Marmaduke Pickthall is the grandfather of the Islamic novel in English. Can the eight Near Eastern novels (1903–1921) of this mostly forgotten Edwardian author entertain and enlighten contemporary fans of the “global novel”, of Pakistani Anglophone fiction, of the “halal novel”, and the titles sprouting from the pens of far-flung Arab authors and Muslim converts writing in English today? Can the considerable achievements and positions of this Englishman in the fields of creative writing, cultural criticism, political activism, journalism, and translation inform, invigorate, or settle current debates about the British Muslim community; Muslim identity and integration in secular societies; and the transformational choices made by convert and ethnic Muslims newly practicing their religion? If these general questions spark your interest, please read on as I explain my main research question.
The Early Hours (1921) was reprinted in 2010 and is the only one of Marmaduke Pickthall’s thirteen novels in print. It is not the only one of merit, and is arguably not his best. There are also Veiled Women (1913) and Knights of Araby (1917). Most of his novels’ titles indicate their Near Eastern setting. A critic writing in The Morning Post judged that “Mr. Pickthall’s Eastern novels, as a whole, constitute the most important contribution to our knowledge of the Muslim East which has been made in any country in this century”.1 I believe the reason that Pickthall was able to make such a significant, if neglected or underestimated, contribution is because he peopled the Oriental settings of his novels with Muslim characters whose subtle selves he depicted according to an Islamic psychological schema. The self of a Pickthall protagonist is attached variously to its nafs (desire), its hawa (caprice), its ‘aql (intellect), its qalb (heart), and its ruh (spirit). Furthermore, he represented his characters’ worlds as structured by an ethos derived from the Quran that he cited in his novels’ epigraphs. This is in contrast to the non-European, “undifferentiated type called Oriental, African, yellow, brown, or Muslim” and presented to European readers by nearly all other writers of the early twentieth century.2 Pickthall was able to do this
Pickthall’s novels represent historical, political, social, economic, and religious aspects of the Near East. Clark and Nash have provided analyses of the historical and political aspects.4 Murad has drawn attention to the Islamic core of the culture that Pickthall so admired and respected in the Ottoman Empire.5 Malak’s Muslim Narratives and the Discourse of English while focussing on literary narratives classified by him as Muslim does not even mention Pickthall’s work, which he seems alarmingly unaware of.6 In short, not much has been written on the religious character of individuals and society as represented in Pickthall’s Near Eastern novels.7 E.M. Forster in 1923 offered his view that the “Oriental” in these novels (1) never abandons his personality and (2) guards his precious “Self” at all times. It is important to show that while strikingly interesting, this does not adequately describe the Oriental self as Pickthall depicts it.
I propose to read Pickthall’s novels through the moral tales of the Bûlâc edition of the One Thousand and One Nights, an original methodological approach I have arrived at through independent research. I will explain what I mean by this after first illustrating how Forster’s critique is inadequate.
Forster’s analysis of the “Oriental Self” in Pickthall’s novels describes an undifferentiated type whose “meditation, though it has the intensity and aloofness of mysticism, never leads to abandonment of personality. The Self is precious, because God, who created it, is Himself a personality; the Lord gave and only the Lord can take away. And a jealous guarding of the Self is to be detected beneath all their behaviour when they are most friendly or seem most humble”.8
It appears Forster had not read Knights of Araby – which received good reviews in 1917 – at the time that his “Salute to the Orient!” critique of Pickthall
Knights of Araby negates Forster’s conclusion, which is unsurprising since Forster acknowledged the limited scope of his essay and the fallible nature of his generalization. More importantly, the work occasions a continuation of the conversation that Forster began, for Pickthall’s rendering of the “Self” is one of the most distinctive features of his Near Eastern novels, and possibly the most significant. He does not render a static self, but rather depicts the subtle selves of characters as they vary, develop, grow or change during the course of their narrative journeys, offering insights into a Muslim world, plausibly and dramatically drawn, that won Pickthall his readers. Protagonists such as Camruddin Agha of The Early Hours and the English convert to Islam, Mary Smith / Barakah, of Veiled Women, further support my thesis and give the lie to Forster’s critique.
