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ISLAM AND THE VICTORIANS

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									ISLAM AND THE VICTORIANS. Nineteenth Century     Perception of Muslim Practices

and Beliefs by Shahin Kuli Khan Khattak. pp. 205. London and New York: Tauris

Academic Studies, 2008. hardback.



This is not the first monograph to appear on Victorian perceptions of Islam.

However, earlier treatments such as Clinton Bennett‟s Victorian Images of Islam

(London: Grey Seal, 1992) and Philip C Almond‟s Heretic and Hero: Muhammad

and the Victorians (Wiesbaden : O. Harrassowitz, 1989) focus on academic and

missionary writing, not on fiction. Khattak does refer to non-fiction but her main

concern is with how writers of fiction depicted Islam in the Victorian age, which

fills a lacuna in this field. She focuses on how the English represented Muslims

and Islam in the Ottoman Empire, which was for much of this period regarded as

“the sick man of Europe” and in their own Indian colonies. She begins her

substantive discussion with a rather sweeping generalization; “‟faction‟ seems to

be an appropriate epithet for the genre of literature which, during and before the

nineteenth century, introduces the subject of Islam and its prophet Muhammad,

into the Western world.” “Misrepresentation”, she says, “is generally manifest in

all” (12). She is, of course, aware of Edward Said‟s Orientalism (1978) and of

responses to his thesis. Since the Qur‟an had also been rendered into English

and into other European languages before the nineteenth century, at least some

available literature gave readers access to primary material; this cannot be said

to misrepresent Islam. Yet as dangerous as generalizations are, Khattack‟s

comment may be justified by most of the literature, which does express hostility
towards Islam. Indeed, she says, earlier work on delineating bias and the causes

of bias allows us to “presuppose the fact that misconceptions were prevalent.”

(10) Where she sets out to shed fresh light on the subject is in her “analysis of

the Islamic concepts that were misrepresented.”



Khattack has made it easy to navigate through her book by exploring the

historical and political, literary and cultural backgrounds in consecutive chapters

followed by a discussion of general misconceptions. Her treatment of the first

draws mainly on non-fiction. Here, she establishes that the Victorians saw

themselves as racially and culturally superior to the colonized people of the

world. The un-colonized Ottomans “provided a semblance of opposition” to

European hegemony and became “the embodiment of the „Muslim.‟” As such,

they simply had to be “pilloried.”(35). Turkey‟s place in Europe was already

regarded as deeply problematic. As long as it practiced laws derived from the

Qur‟an, laws which the English saw as “subversive of morality and justice” and as

especially oppressive of women, Europe could not join Europe. (36). Muslim

convert W. S. Blunt implored that the Empire must be stabilized, since its

disintegration would pose greater problems. Khattack says that the Ottomans

were invariably depicted as bloodthirsty and that all Turks were burdened with

acts committed by a few and, since they were Muslim, so were Muslims

everywhere else. (42)
Travelers began to bring material home with them. Interestingly, some of the

literature that reached the West, where it was received with fascination, was not

“regarded by the indigenous people” as “work of quality”, such as the Arabian

Nights and the Rubbayat of Omar Khayyam. (47) The former especially became

an influential text. Many allusions to Muslim life in Victorian fiction had roots in

these fabulous tales which, however, have little if any relationship with any

corresponding Muslim reality. Regarding the Nights as a valid source of

information is rather like “asking people in the east to form an opinion of

Christendom on the bases of the Arthurian legends”, she says. (56). Discussion

here of Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot, among others, all

Victorian literary giants, is among the most interesting material in the book. Yet

whether Muslims were depicted as cruel and bloodthirsty or as morally suspect,

none of this presented the reality of Muslim life. What seems to have found the

readiest audience was the East as exotic, offering forbidden fruits. Hers sections

on music and art are equally informative, and break fresh ground. The dominant

motif here was the Saracen as a “figure of excess.” This gives us Oriental

potentates clothed in sumptuous attire surrounded by exotic women and the

seductive rhythms and cadences of “ethno-musicology”.



It is only and somewhat disappointingly in the final chapter that Khattack really

discusses the Islamic concepts that were misrepresented. Although what follows

is a useful summary, this is too short to deal with the complexity of the issues.

Which include “tolerance”, “jihad”, “acceptance of converts” and “figural
representation.” Her thesis is that persistent misconceptions in these areas, with

ancient roots, continue without their perpetuators checking the facts or entering a

genuine dialogue with Muslims to see what they really think. One example will

suffice. On jihad, Victorian writers contrasted how Christians peacefully gain

converts by persuasion with how Muslims do so with the sword. She refers to

armed jihad as the lesser jihad, while the “greater jihad” is the inner struggle to

overcome “ignorance and disbelief.”(103). She rightfully points out that “most of

Africa” and Indonesia and other South Asian countries were “converted by wholly

peaceful means.”(105). Muslims may, she says, in the heat of battle, “have

succumbed to non-Islamic acts.” However, while widely cited, the hadith on the

greater jihad is not found in the classical collections, which does raise issues

about authenticity. In dealing with such an important issue, it is surprising to find

no discussion of Qur‟anic passages. Some Muslims do believe that certain

passages give them license to offer conversion or the sword, and there is no

doubt that at times this was official policy, not merely a heat-of-the battle

aberration. Such Muslims may interpret their scripture incorrectly but it is too

simplistic to dismiss enforced conversion as almost too rare to merit serious

discussion. Of course, Christians are far from blameless here as well, despite

their holier than thou claim. Finally, what indeed is needed is more “detailed

theological delving into works and concepts that form the fundamentals of Islam

and or disparate Muslim nationalities” as Khattack suggest on the last page of

her “Afterword” (140).
Clinton Bennett

SUNY New Paltz



Clinton Bennett teaches Religious Studies at SUNY New Paltz. His books include

Victorian Images of Islam (1992), In Search of the Sacred (1996), In Search of

Muhammad (1998), In Search of Jesus (2001), Muslims and Modernity (2005) and

Understanding Christian-Muslim Relations (2008).

								
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