Central London. Winter 2004. A typically dark, cold, uneventful night. Then the outside walls of Shakespeare’s famous Globe Theatre burst into life with a rich pageantry of light and images. Only these weren’t scenes from Othello, Hamlet or any of the Bard’s other dramatic masterpieces. Instead, depictions of Muslim cultural life, projected from across the shimmering Thames, adorned the white walls of this historic building.
So what was going on? It wasn’t a takeover by radical Islamists, nor (despite the barking of certain far-right factions) was it the deliberate desecration of a British cultural icon. It was Islamic Awareness Week and the Globe was hosting a season entitled ‘Shakespeare and Islam’. Patrick Spottiswoode, director of Globe education, explains: “We came up with the idea of projecting photographs of Islamic lands, peoples and architecture onto the white walls of the Globe so that Islam enfolds the Globe. Shakespeare and the Globe are icons of Britishness. This way the Globe is being embraced by Islam. I thought it would be a beautiful, visual symbol of what we’re trying to do.”2
But exactly what were they ‘trying to do’? It was obviously a cross-cultural encounter of some kind – an exploration of the Bard’s legacy from a Muslim perspective, perhaps? In this paper, I hope to explore some of the nuances and implications of this symbolic encounter: what does it mean to put the Shaykh into Shakespeare?
William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) is undoubtedly one of the giants of Western civilization. Poet and playwright par excellence, his works have been translated into every major living language and a literary career spanning nearly three decades produced an impressive oeuvre of over 37 plays and 150 sonnets. His dramatizations continue to stir hearts and woo audiences around the world. In the words of the British Muslim academic, Martin Lings, Shakespeare had the rare ability to achieve “by a few brilliant strokes of the pen what most novelists fail to achieve in a full-length novel.”3 To this day, masterpieces such as King Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet are revered as the epitome of English literary acumen. The Bard of Avon 5 of 14 Yet this is only one aspect of the Bard’s mass appeal. Many scholars agree that what keeps him alive, moving with us in the present, is the way his writings transcend the limited setting of his historical moment to address issues of wider human import: “his work was celebrated as an embodiment of universal human truths, an unequaled articulation of the human condition in all its nobility and variety.”4 The gallant virtues of his heroes and the cunning dastardliness of his villains reflect the good and evil present in all our souls. His contemporary (and rival) Ben Jonson paid him this tribute: “he was not of an age, but for all time.”5 Lings concurs: “…could it not be said that to be present at an adequate performance of King Lear is not merely to watch a play but to witness, mysteriously, the whole history of mankind?”6
Poetry and Revelation Yet this is what makes any artist truly great: his ability to break out of the parochialism inherent in our experience and to tap, instead, into the nub of what it means to be human. A subsequent ability to then share these insights with others through exquisite artistic expression which resonate with the audience – edifying, uplifting and enriching them – is what sets the exceptional artist apart from the rest.
“Poetry … is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history,” asserted the famous Greek Aristotle, “for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.”7 A Muslim, or fellow believer in Abrahamic monotheism, could add another dimension: “Revelation is a higher thing and more profound than poetry for poetry is of human origin whilst Revelation divine.” Yet this doesn’t obviate the poet’s ability to access truths articulated by Revelation; indeed, many of these lay open for any who care to tread their path. Take this beautiful passage from The Merchant of Venice as an example:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes. ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown. His scepter shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this sceptered sway; It is enthroned in the heart of kings; It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God’s When mercy seasons justice.8
Muslims would be hard pressed to find a better expression of rahma, the concept of mercy so integral to their tradition9, and it is striking to note how Shakespeare’s allusion to mercy as ‘an attribute to God himself’ captures so brilliantly the bismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm, an Arabic phrase whose centrality to the Islamic tradition can be gauged by its marking the beginning of all but one chapter of the Qur’an: ‘In the name of God, the AllMerciful, the Most-Merciful’
Further similarities between Shakespearean insights and Qur’anic principles abound: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,”10 says Hamlet. This seems to be little other than a paraphrase of the Qur’anic dictum, “Of knowledge, you have been granted but a little.”11 The point, surely, is to maintain an essential humility in the face of the overwhelming unknowability of the cosmos and the limitations of the human mind. Later in Hamlet, we come across lines which express eloquently the privileged status of the human being as also his base origins – themes referenced recurrently by the Qur’an: What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—no, nor woman neither.12
The Qur’an often articulates the perspectives of atheists or those who reject divine truth: “And they say, ‘What is there but our life in this world? We shall die and we live and nothing can destroy us but time.’” 13 In a powerful Shakespearean passage, Macbeth articulates the perspective of what has come to be known, in post-modernist parlance, as existential nihilism: Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more; it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.14 Another recurrent motif in Qur’anic discourse is the temporality of life and the transience of all worldly things: “That which is on earth we have made but as a glittering show, in order that We may test them – as to which of them are best in conduct. Verily what is on earth we shall make but as dust and dry soil,” 15 and “All that is on earth will perish.”16 In The Tempest, Shakespeare’s Prospero expounds upon the same theme:
“Wherever wisdom is found, the believer – by virtue of his faith which intrinsically is bound to the same root – has a right of access to it.”
Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits, and Are melted into air, into thin air; And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.17
The point by now should have been made: the inspired poet glimpses truths which find their fullest expression in Revelation. In this respect, the Prophet of Islam has stated “Indeed in poetry there is much wisdom,”18 and he praised the preIslamic poetry of Labid bin Rabi’ah for articulating a truth which resonated with the substance of Revelation: The truest word uttered by a poet is the saying of Labid: ‘Know that everything is vanity but God.’ 19
Another statement often attributed to the Prophet is: “Wisdom is the lost property of the believer; wherever he finds it he has right to it.”20 This tradition indicates that wisdom is not the sole provenance of the Muslim religion but a universal human legacy; a point amply borne out by Muslim civilisation’s historical tendency to assimilate and synthesise knowledge from myriad foreign cultures. Wherever wisdom is found, the believer – by virtue of his faith which intrinsically is bound to the same root – has a right of access to it. And so to adorn ourselves with the jewels of Shakespearean wisdom is, from this perspective, only to lay claim upon what is rightfully ours: truths of universal import which, by definition, belong to all.
Elizabethan England and the Muslim world
Whilst exploring the significance of the Bard for British Muslims, it is worth bearing in mind the historical context Shakespeare was writing in vis-avis the Muslim world. Muslim civilisation was still very much alive and kicking in Shakespeare’s day and the Ottoman empire, specifically, was a major player on the world stage. The Safavid empire had taken root in Iran and the Moghuls reached the zenith of their power in India under Akbar who presided over a cultural renaissance between 1560- 1605. Anglo-Islamic relations were also very different in Shakespeare’s day. Queen Elizabeth I had established amicable relations with the Muslim world – particularly Morocco and the Turkish Ottoman empire, and the enemy for Protestant England was not the might of the Islamic world but Catholic Spain. Respected ‘bardophile’ Jonathan Bate says: “In the 1580s, we find Elizabeth’s diplomats in Istanbul pointing out that English Protestantism shared with Islam a rejection of that veneration of idolatrous images which characterized Spanish and Papal power. The Queen actually sent some fragments of broken images to the Sultan as a token of her good intent.”21
A corollary of this was that – despite the lack of mass communication and transport which characterises the modern world – Shakespeare had a rudimentary awareness of Islam. According to another Shakespearean expert Gary Taylor, “Shakespeare apparently read Richard Knolles’s General History of the Turks (1603), which means that he knew more about Islamic history and culture than most of us. He refers to Islam – to the prophet ‘Mahomet’, to Morocco and Barbary and Constantinople, to Moors, Turks, Ottomites, sultans, saracens, paynims, moriscos – at least 141 times, in 21 different plays. (Much more frequently than he refers to Ireland, Scotland, Wales or Hawaii).”22 And most significantly, Queen Elizabeth played host to two delegations of Moroccan ambassadors during Shakespeare’s lifetime:
“As he [the Moroccan ambassador] and his delegation entered London, travelling up from Dover, crowds stood watching the white-robed and turban headed Moors. Whether William Shakespeare was standing in the crowd that afternoon we do not know. But as news traveled around the city about the arrival of the Moroccans, Shakespeare might have remembered his late friend and co-author George Peele. Eleven years earlier the two of them had learned of the arrival of the first Moroccan delegation ever to Elizabeth’s England. Peele had subsequently written ‘The Battle of Alcazar’, the first Moor play, and after the arrival of this ambassador, Shakespeare would write ‘Othello’, the greatest of all Moor plays. Moors on the streets of London … led to Moors on the stage at the Globe. They were a direct result of England’s diplomatic initiative into Islamic affairs – associations and collisions that took place between the Christian Queen of England and the Muslim ruler of Morocco.”23
And it is here, in Shakespeare’s rendering of the African Moor – Othello – that we find perhaps his greatest legacy about the cross-cultural encounter that is Islam and the West.
The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice
Set in late sixteenth-century Venice and Cyprus, Othello is a tragic tale of cunning, murder and treachery whose protagonist, a dark-skinned Moorish general, is duped by the malignant Iago into killing his wife, Desdemona, before committing suicide. What is most significant about the play is that the central role is played by a ‘Moor’ – a term which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, refers to “a member of a Muslim people of mixed Berber and Arab descent inhabiting north-western Africa.”24 Although some Shakespearean scholars are of the opinion that Othello, by the time of our acquaintance with him on stage, was a convert to Christianity, his depiction by Shakespeare throws up a number of interesting issues.
