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Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammed in Early Modern English Culture.

Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammed in Early Modern English Culture, by Matthew Dimmock. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xvi + 291. Hardback. $104.99

In this impressive volume Matthew Dimmock extends recent scholarly work on early modern England's engagements with the Muslim world, scholarship to which Dimmock has already made a substantial contribution with his earlier book, New Turkes: Dramatizing Islam and the Ottomans in Early Modern England (2005). However, as he reminds us in this second book, for the English readers and writers of the period "there was no Islam or Muslims, only Mahomet and Mahometans" (1). The study tackles the early modern representation of Mohammed ("Mahomet" to early modern writers), the prophet of Islam, who was among the best-known and most discussed of non-Christian figures in Europe. Dimmock takes this seemingly narrow focus in unexpected and interesting directions.

The number and extraordinary range of historical documents Dimmock consults in Mythologies is particularly notable. This makes for a study that is encyclopedic in scope even as it is thoughtful and detailed. Studies of a representation tend to focus on retellings and reimaginings, on how realities are discursively constructed and therefore consequently changing. In this case, a multiplicity of Mahomets came into being in early modern England. The "terrain" of early modern English views of the prophet, Dimmock writes, is "scarred by vilification, caricature and misinformation" (xi-xii). It is unclear from Dimmock's book whether there is an accepted truth, or at least a standard account of the life of the prophet, against which these English instances of "misinformation" can be labelled as such. Of course, such an account is not necessary; the premise of the study could be the postmodernist one of the constructed nature of reality. Nevertheless, a brief outline of the traditional accounts of the prophet as presented in the Qur'an and Hadith would have been useful to the less-informed reader. However, the book most helpfully demonstrates that what is significant is not the representation or the reconstmction as such but the polemical uses of such representation.

The first chapter discusses the surprising number of biographies of the prophet that emerged in the new era of print. Significantly, these accounts of the life of Mahomet structured readers' attitude to Islam. Somewhat unexpected inclusions in the texts scrutinized here are Lydgate's Fall of Princes and Caxton's edition of The Golden Legend, among others. In all of these works Mahomet is presented as lacking the divinity of Christ and hence as false and fraudulent. He is also associated with necromancy and idol worship. The chapter is a strong instance of scholarship in intertextuality and citationality. Eschewing an "epochal" framework, Dimmock points out that many of these representations are legacies of commentaries written in the Middle Ages. To evoke Raymond Williams' terms, the representational lives of Mahomet show how the "residual" medieval forms exist in dynamic relationship with the ones "emergent" in the new print culture. Another question raised is whether the frequency with which Mahomet was represented might have made him a figure of ridicule and an object of humor and satire. This question takes on fresh significance in the light of controversial twenty-first century western representations of the prophet.

The second chapter places the representations of Mahomet in the context of the Reformation. Both sides of the confessional divide used Mahomet to defend their own positions and attack the other. For Protestants, Catholics and Mahomet were linked by idolatry, sensuality and excess; Catholics connected Luther to Mahomet the upstart and false prophet. Theodore Bibliander's A godly consultation (1543) is an interesting example of the dilemma Mahomet presented Protestant writers. Bibliander's portrayal of Mahomet as anti-idolatrous and as a reformer could offer ammunition to those who saw Mahomet as proto-Protestant. Consequently, Bibliander attempts to ward off this accusation by portraying Mahometanism and Protestantism as distinct, but the result was a deeply ambivalent portrayal of Mahomet. Again, an extraordinary range of materials and texts from tapestries to devotional and theological works are studied. All of these texts are painstakingly situated in their historical and generic contexts. Interestingly, the analysis of Protestant histories demonstrates how history blurs into religious tract and polemic and also how those points of contention between early Reformers became predictable polemical tropes.

The third chapter examines the reiterations of "Old Mahomet head," the theatrical property mentioned in Henslowe 's Diary. In much of early modern drama, Dimmock shows, Mahomet is associated with magic and idolatry. The drama thus departs from the scholarly treatises that acknowledge Mahometanism as monotheistic and anti-idolatrous. While Dimmock traces drama's insistence on idolatry to the medieval romance genre, he also points out that idolatry had new connotations in a climate of anti-Catholicism. In addition, Mahomet became increasingly associated with Turkey as English contact with Turkey grew. While the book argues that the Anglo-Ottoman treaties of the 1580s and the generally conciliatory attitude towards Mahometanism that followed trickled down to the drama, it is hard to imagine that politics and economics at the level of trade and political agreements affected popular culture and the public's expectations of dramatic representation to any notable extent. However, Dimmock's argument that the blasphemies against Mahomet uttered by Marlowe's Tamburlaine and Fulke Greville's Mustapha allowed the authors of the plays to challenge and reject all religion, including Christianity, is a very convincing one.

The book's final chapter explores various evocations of Mahomet, starting with Bunyan's, that express religious doubt and subject Christianity and other organized religions to the same scrutiny that Mahometanism had been subject to earlier. It also looks at other seventeenth-century texts that asserted that Mahomet's trickery and fraudulence led to civil war and unrest. This latter line of argument made Mahomet part of Civil War polemic with the prophet being associated either with the Parliamentarians or with Charles I by writers on both sides of the divide. Dimmock also studies books such as William Bedwell's Mohammedis imposturae in relation to emerging English Arabism. While the author is at pains to point out the instability of discourses of Mahomet in these later texts and is reluctant to impose teleological coherence on them, he acknowledges the emergence of certain features, such as the need to engage with Mahometan original texts.

The conclusion briefly surveys eighteenth- and nineteenth-century as well as modern references to Mahomet: Mahomet is an example of religious fanaticism for Voltaire, a romantic visionary for Carlyle. It also looks at the first Muslims to compose in English as they begin to write back with their own narratives of Mahomet. Living as we are in times when Mohammed continues to be a figure on whom people with various religious, national and cultural affiliations project anxieties, angers, and grievances, it is perhaps more difficult to subject the representations of Mahomet today to clear and full analysis, and Dimmock carefully refrains from attempting to do so. He concludes by asserting that the mythologies of Mahomet that he has traced in the book are latent in British identity, a claim that is well-earned by this comprehensive and engaging piece of scholarship.
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Author:Charry, Brinda
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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