1The present article is the first of a series I wish to devote to examining George Eliot’s perception of Islam at a time when many Victorian thinkers vigorously debated the definition, origins and specificities of Islamic culture. Using as my primary sources Eliot’s notebooks, letters, journals, book reviews and essays, I will demonstrate that Eliot’s initial curiosity about Islam arose in conjunction with her keener, more sympathetic interest in Judaism. I shall also try to determine whether Eliot’s reading of English and European intellectuals interested in Islamic culture had any impact on her own attitude towards Islam. Indeed, while Eliot’s various and dispersed comments often reflect a shallow, essentially prejudiced view of the matter, her writing in fact evolved towards more tolerant views over the years.
2In her youth, and during her evangelical period, Eliot’s view of Islam seems to have been no different from that generally held by her coreligionists. The term ‘Islam’ in fact was little used among the Evangelicals and other intellectual circles that believed the prophet Mohammed to be an imposter—and therefore focused on his person and his followers as fanatics forming a sect rather than a religion. In a letter to her Calvinist teacher, Miss Lewis, dated May 21, 1840, in which Eliot outlines her projected chart of ecclesiastical history, she claims she will not go beyond the year 606 because by then ‘mahommedanism became a besom of destruction in the hand of the Lord, and completely altered the aspect of ecclesiastical history’ (Cross 32). Clearly, Mohammed and his religion ‘Mahommedanism’ were perceived negatively by the young Calvinist Mary Ann Evans.
- 1 Deutsch was Eliot’s teacher of Hebrew and also a valuable source of information for the writing of (...)
3Although Eliot might have been curious to learn more about Islam as a religion earlier in life, evidence of her interest coincides with her getting acquainted with and coached by Emanuel Deutsch1 in preparation for the writing of Daniel Deronda in the 1870s. More specifically, her exploration of Islam seems to have arisen in relation with her quest for a better understanding of Judaism. Interestingly, on Judaism as on Islam, Eliot’s opinions seem to have altered significantly between 1840 and 1870. Indeed, her 1848 letter to J. Sibree conveys Eliot’s intellectual flirtation with what would today be associated with ‘anti-Semitism’:
- 2 Another interesting source of information on the Egyptian origin of monotheism is Freud’s book Mose (...)
I bow to the supremacy of Hebrew poetry, but much of their early mythology, and almost all their history, is utterly revolting. Their stock has produced a Moses and a Jesus; but Moses was impregnated with Egyptian philosophy, and Jesus is venerated and adored by us only for that wherein He transcended or resisted Judaism. The very exaltation of their idea of a national deity into a spiritual monotheism seems to have been borrowed from the other Oriental tribes. Everything specifically Jewish is of a low grade. (qtd. in Cross 88)2
4However, twenty-eight years later, on October 29, 1876, Eliot sounds more knowledgeable and more tolerant in her letter to the American abolitionist novelist H. B. Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852):
But precisely because I felt that the usual attitude of Christians towards Jews is—I hardly know whether to say more impious or more stupid, when viewed in the light of their professed principles, I therefore felt urged to treat Jews with such sympathy and understanding as my nature and knowledge could attain to. Moreover, not only towards the Jews, but towards all Oriental peoples with whom we English come in contact, a spirit of arrogance and contemptuous dictatorialness is observable which has become a national disgrace to us . . . But towards the Hebrews we western people, who have been reared in Christianity, have a peculiar debt, and, whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religious and moral sentiment. (qtd. in Cross 653)
5Most of what we know today of Eliot’s interest in Islam is derived from her notebooks, the marginalia found in the books she read, and a few significant observations in her essays and novels. One of her sources for reflection was Emanuel Deutsch’s essay ‘Islam’ (1869) which partly originated in his review of Aloys Sprenger’s The Life of Mohammad, from Original Sources (1851). Eliot’s copy of Sprenger’s three biographical volumes about the life of Mohammad seems to have been presented to her as a gift by Deutsch, as it bears ‘his signature . . . on the title page of the first volume’ (Irwin 388). One of Deutsch’s objectives in writing ‘Islam’, as he himself acknowledged, was to prove that ‘Mohammedanism owes more to Judaism than either to Heathenism or to Christianity . . . we think Islam neither more nor less than Judaism as adapted to Arabia—plus the apostleship of Jesus and Mohammed. Nay, we verily believe that a great deal of such Christianity as has found its way into the Koran, has found it through Jewish channels’ (‘Islam’, 64). Similarly, most of the notes about Islam that Eliot recorded from her reading of Deutsch, Sprenger or Munk seem to be exclusively interested in confirming her mentor’s thesis that Islam is nothing more than ‘Judaism as adapted to Arabia’ (‘Islam’, 64).