As his career progressed, so did Pickthall’s understanding of personal theology, jurisprudence, worship, and the science of spirituality in Islam, giving his novels an ethical and cultural verisimilitude that other writers of his generation – lacking his firsthand experience – could not match. What has not been understood thus far is the possibility that the ethos and poetics that operate in Pickthall’s Near Eastern novels flow from a particular scholarly source hidden in a specific edition of the Thousand and One Nights, which Pickthall is known to have possessed and treasured: the complete Bûlâc edition. In this research proposal, I draw attention to the source – Imam Ghazali – provide evidence that Pickthall claims to have possessed the edition of the Nights in which anecdotes appropriated from Ghazali were included, and give testimony, as well as evidence from unpublished, primary sources, showing that Pickthall was possibly competent to read these Arabic language texts. I examine key themes in one of these Ghazalian anecdotes and show how some of them reappear in Pickthall’s Eastern novels, giving them a unique character that has eluded a precise explication until now.
Pickthall set his second, breakthrough novel, Saïd the Fisherman (1903), in the Ottoman Levant, his first Near Eastern setting. The Nights was on his mind during its composition; depicting a reverie of his protagonist Saïd, Pickthall writes: “The whole of his life passed before him at such times, like a tale of the Thousand and One Nights. But for evidence of the piles of carpets, and the presence of Selim, moving to and fro among them, he would sometimes have doubted the truth of it all, so marvellous it seemed”.11
After Harrow, Pickthall sat for exams hoping to join the Levant Consular Service; though he placed first in languages, he did not succeed overall. Instead of going to university, Marmaduke travelled with his mother’s support to the Levant. As he explains in Oriental Encounters (1918), the fictionalised memoir recording this period of his life: “I fancy there was some idea at the time that if I learnt the languages and studied life upon the spot I might eventually find some backstairs way into the service of the Foreign Office”.12 In Jerusalem and environs, Pickthall found himself drawn to Arabic-speaking individuals such as Rashid, a Turkish soldier, and the witty dragoman Suleyman; learning Arabic was thus pursued in advantageous company, and as Abdal Hakim Murad attests in his biographical sketch, the young traveller’s studies, enthusiasm, and sense of liberation in Levantine society allowed him to acquire the language with ease.
Pickthall afforded a privileged position to the ethos of Islamic detachment-from-the-world, in contrast with the European worldliness from which he was estranged; and, he had “rapidly increasing fluency” in Arabic when he went native. Regarding the fruit of this enterprise, Fremantle writes: “It was in Damascus that he finally acquired his great mastery of Arabic”14
When I read The Arabian Nights I see the daily life of Damascus, Jerusalem, Aleppo, Cairo, and the other cities as I found it in the early nineties
of the last century. What struck me, even in its decay and poverty, was the joyousness of that life compared with anything that I had seen in Europe. The people seemed quite independent of our cares of life, our anxious clutching after wealth, our fear of death.13
Oriental Encounters ends with Pickthall’s emotional departure from Damascus. Regarding a parting gift from a friend, he says: “It was not till some time after I arrived in England that I realised that the volumes which he had presented to me were a complete Bûlâc Edition of the Thousand and One Nights – a valuable book – which is my greatest treasure”.15 Pickthall is writing about events that occurred twenty years earlier, during his travels through Syria and Palestine between 1894 and 1896. His testimony regarding the Bûlâc Edition would have been written circa 1916. The declaration is made in the present tense, suggesting that the Nights, when he finished writing Oriental Encounters in 1916, was still his greatest treasure. In any event, when he received the complete Bûlâc edition in 1896, Pickthall’s Arabic proficiency was good enough to read it, and when he set to writing Saïd the Fisherman, he considered his Arabic a valuable source of this novel’s authenticity. In an unpublished 1901 letter to his literary agent, Pickthall makes a claim for his novel, which he has just sent Pinker in manuscript, asserting that its significance owes to its having been written by an author more familiar with the land and people that it treats than the average traveler, explaining that he had troubled himself exceedingly to ensure its historical accuracy, and that he was fairly fluent in Arabic.16
