A fascinating but ‘largely unacknowledged’ subfield of English Literature
‘Literary Orientalism’ (LO) is a very ‘fascinating, cross-cultural area of study’ and a substantial category of English literary studies. ‘LO’—which emerged, as is generally agreed, with Edward Said’s path-breaking work ‘Orientalism’ (1978)—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’. Having assumed the status of “a new, fascinating subﬁeld of English literary studies in the 1980s”, LO is this sub-field which serves as a window ‘to view the centuries-long, though mostly hostile, relationship between the two major world religions and civilizations, the Christian/ Western and Muslim Orient’.
A significant feature of ‘LO’ is “Romantic Orientalism”, which is a combination of two words/ concepts, “Romantic”, which refers to the writers, the ideas and the culture they reflect, of the Romantic Period (1785–1830), and “Orientalism”, which refers to the geography and culture of large parts of Asia and Arab World (Middle East & North Africa). This gives a clear idea of the meaning and connotation of the phrase “Romantic Orientalism”. However, in literary history, to put it straightforwardly, ‘Romantic Orientalism’ is the recurrence of recognizable elements of Asian and African place names, historical and legendary people, religions, philosophies, art, architecture, interior decoration, costume, and the like in the writings of the British Romantics.
There are a number of works, published specifically in the last four decades, on (and/ or covering the themes of) ‘LO’. “Since 1980s”, as Prof. Kidwai (in his “Literary Orientalism: Main Contours Up to the British Romantic Period”, in The 1st Annual International Conference on Language and Literature [Indonesia], KnE Social Sciences, 2018: 37-46, p.38) puts it, “there have been a spate of critical writings, period-wise which delve into the image of the Orientals/Islam/the East in English literary texts.” Some of them are Matthew Dimmock, Mythologies of Prophet Muhammad in Early Modern English Culture (2013) and New Turks: Dramatizing Islam and Ottomans in Early Modern England (2005); Frederick Quinn’s The Sum of All Heresies: Image of Islam in Western Thought (2007); Sophia Rose Arjana’s Muslims in Western Imagination (2015); and Nabil Matar’s Turks, Moors and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery(1998); etc. All these works, in Kidwai’s evaluation, “bring out the varied facets of this representation”; and in Dimmock’s terminology (Professor of English, University of Sussex, UK) this corps of literature can be branded as “the history of misrepresentation” or “the misrepresentation of history.”
However, in the Indian (rather South Asian) context, the scholar who has been engaged in this field of study is Professor Abdur Raheem Kidwai (Professor of English, Aligarh Muslim University): he is the author, in this area specifically, of these works: Orientalism in Lord Byron’s Turkish Tales (1995; originally his PhD Thesis submitted to Department of English, University of Leicester, UK, 1993); The Crescent and the Cross (1997); Stranger than Fiction (2000); Literary Orientalism: A Companion (2009); Orientalism in English Literature: Perception of Islam and Muslims (2016); Believing and Belonging (2016); and Images of the Prophet Muhammad in English literature (2018). Below is presented a brief evaluation of a few of these works:
In Orientalism in Lord Byron’s Turkish Tales(1995), Kidwai ‘approaches Lord Byron’s Turkish Tales’—namely TheGiaour (1813), The Bride of Abydos (1813), The Corsair (1814), and The Siege of Corinth (1816) all of which represent “the samples of finest Orientalism”—from within the field of Oriental perspective, ‘contributing largely to the existing body of knowledge on the tradition of Orientalism in English literature’. This work is regarded as the first attempt wherein ‘Byron’s intimate grasp of the life of the Orient and his remarkable cross-cultural empathy and insights are pointed out’ in an ‘in-depth study of his Oriental sources, diction, similies and characters’.
Literary Orientalism: A Companion (2009) charts out, as mentioned in its description, “the genesis, evaluation and the present scenario of” LO. In this companion, the ‘origin of Literary Orientalism’, which lies ‘in the various military, religious, diplomatic, political and socio-cultural encounters between the Christian West and the Islamic East’ has been presented. It is a systematic compilation of the instances of Literary Orientalism in English literary and critical texts, organized into six categories: Writers’ works and critical studies; Critical Books; Articles and conference presentations; Doctoral Dissertations; Literary Orientalism and Arabian Nights; and Oriental Tales and LO. It answers a number of questions like the meaning and genesis, significance, constituents, practitioners, relevance and scope of this “largely unacknowledged and little-known subfield of English literature”.
In Orientalism in English Literature: Perception of Islam and Muslims (2016)—which is basically a collection of Kidwai’s (already-published) essays and reviews (from 1990 to 2016) on various facets of literary Orientalism. It inspects and discusses the image of Muslims and Islam in English Literature through history, and identifies and examines ‘the imperialistic as well as the positive pluralistic perspectives of Islam by the Western world’. The Volume, highlighting the theme ‘of the image of Islam and Muslims in English literature’, is a modest attempt of ‘identifying the unfortunate negative portray of Islam/ Muslims in most of the English literary texts and of highlighting and lauding their occasional positive depiction in a few texts’.Prof. Geoffrey P. Nash (University of Sunderland, UK) has evaluated this work(in the review published in Asiatic, 11, 1, June 2017: 273-74) as an ‘engaging’ work which has “significant value as a bibliographical study”.
Another significant work by Prof. Kidwai in this area is Images of the Prophet Muhammad in English Literature. Published by Peter Lang (New York), it consists of a Preface (pp. xi-xiv) and three chapters and ends with an Index. This book recounts and analyses ‘the image of Prophet Muhammad [PBUH], as reflected in English literary texts from the twelfth to nineteenth centuries’ and ‘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’.
Chapter-1 (pp. 1-35)investigates some of the earliest and medieval-era source that led to ‘the fabrication of their hate-inspired portrait of the Prophet’; Chapter-2 (pp. 36-119) recounts representations of the Prophet (PBUH) in chronological order—ranging from figures like Geoffrey Chaucer, 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; andChapter-3 is dedicated to the ‘positive trend’ in portraying the Prophet (uh) and is aptly entitled “Towards Fairness and Truth…” (pp. 120-141). In this chapter, the author includes the biographies or inter-cultural and historical studies by writers like William Montgomery Watt, Annemarie Schimmel, Karen Armstrong, John L. Esposito, Michael Hart, John Adair, Norman Daniel, John Tolan, Frederick Quinn and Matthew Dimmock, etc., for these “represent the new tolerant perspective which recognizes the Prophet’s greatness and glory”. All these works “reflect a sea-change in the representation” of the Prophet (PBUH) in 20th/ 21st century English literature. The work has been described by Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray (in his review published in the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 36, 4, 2019: 125-28) as “a must-read for everyone interested in Literary Orientalism, cross-cultural studies, Islamic Studies, and in understanding the (mis)representation of Prophet [PBUH] in the English literature.”
All in all, the above-mentioned works of Prof. Kidwai reveal his significant and profound contribution to the sub-field of Literary Orientalism which is both thrilling and thought-provoking and stimulating and significant. He, indeed, needs applause and appreciation for his profound contribution in this fascinating and intriguing but ‘ignored’ and ‘largely unacknowledged’ subfield of English literature.
The writer holds PG in English Literature from the Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), Awantipora, J&K. Feedback at [email protected]