- 3 When translated into English the quoted German expression means: “If you ask us who is God, we answ (...)
6Eliot’s first note concerning the etymology of the word Allah as entered in her notebooks reads: ‘The Çufis who developed Mohammed’s idea, fell on the same sort of expression as the Jehovists. “wenn du uns fragst, wer Gott ist, so antworten wir: Howa, howa, i.e. er ist er.” (howayya = Ipseität)’ (qtd. in Irwin 39).3 Munk’s own commentary on the etymology of the name YAHWE refers to Exodus iii, 13–14: ‘And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, the God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, what is his name? What shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM’ (qtd. in Irwin 39). Although considering it as ‘insufficiently recognized yet’, Deutsch nonetheless admits the existence of a ‘testimony’ that fully proves the Egyptian origin of monotheism, as he wrote in his essay ‘Egypt, Ancient and Modern’ (1865): ‘And the initiated [ancient Egyptians] took their sublime Confession of Faith, inscribed upon a scroll, with them even into the grave. The name of the One God, however, is not mentioned on it, but is expressed only in the circumlocution, Nuk pu Nuk—’I am he who I am’. Who does not instantly remember the awful ‘I am that I am’ sounding from amid the flames of the bush?’ (‘Egypt, Ancient and Modern’, 178) This information, which was also noted down by Eliot in her notebooks (Irwin 288), was likely to have dethroned Deutsch’s claim to the monopoly of monotheism by Judaism, but it was not taken into consideration or developed any further either by himself or Eliot.
- 4 The correct form and order of the Muslim shahada is la ilaha illa Allah. This first half means: the (...)
7Regarding Eliot’s interest for the etymology of the word ‘Allah’, it is worth noting at this point her puzzling use of the Islamic shahada (or declaration of faith) to sign off one of her letters to her publisher John Blackwood on October 29, 1871. One wonders what made her recall and use this sacred, fundamental Islamic formula, though in a somewhat jumbled order and in such an entirely irrelevant context: ‘As for me, I get more and more unable to be anything more than a feeble sceptic about all publishing plans, and am thankful to have so many good heads at work for me. Allah illah allah!’4 (qtd. in Cross 567) Did she mean to sound smart with her publisher or did she just intend to introduce a pleasant foreign, exotic or oriental note or touch to her discourse? Of course, owing to the lack of sufficient information, we can only speculate in this case. Perhaps much more intriguing than the above shahada anecdote is the assertion that Mary Temple seems to make in her essay ‘Emanuel Deutsch’s Literary Remains: A New Source for Eliot’s Daniel Deronda’, when she laboriously tries to demonstrate that Eliot drew from Emanuel Deutsch’s description of the prophet Mohammed’s physical as well as moral traits in his essay ‘Islam’ for her own portrait of Daniel Deronda. From Mohammed’s ‘dark good looks’ and ‘full beard’ down to his ‘modesty’, his ‘great taciturnity’ and ‘heroism’ (Temple 65–6) Deronda seems to have inherited almost everything. While Temple’s claim that Eliot has modelled Deronda on the Arab prophet is perhaps debatable, I agree with her, however, when she argues that ‘perhaps the whole trouble with Deronda as a character is that it was difficult for even Eliot to imagine Mohammed, the product of a distant age and culture, dropped into Victorian society’ (Temple 67). Why would Eliot have then taken such ‘trouble’ in the first place? She never wrote a word about Mohammed as Deutsch and others among her friends and peers courageously did despite the hostile mood in England at the time.
