Peace, one and all…
I am currently reading Nabil Matar’s excellent and interesting Islam in Britain 1558 – 1685. I have enjoyed reading this work. I love history and the author offers a thorough-going treatment of his topic, engaging fully with the primary sources as well as with modern scholarly literature. Interestingly, he situates his work within broader discussions of the relationships between the Christian and Muslim worlds, or between ‘west’ and ‘east’. Here is what he has to say:
‘In light of the Muslim impact on English commerce and society, it is not surprising that in their early modern relations with the Muslims, English writers did not express the authority of possessiveness or the security of domination which later gave rise to what Edward Said has termed ‘Orientalism’ … for only after the Ottoman Empire began its militart and intellectual decline in the eighteenth century did Europeans proceed to draw, paint, poeticize and imagine the Muslims in the way they liked. Only then did the lands of Islam become material for orientalist ‘construction’ and for continental and British colonization.
In the period under study, however, Britain did not enjoy military or industrial power over Islamic countries. Rather, the Muslims had a power of self-representation which English writers they had either to confront or to engage … Although many English and Scottish theologians and writers vilified and misrepresented Islam and Muslims in their works, they realized that Ottoman military power had a forceful impact on them and that the lands of Islam were beyond colonization and ‘domination’.
Nevertheless, twentieth-century historians and literary analysts of the English attitude toward Islam have ignored this element of power which Renaissance Britons associated with Muslims and through which they defined their relationship with them …
Herein lies the importance of the Renaissance perspective on Islam in Britain: from the King at Whitehall to a slave in an ‘Algerine’ bagnio, from the university theologian to the cabin boy, Britons recognized that they could not ‘take possession’ of the ‘Turks’ (pp. 11-13).
As an immediate reaction, I think this is a point well made by Matar. To assume the continued existence of essentialising tendencies is to essentialise both the ‘east’ and the ‘west’. That is, it is to remove both from historically contextualised analysis.
This book offers some challenging food for thought. As an Englishman and as a Muslim, I find myself challenged by some of the historical realities discussed here. Specifically, the fact that sailors from ‘the Barbary Coast’ were raiding the southern and western coasts of Britain – primarily as slavers it seems – makes me reflect in new ways. Being a white male has meant that I have come to learn about history from a certain vantage point. Although wealth and social class are often overlooked as key factors within English society, I am aware of the operation of white privilege. Looking at the events through another prism refracts things in new and unexpected ways. It draws out all sorts of awkward questions, some of which include: what relationship does social class, gender, religious belief, race, ethnicity and the power relationships inherent within such labels, have with my own self-identity? To what extent am I the person I am because of, or inspite of, such things?
These are important questions, and ones I cannot currently answer. Ahh … yet more food for thought then! Indeed, the path to true humanity leads through all sorts of interesting (and sometimes difficult) places. And to God returns all things.
At any rate, there are other aspects to the book that I have enjoyed. Insha Allah, I will reflect more fully on them at a later date.