The Image of Prophet Muhammad in World Literature
By: Muhammad Yusuf
Islam has been the subject of a great deal of misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see this religion being portrayed in old and modern literature, explicitly and implicitly, as an "enemy" of modern good values such as democracy, liberty, and tolerance.
Accusing Islam of incompatibility with the modern age and its values is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, the West continued to see Islam in negative images that reflected what was considered to be evil at the time. The erroneous thought that Islam was an "inferior" religion had been held as a fact by many people; however, this erroneous notion changed with time.
It is noteworthy to mention here that the relation between Islam and the West has always been overcast by the clouds of animosity and bloody clashes as a result of the erroneous notions that Westerners held about Islam. The wars that took place between the two blocs and the misrepresentations created by old and contemporary Western men of letters ingrained hatred of Islam in the minds of the Europeans.
During the golden age of Islam in Spain, the Spaniards admired the Islamic civilization and the role it played in reviving the Greek philosophical heritage. With the beginning of the Crusade invasions of the Muslim empire, some Westerners began translating the meanings of the Holy Qur'an, "the constitution of the Arabs" whom they were fighting, into Latin.
Following his return to France from his unsuccessful campaign, Louis VII brought with him some scripts explaining the meanings of the Holy Qur'an and correcting many of the false images about the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).
Furthermore, during the Fifth Crusade Campaign, Archbishop Francis met Sultan Al- Kamel. Upon his return to France, he openly and publicly admitted that Islam is a divine religion. He stressed that it is illogical and unreasonable to propagate among the Europeans the belief that Islam was an innovation by Muhammad. None of the French intellectuals of the time dared to object to this declaration.
With the Ottoman invasions of Eastern and Southern Europe, an intellectual conflict evolved in Europe between those who linked Islam to the Ottomans and those who studied Islam as a religion not linked to any race or regime.
These historical backgrounds were the main sources of hundreds of literary works written by Western men of letters on the Prophet Muhammad and Islam beginning with the Enlightenment Age and through the Renaissance Age. With the prevalence of secularism in modem times, Islam has no longer become an interesting subject to Western men of letters except for very few cases.
In the Oriental literary works, however, the picture is totally different. In Pakistan, Turkey and India, many poets highly extolled the qualities of the Prophet. The Turkish poet Sulaiman Chalabi wrote a long poem titled "The Way to Salvation" in which he presented a very fine image of the Prophet. The Turks consider the poem to be the "gem" of Turkish poetry.
The early signs of interest in Islam by Western literature go back to the Divine Comedy by Dante. This poet defamed Islam and the Prophet Muhammad especially in the twenty eighth sonata where he depicted the Prophet as one of the dwellers of the Inferno.
The first translation of the meanings of the Holy Qur'an into English appeared in 1834 by George Sale. The publication made great changes to the prejudgments of many readers and authors and helped reshape their positions toward the Orient in general and Islam in particular. Furthermore, the writings of Lady Mary Wortley Montague to notable figures at home through her Embassy Letters contributed to introducing a new movement of positive Orientalism that sought to correct misconceptions and wrong stereotypes about the Arabs and Muslims.
In his book The Fall of the Empire, Edward Gibbon also talked profusely about the truth of sublime monotheism in Islam. He confirmed that had the West known the reality of the Islamic civilization, the Roman Empire would not have fallen.
Although the English, French and German romantic poets were inspired by the Islamic values and themes, they reflected such themes in their writings as pure literary meanings. In spite of this fact, many of them were greatly influenced by Islam such as Coleridge and Byron. The latter had direct contacts with the Ottoman Empire. He closely associated himself with Islam and admired it, contrary to the allegations that he was a bitter enemy of Islam because he had shared in the wars against the Turks.
Byron maintained the deepest feelings of respect toward the Turks and Muslims and more than once thought of converting to Islam. About his feelings toward Islam, he wrote, "Had I been destined to believe, I would have converted to Islam. The most splendid image is that of the Muslim who takes himself out of the troubles and urgent needs of life when the muezzin calls to prayer when he stands humbly before his Creator as if he forgot everything about the world around him." He also wrote an epic with the title Don Juan in which he tells how the hero knows about the Islamic faith from Leila, the Muslim girl. The hero, a Spaniard, wonders how the Arabs left Spain when their faith is so beautiful. He adds that he wishes to go to the Paradise which the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) talked about. On the intellectual level, Byron admired the ideas of the Prophet about emancipating human beings from the worship of idols and the freeing of slaves.
The great Irish Poet, George Bernard Shaw, confirmed that he understood the spirit of Islam and could explore the basic Islamic value, that is, the call to equality. It seems that this call was the main point of attraction to the men of letters in the early years of the twentieth century. Shaw expressed his great appreciation of the personality of the Prophet thus: "I believe that if a man like him were to assume the dictatorship of the modern world, he would succeed in solving the problems in a way that would bring the much-needed peace and happiness. Europe is beginning to be enamored of the creed of Muhammad. In the next century it may go further in recognizing the utility of that creed in solving its problems." In the introduction to his play Man and the Arms, he confirmed that Islam is the religion of the future. Also in his play the Man of Destiny, he compared between the ambitions of Napoleon in power and the tolerance that Muslims exercised toward others.
Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, a new era of objective study of Islam began even though some men of letters remained slaves to the heritage of the Renaissance and Medieval Ages.