In a December 2nd, 1904 letter to Pinker, Pickthall announces that since coming home, he’s read only Arabic material, which has put him in an Oriental frame of mind, and that he hopes to start another Eastern book very soon. In a December 22nd letter the same year, he writes about the sample chapters of his new eastern book. “By the Mercy of Allah”, he announces, its prologue is now finished and seems good. In his handwritten letter, he suggests a title – Shemsuddin – followed in Arabic script by the words in sha Allah (if God wills),
The eponymous picaro of Saïd the Fisherman has been planning to buy a coffee-house and leave fishing, but when he is swindled of his hard-earned savings, he reacts with unchecked emotion. Abandoning his humble property and country to the deceitful neighbor who has defrauded him and convinced him to flee from misfortune, Saïd makes demands of everybody he encounters on his way to Damascus, lying, cheating, and stealing as he goes. He abandons his wife on the way and, when offered a partnership in an honest trade by a sympathetic and pious muleteer, grows malcontent and leaves it. He amasses much wealth during the 1860 Damascus massacre, but his vain-glorious mishandling of it brings him to ruin. Saïd is driven by the desires of his lower self to London, where he is forcibly rendered drunk and robbed. He reaches Alexandria where, ultimately, he is killed during the British bombardment. The novel’s moral is clear: a simpleton in his ignorance and rejection of the Prophetic Way has consigned himself to an ignominious death.21 Care for this unfortunate ingrate is extended by the ulema, but squandered by him on the passionate delusions of his lower self. Exemplified by Emir Abdul Qadir, the ulema have an almost timeless quality to them, and staying-power in a time of political turbulence. At the level of government, the rulers too have surrendered to their desires and caprices, rather than being guided by the Prophetic Way, the middle path of the ulema. They too race to an ignominious end, politically signified by European financial control, taking their nation with them. It is only people committed to lives of spirituality as opposed to materialism who are agents of societal benefit; Emir Abdul Qadir, a Sufi like Ghazali, saves a convent full of nuns during the massacre of Christians.
King Dhu ‘l-qarnayn came to a nation that possessed nothing and “saw graves dug at the doors of their houses; and every day they went to these graves and worshipped”, eating only herbs. He summoned their king, who refused to come: “I have no business with Dhu ‘l-qarnayn, and no demands to make of him”. Dhu ‘l-qarnayn went to the king and asked, “What has befallen you?” “I do not see any possessions belonging to you people. Why do you not amass silver and gold, and thereby gain profit?”
“Because no person has ever gained satisfaction from such profit”, [the king] said; “and because it always brings loss in the world to come”.20
There is a logic to all of this, which can be discerned in the Ghazalian schema for the human subtlety: every person is associated with his or her own subtlety known as the latifa, and this subtle “self” has different names depending on its
His questioning continues: “‘For what purpose did you dig these graves?’ [Dhu ‘l-qarnayn] asked. ‘So that I may at every hour see what stage has been reached on the road to the after-world,’ he said; ‘thus [are we reminded] not to forget death and not to let his [sic] lower world become dear to our hearts, but to remain assiduous in worship’”.23 The stages on the road to the after-world that are mentioned here can be understood as the different attachments of the human subtlety, whether it is attached to its desires, its whims, to ethical conduct, to the hereafter – as in this instance where the king mentions the heart – or to God Himself, the soul’s attachment. The anecdote’s focus on death is not without an equal focus on remaining “assiduous in worship” and detached from the “lower world”. This sort of detachment, states a translation of Ghazali, is “perhaps that which the Sufis call ‘ecstasy’ (hal), that is to say, according to them, a state in which, absorbed in themselves and in the suspension of sense-perceptions, they have visions beyond the reach of intellect. Perhaps also Death is that state, according to that saying […]: ‘Men are asleep; when they die, they wake’”.24 There is a similar confluence of ecstasy and death in the description of The Early Hours’ Camruddin Agha, and his lingering “among the tombs in dreamy ecstasy”. An explanation follows later: “The thought of death is dear to us Osmanlis”, answered Camruddin, with pride. “That is Allah’s mercy to us, since the menace of a cruel death is always on us from the Christian hordes”.25The king then showed two skulls to Dhu’l- qarnayn, explaining that the first was one of the unjust kings of this world, who spent his time amassing worldly wealth, and oppressed and despoiled the subjects. “‘The True God on High saw his tyranny, took his soul, and sent him to Hell.’ The second ‘was one of the just and righteous kings, who was kind and merciful to the subjects. When God on High took his soul, He sent him to Paradise.’ Then, he laid his hand upon
The conduct and fate of princes and kings is an important theme in Knights of Araby, as we shall see. Here, I want to show how the concluding moral of this anecdote is reflected in Saïd the Fisherman. “On hearing the words of the possessionless king, Dhu’l-qarnayn wept and said: ‘If you will consent to accompany us as wazir, I will grant you up to half of my empire.’ ‘No,’ [the king] answered. ‘Why?’ he asked. ‘The whole of mankind,’ he answered, ‘are hostile to you on account of your sovereignty and wealth. To me they will always be friendly, on account of my contentment and poverty’”.27 This final moral is illustrated by Selim the muleteer who befriends Saïd and is an exemplar of contentment and poverty. His qualities are recognized by the noble scholar Ismail Abbas, who welcomes him as a friend in the Grand Umayyad mosque. Imam Ghazali is known to have spent much time in this mosque.
Some readers might have a privileged awareness of the moral aspect of the Nights that is more prominent in certain editions, such as the Arabic Bûlâc edition that Pickthall owned. As Cyril Glassé notes in the entry on the Thousand and One Nights in the Concise Encyclopedia of Islam: “Many stories describe the journey of the soul through life; the treasures which are sought are realizations of reality, and the magicians who are vanquished are the different kinds of illusions which the ego throws up to keep its hold over the immortal self which must be freed from the imprisonment of the earthly condition”.29
the whole central block of the Nights, consisting of nearly 100 short edifying anecdotes, has been overshadowed by the full-length tales of love and marvels. European translators have not paid much attention to them. Galland’s translation does not contain this section, and Lane and Mardrus only selected a limited number of tales of this type. For example, Lane compresses most of these shorter stories into the notes to the chapters in small print, and omits to mention even the title of minor tales such as that of Alexander. Perhaps partly due to this, very few studies have been dedicated to this section of the Nights.28
Evidence of a Ghazalian worldview can be found in many of Pickthall’s Near Eastern novels. Perhaps the richest vein is contained in Knights of Araby. With its punning title, Pickthall draws attention to The Arabian Nights, giving a hint as to his source, perhaps, and alerting interested readers. It is a typical Pickthallian strategy to entice British readers with a popular high concept that allows him to introduce them to his somewhat unconventional, and even subversive themes, as he does in Veiled Women. In the case of Knights of Araby, a historical novel set in Yemen during the period from 1066 to 1120 a.d., Pickthall is straightforward about his intentions, which, as he explains in the novel’s foreword, include “calling the attention of the English reader to the fact that Muslims, all those centuries ago, confronted the same problems which we face to-day; and made short work of some of them”.32
A fully realized and resonant historical novel, Knights of Araby tells the story of feuding sovereigns contending for the throne of the Yemeni city of Zabid, former site of the Muslim world’s oldest university. The heroes are two brothers – Saïd the Squinter and Jeyyash – sons of the assasinated King Najah, whose family has been ousted to a nearby island from whence Saïd, the elder of the two, plots revenge on Ali es-Suleyhi, Zabid’s reigning king and his
