Let us begin this column by exploring the early migration history and travel writing of Britain’s largest religious minority, the Muslim community. The first exchanges between Europe and the ‘Islamic world’ took place in the medieval period, which was also the era of the Crusades and cultural and scientific dialogue between Europeans and Arab Muslims.
Nabil Matar’s Islam in Britain, 1558–1685 shows that an especially significant presence of Islam in Britain is traceable back to the 16th and 17th centuries. This manifests itself in the conversion of some British Christians to Islam, in a fascination with this issue of ‘turning Turk’, in the many Islamic texts that were translated in the period, in commerce, and later in coffee house practices. Humayun Ansari shows that some Muslim scholars, diplomats, freed slaves, and merchants found their way to Britain from the 12th century onwards.
Few of these early travellers left behind travel narratives about their stays in Europe. As Jerry Brotton puts it in writing that accompanies his superlative new book This Orient Isle, “no known memoirs survive”. Those who did describe their travels, such as the cosmopolitan 17th-century Turk Evliya Çelebi (circa 1611–82), did not venture any further north than Ottoman Europe and so never got a glimpse of England.
How the rich and political flavours of Shakespeare’s plays are inspired by the Muslim world of his times
In another study, Europe Through Arab Eyes, 1578–1727, Matar translates 16th to 18th-century Arabic manuscripts. If they portray English people at all, these texts tend to frame them as an ‘enemy’ or as a pragmatic but little-known ally in the conflict with Spain. We are shown Englishmen fighting a sea-battle against the ‘Spanish tyrant’. They also capture the (probably Christian) Moroccan ambassador, Bentura de Zari, who spent months under house arrest in London between 1710 and 1713.
An earlier Moroccan envoy, Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri, had resided in London for six months during 1600 and 1601. Some believe that he was the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s Othello, first performed in 1604, although this is hotly contested. Al-Annuri’s presence in England arose from Elizabeth I’s dream of creating a durable and mutually beneficial alliance with the unfamiliar Muslim world. In 1570, Elizabeth had been excommunicated by Pope Pius V. This served as punishment for Elizabeth’s Protestant beliefs and her act of reinstating the reformed church her father Henry VIII had established and her sister Mary temporarily reversed. Following this ostracism from Catholic Europe, the Queen began encouraging trade with Turkey, Persia, and Morocco.
In Sunni Muslim religious practice, Protestants saw reflected their own antipathy towards idol worship and veneration of a holy book. Brotton also rightly points to the financial shrewdness that lies behind this recognition when he remarks that Islam was viewed as “a faith with which England could do business”. Yet the religion was misunderstood and Elizabethans refused to accept Islam on its own terms. The English imposed on Muslims anything other than their correct name: they were ‘Mahomedans’, ‘pagans’, ‘Turks’, ‘Ottomites’, ‘Moriscos’, ‘barbarians’, or ‘Saracens’.
This lexical lubricity chimes with the inconsistent treatment of the Moroccan delegation in England. Elizabeth fêted the 42-year-old al-Annuri and his team with pageantry, jousting, and lavish meals. She had already become addicted to Moroccan sugar, the cause of her famously ruined teeth. The queen now gave sweeteners to the North Africans in the hope of fostering trade, political ties, and a military alliance against Catholic Spain.
In contrast, the English masses became increasingly hostile towards these Moroccan visitors. Following frequent food shortages in the 1590s and a failed coup by Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex in 1601, the jittery London public turned against the strangers, probably the first Muslims that most of them had ever seen. Rumours abounded that they were spies rather than ambassadors, and a moral panic developed over stories that they had poisoned members of their party on the Strand.
In response, Elizabeth made a declaration of protection for her “own natural subjects” whom she described as being “distressed” in these times of scarcity. She disingenuously expressed alarm at “the great number of Negroes and blackamoors which (as she is informed) are carried into this realm since the troubles between her highness and the King of Spain”. Echoing the “great annoyance” of her subjects about the lavish honouring of her visitors, Elizabeth went further to criticise them as “infidels having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel”. Recommending their immediate isolation and swift deportation, she resorted to the device still popular today of making political capital from attacking immigrants. Wisely deciding that the time had come to leave England, al-Annuri and his followers hotfooted it to Morocco in February 1601.
In 1605 Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was first performed. It features a richly dressed man, the Prince of Morocco, who tries to woo the beautiful and witty heroine Portia. He is the first of the playwright’s ‘Moors’, as The Merchant of Venice is thought to have been written in the late 1590s. In the play, Morocco is eloquent and handsome; he is described as “a tawny Moor all in white” who cuts a striking figure. Just as his outward appearance is designed to impress, so too Morocco is seduced by glitzy surfaces. He fails the test set out in Portia’s late father’s will, whereby her potential husbands have to choose correctly from three caskets of gold, silver, and lead. Of course, Morocco selects the gold casket, concluding that “so rich a gem” as Portia could not possibly be “set in worse than gold”. In doing so, he loses Portia’s hand in marriage. Fortunately, her preferred suitor Bassanio is willing to “give and hazard all he hath” for Portia, as dictated on the inscription to the humble lead casket that he chooses.
Matthew Dimmock provocatively (but in my view accurately) asserts, “Without Islam there would be no Shakespeare”. He corroborates this by arguing that the many references to the Islamic world in the Bard’s plays function in part as a kind of product placement. Out of Elizabeth’s cordial exchange with Morocco, Persia, and the Ottoman Turks came a thriving trade. This led to wealthy English citizens acquiring a profusion of Oriental goods, from textiles and carpets to spices, pottery, and jewellery. These “material products of Islamic cultures”, Dimmock believes, were ostentatiously shown off by their English owners, who were proud of the Anglo-Islamic commercial relationship and their exotic new possessions. Additionally, in plays such as Othello, discussed in my column before last, and The Merchant of Venice touched on here, Shakespeare worked with, while transcending the limitations of, the popular but stereotypical ‘Turk play’ of his era.
One scholar, the late Martin Lings (himself a practising Sufi), argued in 2004 that the Bard expresses Sufi ideas. Lings averred that in many of the plays we find an encounter between, on one side nascent modernity and creeping atheism, and on the other passionate faith and esoteric customs. He situates Shakespeare squarely within the carapace of his own and fellow Sufis’ mystic tradition.
Building on Lings’s and others’ Sufi scholarship, some have developed the conspiracy theory that Shakespeare was in fact an Iraqi called Sheikh Zubair. While that is far-fetched, it is indisputable that without contact with the Muslim world, Shakespeare’s plays would not be so opulent, spicy, or political.