NO SHAKESPEARE WITHOUT ISLAM
Dr. Dimmock is professor of Early Modern Studies at the University of Sussex and the author of a number of books on English encounters with Islam. In an article titled Shakespeare and Islam written for the Oxford University Press blog, he claims “without Islam there would be no Shakespeare.” This was “surprising or even controversial to those who imagine a ‘national bard’ insulated from the wider world.” The bard of Avon had got the maiden impetus for twittering literature mostly from the Early Modern Anglo-Islamic encounters.
There had been rich and complex engagements of English with Islamic cultures during the Tudor (1485-1603) and Jacobean (1603-1625) England. The literary era of Shakespeare (1585 to 1613-14) when he remained active literary had been during the Elizabethan and Jacobean era. This is very much likely that the first theatre performance that Shakespeare would have watched in London might be Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, a Turk play about the Central Asian Muslim warrior. The plays written by William Shakespeare would either not existed at all without the Islamic influence or else would be very different from how they are. “There are around 150 references to Islamic motifs in 21 plays – to Turks and Saracens, to ‘Mahomet’, Morocco and Barbary – and the corpus looks very different. Take away The Merchant of Venice and Othello, both of which foreground encounters with Islam, and two of the best known and most frequently performed of the plays are lost.”
Throughout the history plays, for instance, Shakespeare embeds rhetoric of crusade, of fighting for ‘Jesus Christ in glorious Christian field’ against ‘black pagans, Turks, and Saracens’, in order to define typical martial Christian valor and to demonize enemies. Alternatively, the apparently casual references to silks, taffetas, ‘bags of spices’, ‘Turkish tapestry’, and ‘Turkey cushions bossed with pearl’ that litter his drama are intended to signal a particular kind of opulence, but they simultaneously reveal England’s expanding commercial horizons as the material products of Islamic cultures were increasingly brought into English homes.
Such developments were the result of Elizabeth I’s alliances with Morocco and the Ottoman Empire, and Shakespeare need only have looked around the places he lived and worked to encounter Islamic worlds. English moralists were routinely astonished at how the English luxuriated in Muslim fashions like ‘Morisco gowns’, ‘Barbarian sleeves’, and criticized the apparently insatiable appetite of English women for ‘Turkish trifles’ – jewellery, fabrics, trinkets and spices – and the tendency of English men for the infernal Turkish ‘moustachio’. It is hardly surprising that Shakespeare became fascinated and brought them onto the stage.
Jerry Brotton in his book The Sultan and the Queen: The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam relates how Britain of the Elizabethan Tudor had initiated diplomatic ties to cope with the challenges of her reign. “We think of England as a great power whose empire once stretched from India to the Americas, but when Elizabeth Tudor was crowned Queen, it was just a tiny and rebellious Protestant island on the fringes of Europe, confronting the combined power of the papacy and of Catholic Spain. Broke and under siege, the young queen sought to build new alliances with the great powers of the Muslim world. She sent an emissary to the Shah of Iran, wooed the king of Morocco, and entered into an unprecedented alliance with the Ottoman Sultan Murad III, with whom she shared a lively correspondence. The Sultan and the Queen tells the riveting and largely unknown story of the traders and adventurers who first went East to seek their fortunes—and reveals how Elizabeth’s fruitful alignment with the Islamic world, financed by England’s first joint stock companies, paved the way for its transformation into a global commercial empire.” Brotton goes to the extent to say that the whole London had “turned Turk” means becoming an Ottoman Muslim.
Although England’s Islamic alliances had brought Muslims and their goods into England, it was the interconnected popularity of what is known as the ‘Turk play’ on the Elizabethan stage that pushed Islam and Islamic cultures to the fore of the English imagination. The caricatures, splendor, and bombast of such plays dominated London’s stages as Shakespeare began to forge a career, and had begun with Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (1587). Within a few years every playing company in London had its ‘Turk play’.
Shakespeare initially satirized Turks in his plays but then returned to the matter of the ‘Turk play’ in Othello (1603). Partly he did so to capitalize on the continuing currency of Islam and Islamic themes in England – a Moroccan embassy had been established in London in 1600-01. An audience is presented with a protagonist from beyond Christendom, a Moorish warrior-convert, and given expansive Mediterranean geographies across which they expect to see him battle the Turkish foe. At the very least they would have anticipated an enactment of the great siege of Cyprus (conquered by the Ottomans in 1570).
The overwhelming engagement of English literature and England with the eastern warriors has also been due to the legend of Prester John apparently. He was a legendary Christian king who lost amid the pagans and Muslim in the Orient. The Christian world had the hope that he shall revive Christian rule upon returning. For that reason, whenever any warrior appeared from the east and troubled the enemies of the British Empire or European Christendom at large was taken for Prester John. This list of martial included Indian warriors; Mongols; Persian kings and central Asian war hero Tamburlaine the Great beside others. Everyone was taken for the savior John of the Christianity rising from the east.