8Three other entries in Eliot’s notebooks (Irwin 289), all of them derived from Deutsch’s essay on ‘Islam’, are worth mentioning here: Mohammed means ‘the Praised’, Islam means ‘peace’ and Muslim means ‘righteous man’ (‘Islam’, 68, 129). Though still inscribed in her (and Deutsch’s) obsessive search for justifiable connections between Judaism and Islam, Eliot had for the first time taken note of the simple, clear and unquestionably positive etymological meaning of three basic but fundamental terms: ‘Islam’, ‘Muslim’, and ‘Mohammed’.
9Both Eliot and her companion George Henry Lewes had formed a network of literary and philosophical interests, mainly European (like Kant, Comte, Spinoza, Strauss, Feuerbach, Goethe, to name just a few), which also interconnects with great names of medieval Islamic thinkers. Lewes had written a biography of Goethe and a history of philosophy including a whole chapter on Muslim philosophers. Eliot had also translated major works by Strauss, Feuerbach and Spinoza and, like Lewes, was very much interested in German culture and the Eastern influence it was exposed to in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
10However, Eliot’s first intellectual encounters with Islamic culture via such connections clearly suggest indifference or lack of scholarly interest. For instance Goethe’s expressed admiration and respect for Islamic culture did not elicit any comment from Eliot, even though he was one of the intellectuals who clearly helped establish cross-cultural bridges between the East and the West.
11By contrast Emanuel Deutsch, Eliot’s mentor of Hebrew, frankly admitted that Dante’s Divine Comedy had ‘unconsciously’ borrowed from the Prophet Mohammed’s description of Heaven during his ascending voyage to the celestial spheres known in Arabic as Mi’raj: ‘Mohammed is not to be made responsible for some of his enthusiastic admirers when they transformed this Vision—a vision as grand as any in the whole Divine Comedy (which indeed has unconsciously borrowed some of its richest plumage from it), but which Mohammed, until he was sick of it, insisted on calling a Dream—into insipidity and drivel’ (‘Islam’, 102).
- 5 This echoes Eliot’s similar use of this word: ‘not only towards the Jews, but towards all Oriental (...)
12In 1840, Thomas Carlyle’s famous lecture ‘The Hero as Prophet. Mahomet’ was the first time that a European intellectual publicly admitted his belief in the sincerity of the Muslim prophet and declared him a ‘true’ prophet: ‘Our current hypothesis about Mahomet, that he was a scheming Impostor, a Falsehood incarnate, that his religion is a mere mass of quackery and fatuity, begins really to be now untenable to anyone. The lies, which well-meaning zeal has heaped round this man, are disgraceful5 to ourselves only’ (Carlyle 1882, 11). And he seems to have done this with great delight, as the content of his lecture shocked many Christians. According to what he wrote to his mother on May 9, 1840, ‘I gave my second lecture yesterday . . . on Mahomet . . . I gave them to know that . . . the Arab had points about him which were good for all of them to imitate; that probably they were more of quacks than he—that, in short, it was altogether a new kind of thing they were hearing today! The people seemed greatly astonished’ (Carlyle 1985, 138–9).
13Carlyle, who had translated Goethe, also quoted him in ‘The Hero as Prophet. Mahomet’: ‘“If this be Islam,” says Goethe, “do we not all live in Islam?”’ and fully approved his point of view: ‘Yes, all of us that have any moral life; we all live so’ (Carlyle 1882, 24–5). Wouldn’t Eliot have equally approved both Carlyle and Goethe—particularly because of her unshakable faith in man’s ‘moral life’? When Thomas Carlyle: Passages from the Writings of Thomas Carlyle: with a Biographical Memoir by Thomas Ballantyne was published in 1855, George Eliot wrote a striking review in the Leader entitled ‘Thomas Carlyle’, in which she not only asserted that ‘there is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings’, but also claimed that ‘it is not as a theorist, but as a great and beautiful human nature, that Carlyle influences us’ (Leader, 1035). Even Emanuel Deutsch acknowledged in ‘Islam’ authors such as Carlyle, Goethe and Sprenger’s fair treatment of the Islamic religion and its prophet amid general hostility and rancour in Christian Europe:
How the silly curses of the Prideaux, and Spanheims, and D’Herbelots; how their ‘wicked impostors,’ and ‘dastardly liars’ and ‘devils incarnate,’ and Behemoths and beasts and Korahs and six hundred and sixty-sixes, gave room, step by step almost, to more temperate protests, more civil names, less outrageous misrepresentations of both the faith and the man: until Goethe and Carlyle, on the one hand, and that modern phalanx of investigators, the Sprenger, and Amari, and Nöldeke, and Muir, and Dozy, on the other, have taught the world at large that Mohammedanism is a thing of vitality, fraught with a thousand fruitful germs; and that Mohammed, whatever view of his character (to use that vague word for once) be held, has earned a place in the golden book of Humanity (‘Islam’, 63–4).
