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Living Islam 2014: Shakespeare & Islam

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The Living Islam Festival sees thousands of Muslims across Britain congregate to celebrate the varied aspects of the religion. In between the tents and the various stalls selling Islamic-themed goods, the Festival also hosts talks covering a myriad of topics.

The Halal Food Foundation are very proud and excited to have a stall at the 2014 festival – if you’re attending this year, come and visit us!!!

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We attended Lubaaba Al Azami’s Shakespeare and Islam: Early Modern Literature and the courtship of Islam seminar.

Undoubtedly an excellent speaker and unrivalled in her knowledge of Early Modern England, Lubaaba did not disappoint in providing a rich historical backdrop for some of Shakespeare’s greatest works. Beginning her lecture with a discussion the arrival of Islam and Muslims in Europe, Lubaaba discussed and corrected common historical misconceptions about the Muslim arrival in Europe. Muslims arrived in Spain in 711AD, not as is most commonly and incorrectly circulated, during the period of the Crusades. In fact, what was most interesting was the idea that Islam how large the Islamic influence was in Europe, to the extent that, in Lubaaba’s own words, “no other religion was a threat to Europe in the medieval times – Islam was the largest.”

Lubaaba’s historical setting was excellently executed, however we were quite keen to discuss the subject at hand – the presence of Islam in Shakespeare’s works. Perhaps we misinterpreted the title of the lecture before attending, as we expected a lengthy and detailed discussions on how largely Islamic themes are underlying but prevalent in Shakespeare’s works.

However, Lubaaba took us down a different course. Instead she uses Shakespeare’s work to prove the existence of Muslims in Europe in the Early Modern Period – an unexpected angle to say the least. Beginning with Othello, it can be inferred from character interactions that lead character Othello actually has Muslim origins. He is frequently referred to as “moore”  - a word used to describe a Muslim from Spain or Morocco. Furthermore, Othello’s death speech sees him exclaiming “I took a Turk” before turning the knife on himself. Lubaaba interprets this as Othello’s way of “killing his Muslim identity.”

Moving on to Macbeth, Lubaaba highlights Shakespeare’s reference to European-Islamic trade. When Lady Macbeth frantically and repeatedly washes her hands of murderous blood, she says: “All the perfumes of Arabia couldn’t make my hands smell better.” This prominent moment in the play illustrates the Islamic world’s role in Early Modern Britain.

“But why is this important?” Lubaaba finishes her presentation with the unasked question on everybody’s minds. Yes, what is the purpose of highlighting these obvious references to Islam in Early Europe?

Well, Lubaaba argues that it important to remember that Islam has a deep, vested history in Britain. Coming back to modern day Britain, this is a good argument to have at hand, considering all the negative media Islam is suffering. We only need to look at the national papers to see daunting words like ‘halal food row’ and ‘Trojan horse’ dominating our news.

It is important to remember that Islam has been interacting with Europe since the medieval times. In fact the Quran was translated into English and became available in England for any English speaker to read. And 25% of England’s commercial activity was with the Ottoman empire, who were of course, Muslims.

So as Lubaaba states, the next time a Muslim is asked “where have you come from?” we can happily and confidently answer with a long and rich history lesson about Islam’s presence in Europe from the early modern period. Islam has been here for a very long time. Its relevance and importance in European lands can be proven – and what better way than to prove our heritage with the Bard? 

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