Remarkably, Shakespeare resists the temptation to portray Othello as the evil ‘other’. Darkskinned and fierce, murderer of the lovely Desdemona who had “whiter skin … than snow” – it would have been easy to cast him into the stereotypical role of the barbaric savage. Yet, Shakespeare skillfully sets up a more nuanced narrative in which the foreigner is presented as heroic victim and the native Venetian, Iago, is unequivocally and diabolically evil. This would have confounded the expectations of his Elizabethan audience who – in keeping with the attitudes of the time – probably had a crude conception of the ‘Mohammadan infidel’.
Shakespeare’s Othello is instead a reputable military general who has earned the respect of his Venetian peers and who commands them in battle: “Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you / Against the general enemy Ottoman.”25 What is striking about this quotation is that Othello is commissioned to lead the Venetians in battle against the Ottomans – his fellow Muslims. Some of the more culturally discerning amongst the Elizabethan audience would have been aware of the Janissaries, a feared cadre of the Ottoman elite corps consisting of highly-trained ex-Christian soldiers who had been conscripted into the Ottoman forces and converted to Islam in their youth. With consummate dramatic mastery, then, Shakespeare portrays Othello as an inverse Janissary.
Thoroughly schooled in the ways of their new masters, the Janissaries gained a reputation for fervently defending the Sultan and often rose to positions of considerable standing in the Ottoman social order. Virtually all Janissaries were nonTurk though – being predominantly of Balkan Christian origin – and so, in spite of their rapid cultural assimilation into the host society, retained their distinctive ethnic appearance.
Such, exactly, is the case with Othello – a loyal and prized servant of the Venetian state, yet one whose racial appearance cannot be airbrushed. In spite of his military accomplishments and his thorough enculturation into Venetian mores, an insidious racism haunts him: “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe,” 26 cries the indefatigable Iago attempting to inflame the elderly Brabantio, father of Desdemona, against his clandestine son-in-law. Race, ethnicity, loyalty and belonging thus emerge as key themes in this classic Shakespearean tragedy and it is easy to see how – in the last century – the play has generated considerable symbolic import for those involved in the South African apartheid struggle as also the anti-colonial movement in India. Transposed into the here and now, I would contend that the play speaks volumes to modern-day British Muslims: “throughout the play his (Othello’s) identity is uncertain,” says Dr. Jerry Brotton, Senior Lecturer in Renaissance Studies at the University of London.
“…it is here, in Shakespeare’s rendering of the African Moor – Othello – that we find perhaps his greatest legacy about the cross-cultural encounter that is Islam and the West.”
“He becomes continually compared to the ‘Turk’, and by the end of the play, in his great final speech, he compares himself to a Turk, but one he imagines killing in the service of Venice. So his character remains split throughout the play: as a Moor, a convert, a Christian, a Venetian, a revert to Islam – his identity is just too overdetermined, and in the end these contradictions conspire to destroy him.”27
Will the contradictions agitating the identities of modern-day British Muslims conspire to destroy them? Is Western society an innocent Desdemona – destined to be a victim of the ‘Muslim foreigner’s’ internal conflicts? To what extent are the malevolent whispers of modern-day Iagos responsible for the tensions and ruptures increasingly dividing our twenty-first century societies? These are some of the key issues facing us today and a critical reading of Othello addresses them all. As ever, the Bard conjures up meanings which find a startling relevance to our situation in the here and now.
Jonathan Bate aptly summarises:
“Othello is located on the east-west frontier between Christianity and Islam, with Othello himself functioning as the tertium quid that veers between the world’s two dominant religions. Shakespeare lives when he is read and performed in ways that are simultaneously tuned to the present and true to the text. In our not so brave new millennium, as the battle-lines re-inflect those of the sixteenth-century Mediterranean, waging the forces of global capitalism against the imperatives of Islamic fundamentalism, few literary questions will be more significant than that of how best to interpret and perform this play.”28
The preceding paragraphs should have made it clear that the Bard’s writings enjoy an enduring relevance to the modern world and, as such, I think it is highly unlikely they will fall by the wayside any time soon. For today’s Muslim, I would say Shakespeare’s relevance is two-fold. Firstly – and especially so for those Muslims whose home is in the West – his symbolic value as an icon of English literature is important. Muslims living in Western lands must learn to communicate and articulate competently in their national tongues. Whilst this will inevitably facilitate the ‘integration process’ into the mainstream, it will also – more importantly – equip us with the ability to explain who we are and what we believe to the wider society. In this respect the Qur’an states:
“We sent not a messenger except in the language of his people, in order to explain clearly to them.”29
Secondly, I believe Shakespeare will continue to live on as the tumultuous events of an unstable world continue to unfold. Specifically for the Muslim peoples, “…the thematic and formal overlap between Shakespeare’s world and today’s Arab world is striking. Both are turbulent, uneven worlds of Rulers and Ruled in which religious authority and corrupt oligarchs reign supreme over a largely feudal and tribal social fabric. Shakespeare’s Relevance Today 11 of 14
“Muslims living in Western lands must learn to communicate and articulate competently in their national tongues.”