14Even if Eliot generally seems to favour a neutral attitude, neither crediting nor criticizing what many English thinkers and historians wrote about Islam, Islamic culture and the Muslim prophet, she nonetheless—in the following instance at least—did acknowledge a living contemporary Victorian author’s intellectual honesty regarding not Islam, but ‘nations whose culture and genius differ from our own’—as she chooses to put it. In a letter addressed to Reginald Bosworth Smith after his publication of Mohammed and Mohammedanism, she praised the historian for his ‘brave truthfulness, especially in relation to our actual dealings with nations whose culture and genius differ from our own’ (qtd. in Grogan 147).
15Eliot’s first encounters with Islamic culture are also manifest in her reviews, particularly of colonial writings, such as those of the missionary reverend N. Davis who visited North African countries like Tunisia in the early 1850s, and described local native culture from a prejudiced colonial perspective. In 1854 Eliot reviewed in the Leader Davis’s Evenings in My Tent; or, Wanderings in Balad Ejjareed, Illustrating the Moral, Religious, Social and Political Conditions of Various Arab Tribes of the African Sahara. She selects ‘from the numerous anecdotes’ in the reverend Davis’s book two which are ‘illustrative of the singular superstitions of the ignorant Arabs’ and ‘interesting to the general reader’. One of these anecdotes related by Davis is about the eclipse of the moon in Tunis. He describes the subsequent superstitious reaction of the ‘ignorant’ Arabs who believed it was the end of the world and contrasts their panic with ‘the tranquility and composure of the Europeans’:
A lady describing this very scene in a letter to a friend of hers in Scotland, says, ‘I could not but feel sorry for many of these poor people, as they stared, with their faces pale from fear, trembling from head to foot, gazing on the darkened moon with intense earnestness, and at the same time speaking in a loud voice, “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the apostle of God” ...’ (The Leader, 331)
16A similar anecdote could be told, this time, about ‘Lord Derwentwater Lights’ which appeared in the London sky in March 1716 and the superstitious verbal descriptions of which persisted in Scotland and England for many years
Superstition sharpened or deceived the eyes of beholders in all parts of the country. The London Jacobites hailed this Aurora as a message from Heaven to cheer them after the depression caused by the execution of the sentence on the Jacobite leaders … but men of both parties [Whigs and Tories] whose eyes were made the fools of other senses, agreed in seeing in the field of the sky armies fiercely engaged, giants flying through ether with bright flaming swords, and fire-breathing dragons flaring from swift and wrathful comets. They swore they heard the report of guns; they were quite sure they smelt powder. (Doran 160)
17A parallel was quickly drawn between the reddish Aurora lights and the blood of the Scottish Jacobite rebel executed by the British. More than that, we have a vivid street description of the astronomical phenomenon by Lady Cowper:
First appeared a black cloud, from whence smoke and light issued forth at once, on every side, and then the cloud opened and there was a great body of pale fire, that rolled up and down and sent forth all sorts of colours … I could hardly make my Chairmen come home with me, they were so frightened, and I was forced to let my glass down and preach to them as I went along, to comfort them! All the People were drawn out into the Streets, which were so full One could hardly pass, and all frightened to Death. (Doran 162–3)
18More than a century later, and as quoted by Noakes in ‘Spiritualism, Science, and the Supernatural in mid-Victorian Britain’, the Illustrated London News observed in June 1853 and wondered
Railroads, steam, and electricity, and the indubitable wonders which they have wrought, have not proved powerful enough to supersede and destroy that strong innate love of the supernatural which seems implanted in the human mind. Thousands of people in Europe and America are turning tables, and obstinately refusing to believe that physical and mechanical means are in any way connected in the process. (qtd. in Noakes 25–6)
