The Muslim “Other” in Nineteenth-Century British Literature

Left: XXX. Right: Woman in Red Hijab and Black Robe

Syllabus Production Details

Developer: Dana Aicha Shaaban Contact

Peer Reviewer: Mark Knight

Syllabus Cluster Developer: Dana Aicha Shaaban Contact

Syllabus Guide: Sophia Hsu Contact

Webpage Developer: Adrian S. Wisnicki Contact

Cluster Title: The Nineteenth-Century Religious Other

Publication Date: 2023

Syllabus Overview

Download the peer-reviewed syllabus:  PDF  |  Word

My course, “The Muslim ‘Other’ in Nineteenth-Century British Literature,” renders visible the many literary contributions of Islam and Arab Muslim writers to Victorian literature and culture, especially from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century. Initial European engagements with Islam began in the eighth century when the religion expanded into the Iberian Peninsula and southern parts of Spain in an area still known as Andalusia. Late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century encounters with Islam were generally positive, as Europeans respected and even admired the Islamic civilization and religion (Issawi 143). However, later Victorians treated the Islamic faith with contempt, accusing it of being a “Satanic force” and its prophet of being the “Antichrist” (Randall 120-1). This shift influenced the way British people viewed other cultures and religions as inferior, and some of these views linger to this day.

This upper-division undergraduate seminar answers the call made by Sukanya Banerjee, Ryan D. Fong, and Helena Michie for “widening” the nineteenth century by reconfiguring temporal and geographical boundaries, decentering white British identity, and reconstructing the images of Arab and Muslim “others” in British literature of the time. It also amplifies nineteenth-century voices from the Middle East and Muslim nations who have not received much recognition in British literature courses, especially in U.S. classrooms. Furthermore, this syllabus encourages students to engage in different conversations about the “Orient” in canonical works by British authors so they can explore the varying depictions of people from the Middle East and Asia. This course also helps students think critically about how British writers conflated Islam with the “East,” creating the stereotypes that linger to this very day, even though this geographical area was comprised of different countries with their own, very diverse religions. My goal in this course, which I look forward to teaching in the future, is to expose students to Arab and Muslim nineteenth-century writing in translation and to emphasize how cross-cultural interactions shaped conflicting views about Arab and Asian Muslims.

My course design is informed by critical sources that discuss varying depictions of the “Orient” and/or Islam in nineteenth-century Britain. Shahin Kuli Khan Khattak’s book, Islam and the Victorians: Nineteenth-Century Perceptions of Muslim Practices and Beliefs (2008), has been foundational since it addresses the hostility toward Islam that inheres in many British representations of the Indian colonies and the Ottoman Empire. Also important is, of course, Edward Said’s concept of orientalism, particularly his definition of the Orient as “less a place than a topos, a set of references, a congeries of characteristics, that seems to have its origin in a quotation, or a fragment of a text, or a citation from someone’s work on the Orient, or some bit of previous imagining, or an amalgam of all these” (177).

Said’s framework, for example, invites students to consider how early childhood readings of The Arabian Nights created a dominant set of tropes and stereotypes about the place, people, and culture of the geographical “East.” Rana Kabbani’s scholarship is likewise helpful as it attests to how Europeans used The Arabian Nights to affirm their preexisting ideas about Arabs (43). I also use Charles Issawi’s Cross-Cultural Encounters and Conflicts (1998) to provide students with a historical examination of the conflict between Islam and Christianity. Issawi regards both religions as “frères ennemis [‘brother enemies’ or ‘close enemies’]. Each looked at the other, saw its own face reflected in a distorting mirror, and recoiled in horror” (147). This framing is important for giving students a clear idea of the implicit and explicit biases that existed against Muslims at the time.

As a Muslim from Lebanon, a culturally and religiously diverse Arab country, I felt the need to create a course that will challenge the racist and simplistic images of Islam and the Middle East that my American students consume from U.S. media and culture. Because I teach at Texas Christian University, a predominantly white institution, most of my students know very little about Islam and its history with the West. My course thus asks students to explore what nineteenth-century Britain would look like if we shift the focus from the imperial center to the Muslim “other,” specifically the Arab Muslim “other.”

