"Positive Orientalism:  Islam in the Eyes of the West",
An Exploration of Positive Images of Islam in Western Literature
A discussion with Dr. Mohammed Sharafuddin
at Al-HEWAR CENTER, Wednesday, November 28, 2001

In the beginning I would like to thank Al-Hewar Center for inviting me to be here. Special thanks are also due to its director Mr. Subhi Al-Ghandour for the great efforts he is making in order to allow for such valuable opportunities not only between Arab-speaking audiences but also to dialogue with others on issues of common concern. Perhaps Mr. Ghandour can start thinking of establishing branches for this center in other states as well, if not thinking of doing the same in the Arab world.

Emphasis in this presentation is on the role played by literature as a vehicle for the expression of positive views towards Islam in the West. This may sound a bit out of touch with recent events and the present preoccupation with the aftermath with those incidents. Yet I am hoping to make important connections following in this regard.

Having in the background these events our discussion of this important subject requires a spirit of dedication and courageous initiative to explain not to the non-Muslims along but also to Muslims in the first place of what went wrong, and encourage a dialogue like this we have here in which all aspects of the Restoration of these relations have to be discussed.

The reason to emphasize 18th and 19th centuries because they mark the beginning of what I call the development of genuine Orientalism. After all this was the age of Enlightenment, but there were some individual contributions which made this development possible. The publication of Arabian Nights and George Sale’s translation of the Koran made great changes in influencing the minds of many readers and authors and helped shape their attitudes towards the Orient and Islam in particular. Furthermore, the writings of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to notable figures at home through her Embassy Letters contributed to introducing a new of movement of positive Orientalism that sought to correct misconceptions and wrong stereotypes about the Arabs and Muslims.

Being wife of the English ambassador in Constantinople between 1716 and 1718, she virtually had free access to Turkish women of the ruling class. Her so-called Turkish Letters, published in 1763, imparted a new direction to 18th-century Orientalism in their freedom from the pieties of English culture and the acuteness and vivacity of their observation of Turkish life. As one would expect, she exercised a special influence on Byron, who was a member of her class and visited the same sites over which he would reflect and would even challenge the accuracy of her descriptions in the first place.

The tradition of translation available to Romantic Orientalism has already been referred to. Two texts in particular need to be mentioned: the Koran and The Arabian Nights, both of which played a major part in defining the cultural and religious relations between West and East.

The Koran had long been known in Europe in Latin translations, made primarily by ecclesiastics who commented on issues concerning the divinity, and on Christo-Islamic controversies. One of the earliest translations of the Koran into English was by Alexander Ross (1590--1654), who used the French version of André‚ du Ryer. But the great work of translation into English, well known to all the Romantic orientalists, was that of George Sale (c. 1697--1736) in 1734. Sale prefaced his translation with his famous 'Preliminary Discourse', which constitutes a major landmark in the evolution of orientalist scholarship. So striking was his knowledge of and identification with Islam, in an age of dogma and prejudice, that he was known in some conservative circles by the title 'half-Mussulman' for his positive view of the Koran. Sale's major innovation, the importance of which cannot be exaggerated, was his readiness to depend on the famous Muslim exegetists of the Koran ---- such as Baidawi and Zamakhshari; and on fundamental controversies he insisted on quoting Islamic rather than western authorities. Although Sale, conventionally enough, declared in his preface that the aim of his translation was to reveal the absurdity and imposture of the Koran, its effect was the exact opposite. The eloquence of his version led Byron himself to testify to the poetic sublimity of the original; the suggestiveness and depth of his commentary are everywhere visible in the works of all four poets figuring in the following chapters (in all cases reaching the point of emulation, with an entire apparatus of notes appended to the main texts); and all four remained deeply affected by the non-Christian moral power of the sacred Islamic text, and therefore of the profound viability of a civilization other than their own.

