Orientalism in Moby Dick

This article aims to correct some of the basic errors in Melvillian Islamic criticism. One of the classics of Western literature is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the allegorical story of one man’s pursuit of a great white whale. Like all great novelists, Melville was struggling with the great moral issues that transcend individuals and even civilizations. This contrasts with most of modern literature, which exhibits journalistic habits of mind and tends to deal in superficial analysis rather than with the reflective process that gives content to meditation and thought.

Modem literary criticism exhibits the same shallowness. George Orwell explained the problem perhaps when he observed that applying the same standards to such novelists as Dickens and Dostoyevsky and to most contemporary writers is like weighing a flea on a spring-balance intended for elephants.” Critics, he added, don’t do this, because it would mean having to throw out most of the books they get for review.

The value of Melville’s work is that it is possessed of the moral imperative and is designed to lead the forces of wisdom and balance against the spiritual bankruptcy and anarchy of the encroaching materialism in modem Western civilization.

The tragedy of Melville’s work is the superficiality of its reliance on Islamic sources, which Melville had read but only in Orientalist distortion. This tragedy has been compounded by later generations of Orientalists who have used the distortions of Melville to generate their own. Perhaps the most  insidious of these latter-day Orientalists is Dorothy Finklestein, author of Melville’s Orienda, who we shall refer to simply as “the critic.”

Her study of Melville’s Islamic references devotes a complete section to “Muhammad and the Arabs” in the chapter on “Prophets and Conquerers.” Following this, she presents an exhaustive analysis of “Islamic Characters and Symbols.” She harshly rejects Melville’s immature resort to secondary Islamic sources; namely Carlyle’s Hero, Heroworship, and Heroic History, Goethe’s Truth and Poetry, Bush’s Life of Muhammad, Ockley’s Mahomet and His Successors, and last but not least, Humphrey Prideaux’s Life of Muhammad : the True Nature of Imposture Fully Displayed in the Life of Mahomet.

Unfortunately, although the critic impresses upon us that her study will depend on the original source of Islam: The Qur’an, she herself uses outside sources that contribute to a further distortion of Islam. Her criticism of Melville should not delude the reader into trusting her approach. She says: “While the reader gains the impression that Melville had read a ‘Life’ of Muhammad, one feels certain that he did not take the trouble to read the Qur’an.”

Ironically, the critic found innumerable opportunities to substitute her own references for the Qur’an. Commenting on the only direct reference to the Prophet Muhammad (SAAS) in Moby Dick, she relies heavily on John Leo, “The old Barbary Traveller,” whom Melville mentions, and on the authority of the so-called “Arab historians” who affirm that “a Prophet who prophesy’d of Muhammad came forth from a Berber temple on the North African coast, the African temple of the hale.

The Qur’an shows only one who prophesied of Muhammad (SA‘AS), namely, Jesus, whose words are confirmed in the present Bible:

Nevertheless I tell you the truth; it is expedient for you that I go away, else the Comforter [italics added] will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto.

In the Gospel of Barnbas, the word “Comforter” or “Advocate” is the translation of the Greek ‘Proclyte’ or Ahmed which is another term for the ”titles of Prophet Muhammad .”

A confirmation of Jesus’s prophesy is emphasized in the Qur’an, where Allah criticizes those whose deeds are not commensurate with their words, citing Jesus’s position with the Jews:

And remember, Jesus, the son of Mary, said: 0 People of Israel! I am the apostle of God (sent) to you confirming the law (which came) before me and giving Glad Tidings of an Apostle to come after me whose name shall be Ahmad.’

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