“We know what we are, but know not what we may become,” observed Shakespeare, who no doubt knew not that four hundred years after his death, he himself would be proclaimed a Sufi Muslim. “Shakespeare would have delighted in Sufism,” said the Islamic scholar Martin Lings, himself a Sufi Muslim who also goes by the name Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din. “We can see he obviously knew a lot about some kind of equivalent sect or order.”
According to The Guardian, Lings will argue that Shakespeare’s “work resembles the teachings of the Islamic Sufi sect” in the International Shakespeare Globe Fellowship Lecture at Shakespeare’s own Globe Theatre in London. Lings will speak in November during Islam Awareness Week, which will also feature other Muslim speakers, while Islamic scenes are projected on the Globe’s outside walls. “On the final weekend,” says The Guardian, “a souk will take over the premises, with stalls selling eastern wares.”
By the pricking of my thumbs, something preposterous this way comes. “It’s impossible for Shakespeare to have been a Muslim,” David N. Beauregard, a Shakespeare scholar and coeditor of Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern England, told me. Beauregard has argued that there is a “growing consensus that Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic.… he maintained Roman Catholic beliefs on crucial doctrinal differences.” He notes that “this is not to say that Shakespeare was occupied with writing religious drama, but only that a specific religious tradition informs his work.” And it isn’t Sufism.
But of course, the Globe’s Islam Awareness Week is not so much about Shakespeare as it is about present-day Britain’s anxiety to appease its growing and restive Muslim population. Shakespeare is just the latest paradigmatic figure of Western Christian culture to be remade in a Muslim-friendly manner: recently the State Department asserted, without a shred of evidence, that Christopher Columbus (who in fact praised Ferdinand and Isabella for driving the Muslims out of Spain) was aided on his voyages by a Muslim navigator.
It is a sign of the times when this kind of thinking is no longer confined to Islamic apologetics websites, but is taken up by the Globe Theatre and the U.S. State Department — hardly representatives of the cultural fringes — and even American textbook publishers. The state of American education is so dismal today that teachers themselves are ill-equipped to counter these historical fantasies. They will become willing propagators of the new history: nothing to fear from Muslims, you see. Shakespeare was one of them. Oh yes, and Goethe. And Abraham Lincoln’s mother. And Napoleon Bonaparte. What? You didn’t know the Napoleonic Code was based on Sharia law?
Sharia law — aye, there’s the rub. No doubt there will be no mention at the Globe Theatre’s souk of the fact that many Muslims in Britain believe that the British government, and indeed any government, has no legitimacy unless it implements Sharia. No admirer of the Sufi Shakespeare is likely during the festivities to quote the Egyptian Muslim writer Sayyid Qutb, whose writings are revered today by radical Muslims worldwide. Qutb declared that “the foremost duty of Islam is to depose Jahiliyyah [the government and society of unbelievers] from the leadership of man.” Radical Muslim leaders everywhere today call upon Muslims to recover the teachings of the Qur’an and Islamic tradition that enjoined them to institute Islamic hegemony by force if necessary.
But it has become a rule of the public debate that such aspects of Islam cannot be mentioned. We must accept on faith that no Muslim among those streaming into Western countries has any plans to interfere with the constitutions of those countries, now or in the future. And if they do, what of it? Muslim Spain, after all, was a paradise of multiculturalist harmony. Shakespeare was a Muslim. And on and on.
The Syrian writer Sadik Al-Azm recently declared that there was no clash of civilizations, because the West was so strong and the Islamic world so weak that any conflict would inevitably result in the triumph of the West. Al-Azm didn’t consider, however, that the West itself would look upon Othello’s boast of smiting “a malignant and a turban’d Turk” and decide that he should go for some sensitivity training. If radical Muslims like Britain’s notorious Sheikh Omar Bakri ultimately realize their dream of seeing the black flag of Islam flying from #10 Downing Street, and continue to advance elsewhere in the West, the fault, as Cassius told Brutus, will be not in our stars, but in ourselves.