The practice of annotating one's own poem is not confined to the Romantic orientalists; but in their case it became so pervasive that it requires notice. It is not enough to suggest that they were simply showing off their erudition, or helping a reader with unfamiliar material, or yielding to a veritable infatuation with the Orient that made the accumulation of mere facts attractive in itself ---- though all these elements played their part. More important is the example of Sale. Sale's use of notes, which include many quotations elaborating on the Koranic text, reveals a clear division of purpose. On the one hand, it represents his official demonstration (with the striking exception of passages affirming the strong relationship between the Koran and the Bible, an element which left a profound mark on Southey in particular) of the inferiority of the Islamic text to the Christian one. On the other hand, they elaborate upon a translation which remains essentially intact, without editorial interpretations or even interference. In short, the final effect of the commentary is to impart dignity ---- to give weight and importance ---- to the original text. This is also the case with the Romantic narratives: the notes confer the substance of history, philosophy, learning to material that might otherwise seem no more substantial than the delightful but irresponsible stories of The Arabian Nights.

Not that the latter were regarded as merely frivolous, for they contained a very powerful charge of exoticism, as well as a narrative brilliance that had universal appeal. Antoine Galland's translation of 1704--17 into French had enormous success throughout Europe. Admittedly, Galland's work tailored the original to European taste; but the character of the original could not be suppressed ---- notably its emotional and erotic freedom, its oriental 'pagan' settings, its use of magic narratives. It certainly helps to explain the rapid growth of the 'oriental tale' genre in the 18th century: for example, Petis de la Croix's Turkish Tales (1707), and The Persian Tales, or a Thousand and One Nights (1710--12), Montesequieu's Lettres persanes (1721), Jean-Paul Bignon's The Adventures of Abdalla, Son of Hanif (1729), Voltaire's Zadig (1749), and across the Channel, Johnson's Rasselas (1759) and Goldsmith's Citizen of the World (1762). Most of these works had a satirical moral and allegorical tendency. This they owed to their ability to find a foothold, provided by the image of the Orient, in a society other than their own. To that extent at least they helped to relativize the European point of view, and thus to prepare the way for a more adequate perception of alternative cultural realities.

Beckford's Vathek

Vathek (English edition, translated with notes by Samuel Henley from Beckford's French prose, June 1786) marks the division between the 18th-century oriental tale and the Romantic verse romance. It is scarcely an exaggeration to suggest that it represents a quantum leap in the development of European literary Orientalism, and the debt owed to it by the Romantic orientalists cannot be exaggerated. Though they are significantly reticent about acknowledging their indebtedness to Beckford's work, Landor, Southey and Moore undoubtedly grasped its imaginative and political implications. Vathek's magnificent Halls of Eblis have their poignant echoes in both Gebir and Thalaba. The novel's exotic landscapes recur in the Lalla Rookh narratives. As for Byron, who devoted a powerful suppressed stanza to 'England's wealthiest son' in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, he paid an extraordinary tribute to the 'sublime tale' of the 'Caliph Vathek' in his final note to The Giaour: 'For correctness of costume, beauty of description, and power of imagination, it far surpasses all European imitations, and bears such marks of originality, that those who have visited the East will find some difficulty in believing it to be more than a translation.'23

Vathek, with its brilliant notes taking up, in the first edition, almost as many pages as the text of the narrative itself, proved to be a rich cornucopia of oriental material for its Romantic successors. This debt has often been noticed, though it has not yet been fully explored. It consists in the supply of images (such as the wine of Shiraz, the nightingale and the rose, the butterfly of Cashmere, which recur in the verse romances) and in the imitation of phrases (Beckford's concluding summary, 'Thus the Caliph Vathek, who, for the sake of empty pomp and forbidden power, had sullied himself with a thousand crimes,' being echoed by Byron's concluding epigram on his Corsair: 'Linked with one virtue, and a thousand crimes . . .'). It consists in a wealth of local color and local mythology (the Simorg, Houris, Peris, the Kaf mountains, etc) from which each of the Romantic poets took what suited their temperaments and purposes: Landor the theme of arrogant construction and exemplary ruins, the figure of the sinister sorceress and the details of enchanting pastoral vegetation; Southey the Islamic piety, the encounter with sinister magicians, the sublime terror of the Halls of Eblis; Moore the jeweled seductive poise, the sinister despotism, the perversion and cruelty, the fire worship; and Byron the combination of aristocratic irony and sensual intensity, together with a sophisticated, and knowing, conduct of literary conventions. But more than those differentiated influences, Vathek opened wide the door to a world of new possibilities.