That is why my first unit grapples solely with primary texts by Arab and Muslim writers from al-Nahda (1870-1950), or the Arabic literary renaissance, a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary movement that argued for the move towards a more “modern” Arabic literature inspired by interactions with the West and renewed interest in classical Arabic literature. By including an entire unit that tackles works by Arab and Muslim writers, I expose students to literature from a cultural tradition they probably have never encountered. Authors like Gibran Khalil Gibran, Ahmed Shawqi, Hafez Ibrahim, and May Ziadeh created new verse forms, short stories, essays, etc. that were inspired by classic Arabic literature as well as some ancient Western literatures. Though not all members of the Nahda movement were Muslim, most had a connection to Islam on some level. For instance, Gibran was a Christian Maronite Arab who was also influenced by Islam, particularly Sufi mysticism (Bushrui and Jenkins).

In unit two, students examine Victorian texts ranging from childhood periodicals to poetry and novels through postcolonial and intersectional lenses to rethink British cultural and religious relations with other nations during the height of the British Empire. The purpose of analyzing childhood periodicals, for instance, is to emphasize how imperialist ideologies and views of the uncivilized “other” were disseminated at an early age. This unit interrogates the Victorian interest in the “Orient,” which was in a state of flux, simultaneously combining a fascination with and rejection of literary, religious, and cultural values.

Most often, British people conflated fictional texts with lived reality, especially after reading Edward Lane’s ethnographic translation of The Arabian Nights. The European creation of the “Orient” and “Occident” established the “us vs. them” opposition, a dichotomy that emerged as a significant trope in British literature and contributed to the justification of colonization in the Victorian era. In Loyal Enemies: British Converts to Islam, 1850–1950, Jamie Gilham notes, “as imperialism advanced, Britons increasingly defined themselves against the colonial peoples (many of them Muslim) they conquered – peoples who appeared manifestly alien in terms of colour, culture and religion” (21). Such characterizing naturalizes white British supremacy as it is intensely embedded in Victorian culture.

Over the span of the course, students engage in several collaborative activities and projects to mirror the cross-cultural exchanges examined in the course. Ideally, a classroom would be composed of students from a variety of disciplines, cultural backgrounds, and religious affiliations; however, depending on where one is teaching, this is not always the case, and I do not want students to feel burdened as “representatives” from any identity category. To that end, I’ve designed activities to encourage their interaction with other cultures and religions. For example, the cajitas project asks them to engage with texts in a performative manner by taking on the persona of a character in one of the assigned works. This activity is inspired by the Chicano/a Studies scholar Alberto Pulido who asks his students to use artifacts such as photos, jewelry, and music to create stories that honor their triumphs, family struggles, ancestry, etc. (Kanagala and Rendón 42).

While my version of this activity could lead to students unwittingly engaging in brownface, especially if they choose to embody the persona of a Muslim and/or Arab character, I would provide clear guidelines to prevent this from happening. Additionally, I would curate a specific set of characters from which students could choose for this project and lead them through a careful discussion about the differences between cultural appropriation and appreciation. Ideally, this project would help students metaphorically engage with the prejudices that Muslim and/or Arab characters – and, by extension, Muslim and/or Arab people – experience.

Another way of achieving my pedagogical goal of developing a respectful and inclusive learning environment is to have students communicate with one another in threaded discussion assignments related to their assigned readings. In a threaded discussion, students respond on an online discussion board to one question out of a set and then comment on a peer’s response. These assignments prompt students to reflect on any internal biases they may have while they think critically about Islam and British literature in the nineteenth century. Another activity I plan on using, which I haven’t highlighted on the syllabus, is what I call “close viewing,” or analyzing visual arguments, where students critique various forms of visual media that depict stereotypical “oriental” imagery. It’s particularly important to teach students to analyze visual arguments on this topic because many stereotypes about Muslims were based on physical appearances. This activity prefaces the talk for each unit and engages students with different modes of media.