“Both are worlds in which the power of language, poetry and storytelling are imbued with incantatory, transformative powers – in the case of Arabic, this power has sacred roots, anchored as it is in the Holy Qur’an. Wars, conspiracies, hooded assassins, criminal oppression, questions of kingship, statehood, national and individual identity are all daily fare in today’s Arab world.”30
And so, today, as Muslims across the Middle East contemplate their destinies and stand poised at the dawn of a new era – buoyed by the successes of recent revolutions yet sobered by the coldblooded atrocities committed elsewhere – the dilemma of their hopes and fears find fitting expression in this, the most famous of all Shakespearean soliloquies:
To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them.
November 2004 saw a unique event hosted at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. As part of the ‘Shakespeare and Islam’ season, which also coincided with Islamic Awareness Week, two of the Western world’s leading Muslim thinkers were invited to ruminate on the significance of the Bard for Muslims. Dr. Martin Lings – aged 96 at the time – delivered the International Shakespeare Globe Fellowship Lecture, reflecting on how Shakespeare’s plays “concern far more than the workings of the human psyche; they are sacred, visionary works that, through the use of esoteric symbol and form, mirror the inner drama of the journey of all souls.” “Shakespeare,” asserted Lings, “would have delighted in Sufism.”33
Hamza Yusuf Hanson added his transatlantic tones to the discourse: “Shakespeare’s plays are not about good versus evil, not about a world in which you are either ‘with us or against us’. Shakespeare refuses to indulge in those cartoon caricatures of right and wrong. His plays are too complex for that … It’s interesting that the two villains in Othello – Iago and Roderigo – have Spanish, not Venetian, names. I really think Shakespeare was arguing in that play for an alliance with Morocco against the Spanish.”34 The event fittingly coincided with the 400th anniversary of the first production of Othello at the Globe. So what does this mean for us today? Amidst talk of clashing civilisations and a fundamental incompatibility of values, can the Bard dish up some telling counsel for our times? Do the stringently nationalistic tones of certain far-right groups exclude Muslims from this aspect of their British cultural heritage?
Luqman Ali, director of the Khayaal Theatre which performed at the Globe during the season, says, “If Muslims are interested in understanding and conversing in the higher cultural language of this land and helping to sustain and promote an understanding of the self and a concern for the pursuit of virtue, then Shakespeare should be very important. In my view, it is the cultural parallels and mutuality that exist between Muslim and British culture that offer us the most promising channels for dialogue and intercultural understanding.” 35 Patrick Spottiswoode seems to concur: “I think Shakespeare can be part of everyone’s identity in as much as I think he writes first and foremost about humankind. His colleagues described him as a ‘happy imitator of nature’ – meaning he observed the world he lived in and presented it on the stage. He touches on, describes and explores universal issues that touch people of every nationality and every faith.”35
So what, then, does it mean to put the Shaykh into Shakespeare? A cursory glance at the Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic reveals that the word ‘Shaykh’ literally means “an elderly, venerable gentleman; old man; elder; chief; patriarch” or the “head (of a tribe)”. It is also a title given to “scholars trained in the traditional sciences” and a honorific way of referring to a “master of an order.”36 Given the global reverence in which Shakespeare is held coupled with how people of all faiths and none are drawing inspiration from him four centuries on, I think it is safe to say he represents a portion of each of these definitions. British Muslims particularly – as rightful citizens of the country he lived, wrote and performed in – should claim his genius as their own. Putting the Shaykh into Shakespeare is to recognise the legacy he bequeaths us all.
H.R.H. the Prince of Wales describes how Shakespeare’s use of motifs, when interpreted with spiritual insight, reveal “the inner drama of the journey of the soul contained, as it is, within the outer earthly drama of the plays.” Charles also writes of the Bard’s “intuitive genius for comprehending that the true significance of our earthly existence lies within the context of the greater inner odyssey which we are called upon to perform.”37 These words of weighty Abrahamic truth will ring true in the soul of every spiritually conscious Muslim.
References and Sources: Putting the Shaykh into Shakespeare Riyaz Timol