19Even in the circles of the Victorian literary elite, eminent writers could not escape the mysterious, influential power of the supernatural. Citing Royle’s Telepathy and Literature, Pamela Thurschwell informs us that the author ‘has catalogued Daniel Deronda’s relentless incursions from the “other world” of the Victorian supernatural. The novel “is pervaded by ghosts and ‘spirits’, by forecasting, foresight and ‘second sight’, by strange intuitions, fantastical coincidences, instances of apparent telepathy or omniscience”’ (Thurschwell 91). Although Daniel Deronda has been ‘celebrated for its psychological realism’, Thurschwell keeps arguing that ‘attempting to represent the workings of the human mind realistically, through all its sudden turns, unwanted memories and unconscious desires, inevitably brings one into the metaphorical and literal spaces of the supernatural’ (Thurschwell 91). Thurschwell eventually brings up an interesting point when she recalls Terry Castle, a literary scholar and critic interested in eighteenth-century British fiction, ‘point[ing] to this phenomenon as a legacy of the Gothic novel’ (91). These persisting supernatural beliefs amid a rationalist, scientific and technological Victorian culture show that even Eliot’s fictional or literary mind could not escape this typically Victorian paradox and was likewise full of traces of the supernatural believed to originate in the eighteenth century Gothic heritage. The Tunis eclipse anecdote, borrowed from Davis’s Evenings in My Tent, represents a significantly biased choice that was deliberately made by Eliot as a reviewer to ‘illustrate the singular superstitions of ignorant Arabs’.
20However, twenty-five years later, in her last published work Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879), a visibly more mature and more tolerant Eliot spontaneously expresses deference to the Muslims’ sacred Book. Talking of a strange man called Lentulus in ‘A Man Surprised at His Originality’, Eliot inappropriately uses the word ‘Koran’, but swiftly apologizes afterwards, clarifying her point: ‘[Lentulus] might have clad his addled originalities, disjointed commonplaces, blind denials, and balloon-like conclusions in that mighty sort of language which would have made a new Koran for a knot of followers. I mean no disrespect to the ancient Koran’ (Impressions, 60). Compared to her Calvinist opinion on Mahommedanism as quoted in the introduction to this article, her difference in tone is striking. A significant issue may be raised at this point, however: one might ask why Eliot has chosen to refer to the Muslim sacred Book to make a comparison with Lentulus’s ‘mighty sort of language’. She could have chosen to compare Lentulus’s discourse to the Bible or the Torah instead, but she did not. Was Eliot’s reference to the Koran purely coincidental then or was it rather intentional? We may never find the answer to such a question, yet we can say that even if her reference to the Koran and its association with Lentulus’s low-grade discourse may possibly be considered as deliberate, she eventually—and genuinely—apologizes for any such association in the mind of her reader. We also know, thanks to Irwin’s edition of Eliot’s personal notebooks, that she owned and extensively used George Sale’s translation of the Koran which bears a number of significant annotations by her hand (Irwin 436).
21The issues briefly discussed in this essay obviously raise interesting questions whose answers will require a deeper exploration of George Eliot’s perception of Islam. Further research will hopefully lead to examining more thoroughly the extent of George Eliot’s knowledge of medieval Islamic thought, essentially through Judaic philosophy and mysticism, and how the privileged status of Judaism in Eliot’s intellectual life shaped her political thought in regard to both her ideal of British nationalism, and her idea of the restoration of the Jews. This will undoubtedly reorient the current general research interest in Eliot’s attitude towards colonialism and direct it to closer analysis of her writings about Muslim populations living under colonial rule in the nineteenth century.