Unfortunately, the effects of colonialism remain in present-day forms of Islamophobia and xenophobia. Stereotypes that appeared in the nineteenth century have made their way back into social media and news outlets. Terms such as “uncivilized” have been used once again to portray Muslims and Arabs, recycling and re-affirming the type of “othering” prevalent during the nineteenth century. This course takes students back to when these ideas began to form through the works of British writers who discursively constructed the “Orient” without first-hand knowledge of Muslim and Arab peoples. Reading Arabic literature by Arab and Muslim authors that have been translated into English alongside British texts helps students to see how both cultures influenced one another and how the British and those from the Middle East formed their identities. By trying to understand Arab and Muslim “others” through their nineteenth-century writings, students hopefully come out of this class with a different perspective about those communities and perhaps with even the curiosity to read contemporary works by Arab, Arab-American, or Muslim authors.

Works Cited

Banerjee, Sukanya, et al. “Introduction: Widening the Nineteenth Century.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 49, no. 1, 2021, pp. 1–26.

Bushrui, Suheil, and Joe Jenkins. Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet. Oneworld Publcations, 2014.

Gilham, Jamie. Loyal Enemies: British Converts to Islam, 1850-1950. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Issawi, Charles. “Change in Western Perceptions of the Orient Since the Eighteenth Century.” Cross-Cultural Encounters and Conflicts, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 143–50.

Kabbani, Rana. Europe’s Myths of Orient: Devise and Rule. Indiana University Press, 1986.

Kanagala, Vijay, and Laura I. Rendón. “Birthing Internal Images: Employing the Cajita Project as a Contemplative Activity in a College Classroom.” New Directions for Teaching & Learning, vol. 2013, no. 134, Summer 2013, pp. 41–51.

Khattak, Shahin Kuli Khan. Islam and the Victorians: Nineteenth-Century Perceptions of Muslim Practices and Beliefs. Tauris Academic Studies, 2008.

Randall, Vicky. “Islam and Orientalism in the History and Conquests of the Sacarens (1856).” History, Empire, and Islam: E. A. Freeman and Victorian Public Morality, Manchester University Press, 2020, pp. 113–40.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Vintage, 1978.

The Nineteenth-Century Religious Other Series

While religion remains a central topic in the field of Victorian Studies, scholars continue to prioritize Christian perspectives. This cluster of syllabi provides resources that expand engagement beyond Christianity, highlighting texts by and about those considered religious “others” in the nineteenth century. Through frameworks from Postcolonial and Religious Studies, the cluster decenters white Christian metropolitan Britishness by amplifying the voices of those who have been often overlooked due to racial and religious biases. At their best, religions cultivate attitudes of care, and in teasing out the multifaceted Victorian religious perspectives with which students may not be familiar, these syllabi seek to broaden religious tolerance, awareness, and appreciation.

Developer Biography

Dana Aicha Shaaban is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at Texas Christian University, where she is preparing to defend her dissertation “The Influence of Shahrazad, the female ‘Hakawati’ of The Arabian Nights on Victorian Children’s Literature.” Her research interests include British literature of the long nineteenth century, children’s literature of the Victorian era, global literatures, and postcolonial literatures. She just received Honorable Mention for the 2022-2023 Walter L. Arnstein Prize for Dissertation Research in Victorian Studies.

Tile/Header Image Captions

(Left) Boudewijn Huysmans. [Hand-Painted Illustration]. 18 Oct. 2020. Unsplash. Unsplash License. Full Title: Hand-painted illustration from probably a book about Islam. Most likely well over 100 years old.

(Right) cottonbro studio. Woman in Red Hijab and Black Robe. 28 May 2020. Pexels. Pexels License.

Page/Syllabus Citation (MLA)

Dana Aicha Shaaban, dev. “The Muslim “Other” in Nineteenth-Century British Literature.” Mark Knight, peer rev.; Dana Aicha Shaaban, syl. clust. dev.; Sophia Hsu, syl. guide. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, 2023,