Remona Aly
Thursday 10 February 2005 emel

Shakespeare & Islam

Shakespeare’s Globe undertook to present a marriage of these two seeming unlikely partners, in harmony with ISB’s national Islam Awareness Week, which was launched at the Globe Education Centre on 22nd November 2004. Under the patronage of arts connoisseur Prince Turki al Faisal, Saudi Ambassador to the UK, the vision of the Globe and the support of Q-News, the curtains were drawn back upon the Shakespeare and Islam season.

This ambitious and enthralling enterprise was headed by Patrick Spottiswoode, director of Globe Education, who wanted to achieve something quite different. “The aim was twofold: first to explore the political, diplomatic, trading and artistic contexts for Shakespeare’s Othello in the 17th century, and second to celebrate a faith that is currently misunderstood and misrepresented in the media by celebrating Islam’s contribution to contemporary society and British Muslims’ contribution to British culture and society. I certainly feel that we have learned a lot more about the contexts for Othello and have stimulated thought in various circles about Islam and its relation to England in the 17th century.”

In order to bridge the two worlds of Shakespeare and Islam, the Globe invited Shaykh Hamza Yusuf to deliver two insightful lectures based on spiritual themes in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. Hamza Yusuf seemed the perfect candidate: his father transmitted the passion for Shakespeare to his son at a young age and the US born convert spoke of how Shakespeare has been an integral part of his learning and appreciation of literary excellence.

Shakespeare’s England was an England where intermarrying between races was not entirely unheard of, and the play Othello was perhaps a reflection of the situation in England at the time. It may well have been a social taboo but in Hamza Yusuf’s opinion, composing a play where the hero is a Moor was a courageous and powerful statement by the Bard. In Shakespeare’s time England and Morocco had some strong ties whilst Spain was an enemy of England. Othello was first performed in 1604, not long after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.Hamza Yusuf found that the character of Iago may have been inspired by St James, a saint of the Spanish Conquistadors who drove the Muslims out of Spain and earned the title ‘Matamoros’ or Moor slayer. The Spanish for James is Iago and thus Saint James became known as Saint Iago in Spain. This seems to tie in very neatly with Shakespeare’s Othello, whose downfall is caused by Iago.

Hamza Yusuf also spoke of the ‘personal meaning’ of Shakespeare for each reader; how poetry is important as it reveals the intricacies of the human condition. “Poetry is a universal experience – it brings the body and soul together through language. The Greek idea about the role of a poet is that he feels and sees something others do not, and thereby enables us to feel and see. Poetry is almost a prerequisite to interpret the Qur’an; there is a sura called the Poets (no. 26) – ‘Ash-shu’ara’ which derives from sha’ar meaning hair (an element related to tactile stimulation). The ability to feel leads to knowledge.” Shakespeare’s exploration of human emotions and psyche has delivered the Bard up as a landmark of literary genius to the extent that even some Arabs claim him as their own “Shaykh Zubair”, since his poetry sits well with the eminence of Arabian literature.

Patrick Spottiswoode finds that the attraction of Shakespeare lies in his universal appeal. “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. It is why different faiths and different nationalities like to claim him as their own.”

So, the spirituality and deep pensiveness of the Bard was brought to a new light under the glow of Islamic resonances with Hamza Yusuf uncovering Islamic reflections in Shakespeare’s sonnets. In sonnet 135 he found the essence of tawfeeq where a human’s will is one with God: “So thou being rich in Will add to thy Will /One Will of mine to make thy large Will more. /Let no unkind, no fair beseechers kill; /Think all but one, and me in that one Will.” It was an enlightening and a simultaneously anomalous experience to approach the sonnets from an Islamic perspective, but Hamza Yusuf seemed to be rediscovering Shakespeare through a different channel and went on to find the hadith stating that Paradise is surrounded by distasteful things and Hell by attractive things to be similar to the rhyming couplet of Sonnet 129: “All this world well knows, yet none knows well /To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.” He alluded to the importance of love and how Shakespeare looked to the higher form of love for God. In sonnet 105 the poet removes an idolatrous love from the mind of the reader and confi rms a constant, steadfast love echoing the ideal Islamic love for Allah.”

The important message conveyed in the Shakespeare and Islam season is not to convince the crowds that Shakespeare had streams of knowledge about Islam, but rather that his work breathed unknown glimpses of Islamic thought, and through this insight the season seeks to celebrate the beauty of the erudite tradition inextricably woven in both Shakespeare and Islam.

In a rare appearance, Dr Martin Lings (Shaykh Abu Bakr Siraj al-Din), now entering a dignifi ed 97th year, was the honoured guest speaker delivering the International Shakespeare Globe Fellowship Lecture. Dr Lings observed “only a very spiritual man could have written Shakespeare’s plays. There is a hadith that says the greater jihad is the jihad against the soul – if Shakespeare heard that, he would have said all of his plays were part of the greater jihad.” By assessing ones faults, Dr Lings stated, we can be purifi ed of them and that is essentially what Shakespeare focuses on in his plays – the downfall and redemption of man. “Religion teaches a way of return through primordial perfection to sanctifi cation. All of Shakespeare’s main characters are either angelic or diabolical.” We comprehend things by their opposites and the Qur’an presents us with a balance of each contrast enabling us to understand the world and ourselves. The imagery of Shakespeare is likewise one of contrasts – light and dark, good and evil, heaven and hell. In Othello, parallels between Iago and Satan have been drawn many times – Iago as the personification of envy, mirroring Satan’s envy of Adam (“I am better than he.”) and Iago’s subsequent destruction of Desdemona and Othello’s marital bliss. Iago uses an image that describes himself when he warns Othello: “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