To summarize, Shakespeare had travelled seventy miles to reach London from Stratford and by 1592 he had well established himself as an actor and as a dramatist to make a living. The contemporary trends of the theatre appealing to the audience were well into his knowledge. He found content and created such literary pieces of drama that earned him fame no one else could earn. The references to Islam in 21 out of 37 dramas that he had written speaks in volume that how much he was influenced by Islam. He thus owes a lot to Islam and Islamic culture for his literary genius.
‘Burushaski’—A Unique and Mysterious Language
”Language is a living thing. We can feel it changing. Parts of it become old: they drop off and are forgotten. New pieces bud out, spread into leaves, and become big branches, proliferating.”
A couple of days ago, I went to Hunza where I came across an old man— a kind and generous fellow. He asked a few questions about the origin of Burushaski language. To my discomfiture, I couldn’t answer his questions. I felt gloomy for not being able to have even a modicum of knowledge about my mother language. Though he knew all the answers, he advised me to find answers to those questions on my own. I expressed my utmost gratitude to him for making me realize. Regrettably, it has become a common practice to use either Urdu or English language at home instead of using our local languages. Sadly, it has resulted in the declination of our local languages.
This incident compelled me to explore more about Burushaski language. After peeking through some articles, research papers, and books I came to realize that some great people have devoted their lives to preserving Burushaski language. Fortuitously, I found something interesting and worth-mentioning. A German linguist Hermann Berger and a prominent linguist of Hunza Naseeruddin Hunzai had taken a special interest in this mysterious language. They published a German-Burushaski dictionary that contains 50,000 words. According to some scholars and linguists, Burushaski language is a ‘linguist isolate’ which means it has no resemblance with other languages. Moreover, a research journal ‘Jareeda’ published by University of Karachi’s Bureau Compilation, Composition and Translation concluded that Burushaski language is quite different from the languages spoken in the neighboring areas of Gilgit-Baltistan.
To put it in other words, Burushaski language has always been unique and mysterious. It would be quite thrilling to dive deep into it to unveil this mystery. Why it is mysterious and unique? And what is its origin? There are a plethora of theories about the origin of this unique language. Some sections of the society posited that those who speak Burushaski (Burusho) are descendants of the soldiers of Alexander the Great. While some linguists and historians speculated that some of Alexander’s soldiers stayed in the region due to their deteriorated health and couldn’t go further. There is another theory that suggests that the Burusho people have an ancestral lineage to the ‘Hoon’ tribe. The word Hunza or, Hoon’za has been derived from Hoon Zada which means ‘born of the Hoon’ tribe. Furthermore, Ilija Casule opined that Burushaski language is an Indo-European language. He further writes, “there are three very closely related dialects: Hunza and Nager with minimal differences, and the Yasin dialect (Werchikwar), which exhibits differential traits”. Burusho people dwelling in the regions of Hunza, Yasin, and Nager speak Burushaski language, but there is a difference when it comes to dialects.
According to Encyclopedia Iranica, “The grammatical structure of Burushaski is reminiscent both of the Caucasian languages and that of Basque (today spoken only in southwestern France and northern Spain)”. In addition to this, Berger a German scholar opined that the Caucasian language has a resemblance with Burushaski language. Some linguists say that the counting and digits in Burushaski language are somehow similar to the French language. Research conducted by linguists and researchers of Macquarie University in Australia concluded that Burushaski language is Indo-European in its origin. In addition to this, Professor Casule carried out robust research which concluded that the Burushaski language is an Indo-European language and it is probably ancient Phrygian. He accentuated that Phrygian people migrated from Macedonia to Anatolia and they were popular for their legendary kings. They migrated to the east and reached India. Therefore, Professor Casule opined that Burusho people are the descendants of Alexander the Great. It vividly shows that each theory has its pros and cons. For some people, it is just a myth while others accept it as a reality. Anyhow, we all are accustomed to using a dictionary if we come across any difficult word, be it Urdu, English or, any other language we always need a dictionary to find meaning and usage of any difficult word. In this connection, an erudite Burushaski linguist Naseeruddin Hunzai and some eminent scholars of Burushaski Research Academy published the first Burushaski-Urdu dictionary with the collaboration of the University of Karachi’s Bureau Compilation, Composition, and Translation. Interestingly, it contains 60,000 Burushaski words. It is worth noticing that some erudite scholars and linguists paid close attention to preserving and promoting this unique language, and their work is without any shadow of a doubt praiseworthy. Among them, late Allama Nasiruddin Nasir Hunzai an eminent linguist who is known as “Father of Burushaski” played a significant role to promote this language through his mesmerizing Burushaski poetry. Late Qudratullah Baig laid the foundation of writing Burushaski in Roman-English and Arabic-Urdu letters. Last but not least, Ghulam Uddin a prominent scholar translated the Holy Quran into Burushaski language.
