Workshop on Early Modern Anglo-Muslim Encounters: Literature, Culture, History

The Alcoran of Mahomet, London, 1649. Case B962 .64
The Alcoran of Mahomet, London, 1649. Case B962 .64
Jyotsna G. Singh, Michigan State University
Jyotsna G. Singh, Michigan State University
Matthew Dimmock, University of Sussex
Matthew Dimmock, University of Sussex
Center for Renaissance Studies Programs
Other Renaissance Programs
Friday, February 11, 2011

Directed by Jyotsna G. Singh, Michigan State University, and Matthew Dimmock, University of Sussex.

This workshop provided both an introduction to and overview of a growing scholarly engagement with Anglo-Muslim relations from the mid-sixteenth to the late seventeenth centuries as represented in a diverse body of texts and images: plays, travel texts, histories, religious and propaganda pamphlets, royal edicts, and paintings and artifacts. Drawing on these sources, the workshop also explored the nature and frequency of the actual encounters between the English (Europeans) and Muslims, as well as the ways in which these Muslims had a vivid presence in English life and national imagination in the period. It focused on the multiplicity of early modern English representations—both embellished and distorted—of Islam, and how they illuminate the processes of cultural and linguistic translation. A central question was what these images reveal about the prevailing English understanding and acceptance of Muslim peoples within different cultural, religious, and political contexts in the early modern period. Participants addressed this issue in relation to diverse source materials in literature, culture, and history and also considered some selective responses of Islamic cultures in the Mughal and Ottoman empires to Western influences and encroachments.

Images of Muslims proliferated in a variety of literary and cultural representations of the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods: on the Renaissance stage, in travel narratives, in accounts about pirates and renegades, and in popular polemical texts on Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Among these works were English plays that depicted figures of Oriental/Muslim renegades and apostates, cruel tyrants and despots, or simply fallen men like Othello, often in settings of extravagance and excess such as the Ottoman Seraglio. Other examples of murderous, libidinous Muslim “tyrants” can be found in a spate of plays of the period: George Peele’s The Battle of Alacazar (1588), Thomas Kyd’s Soliman and Perseda (1592), Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (1587-1588), and Selimus, Emperor of Turks (1594 attributed to Robert Greene).

While English images of “Turks” and “Moors” on the Renaissance stage were frequently exaggerated and demonized, accounts of travelers, such as George Sandys, Henry Blount, William Biddulph, Thomas Roe, Edward Terry, and Nicolas Nicolay—travelers who had actual contact with Turks, Moors, and Muslims in East India and Persia—also expressed a grudging admiration and awe, while nonetheless demonizing them simply for being “non-Christians.” Other relevant texts of the period represent a prevailing anti-Islamic propaganda, most notably pamphlets such as William Bedwell’s Mohemadis Imposturae (1615), written as a polemical dialogue between two Muslims. Finally, the larger issue to consider here is whether frequently negative images of Islam produced by European culture during the early modern period are not so much accurate representations of the cultural Others as they are imaginary resolutions of real anxieties about Islamic wealth and military power in the Levant, Persia, and East India. Finally, we will move beyond the prevailing scholarly focus on Anglo-Ottoman relations by including English travels and encounters farther east into Persia and Mughal India.

Session 1

A historical overview of early modern Anglo-Islamic encounters, with a focus on linguistic and religious interactions in the seventeenth-century Mughal court
Jyotsna G. Singh

Session 2

Anglo-Ottoman intrigues, Islam, and the English stage
Matthew Dimmock

Session 3

Group discussion based on precirculated readings

Session 4

Rare books “show-and-tell” session

Concluding remarks and discussion

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