaction to this extreme rationalism.
The main factors which brought about a vigorous interest in the history of religions were Western colonial expansion and the availability of massive data about non-Western cultures, religious beliefs, and lifestyles. We also must not overlook Christian missionaries’ direct encounters with a variety of religious traditions. Western penetration into the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia not only provided an area for economic and political exploitation, but also caused Western scholars to reflect upon humanity’s various beliefs, rituals, and lifestyles throughout the world. Christian missionaries encountered the dilemma of the non availability of God’s acts of salvation through Jesus Christ to a large part of the world. The secularists looked at non-Western religious phenomena and saw in it the historical evolution of humanity from primitive mutuality to scientific ingenuity.
For the first time, Western individuals found an opportunity to reflect seriously and critically upon the diversity of religions. Their interest in comparative mythology and comparative linguistics led them to comparative religion. The decade of 1860-1870 is generally considered the beginning of the discipline known as the science of religion, for it was in this decade that the first chairs of comparative religion were established in Western universities. It was also during this decade that the first works arguing for the science of religion and proposing it as a separate methodology were published. Friedrich Max Mueller (1823-1900) is considered to be the leading and most courageous spirit calling for the establishment of comparative religion as an independent academic discipline.