Vathek is a complex work, but the risk of over-simplification must not prevent the attempt at a brief characterization of it. Before Beckford, the 18th-century oriental tale had tended to treat Islamic material in an objective, that is a detached, manner.24 Allegory, parable, satire had inhibited personal identification. Voltaire and Johnson (to cite the finest examples) never lost the air of producing a demonstration, tragic as it may have been in its implications. For Beckford, the orient became an opportunity for experience ---- certainly for intense personal fantasy and gratification. Vathek is part of his inner world. It is a projection of an amoral, secret life into the public domain; it gives the rein for the first time to what could well be called the outlawed self.

The structure of the narrative is, of course, orthodox. Its only eccentricity is to attribute to Islam a deep and central moral concern. Vathek is a self-indulgent tyrant, who renounces Allah and his Prophet, and is destroyed by his new master, Eblis. This ethical structure is given its fullest expression by the awe-inspiring shepherd ('a good Genii') who makes a last attempt to divert Vathek from his 'atrocious purpose':

abandon thy atrocious purpose: return: give back Nouronihar to her father, who still retains a few sparks of life: destroy thy tower, with all its abominations: drive Carathis from thy councils: be just to thy subjects: respect the ministers of the Prophet; compensate for thy impieties, by an exemplary life: and, instead of squandering thy days in voluptuous indulgence, lament thy crimes on the sepulchers of thy ancestors.25

This is undoubtedly impressive, even if the stylish succinctness and brio does not seem quite compatible with the deepest sincerity. But it is partly undone by the treatment of religion in everything that precedes this passage. The most religious figure encountered is Nouronihar's father, the Emir Fakreddin, an epitome of Muslim piety, faith and goodwill, but whose very earnestness gains Beckford's disrespect. This is how the emir receives the news that his daughter has given herself to Vathek:

The news of so unlucky an event soon reached the ears of the emir, who abandoned himself to grief and despair, and began, as did his old grey-beards, to begrime his visage with ashes. A total supineness ensued; travellers were no longer entertained; no more plasters were spread; and, instead of the charitable activity that had distinguished this asylum, the whole of its inhabitants exhibited only faces of half a cubit long, and uttered groans that accorded with forlorn situation.26

How seriously are we to take this piety, or, for that matter, the display of grief? The only element that brings the Fakreddin episode to life as far as the visitors are concerned is the erotic and voyeuristic; whenever it turns pious, the very worthiness produces only yawns and impatience. The reverse effect occurs in the eschatological conclusion. The Halls of Eblis inspire a terror and cruelty that is designed less to drive a moral point home than to provide a thrilling dimension to grandeur and sublimity. In other words, the ethical is put to the service of the aesthetic.

This deeply ambiguous work allows for no facile explanations. What its irony, its sardonic or grotesque humor, its systematic disrespect for every religious and social norm (even for its protagonist's appetites, which are treated like infantile gluttony) reveals is the author's sophisticated detachment from the literary and moral conventions that he inherited. This is precisely what one would expect from a work that is breaking and altering the existing mould. The conventions in place lose their stability, but without finding steadiness in a new set of expectations and norms. In the space opened out by detachment from inherited convention, new imaginative audacities become possible, and Beckford duly exploits them. But Vathek confronts us with something yet more interesting than acute literary transition. For what Beckford is really cutting loose from is his identity as a citizen of the 'tight little island' that is England. That Vathek was originally written in French is profoundly appropriate, for it is a radically unorthodox, and indeed cosmopolitan (as opposed to traditional and provincial) work. The first step in the direction of 'realistic Orientalism' ---- the recognition by English culture of the reality and value of a radically foreign form of life ---- must be the loosening of one's literal-minded attachment to one's particular corner of the world. This Vathek exhibits to an extraordinary degree, and it is the secret of its appeal to those Romantic orientalists who began their career under the sign of the French Revolution, and who thereby declared their independence not only from political tyranny, but also from national self-satisfaction. Whatever they became, Landor and Southey began as Jacobins; Moore never wholly lost his external perspective as an Irishman; and Byron remained, of course, the most relentless opponent of dogmatic Anglo-Saxon narrowness in the 19th century.

Towards the end of the century we have other important works that influenced literary writings in general, and which reflected a positive approach to Islam and its culture. William Beckford, Walter Savage Landor, Robert Southey and Lord Byron in England; Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in America. What is common about these authors in as far as Islam is concerned is their visionary treatment of Islam. By describing them as visionary I mean they opted for a way to deal with the Islamic material in a way that transcend the political and religious bounds of their culture. Hence, they sought to unite the Orient with the home culture not on political grounds but rather on humanistic and spiritual aims, seeking  to create a universally better future.  .

