Arabian Mirrors and Western Soothsayers: Nineteenth-Century Literary Approaches to Arab-Islamic History

Muhammed A. Al-Da’mi, New York: Peter Lang, 2002. 235 pages.

This is a superb book. With penetrating insight and an eloquent style, al-Da’mi explores the crucial role that Arabo-Islamic history played in the arguments of such prominent British and American “men of letters” as Thomas Carlyle and Washington Irving. The book opens with a preface, in which he lays out his rationale and purpose, and contains seven chapters, in which he develops his argument.

Al-Da’mi seeks to deepen our understanding of nineteenth-century Orientalism by exploring the works of leading intellectual writers of that time: not the professional historians, but the “men of letters” who used history to expound their arguments, but with a kind of literary licence not available to a proper historian. His main argument is that the writers used Arabo-Islamic history not simply as an exotic or a romantic flourish, but rather as an integral and important aspect of their discourses to comment upon their own time. For example, Carlyle praises the Prophet as a heroic leader, as a way to warn the British of the dangers of utilitarianism and materialism; Ralph Waldo Emerson likewise does this to send a message to the young American nation; Cardinal John H. Newman to alert Europe to the Ottoman threat; and so on.

Al-Da’mi convincingly points out that we can neither understand these writers nor the age itself adequately without properly comprehending this aspect of their writings. This is an important rectification to traditional western scholarship, which typically leaves out all mention of anything non-European in its study of its own intellectual history. (Walter E. Houghton’s classic work on the Victorian age, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870, has in its index only one entry for Prophet Muhammad and none for Islam, although several on Christianity, even though the author discusses Carlyle, Newman, and all the other important “men of letters” whose works al-Da’mi examines.)

Chapter 1 gives background information on the kind of ideas about Islam that the nineteenth-century writers inherited: the stereotypes and myths of Prophet Muhammad as a magician or founder of a heretical Christian sect; Islam as a “religion of the sword” and the Arabs a licentious and violent people; or, from a less hostile perspective, Prophet Muhammad as a brilliant politician who led “enthusiastic” Arabs to victory.

Chapter 2 explores the changes and similarities in the West’s understanding of Islamic history brought about by secularization, new tools of “objective” historical scholarship, and better access to Arabic manuscripts (either in Arabic or a translation). Thus Prophet Muhammad is seen not as the “Antichrist,” but as a founder of a religion that followed in the footsteps of (or borrowed from) Judaism and Christianity. Richard Burton’s Prophet Muhammad is “the master mind of [his] age.”

Nevertheless, al-Da’mi points out, the focus was still upon the new religion’s martial aspects, thereby overlooking and ignoring the Prophet’s spiritual appeal. Al-Da’mi puts this down to a “visceral feeling … [of] fear … [that is] always … found at the back of the Western mind in spite of this mind’s various expressions of admiration for, and sympathy with the contemporary Arabs and Muslims.” It is not an exaggeration to say that this fear still manifests itself in the West, most notably since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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