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.

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