Jeyyash’s fall and adoption of a humble persona, followed by his accession to the throne and pilgrimage to Mecca have affinities with the well-known story of Imam Ghazali’s spiritual crisis, which was also followed by a dramatic (though, in Ghazali’s case, deliberate) descent from the worldly apex of his success as an orthodox scholar, and a period of travelling incognito, and a pilgrimage to Mecca. Pickthall seems to hint as much when he makes what appears to be a recondite allusion to Imam Ghazali in his selection of the alias – “Bahr”, meaning ocean – that Jeyyash uses while incognito. Ghazali was once praised by his teacher Imam al-Juwayni as “bahr”, an ocean.35
So great was his felicity, so perfect the success of all his schemes, that the king acknowledged that he was in danger of elation, and felt the need of self-abasement before God. Accordingly, when he had set the realm in order and established the administration and defensive works, he turned his back on all that structure of magnificence, and set out with a few companions on the pilgrimage.34
The novel is also set between 1066 and 1120 a.d., which corresponds closely to Ghazali’s lifetime, though it unfolds mostly in Yemen. More interesting is the correspondence of its themes with those of anecdote five (from the Bûlâc edition of the Nights), which emphasises the reality of the grave that awaits every man. To quote once more this compelling anecdote, the King Dhu’l-qarnayn approaches “the possessionless king: ‘For what purpose did you dig these graves?’ he asked. ‘So that I may at every hour see what stage has been reached on the road to the after-world,’ he said; ‘thus [are we reminded] not to forget death and not to let his [sic] lower world become dear to our hearts, but to remain assiduous in worship’”. Once he is king of Zabid, Jeyyash similarly “felt the need for self-abasement before God”, and “turned his back on all that structure of magnificence” and made the pilgrimage “to an empty house”. This is the Bait Allah (House of God), the Ka’aba, the direction to which Muslims turn in prayer. Jeyyash reads Mecca’s history as a metaphor for the purification of the self, that is emptied until its worship is for God alone: “It was the blessing, and had been the curse, of El Islam – this city which contained no relic save its ancient memories of cruel persecution and idolatry; no beauty to seduce man’s
Pickthall’s novels enrich English literature with characters that reflect an Islamic conception of the self and God. Because Pickthall understood the Sunni worldview, he could understand how Muslims think and, increasingly, as his career progressed and he became Muslim, how they felt. Consequently, readers of his novels can also, as is evidenced by the reviewer in Everyman, who wrote in 1917 that, “Once again Marmaduke Pickthall makes ancient Islam live for us. You might say it was the ‘Arabian Nights’ written by a realist. The ‘Knights of Araby’ is, to our mind, as fine as ‘Saïd the Fisherman.’ The triumph of Mr. Pickthall’s work is that the atmosphere of the East is never ‘worked up’; it is taken for granted, so that you walk among these Muslims as a Muslim – not as a tourist with a pith helmet and a Cook’s guide”.37
al-GhazaliAbu Hamid. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058–1111 CE): Munkidh min al-Dalal (Confessions or Deliverance from Error) c. 1100 CE. Medieval Sourcebook ed. PaulHallsallFordham.edu. September 1998https://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/1100ghazali-truth.asp (Accessed 2 August 2016).
MuradAbdal Hakim. “Re: Pickthall’s Tawba: Repentance Erases an Author”. Message to the author. 26 June 2011. E-mail.
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)| false . “ Murad Abdal Hakim Re: Pickthall’s Tawba: Repentance Erases an Author”. Message to the author. 26 June 2011. E-mail.
PickthallMarmaduke. Letters to E.M. Forster. 3 August 1921 & 18 July 1924. MS. EMF/18/430. Archive Centre, King’s CollegeCambridge.
PickthallMarmaduke. Letters to J.B. Pinker. 1901–1922. MS. James B. Pinker Collection of Papers. Berg Collection. New York Public LibraryNew York.
RabbaniFaraz. “The Subtlety Within Humans and What it Relates to.” Islamic Beliefs for Seekers: Dardir’s Kharida Explained Winter 2012. SeekersGuidance.org 2012. JPEG file.
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)| false . “ Rabbani Faraz The Subtlety Within Humans and What it Relates to.” Islamic Beliefs for Seekers: Dardir’s Kharida Explained, Winter 2012. SeekersGuidance.org, 2012. JPEG file.
WaleyMuhammad Isa.Message to the author.18 July 2012. E-mail.
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)| false Waley Muhammad Isa. Message to the author. 18 July 2012.E-mail.
YamanakaYuriko. “Alexander in the Thousand and One Nights and the Ghazali Connection“ in YurikoYamanaka and TetsuoNishio eds. The Arabian Nights and Orientalism: Perspectives from East and West. London: I.B. Tauris200693–115.