Washington Irving and Islam
Syed Ashraf Ali recalls the forgotten story of the great writer who first introduced Islam to the American public
Washington Irving was the first American writer to gain international recognition. Children all over the globe are familiar with the stories of this great writer. His remarkable creation Rip Van Winkle is one of American's best-known and best-loved folklore characters. The beautiful description of this cheerful ne'er-do-well, who prefers hunting and fishing to farming, and falls asleep for 20 long years, has enthralled and captivated readers in every nook and corner of the world.
But very few of us know that Washington Irving was not only a great story-teller but was also a great biographer and historian -- the first American to discover Islam in its right kiln. The world-renowned Life of Mahomet by Washington Irving was the first sympathetic biography of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) ever to appear in America.
It is true that the great essayist, lecturer, poet, philosopher, and transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, eulogized the holy Prophet of Islam and Caliph Omar in his brilliant work entitled Man the Reformer, but Emerson did so long after Irving "discovered" the hitherto forgotten glories and ideals of Islam. What Thomas Carlyle did in Europe, through his famous lecture entitled "Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History -- The Hero as Prophet", delivered in Edinburgh in 1840, was done by Irving in the United States of America at least a decade earlier.
Washington Irving indeed was the first American to penetrate the soul of Islam. In that he transcended not only the barriers and bounds of religion and nationality, but also succeeded remarkably through his inimitable and invaluable literary portraits to inform the American nation correctly of the towering greatness of Muslim Spain and the incomparable achievements of the Prophet of Islam, Ahmed Mujtaba Muhammad Mustafa.
The renowned researcher and historian Dr. Harold J. Greenburg, in his paper on Washington Irving published in London in November 1955, opines: "Christopher Columbus, departing from Granada in 1492 and employing the principles of navigation developed by Muslim scientists, had brought to America the accumulated wisdom of both the Christian and Muslim civilizations. Three and a half centuries later, Washington Irving, while penetrating through the Iberian peninsula, was to rediscover the proud culture and present it to the West."
It may be mentioned in this connection that when Washington Irving eulogized in black and white the greatness and grandeur of Muslim Spain, the United States of America had not yet been liberated from the dogmas of puritanical Christian theology. To attempt at interpreting Islam as the civilizing factor in Spanish history was undoubtedly quite daring and close to heresy.
Washington Irving was born on April 3, 1783. New York was a small city then, comprising only 23,000 people. For a few years, America was the world to Irving: young, forceful, energetic. But as a student of history, he was inevitably led to the Old World. With a deep yearning to know the Old World at first hand, Irving's youthful travels and inquisitive pursuits drew him to the remote corners of Europe.
In 1804 he went abroad for the first time and traveled all over England and part of the continent for nearly two years. He returned home with voluminous notes and ideas. But instead of starting literary works, he surprisingly tried to cling to almost an impossible and dull career in the realm of law. It seemed the young historian had not yet discovered his own metier.
The attraction of the literary world was far more magnetic. Washington Irving soon entered the world of journalism and started editing a magazine called "Salmagindi." Two years later, he astonished and captivated the world through a brilliant, faithful and satirical chronicle entitled "History of New York."
But the wild horse was not to be yoked through the editorship of a journal. He was to graze at his own will and left once again for England. Traveling throughout the length and breadth of England the young genius produced some delightful sketches which endeared him to the readers in England. He was indeed the first American writer ever to be accepted by English-speaking "mother country," specially at a time when it was commonly believed that no American could aspire to write or speak chaste English, let alone lead literary life in decent English.
In 1826, the "mild, witty and cultured American," as the Britons called him, suddenly joined a minor post in the American Legation in Madrid. During his spare time, he managed to "create" a superb work entitled "Life of Columbus." The biography, which appeared in 1828, led him to plunge even deeper into Spanish history. The Iberian peninsula at that time, just recovering from the Napoleonic Wars, was almost unknown, even to its neighbours. The Pyrenees were imposing barriers. Even among cultured people Spain was completely misunderstood and often dismissed in a word. The glorious history and heritage of Muslim Spain was shrouded with hatred and ignorance, shadow and mystery.
A researcher of the first water as he was, Irving left no stone unturned to unravel the hidden glories of the forgotten Spain. But in Madrid, he could only scratch the surface of the ancient Spanish world. It was in Andalusia that the golden history was revealed in true colours.
In May 1829, Irving reached Granada, the last seat of Muslim power in Spain and the most romantic city in the country. The luxurious "Naga" and snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains in the freshness of spring enthralled the young genius. It was here that his imagination was given full reign and sway. Three of his world-renowned works were to see the light of day – priceless and inimitable gifts not only to Spain, but also to Islam and to the world.
At the invitation of the governor, Irving was permitted to live within the palace of Alhambra, reduced almost to ruins through centuries of neglect, malice, and hatred. But even this dilapidated ruin fascinated the great historian to such an extent that he admitted: "Never in my life have I had so delicious an abode and never can I expect to meet such another."
The palace was but a mere skeleton of what it was, an apology for its world -- renowned grandeur and beauty. It was overrun with gypsies and peasants, and even animals, both wild and domesticated. One of the towers had been ruined by the soldiers of Napoleon. King Charles V had earlier foolishly demolished part of the building in order to build a monstrous edifice which the over-zealous king could never finish. The enduring and beautiful al-hambra (red stucco) with which the magnificent palace was built was literally crumbling to pieces and fading away like the baseless fabric of vision.
