(Mis)Representation of the Prophet (PBUH) in English Literature: From the Past to the Present

(Mis)Representation of the Prophet (PBUH) in English Literature: From the Past to the Present
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Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

In English literature (both literary and academic works), a significant and fast emerging sub-genre is ‘Literary Orientalism’. It is defined either as ‘the depiction of the Orient/ Orientalism in western literary texts’, or simply as ‘the study of the (mis) representation of Islam and Muslims in the English (literary) works’. In the field of ‘Literary Orientalism’, one of the prominent South Asian writers is Abdur Raheem Kidwai (b. 1956)—presently Professor of English and Director K A Nizami Centre for Quranic Studies (KAN-CQS), at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), India, and Honorary Visiting Fellow, University of Leicester (UoL), UK. Having obtained two Ph.D.’s in English Literature from AMU and UoL, Professor Kidwai has written/ published extensively, among others, in this specific field/ area of Literary Orientalism. Some of his previous significant works in this genre include: Orientalism in Lord Byron’s Turkish Tales (1995); The Crescent and the Cross: Image of the Orient in English Literature (1997); Stranger Than Fiction: Image of Islam/ Muslims in English Fiction (2000); Literary Orientalism: A Companion (2009); Believing and Belonging (2016); and Orientalism in English Literature: Perception of Islam and Muslims (2016).
One comes across, way back from the twelfth to twentieth century, a number of “English literary texts portraying in odious light the blessed Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)”, and Kidwai has come up with a new work on the said theme, namely Images of the Prophet Muhammad in English Literature. This work attempts to expand and update the substantial coverage of literary Orientalism and the Prophet’s representation in these prominent works: Byron Porter Smith’s Islam in English Literature (1937), Adnan Muhammad al-Wazzan’s masterly two volumes in Arabic, Surat al- Islam fi’l- Adab al- Inklizi (Trans.: ‘Image of Islam in English Literature’; 1998), and Matthew Dimmock’s Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad in Early Modern English Culture (2013). “On closely examining the Prophet’s representation” in these works, Professor Kidwai observed that “these authors had been fed on mendacious and tendentious sources dating back to the Medieval period” (p. xi).
Consisting of three chapters, excluding Preface (pp. xi-xiv) and Index (pp. 143-152), the book “seeks to promote a better understanding between the Muslim world and the West against the backdrop of the Danish cartoons and the deplorable tragedy of 9/11, which has evoked a general interest in things Islamic”. It recounts and analyses “the image of Prophet Muhammad [PBUH], as reflected in English literary texts from the twelfth to nineteenth centuries”. Below is presented a summary of each chapter.
Chapter-1, “The Distorting Mirror: Representation of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) in Medieval and Other Writings in the West” (pp. 1-35) delves deep into some of the earliest and medieval era sources that led to “the fabrication of their hate-inspired portrait of the Prophet”. Some of the works cited are those of Chanson de Geste, La Chanson de Roland, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Peter the Venerable, Thomas Aquinas, John Mandeville, and later on Alexander Ross, Edward Gibbon, Voltaire, and Goethe. “Behind this wilful misrepresentation”, the author opines, “were mainly the propagandist clergy, overzealous polemicists and some reckless travellers to Muslim lands”. The similarity, likeness and commonality, in this representation was “their unconcern for facts or history and their hatred for Islam”, as they “did not or could not reconcile to the meteoric rise of a highly successful rival to the Christian theology and power”. In the works of this era, one thus finds that they present “the Prophet as the object of their vilification and invectives” (p. xi).
For example, about the misrepresentations done by Peter the Venerable, Thomas Aquinas, and Goethe, Kidwai writes: “Peter the Venerable, the abbot of Cluny, Burgundy, was the key figure in the production of polemical and fabricated material against Islam/the Prophet” (p. 16); and while Aquinas “re-echoes Peter’s view” (p. 19), “Goethe (1749-1832) surpasses all Western writers in presenting a sympathetic, nay favourable estimate of the Prophet” (p. 31). He concludes this chapter with these observations: This synoptic account of the history of the Prophet’s representation serves “as the backdrop against which English men of letters conceived and projected their image of the Prophet” which is “tainted by the misconception, misperceptions and half- truths about the Prophet which had been in circulation”. Prophet (PBUH)’s representation in most of these writings is “regrettably shot through with distortion of facts, invention of scurrilous reports, slanderous stories, and misinterpretation with the objective of disparaging him” (p. 31).
This is followed by Chapter-2, “The Crescent in the West: Representation of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) in the Literary Works” (pp. 36-119). It recounts the author-wise representation of the Prophet in a chronological order—ranging from such literary figures like William Langland, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Dunbar, Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare, John Dunn to Robert Southey, Samuel Coleridge, Thomas Moore, Lord Byron, P. B. Shelley, and Thomas Carlyle—and “reflects the dominating influence” of the Medieval legacy. The “understanding and depiction of the Prophet”, by these authors’, “is largely hostile, teeming with factual errors, opprobrious stereotypes, and even malicious fiction” because they were “fed on the above sources, of which hostility towards the Prophet is the hallmark” (p. 32). For example, about Carlyle’s Lecture, Kidwai is of the opinion that it is “essentially historical; it is like a milestone, a trend setter in that it helped the West perceive the Prophet’s life and achievements in a clear light, free from the air of prejudice and half- truths” (p. 105). He also points out that Carlyle’s lecture “helped many, especially the Westerners appreciate the Prophet’s sincerity of purpose, nobility of his mission and universality of his teachings” (p. 107). This chapter, in a nutshell, surveys “the evolution of the Prophet’s image, from an impostor to that of a hero in the annals of English literature” (p. 112).
