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Tom Holland

Islam & Influence

The first great European novel was written by a Muslim. That, at least, is one of the many jokes that Cervantes plays upon his readers in Don Quixote. At the beginning of the novel, we are told how the narrator came across an Arabic manuscript in the marketplace of Toledo, written by one Cide Hamete Benengeli - 'Sir Hamid Aubergine'. The adventures of Don Quixote, so Cervantes pretends, are nothing less than a translation of this enigmatic manuscript. 'If any objection can be made against the truth of this history,' we are assured, 'it can only be that its narrator was an Arab.'

The irony of this warning, in a novel that makes incomparable play with the ever-mutable relationship between truth and falsehood, between a world in which windmills are windmills and a world in which they are giants, hardly needs emphasising. Islam, the religion of the Moors of Spain, and of the corsairs who had kept Cervantes a slave for five years in Algiers, serves him as yet one more mirror in the great hall of mirrors that is Don Quixote. The effect of this on Spanish, and particularly on Latin American, literature has been considerable. In the short stories of Borges, or in a novel such as Terra Nostra, Carlos Fuentes's dazzling reworking of the reign of Philip II, the influence of Cervantes results in fantasies that often possess a decidedly Muslim tinge. Islam, in magical realism, is not something merely exotic, but an integral part of the inheritance derived from Spain's greatest writer.

In the rest of western Europe, which was never conquered by the Arabs, nor ever served as the seat of a great Muslim civilisation, the relationship between national literatures and Islam has inevitably been more distant. One word in particular, transmogrified into a pejorative, has been used to typify Western attitudes: 'orientalist'. Edward Said's Orientalism, first published in 1978 and much cherished ever since by those who like to bandy around words such as 'discourse' and 'hegemony', argues that the entire literary engagement of the West with the Arab world has been one long exercise in racist oppression. So reverently has this thesis come to be regarded that its inherent tendentiousness has rarely been acknowledged. Certainly, it took a peculiarly selective marshalling of the evidence to overlook the fact that many classics of Arabic literature, from the Arabian Nights to the history of Ibn Khaldun, have had a far more potent influence on Europe than they ever did on the Middle East; that Western writers, from the time of Voltaire and Gibbon onwards, have repeatedly used Islam as a stick with which to beat Christianity; and that most orientalists, toiling as they were over dictionaries or learned works of philology, were far too concerned with scholarship for scholarship's sake ever to sign up to some sinister imperialist conspiracy.

It is doubly unfortunate, then, that Orientalism should have attained its cult status precisely as Islam, for the first time since the Reconquista, was putting down roots in the West itself. Said's equation of Islam with the Middle East was bogus even when he made it. Now, more than thirty years on, it is still more so. Islam has become an occidental as well as an oriental religion, and its scriptures and myths, its history and its cultural achievements, are no less legitimate a theme for European writers than those of Christianity or Judaism have always been. When Milorad PaviĆ, back in 1984, published his remarkable debut novel, Dictionary of the Khazars - a 'lexicon' in which three encyclopaedias, one Christian, one Jewish and one Muslim, all cross-reference one another - he was providing, from his perspective as a Serb, a possible signpost to the future of the entire continent's literature. Just as the Balkans had been for centuries home to all three of the Abrahamic faiths, so now is western Europe. What Catholicism was to Joyce, and Judaism to Kafka, perhaps Islam will one day be to a great European novelist of the future.

Except, of course, as the publication of Salman Rushdie's fatwa memoir, Joseph Anton, hardly needs to remind us, there would be risks in publishing such a novel of an order beyond anything that Joyce or Kafka had to face. At the same time as authors from non-Muslim backgrounds have been made to feel that writing about Islam will render them neo-imperialist stooges, so have many authors from Muslim backgrounds become nervous of writing anything at all about Islam that is not dutifully pietistic. The greatness of The Satanic Verses was precisely that it made of the folklore and history of Islam the same grist that Christianity has always provided Western novelists and poets. That a culture as sophisticated and complex as that of Islam is now flourishing on European soil should properly be serving our literature as a shot in the arm. Instead, thanks to what Kenan Malik has brilliantly described as the 'internalisation of the fatwa', it is having the opposite effect. Not since the 18th century have Western writers been so nervous about causing offence to the followers of a religion.

Yet the nervousness, perhaps, has been overdone. The unfortunate confluence of circumstances that saw Rushdie condemned to death for reasons of internal Iranian politics has long since altered. It is perfectly possible to publish a book that questions the fundamentals of Islam and live to tell the tale. No fatwa, for instance, has pursued Alom Shaha, who in The Young Atheist's Handbook fearlessly described his journey from the faith of his Bangladeshi parents to disbelief. Perhaps, then, if not a Muslim Ulysses, there is at the very least a Muslim Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man out there being written. For an author to question a religion need not be to dismiss it. On the contrary - it may be to weave it more tightly into the fabric of a literary culture than it would ever otherwise have been.


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Tom Holland is the author of In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World.


John Murray


Royal Literary Fund