The German poet laureate Goethe surprised the world when he wrote in the
advertisement about his collection of poems The Oriental Collection by the Western Poet that he does not object to being called a Muslim. At twenty-three, he wrote a wonderful poem in which he extolled the Prophet. When he was seventy years of age, he announced that he would celebrate the night in which the Qur'an was revealed to Muhammad. The reason that Goethe was concerned about Islam was that his ideas matched with those of Islam. The Holy Qur'an was the main interest of this great poet. He stated that "the style of the Holy Qur'an is amazing and, in many places, it reaches the peak of sublimity."
Goethe wrote a poem titled Mohammed's Anthem in which he expressed his love of the Prophet. The poem depicts the Prophet as a river irrigating the hearts of the thirsty. It also depicts the great spiritual power of the Prophet. Goethe will always represent the spirit of tolerance toward and deep understanding of Islam. He admired the Prophet and appreciated the spiritualism of the Orient. According to him, if Islam means submission to Allah, we all live and die as Muslims. The image of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) in the Greek literature can be found with the great novelist Cazentakes who wrote a poem with the title Mohammed in which he described the Prophet as one of the great personalities of the world. The poet feels proud that some Arab blood runs in his veins. He also highly hails the Prophet as a great man in a book he wrote about some international personalities. In his novel Christ Re-crucified, Cazantakes speaks about the personality of the Turkish Muslim who invades the Crete Island. He clearly distinguishes between the Turkish occupation of Crete and the true image of Islam. The occupation of this island by Mohammed Ali Bacha deepened enmity against Islam. However, the conditions have changed a great deal in the present time. For the first time, the Greeks discussed the idea of constructing a mosque in Athens after they had removed all mosques following the end of the Turkish occupation. Currently, Greece is heading towards positive Orientalism and fair understanding of Islam. Translating the meanings of the Holy Qur'an into the Greek language under the supervision of the Islamic Research Institute in Cairo will add to the understanding of the true teachings of Islam.
In the popular tales about the Crusades in Medieval Ages, we find differences between the image of Islam in the West and that of Saladin. These tales glorify the man for his courage and heroism while they belittle the role of Islam as a religion.
In her comments on how the Prophet (Allah's peace and blessings he upon him) is viewed in French literature, Dr. Ameenah Rasheed states that there is a difference between the view of Islam in the West and the achievements of Muslims. In the thirteenth century, members of a religious organization left to Spain to study Arabic sciences and to translate the meanings of the Holy Qur'an into Latin. However, these same members of the same group fiercely attacked the personality of the Prophet.
On the other hand, there are enlightened models in the French literature-albeit
blemished by some wrong themes taken from unfair sources.
Voltaire, for example, praised the Prophet as one of the three great legislators in the history of the world although he expressed a different view in his play Mohammed.
However, such a view is greatly influenced by his secular mentality that rejects all religions. However, Voltaire used the value of tolerance in Islam to criticize the central French authorities and the church which control- led the life of people in France. He did so by comparing such a great value with the hegemony of the church.
In the nineteenth century, new serious attempts to know about Islam began to emerge in Europe through fleeing to the spiritual Orient away from the industrialized West. Chatoberean, Lamartine and Flobere were among the poets who wrote about Islam. In his Journey to the East, Flobere described Muslims as "having a religion that is not as negative as we imagine."
Pushkin was among the early Russian poets who were inspired by the Prophet's
biography in his poems, especially the one titled Glimpses from the Prophet in which he talked about the early stage of prophethood and the Prophet's reflection on the universe and the reality of existence.
In his poem Glimpses from the Qur'an, it becomes clear how Islam influenced Pushkin. He begins the poem by quoting a number of verses from the Holy Qur'an.
Tolstoy was also interested in the Prophetic traditions which matched up with his ideas. In an introduction he wrote to a book by his sister-in-law, Tolstoy expressed his love of the meanings contained in many of the sayings of the Prophet. Later on, he wrote a booklet he titled Selected Sayings of the Prophet in which he gathered the Prophetic traditions that encourage people to work and earn their living.
Although Muslims in Spain were tolerant, as all the three divine religions demonstrated unmatched peaceful co-existence, the Spaniards were ignorant of Islam and chose not to know about it. They used the investigation courts as a tool for torturing all non- Catholics. Muslims had their share of torture inflicted upon them by the Catholic
School textbooks taught in Spain were replete with hatred of Islam and the Prophet. In his Don Quixote, Servantes distorts the image of the Prophet and Muslims by describing them as "creatures of an inferior quality".
However, in the middle of the nineteenth century and beyond, a movement of
correction of concepts began. Some
Orientalists, such as Ramon, Pidal, Codier and Julian, to mention but a few,
began discovering the bright face of the Arab civilization in Spain. They
confirmed that Spain was the point of contact between Islam and Christianity
They also lauded Averoes for the great role he played in imparting the Greek
culture to the West. Miguel Placeos wrote an important book about the bad
effect of the Divine Comedy and refuted many of the false
allegations that Dante attached to the Prophet. Even Juan Jutesolo recanted
his old views. His novel The Graveyard is an expression of his
dreams for Spain to recover its Islamic bright face. He also expressed his
wish for Muslims to return to Spain. The novel is replete with examples of
love and appreciation of the Prophet.
AI-Daawah (Monthly Islamic Magazine: No.29, Muharram 1425H. March 2004)