However, the author notes a significant development in these writings, that is, “their gradual realization of truth”, which is more “evident”, among the earliest works, in Thomas Carlyle’s above–mentioned ground-breaking Lecture of 1840 (On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, 1927). In the recent times, “several recent biographies of the Prophet and inter-cultural and historical studies by Western writers”, like W. M. Watt, Annemarie Schimmel, Karen Armstrong, John L. Esposito, Michael Hart, John Adair, Norman Daniel, John Tolan, Frederick Quinn and Matthew Dimmock, etc., “represent the new tolerant perspective which recognizes the Prophet’s greatness and glory” (p. xii). It is in this context that the author has devoted Chapter-3 to this positive trend, and is aptly entitled as “Towards Fairness and Truth: Recent Trends in the Representation of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him)” (pp. 120-141). The author begins this chapter with this interesting and insightful note: “Notwithstanding the highly regrettable and detestable portrayal of the Prophet down the centuries … which makes a sad, depressing reading, it is gratifying that since early twentieth century there has been some fairness in the West’s treatment of the Prophet—in literary texts, academic publications particularly in the broad field of Islamic studies, and more importantly in a spate of historical and cultural studies, acknowledging the gross injustice and hostility in the West’s representation” (p. 120). Divided into two parts, it first discusses the works of RVC Bodley, Hart, Schimmel, Armstrong, Donner, and Adair (pp. 123-128), and is followed by the ‘Historical and Cultural Studies’ (pp. 128-135) as produced by scholars like Daniel, James Kritzeck, Albert Hourani, Watt, Esposito, Quinn, and Dimmock. These “recent works on Sirah in English reflect”, Kidwai highlights, “a sea-change in the representation of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)”. These works also “indicate the welcome trend of acknowledging the Prophet’s greatness and glory” (p. 123). This chapter also includes “Islamic Studies in the British Universities” (pp. 135- 138).
Though most of the literary texts of earliest and medieval eras have portrayed the image of the Prophet (PBUH) in an absurd, negative, and fabricated way, however what becomes evident from the works of last and present century has been summarized by Kidwai very aptly as: “How truth ultimately prevails and how falsehood eventually vanishes is illustrated, to a degree, by the conclusion of this study, which cites several Western writings of our time by men of letters, historians and experts on Islamic and cultural studies. Almost unanimously they are seen regretting and condemning the earlier hate-inspired portraits of the Prophet(PBUH) and instead celebrating the Prophet’s illustrious contributions. This should offset, to some extent, the hurt and offence caused to Muslim readers by the fictive, scornful description of the Prophet in the Medieval and later texts” (p. xiii).
Through this assessment, Kidwai deduces that “Peaceful coexistence is the only way forward for both the West and Muslims. For, in the first place it was mainly the lack of communication and authentic sources which had prompted such otherwise humane, sensitive creative writers as Dante, Shakespeare, Voltaire and others to include in their works vituperative, grotesque and, of course, absolutely baseless stories directed against the Prophet” (p. xii). Kidwai is also of the opinion that “Islamophobia”, “the gruesome events of 9/11, 7/7, and 26/11, mindless violence in the name of faith, the burning of a copy of the Quran and Danish cartoons”, and so on, have all “exerted its evil influence upon their perception of Islam and the Prophet”. However, what is “more reassuring and refreshing to note” is that “a host of Western scholars [are] identifying and highlighting new positives about Islam and the Prophet” (p. xii). It is within this broader perspective, that one of the major objectives of author for this assessment of (mis)representation of the image of the Prophet (PBUH) in the English literary texts, done very painstakingly and meticulously, is “to realize … goal of bridging gaps and facilitating a better cross-cultural understanding” (p. xii).
Another objective behind writing this book, for the author, “is to encourage the study of literary Orientalism, especially among the budding Muslim scholars of English studies”, for the texts discussed in this work, “represent a variety of responses to the Prophet’s life and mission, though often vitiated by serious errors and sheer prejudice” (p. xii).
It is gratifying to note that the author has aptly described the book as a means “to promote a better understanding between the Muslim world and the West against the backdrop of the Danish cartoons and the deplorable tragedy of 9/11, which has evoked a general interest in things Islamic”. Equally gratifying is to see that Professor Masoodul Hasan (in his review published in the Muslim World Book Review, UK, vol. 39, No. 1, 2018) has highly praised this book: “Abdur Raheem Kidwai has tackled the subject afresh knowledgeably and deftly. Succinct and reader-friendly in style, the text maps the traditionally calumnious course of Muhammad-baiting, with rare respites, in the West across the ages successfully, characterized by a long-lasting fanaticism even during the Renaissance, Enlightenment, Reason and Humanism”.
Having surveyed the English literary and academic texts of last eight centuries (12th to 20th century), and having provided a critical, concise and crisp assessment of (mis)representation of the image of the Prophet (PBUH) in these works—a survey of ‘the evolution of the Prophet’s image, from an impostor to that of a hero in the annals of English literature’— Professor Kidwai has indeed justified, very fairly, both the title as well as the subject. In sum, Kidwai’s ‘Images of the Prophet Muhammad in English Literature’ is a must-read for everyone interested in Literary Orientalism, cross0cultural studies, Islamic Studies, and in knowing and understanding the portrayal of Prophet (PBUH) in English literature.

—The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC Pulwama, Kashmir. He can be reached at tauseef.parray21@gmail.com