Book review: Eng Lit and depiction of Muslims —by Khaled Ahmed
Islam and the Victorians: Nineteenth Century Perceptions of Muslim Practices and Beliefs;
By Shahin Kuli Khan Khattak;
Tauris Academic Studies 2008;
Pp205; Price £47.50;
Available in bookstores in Pakistan
If you ever wondered what was contained in the less read poems, plays and novels about Muslims by the writers of the Victorian Age, this book will walk you through the entire lot with pages marked for errors. Author Khattak begins sensibly by making Edward Said’s very tough Orientalism and Covering Islam her criterion and adds, for moderation, Albert Hourani’s Islam in European Thought. She begins by noting that Islam was the religious “other” for European Christian theologians in medieval times, but the attitude lingered in works of fiction too.
If George Sale (1697-1736) was blatant in his exegesis of the Quran, there were others who were fair but were disapproved of, like Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) whose monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was questioning about Christianity and Islam both but much fairer to the latter compared to the past verdicts. William Muir (1819-1905) was bitten by the colonialist bug but Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was more in the Enlightenment tradition of fair inquiry or ‘autonomous knowledge’ and produced an objective portrait of the Prophet (pbuh).
People who travelled in the East brought back Muslim portraits that seemed to demean Islam. James Fraser (1783-1856) — not Sir James Frazer of The Golden Bough — is one of those who contributed to the body of works that misrepresented Muslim societies. But one must observe here that popular impressions are created more by fiction than by theological expositions and it is at the level of such minds as absorb information only through works of fiction that most of the damage is done. But at the same you will blame fiction writers less for misrepresentation as they begin by laying no claim to the accuracy of their depictions.
Edward Bulwer Lytton (1903-1873) was inspired by the Crusades and therefore had to be rather skewed against the Muslims in his The Last Crusader but his friend and prime minister-novelist Benjamin Disraeli was carried away by the romantic involvement of Lord Byron with Greece and its struggle against Turkish rule. Resultant biases in fiction were to emerge. William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) was more balanced perhaps because he had served away from home in Turkey and knew facts as they were on the ground. Like Lytton he too thought Muslims will not be conquered by the sword but, in his case, by technology.
William Wilson Hunter (1840-1900) ended up writing his famous The Indian Musalmans: Are they Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen? in 1887, when serving as Director General of the Statistical Department of India. Hunter thought Muslims to be the more belligerent section of the Indian population. His opinion affected Matthew Arnold (1795-1852) when he wrote his Preaching of Islam. Yet one cannot ignore that Hunter had recommended educating the Muslims according to their own madrassa system. This view coincided with the one expressed by Wilfred Scawen Blunt (1840-1922) who wrote The Future of Islam.
An aside here is perhaps in order. Blunt was a British rebel of Irish origin and a friend of Jamaluddin Afghani. In his India under Ripon he describes a group of fanatical Muslims who climbed into his carriage and asked him, as a friend of Islam, to oppose Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Syed Ameer Ali as they were not really Muslims. He was greatly put off by this because his desire was that the Muslims should stand united. Author Khattak notes that Blunt wrote a sympathetic account of Indian Muslims in his Ideas about India in 1909. Blunt wanted Muslims of India to go the moderate way of Al Azhar in Egypt to force the British to treat them better. He helped establish a counterpart of Al Azhar in Hyderabad which indeed served the Muslims well.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) criticised the Hunter book for its wrong conclusions and particularly attacked his assumption of Wahhabism as the dominant creed in India after studying only the Muslims of Bengal. He stated that the creed of Wahhab was rejected by the Ottoman Empire as well as by most Muslims of India owing to the allegiance they owed to the Hanafism brought in from Central Asia. In India the followers of Wahhabism were called Ahle Hadith and were allowed to flourish only by the British who encouraged the followers of Sayyid Ahmad Shaheed to attack the Sikhs ruling in the northwest of the Frontier region. Here too the Wahhabis were resisted by the local Pashtun Muslims.
One must explain here the basic stance of the author. She says: ‘[While it is not surprising] to find the Muslims vilified for events that occurred centuries earlier...this factor does not endow Muslims with a mantle of saintliness because they were as capable of perpetrating cruelty as any other civilisation’. What the book finds is that Muslims are attacked together with Islam, which is wrong. But to defend Islam one must indict Muslims after the end of the Khilafat-e-Rashida or the first four pious caliphs of Islam. Without indicting the Muslims you can’t defend Islam as a pure faith.
There is nothing more misleading than the travelogue. In Pakistan, safarnama is the most falsified genre of literature and it is not surprising that Khattak too finds most fault with the travel accounts of the British, except the accounts left behind by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) the wife of the British ambassador to Turkey. One negative example is Francois Bernier (1654-1688) who left behind his most detailed accounts of India and was leaned on by John Dryden (1631-1700) for his play Aurang-Zebe on which Dr Johnson commented that the Indian Muslims would never know how false the depiction of the Mughal king was “because of distance”.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was inspired by Byron’s lines on Greece to write his skewed poem The Revolt of Islam. During travels Fraser found a manuscript written by an associate of Nadir Shah that made him write his The Kuzzilbash, the early hard Turkic Shia community of Persia. Nadir Shah was of the Afshar branch of the Qizilbash. It is however amazing that Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was not resented as much by the Muslims because of his winning ways with local colour in his work although in his Jungle Book he equated the natives with Bandar Log (monkeys), incapable of order or civilisation.
One thought Sir Walter Scott’s novel Talisman did not err too much in the depiction of Saladin although he had based his knowledge of the Arab world and the great Arab hero on James Morier whose fiction about the Muslim world dominated Scott’s times. British stage demanded more pleasant sensation out of Imam Shamyl of Caucasia and Abdul Kader of Algeria because both were warriors fighting against England’s enemies in Europe. Ironically, today the Muslims of the world know about Imam Shamyl the Avar only through British sources.
Anyone travelling through Pakistan these days will agree with the author that Muslims are the last people through whom to exemplify Islam. Talibanisation, when described by the future Western writers as Islam, might put our coming generations of Muslims off, but it will have been true! Most Pakistanis today at least believe it is Islam! *