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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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