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Reviewed by:
  • Literary Orientalism: A Companion
  • Geoffrey Nash
Literary Orientalism: A Companion. By A. R. Kidwai. New Delhi: Viva Books, 2009. ISBN: 978813091264-6. Pp. xix + 374. $20.81.

In his foreword to the 1977 reprinting of Byron Porter Smith's pioneering Islam in English Literature, A. Farrukh wrote:

It is very strange indeed that even the most tolerant and objective writers on Islam often pay respect to Islam as a civilization, culture, social system and moral code but seldom as a religion. Muhammad becomes with them a model of sound character, honesty, earnestness, valour and steadfastness, but not a Prophet! To explain this paradox one need not go far beyond the historical enmity between the West and the East.

A. R. Kidwai agrees that while literary Orientalism 'stands for the depiction of the Orient/Orientalism in Western literary texts' it is the case that 'the divide [between the Muslim World and the West] is habitually inscribed in literary texts'. Once a little-known subfield of English that nevertheless inspired classic scholarly tomes such as Samuel Chew's The Crescent and the Rose, and Dorothee Metlitzki's Matter of Araby in Medieval England, literary Orientalism took off after the publication of Said's Orientalism in 1978. Kidwai opines that since 1980 at least 400 doctoral dissertations have been produced in this area. As a bibliographical overview, though no claim is made to completeness, Literary Orientalism cites a great many titles on the subject, taking up over three hundred pages, including most of those that are now canonical, as well as books, articles and dissertations on the Orientalist element in over forty individual literary authors. Alongside discussions of established literary genres, including travel literature and histories, passing reference is made to painting and film. [End Page 189]

It is perhaps not surprising that, as a specialist in Romanticism, specifically Byron's Oriental Tales, and past contributor to The Byron Journal, Kidwai devotes ten pages of his forty-page introduction to Romantic authors. Byron has the highest number of citations for a single author, with eighty-four book/article references and twenty-three dissertation references. The introduction links Byron's Orientalism to Lady Wortley Montagu's Embassy Letters, asserting that 'both writers make a clear break with the conventionally prejudiced view of Islam', a view Saree Makdisi partially upholds, for Byron at least, in Romantic Imperialism when he speaks of Byron's Orient as existing as its own space, squeezed by the threatening power of the West 'but nevertheless still clinging to its own life […] structures […] and meanings, distinct from the [West's] homogenizing modernity'. The contrast Makdisi makes between Byron's and Shelley's positions on Orientalism and imperialism is of course well known, and is endorsed in this volume in a section under the heading 'Political Aspects of Orientalism in the Romantic Period'. Though Nigel Leask rather than Makdisi is the authority Kidwai quotes, he sees the work of James Mill as integral to the negative representations of India that 'swayed' Southey and Shelley, placing Byron 'at the other end of the scale', his 'Turkish Tales' appearing 'to question the validity of assumptions underlying this project'. The precise situating of Wordsworth in the Romantic/imperialism debate is of course still contested. In Literary Orientalism attention is paid to a discussion of Wordsworth's attitudes towards Arab civilization in an article by Yousef Tarawreh in the International Journal of Islamic and Arabic Studies – specifically lines 86–102, on the dream of the Arab, of Book V of The Prelude. Kidwai notes that 'the Arab […] has answers to the dreamer's questions, signifying the opening of doors of dialogue and communication between the West and the Islamic world'. He concludes that Wordsworth's treatment of the Islamic world in The Prelude 'is markedly positive'.

This foregrounding of the positive note is not an isolated occurrence in this volume. What struck this reviewer is the equanimity with which Kidwai, who teaches English literature at India's Aligarh Muslim University, treats so much material that is to varying degrees biased against the faith and culture of Islam. Speaking of Tennyson's liberal poem on comparative religion, 'Akbar's Dream', he notes that the poet...


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