Prejudice towards ‘the other’ is often a focal point for Shakespeare: in his plays, Othello and Shylock are the outsiders where today racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are still deeply rooted in society. Islam Awareness Week (IAW) was launched at the Globe under the theme Your Muslim Neighbour which aims at breaking down barriers to the Muslim community. Initiated by the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB) 10 years ago, this year’s national co-ordinator of the IAW, Shafeeq Sadiq, sees Shakespeare as the ideal medium for promoting social cohesion. “Shakespeare is part of our heritage and his plays remind us of the global communities that we live in and the need for respect and goodwill. Othello seemed to be very much part and parcel of the goings on in Venice. In fact, it was on merit he attained his high military position. He was a hero, at once chivalrous and strong and also the object of much envy and vying. If anything, Othello highlighted to me the very nature of living together and sharing space and time, of the cultural interchange and proximity referred to by Shakespeare.

That was the objective of IAW: to open up channels of interchange and of understanding of the person that lives alongside, works alongside and relaxes alongside you.”

For Shafeeq, Shakespeare is as much part of the British Muslim heritage as he is of English heritage. “First and foremost, no geographical location can lay claim to art, culture and writings. As much as Ravi Shankar’s music is appreciated the world over, Shakespeare forms part of our global identity and is appreciated and quoted internationally. Obviously as Brits, Shakespeare is part of our culture, our celebration of our history – children read and act the plays up and down the country. Why should the British Muslim be any different? The music, the narratives, the art that surrounds us is part and parcel of our lives, our aesthetics. It shapes our appreciation, our expression and our dynamics. Instead of Muslims being seen as distant and removed, we hope to see today’s Muslims and their everyday contributions being recognized as part of the tapestry that makes up Britain today.”

After the week’s major lectures, including one from Zia Sardar, there was a free public event. The lecture hall in the Globe Education Centre was magically transformed into a souk in a valiant attempt to recreate a Muslim market place atmosphere. Students from the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts designed the layout of the souk to great effect. Thousands of visitors bustled their way around the souk, passing among intricate lanterns from Morocco, aromatic coffee from Turkey and delicious sweets from Lebanon. Artists displayed their extraordinary work of calligraphic creations, hand woven textiles and Islamic geometrical designs. The colourful sights and hubbub of sounds contributed to an ambience into which it was difficult not to be absorbed.

If visitors found the souk a little too overwhelming for the senses, there was the alternative of attending a series of lectures concurrent to the souk, with topics ranging from the Islamic Architecture to the First English translation of the Qur’an, all delivered by a wide spectrum of artists, journalists and university lecturers. Framing the souk were Peter Sanders’ extraordinary photographic images, exuding beauty and insight and capturing the essence of the lives belonging to those within the frame. The most impressive sight of all was seeing Sanders’ photography illuminating the exterior walls of the Globe Theatre. The revolving images of Muslim faces and architecture from all over the world glided over the Globe in a moving Islamic wallpaper experience. To see Islamic images covering a very English institution was an eye opening and unique vision that captured the essence of the Shakespeare and Islam endeavour.

The Khayaal Theatre Company took centre stage at the souk where they performed their dynamic ‘Souk Stories’. The Company wanted to recapture the tradition of storytelling in the market place, a tradition that thrived in Muslim lands. Luqman Ali, director of Khayaal Theatre chose stories that “explored the human being’s relationship with virtue through dramatically depicting and interpreting archetypal character traits. In so doing they celebrated both the wisdom and humour that come out of our encounter with our foibles and idiosyncrasies and reflected a theme shared by Shakespeare and Muslim authors such as Rumi, Sa’di, Attar, Ghazali and others.”

Luqman finds Shakespeare to be deeply relevant to the Islamic principle of self-examination. “As a reader of Shakespeare, I have always been most impressed by his exploration of the self as a spectrum, at one end of which is virtue and at the other vice, and in between myriad shadings of the two which produce contrast, conflict and struggle, which are at the core of what it means to be human. For Allah tells us in the Qur’an ‘We have created man into a life of pain, toil and trial.’ (90:4) In so far as the Qur’an and much of the literature of Islam is greatly concerned with knowledge of the self, linking Shakespeare and Islam seems a natural outcome of the instinctive human desire to know and understand the story of the human self from as many perspectives as possible. Ultimately all perspectives are one because we are all derived of the same one soul. This is the unity (tawhid) of Allah reflected in creation. Obviously from a cultural and chronological point of view, there are understandable reasons why some might find the linkage to be strange and even antithetical. But that would stem from a preoccupation with cultural circumstance rather than the essence. The cultural circumstance is ever changing but the essence remains the same.”

In the same vein, Luqman feels that Shakespeare should not be heedlessly dismissed since he can offer an important lesson for British Muslims. “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.”

The extraordinary Shakespeare and Islam season has proved to be an enlightening experience for all those who participated, not least for the project’s architect Patrick Spottiswoode whose appreciation for Islam has deepened along with his desire for improved community understanding. “I think I view people in a more profound light and I certainly view Islam in a more profound light. I don’t really care, on one level, who Shakespeare was. I am interested in what he “teaches” or “explores”. In our teaching at the Globe, Shakespeare is a means to an end, not an end in itself. I am interested in using Shakespeare’s plays as a catalyst for people to explore themselves and their relations with their fellow man and woman, their community and their faith and country – I am perhaps a naive optimist. I like a 19th century critic’s quote ‘One touch of Shakespeare and the whole world is kin.’ If Shakespeare can be used as a catalyst for kinship then he belongs to everybody.”

This article originally appeared in emel magazine in February 2005. To view it click here.