But in order to do so, they needed to reach a clear definition of some of the common issues which have been associated with the negative representation of Islam in the West and that is the issue  of freedom and justice. Such was necessary because it was needed for what Southey called “The regeneration of all Europe.” Southey in particular was interested in the moral and religious values, which he delightedly discovered between Christianity and Islam and sought to enhance in his program of epic writing, especially Thalaba.

In 1798 Landor, published Gebir, a long narrative poem which, like Vathek, has the same theme of Oriental despotism as its underlying theme. It also follows the same pattern of Oriental moralization on the futility of oppression and the need for human justice and freedom. This of course is a common place European theme, but its novelty lies in the oriental association between religious ideas and the underlying theme of freedom and justice. The Koran for example makes constant reference to hell and the punishments awaiting the sinners in the hereafter. This is the same destiny which faces both Vathek and Gebir when they reach the horrific destinies.

 It is also the same fate which Landor’s hero finds  to be his if he continues his despotic behavior against the people of Egypt. Landor’s Gebir. Indeed Gebir is assassinated by the insurgent Egyptians who are unaware of his resolve to depart their country and leave them alone. Such we are told is the tragic end of despotic rulers. They are not qualified to reign in other people’s lands nor in theirs. Landor ends his poem with a universal note relating to the meaning of just leadership and what the world requires in the future.

Throughout the poem Landor hints that a world’s future leader is going to be one who has nothing to do with political corruption and who is the product of pure and innocence and nature. The poem ends with a nomination of the pastoral Tamar, the younger brother of Gebir, for such mission. The sea nymphs sing a song in which they predict this prophecy:

From Tamar shall arise, 'tis Fate's decree,  
A mortal man above all mortal praise . . .'  
[VI, lines 187--93]

This final episode with regards to Tamar in the poem represents LANDOR’s vision of the future of both Egypt and Iberia. It also presents his view of the world united under peace and natural justice.

Captivity led captive. War o'erthrown,  
They shall o'er Europe, shall o'er Earth extend  
Empire that seas alone and skies confine,  
And glory that shall strike the crystal stars.  
[VI, lines 305--8]    

There is no doubt that many romantic writers had planted hopes that Napoleon was the destined international leader who was to unite the whole would under his banner of equality and fraternity. But as a result of his selfishness and excessive use of power the whole image was reversed. This gave rise to a deeper understanding of the nature of the messianic expectations concerning the leadership of the future of the world .

Universal leadership is again the main theme of Southey’s oriental epic poem Thalaba: the Destroyer. The 12 books of this mystical poem dramatizes the destruction of the Domdaniel by Thalaba, a 'dedicated youth' chosen by destiny and divinity for the task, which he accomplishes in the final book. The evil magicians have got wind of their fate, and do their utmost to annihilate Thalaba's family ---- his father, Hodeirah, and his seven brothers and sisters. But Thalaba and his mother, Zeinab, escape into the desert, the boy being determined to avenge his father and regain the paternal sword ringed by fire in the very depths of the Domdaniel. Unlike the other heroes we have seen, Thalaba represents Southey’s prototype of a religious messianic figure. One we are told throughout the poem who has been destined by Fate to be the expected destroyer of the world of magicians, who according to Southey, represent "those systems that make the misery of mankind?”

Thalaba is essentially a figure of vengeance. In order to carry out his divinely inspired schemes, he has to show the utmost purity and courage of dedication to his task. Hence, Thalaba has to demonstrate mystical qualities.

For Southey, who was obviously more religious than Beckford and Landor, for an international (almost messianic) figure to come would definitely be one who is both a lover of nature and a product of it. Such qualities are crucial for the mystical vision which must constitute the character of this figure. Thalaba is an Arab nomad born and reared in the desert from which he stages his campaigns against the forces of evil represented by the magicians.

Indeed the whole journey becomes a journey of a devoted seeker for truth and a spiritual quest that is also a trial, an arduous task that is also a purification. Brought up in pastoral simplicity in the Arabian desert, he journeys on foot to the ruins of Babylon and Baghdad, then on horseback to an enchanted paradise, then through mountainous cold on foot to 'Kaf', via a diversion in an aerial car to Mohareb's magic island. The 'Simorg' (a mythological all-knowing bird) then gives him directions to the Domdaniel, reached by dog-sledge and boat to the island-cavern which is the entrance to his final destination. The dedicated youth is tested and tempered by these successive attacks, but they all break like waves against the rock of his faith in God's omnipotence and omniscience.

