Islam and its influence on the bard

Was Shakespeare an Arab?

It has been a productive debate since 1989 whether the writer of the early 17thcentury’s four fearful tragedies, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, was Shakespeare or Sheikh Pir. Regarding this debate, the year 1989 is of great importance. In 1989, the Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi claimed that Shakespeare was not an Englishman but an Arab whose real name was “Sheikh Zabir”. Similarly, in 2016, a Turkish conspiracy theorist Kadir Misiroglu asserted that the writer was neither Shakespeare nor “Sheikh Zabir” but “Sheikh Pir”.

Besides this debate, Mathew Dimmock, a professor of early modern studies at the University of Sussex surfaced the news by asserting that “Without Islam there would be no Shakespeare.” Though this statement was made by him after a thorough research on the works of Shakespeare, yet it is far from accepted in the West. In support of his statement, Dimmock argues that had there been no complex engagement of the Tudor with the Islamic culture, the plays written by William Shakespeare would have been very different. According to him, The Merchant of Venice and Othello foregrounded encounters with Islam.

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Moreover, some scholars of English Literature also argue that Othello, the main character of the tragedy is the distorted form of Attaullah, a Muslim explorer. Some other scholars say that Othello is named after the visit of a Moorish ambassador to Elizabeth-l in 1600 whose name was Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud.

Influenced by Mathew Dimmock, a Turkish historian and writer, Nadia Khan, rephrased his controversial statement and says, “there would have been no Shakespeare were it not for Islam”. In her article, “The Centrality of the Muslim World to Shakespeare’s Work”, she argues, “By the time Shakespeare arrived on the scene, there were already plays; “Turk Plays” that used the Islamic world as a backdrop and the stories of Muslim empires and people were massively popular. There were in fact, more than 60 plays between 1576-1603 that featured Turks, Moors, and Persians.” She also states that though it is not sure whether Shakespeare and the English people knew about Islam or not, but they were fully aware of Muslim riches and power.

A website by the name of ‘Sheikhy Notes’ has an article, “Islam and Shakespeare” on its page. The writer of the article, Arfan Shah, has focused on the quotes and utterances mentioned in various plays of Shakespeare which shows a strong influence of Islam on the writings of the English Bard. The very first quote he has taken is from the play “Macbeth” of the writer. According to him, in (Act V, Scene I) of Macbeth Shakespeare writes, “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” In the same article, Arfan Shah asserts that “Shakespeare’s Plays” were aimed at the average person. And from the use of the phrase ‘Perfumes of Arabia’, he concludes that this phrase is enough to show that Islam was a force, well-known at the time of Shakespeare. Further he states that to use this phrase without providing any footnotes means that the phrase was very common and known to all the audience of the play.

Similarly, in the article, the writer has taken some more examples from Shakespeare’s plays and has tried to show the influence of Islamic culture on his writings. From Othello (Act V, Scene II), the sentence “Drop tears as fast as the Arabian Trees; their medicinable gum” has been taken. The use of ‘Arabian Trees’ here shows the presence of Islamic culture in the world of Shakespeare. From Antony and Cleopatra the sentence, “O Anthony! O thou Arabian bird” is taken as an example in support of his argument. From King Henry the Sixth: Part One the question, “Was Mahomet inspired with a dove?” is taken. The use of Mahomet here illustrates that the people near Shakespeare were familiar with the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

Moreover, in Merchant of Venice, there is the presence of a Muslim character, ‘The Prince of Morocco’. Shah considers the presence of this Muslim character in the play as evidence of Muslim trading, which the culture of Venice must have had. In this play, the Muslim character speaks about fighting the Persians which is also a matter of interest for Arfan Shah. He concludes from this very scene of the play that as we know of the fight between the Ottomans and the Shia Safavid Empire, so Shakespeare was aware of this as must, at least some, of his audience.

From Act IV, Scene I The Comedy of Errors, the utterance, “That’s cover’d o’er with Turkish tapestry” is made by the writer. The tapestry mentioned here could be a possible reference to a tapestry made by the Ottomans and this indicates a luxury item of cloth which was also a mode of communication. One reference to Turks is also there in Hamlet, “If the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me”, (Act III, Scene II).

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Though these multiple references here would not be enough to prove that Shakespeare was not an English but an Arab, Sheikh Pir, yet these are enough to conclude that Shakespeare has written his plays with the burden of Islamic culture on his thoughts and ideas. He was greatly influenced by the “Turk Plays” written before he was writing.

Abdul Salam Dawar
Abdul Salam Dawar
The writer is a freelance columnist


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