Shakespeare Power and Basic
Photo: Adam Cuerden, Library of Congress | License: Public Domain

Shakespeare: Power and Basic Questions

“The poets can teach us a great deal. We listen too much to our political engineers and social scientists and not enough to our poets.” (Hamza Yusuf)

(iz). If we were to believe the vociferous representatives of the supposed Leitkultur (but also some, negative Muslim ideologues), then there is a deep chasm yawning between Muslims and European culture. The existing interest on the part of Muslims in the extensive works of William Shakespeare alone is enough to prove the opposite.

Even the most culturally distant person encounters the greatest of his language on a daily basis. In Germany, countless idioms originate from the pens of the classics. But only very few know where these winged words originated. William Shakespeare, the greatest dramatist in the English language, can also lay claim to this quasi-everyday memory.

Shakespeare’s language

“The extent of his vocabulary is put at 25,000 words,” writes Abdullah Luongo, who taught Shakespeare studies before his death. “His own contribution” to his mother tongue amounts to “nearly 3,000 new words.” In addition, there are “countless proverbs that we use involuntarily without knowing that they come directly from him.”

Shakespeare’s language is characterised by the masterly use of similes and metaphors, as well as his surgical precision and the mot juste, the ultimate fitting word. This is paired with linguistic wit, humour and language games. “You won’t find anyone who could surpass Shakespeare in the use of English,” Luongo said.

The age of the classic

Shakespeare’s England was a nation where contacts between cultures were not completely unknown. His drama Othello was perhaps a reflection of Elizabethan England. This may have been a social taboo, but, as the US scholar Hamza Yusuf suggests, the poet here made a Moor (Moor) his hero. At that time, the Tudor court maintained close ties with Morocco – against the common enemy Spain. Othello was first performed in 1604, a few years after 1588, the failure of the Spanish Armada.

Professor Nabil Matar described the encounter of the Elizabethan kingdom with the Moroccan sultanate in 2004: “When he [the Moroccan ambassador] entered London, people marvelled at the strangers dressed in white and wearing turbans. Whether Shakespeare was in the crowd, we do not know. (…) Perhaps the visit also reminded him of his late enemy George Peele. Eleven years earlier, both had experienced the first visit to England by a Moroccan envoy. Peele wrote The Battle of Alcazar, the first Moorish drama. After the ambassador’s arrival, Shakespeare wrote Othello, the greatest example of its kind.”

Even if Shakespeare did not write about Islam, he should have done so, Gray Taylor opined in the Guardian. This is because Islam was an important part of Shakespeare’s world, he said, and English prejudices about it influenced some of his work. “Obviously he read the General History of the Turks by Richard Knolle, published in 1603. That is, he knew more about Islamic history and culture than most of us do today.” In the great poet’s work, he said, references to Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, Morocco, the Barbary States and Constantinople, the Moors, Turks – were found at least 141 times in 21 different dramas (far more frequently than to Ireland, Scotland, Wales or Hawaii).

“Even though the Muslim world was threatening to many, it was at the same time seductive,” Taylor says of the situation at the time. For Elizabethan Englishmen who wanted to make money from overseas business, “the Ottoman Empire was more interesting than Africa or America.” The Levant Company, which traded with Ottoman ports, was founded two decades before the East India Company.

And when England’s merchants finally hit the markets of Asia in the 17th century, they had to trade with the Islamic rulers of India and Indonesia. Given this love-hate relationship, it should come as no surprise that Shakespeare experts were writing about relations with the Muslim world well before 9/11. In 1964, M.M. Badawi published an article on Shakespeare and the Arab World.


There is some dispute about William Shakespeare’s religious orientation. Although his mother adhered to Catholicism, which was banned in England at the time, it is impossible to say with absolute certainty whether he was a Catholic or a Protestant. Unlike Goethe or Tolstoy, for example, there is no evidence of any closeness or affinity to Islam.