When he approaches Babylon and Baghdad, the magicians try to cast doubt in Thalaba with regards to the causes of their destruction. But Thalaba seems confident that they must have committed an act of aggression against themselves and others, thus agreeing with the Koranic injunction of the same:

We have not oppressed them, but they themselves have oppressed.

Thou too art fallen, Bagdad! City of Peace,  
Thou too hast had thy day;  
And loathsome Ignorance and brute Servitude,  
Pollute thy dwellings now,  

Genius hath wrought salvation, …..

 [V, stanza 6]    

As Thalaba's pilgrimage develops, it becomes more and more difficult, and physically more and more harsh and painful. Yet, the greater his suffering, the more completely he is sustained by God.: 'He who has led me here, will sustain me/Through cold and hunger' (X, stanza 11). God's final support comes in the form of the Simorg, the ancient 'all-knowing bird' (XI, stanza 11) ---- a creature of nature, or super-nature, and not a magic amulet or spell, like the ring ---- to guide him to his goal. It is therefore not surprising if the concluding part of the journey acquires spiritual connotations. Echoing an Islamic parallel, Southey's hero undergoes a final ritual of purification. Thalaba may, as a redeemer who forgives, act as an imitator of Christ; but at this stage in his adventure, he recalls the Prophet Muhammad's 'Nocturnal Journey to the Heavens'. The Simorg requires Thalaba to 'Wash away [his] worldly stains' in the 'Fountain of the Rock'. This he does:

There, in the cold clear well,  
Thalaba wash'd away his earthly stains,  
And bow'd his face before the Lord,  
And fortified his soul with prayer.  
[XI, stanza 15]    

In a similar way, Muhammad is invited by his guide, Gabriel, to a ritual of purification and prayers before he commences his journey. The Archangel Gabriel provides Muhammad with a horse-like creature (the 'Borag') as a mount; Thalaba's Simorg equips him with a sledge and a wingless car. At the end of Muhammad's journey to the heavens, during which he is exposed to scenes of an apocalyptic nature, he receives confirmation of his prophethood. So Thalaba, at the end of his journey, achieves his full status as God's 'purified servant': 'Thou hast done well, my Servant!' (XII, stanza 31).

If the Borag takes Mohammed to the heavens, Thalaba is taken on a trip around the world. Hence, his obedience and submission gains him the title of servant which is reserved in the Koranic sense to those who prove worth in patience and sacrifice.

This is not the same Thalaba we meet in Book One. Here is a youth tried and tempered by God’s choice to fulfill a divinely inspired task. For sure, Southey is suing these mystical elements to build the criteria required for global leadership, one based on truth, moral values, pastoral simplicity, more importantly on justice. After all these are the criteria God has willed for his servants:

Ye can shatter the dwelling of man;  
Ye can open the womb of the rock;  
Ye can shake the foundations of earth,  
But not the Word of God:  
But not one letter can ye change  
Of what his Will hath written!  
[II, stanza 23]  

The poem is not a journey for the hero’s education and exercise of endurance. It becomes a search within the soul for what is good, peaceful and   moralistically rewarding for man, his community and the whole world.

It is actually in the light of the above examples that we need to re-examine the early pioneers of orientalists who took upon themselves the responsibility of establishing a cultural encounter that proved essentially relevant for many centuries to come.

The examples I have chosen represent an important point in the history of encounter between Islam and the West. It also shows that despite all religious and political odds, individual writers could bring about a process of historical development that seeks to connect and unite rather than disconnect and isolate. They realized that to bring about a change on how to perceive one’s self is by starting to perceive others on realistic and fair grounds; that is to say, it must take into account what was possible in the age. Historical progress is not achieved by one leap from darkness to light and from prejudice to truth, but progressively, as a gradual advance towards true understanding. Each period allows only a certain latitude of free play: one must therefore acknowledge partial contributions (such as those made by the writers examined) as notable achievements, and not repudiate them as compromised and incomplete.


Dr. Mohammed Sharafuddin is a Visiting Fulbright Scholar at George Washington University

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