Keats claimed: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter." Irving firmly believed in it and welcomed the serene and sublime "Interrupted Melody in Stucco" called Alhambra. His earnest response to the frantic appeal of the despised and neglected beauty was entitled Tales of Alhambra. In this unrivalled research-work Irving took meticulous efforts and splendidly narrated in earnest details the forgotten glories and tradition not only of Alhambra but also of Muslim Spain. Dr. Greenburg rightly claims: "Irving accomplished for Spain what the Thousand and One Nights had done for Baghdad. The Arabian poet Ibn Sa'id had sung of the charms of Andalusia centuries ago; now Washington Irving was to reintroduce the lost world of (Spanish) Islam."
The Tales of Alhambra, at once a biography, a history, a treatise on archaeology and a romance, portrays in true perspective the Muslim civilization of Spain. In Irving own words: "As I sat watching the effect of the declining daylight upon this Moorish pile, I was led into a consideration of the light, elegant and voluptuous character prevalent throughout its internal architecture, and to contrast it with the grand but gloomy solemnity of the Gothic edifices reared by the Spanish conquerors. The very architecture thus bespeaks the opposite and irreconcilable natures of the two warlike people who so long battled here for the mastery of the peninsula.
"By degrees I fell into a course of musing upon the singular fortunes of the Arabian or Morisco-Spaniards, whole existence is a tale that is told, and certainly forms one of the most anomalous yet splendid episodes in history."
To Irving, the Alhambra, more than anything else, symbolized the Muslim imprint upon Spain. His research on Columbus had taken him to Seville. The Alhambra, teeming with a thousand dreams and memories, led him to two other classic creations entitled Legends of the Conquest of Spain and The Conquest of Granada, the very first Western books to portray in true perspective the Muslim civilizations of the Iberian peninsula.
The Tales of Alhambra, through which the timeless monument once again became a living abode, rendered a yeoman's services. This unique work attracted the attention of the Western world and evoked much-needed sympathy from them, which led to the restoration and renovation of the hitherto forgotten Alhambra, and it soon spread to other important relics such as Alcazars of Seville and Toledo and the Great Mosque of Cordova.
The services rendered by The Conquest of Granada and The Legends of the Conquest of Spain were in no way inferior to that of The Tales of Alhambra. Dr. Greenburg explains: "Until this time, the Arab-Christian wars had received no fair treatment in the Occident. The Muslims were invariably dismissed as pagans, the Christians portrayed as staunch upholders of the Cross and the holy faith. And Irving was at last to bridge the wide abyss between them, characterizing them all as heroic actors in the great tragic drama which was to bring the Age of Enlightenment to an end in Spain and darken the light of the Spanish Renaissance."
To read The Conquest of Granada is to weep with the tragedy of a lost civilization. Rarely has history been so dramatically presented with an insight and ingenuity which brings to life a most colourful and splendid era.
The thirst for knowledge in the realm of Islam then led Irving to the most towering personality in the annals a civilization -- the holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). With the same extraordinary zeal which had characterized his literary portraits of the Alhambra, Granada, and Cordova, Irving embarked upon a still more difficult task -- the strenuous and risky effort to present an unbiased biography of the holy Prophet of Islam. The result was a historic success.
His monumental creation entitled The Life of Mahomet was indeed the first sympathetic biography of the Prophet of Islam ever to appear in the American continents. The powerful pen of Irving paints a vivid and scintillating picture of the forceful personality of the holy Prophet: "His intellectual qualities were undoubtedly of an extraordinary kind. He had quick apprehension, a retentive memory, a vivid imagination, and an inventive genius. Owing but little to education, he had quickened and informed his mind by close observation, and storied it with a great variety of knowledge concerning the systems of religion current in his day, or handed down by tradition from antiquity. His ordinary discourse was grave and sententious, abounding with those aphorisms and apologies so popular among the Arabs; at times he was excited and eloquent, and his eloquence was aided by a voice musical and sonorous.
"He was sober and abstemious in his diet, and a rigorous observer of fasts. He indulged in no magnificence of apparel, the ostentation of a petty mind; neither was his simplicity in dress affected, but the result of a real disregard to distinction from so trivial a source. His garments were sometimes of wool; sometimes of the striped cotton of Yemen; and were often patched.
"It is this perfect abnegation of self, connected with his heartfelt piety, running throughout the various phases of his fortune... The early aspirations of his spirit continually returned and bore him above all earthy things. Prayer, that vital duty of Islam, and that infallible purifier of the soul, was his constant practice."
Completing his portrayal of the holy Prophet, Irving describes beautifully: "When he hung over the death-bed of his infant son Ibrahim, resignation to the Will of God was exhibited in his conduct under this keenest of afflictions; and the hope of soon rejoining his child in paradise was his consolation. When he followed him to the grave, he invoked his spirit, in the awful examination of the tomb, to hold fast to the foundations of the faith, the Unity of God, and his own mission as a Prophet."
Long before The Life of Mahomet saw the light of day, a few passages were printed to prepare the public for something totally different from what they had hitherto known. The reaction was spontaneous and its praises were already being sung in New York. A typical report claimed: "For variety, adventure, and characteristic traits of a singular people, and the wonderful imposition of a strange religion upon the world, it is hardly possible to imagine a more stirring narrative. The essence of Romance pervades the solid structure of History ... it is throughout redolent of the East."
The Life of Mahomet culminated Washington Irving's portraits of Muslim Spain and Islam. But what he had created was enough to introduce Islam in its right kiln and perspective to the Americans. He had been the first American truly to discover Islam. Columbus discovered America for Spain. Irving rediscovered Spain, especially Muslim Spain, for the Americans.
Syed Ashraf Ali is former Director General, Islamic Foundation, Bangladesh.