The above-mentioned writers are the most senior Burushaski writers who produced valuable Burushaski literature and played an immense role in the preservation and promotion of this strange language. Now, the responsibility rests on the shoulders of the young blood. Those great linguists have bequeathed a rich legacy that is of grave significance. Being Burusho people what we have done to preserve and promote this unique language? Now, it is time to contemplate and do something palpable to pass it on to the coming generations.
Mother’s Love in Balti Songs
A folk-singer from Sindh, once said that ‘folk songs’ are the true essence of the soil of the place where it came in existence and the true manifestation of feelings, taste and passion of the people of the area. Thus, you can argue that Balti folk-songs are the natural essence of Baltistan They are free of any artificial addiction or composition. They are melodious to hear, meaningful in their depth and deeply alluring. Balti folk songs reveal experiences, observations, feelings and the passion of people in simple words that are easily understood. They are also a manifestation of the most simple and honest living culture of the area and include human wisdom, romantic feelings, historical events, literary masterpieces, eulogies, satire, idioms and proverbs etc.
Amo-Dalmo Ju, is one such song in which the incomparable and exemplary love of a mother for her children has been described in a poetic conversation between a mother ibex and her teenage kid. Amo Dalmo ju refers to a mother ibex. This heart-wrenching song is part of the vast treasury of ancient Balti folk-literature. It is an allegory of a mother’s love for her children. It is a beautiful narration of how even at the risk of losing her own life, a mother tries her best to ensure that her kid is not scared of the dangers around them. The mother also does not hesitate in giving up her own life to save her kid.
A mother ibex and her kid were grazing peacefully in some mountain pastures. A hunter reaches the valley in search of some game. He spots the mother ibex and her kid from a distance and stealthily approaches them. As he crossed a ridge, the tinny kids spotted him. It was an alarming sight for the kid and he turns quizzically towards his mother. She too had seen the hunter and realized the dire consequences that awaited them. She was sure that it was hunter and that he carried a death warrant for her. She could easily run away and save herself , but how could she leave her kid at the mercy of death. So she accepted her fate and remained with her kid. She was finally shot and killed. The folk song includes the following dialogue between the mother ibex and her kid.
When the goat kid spotted the hunter approaching them with a gun, he became suspicious and asked his mother:
“Mother ! O mother ! Who is that man following us on the ridge ? A hunter ?”
The mother ibex did not want to scare her kid. She answered:
“My son….oh… that one…do not worry, that is a shepherd looking for his cattle .”
The son responded with another question:
“Mother ! if that is the case….why he is carrying a gun in his hand?”
The mother ibex answered:
“My dear that is a long stick. All shepherds carry it to protect themselves from wild animals”.
The kid was still curious and asked:
“Mother ! look ! He has a gunpowder pouch tied to his waist-belt?”
The mother replied:
“Darling ! every shepherd carries his lunch tucked in their waist. It is not gun-powder.”
By this time the hunter had reached close to them and fired two bullets in rapid succession and the mountain shuddered with sound.
The kid became very frightened and asked:
“Mother ! O …mother ! What is this sound. I think that was gun-fire. I am very scared….mother !”
The mother ibex was keenly aware of the impending danger, but calmed her son. She said:
“No my dear. It is not firing, I swear ! It was the echo of thunder from the clouds in the sky.”
The bullets had hit the mother in her skull and flank. Blood started to ooze from her wounds. The kid saw the blood and anxiously asked his mother:
“I see blood oozing from your head and belly. What is wrong with you?”
The mother replied:
“My love! I had rubbed my head and sides against the rock, which had scraped my body.”
She knew that she had been hit by bullets and that the hunter would be approaching her soon. She started to tremble and stagger due to pain , fear of her impending death and the possible fate of her kid.
The kid noticed it and grew worried and asked his mother:
“Mother !….mother ! Why are you staggering ?”
The mother continued to calm her son:
“Do not worry dear ! Perhaps I ate some poisonous grass, which is making me dizzy. I will be alright soon.”
The mother saw the hunter approaching them and recognized that her death was close. Just then, the kid started to suckle her nipples. The mother was in great despair and agony. She could no longer stand and collapsed on the ground.
She spoke urgently to her son:
“My son !….go……run away……the hunter is here…I leave you to the mercy of God….run.” The kid was shocked, jumped and started to run away. After a little while he stopped to check if his mother was following him. He saw the hunter cutting her throat vehemently, her blood was flooding out and her legs fluttering in the tight grip of the hunter. It was a horrible sight and he with all his might, ran away in to the wilderness.