Nevertheless, he deals with fundamental spiritual questions and recognises the invisible as a fact. Both make him fascinating for Muslims as well. In many places in his work there are overlaps with Qur’anic aphorisms. “There are more things between heaven and earth than your scholastic wisdom can dream of”, it says in Hamlet´. This is similar to a dictum of the Qur’an: “But surely you are given of knowledge but little.” (Al-Isra, Sura 17, 85)

The obvious key point here is an essential humility in the face of the unfathomable cosmos and the limitations of the human mind. In a later passage in Hamlet we learn something about the privileged status of man: “What a masterpiece is man! How noble by reason! How unlimited in faculties! In form and movement how eminent and marvellous! In action how like an angel!” (Hamlet: Act 2, Scene 2)

“Shakespeare’s dramas are not about the struggle of good against evil, nor about a world in which one is either ‘with us’ or ‘against us’,” Hamza Yusuf opined about Shakespeare. “He refused to draw this distorted caricature of good and evil. His dramas are too complex for that.”

Luqman Ali, artistic director of Khayaal Theatre, believes Shakespeare is relevant: “As a Shakespeare reader, I am impressed by how he explores the spectrum of the human self. At one end you find virtue and at the other evil – and in between the shades of grey created by both.” Surely Allah reveals in the Qur’an: “We have indeed created man (to live) in hardship.” (Al-Balad, Surah 90:4)

Inasmuch as the Qur’an and much of Islamic literature is concerned with self-knowledge, Luqman Ali argues, the reference to Shakespeare’s work seems a natural consequence of this interest. “From a chronological and cultural point of view, some may find such a connection strange or even inappropriate. But this is the consequence of focusing on circumstances of time rather than dealing with the essence.”

The theatre director believes that British Muslims should not ignore Shakespeare: “If Muslims are interested in understanding and conversing in the high language of this country, Shakespeare must be very important.”

The political plays

It is part of the tragedy of the Leitkultur that – precisely when it wants the opposite – it can make its most important achievements seem banal. Anyone who studied German, or took it at grammar school, knows what I am talking about. When we are taught classical works, it is usually within the framework of an academic orthodoxy. In the process, their relevance to our everyday lives often disappears. “The reason for the need to include Shakespeare’s works in the general curriculum is that he addresses fundamental issues for our times in his dramas,” Hasbullah Shafi’i wrote in the Islamische Zeitung a few years ago.

Many of the plays of the greatest English playwright dealt with the fundamental issues of politics, war and peace, to which Muslims today could relate, Shafi’i says. Henry V, for example, recognised France as “Justus hostis.” This, he says, led him to treat the country fairly after the Battle of Agincourt. “We are reminded of the clear contrast between King Richard the Lionheart and his slaughter of the inhabitants of Acre, and Sultan Saladin and his treatment of the people of Jerusalem.”

Abdullah Luongo, who published a book on Shakespeare’s political plays, believes that he is significant in politics. “We discover in the historical plays an archetypal model of almost all political power struggles that lead countries to war.” These dramas remain very important if one wants an insight and understanding of contemporary affairs.

The best example of this was Julius Caesar. It was said of him that he was a king except for the title. Many (powerful) feared that he would rise to be a dictator who undermined the ideals of the Roman Republic. Among his unilateral decisions – without consulting the Senate – was that he abolished interest on loans taken out by the common people from the patricians. In the view of the Senate, he had thus displayed clear signs of being a tyrant.

The senators had privileges, including a monopoly on the import of important goods. Could Caesar not have revoked these special rights? Nevertheless, a mere attack on his life without ideological justification would have been murder. Therefore, the conspirators had to find a man whose undamaged reputation was the pure embodiment of republican ideals. Who better than the “honourable” Brutus to embody the virtues of liberty and the rights of all Romans?

“It cannot escape attention that this must seem all too familiar to us in the prevailing political climate,” writes Abdullah Luongo. Any future elite among Muslims, he says, must have an accurate understanding of the inner play of forces in such matters. For this, they would need access to the necessary tools of language in which to express them. For this reason alone, the careful study of Shakespeare is worthwhile.

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