A few days ago, someone posted a question on the ISS Facebook page wondering if Bernard Shaw ever "praised Islam or Mohamed in any of his books or statements." It is no wonder someone should ask such a question, because the issue is all over the Internet. Admittedly, very few of these claims are based on known sources or sound research, as some have noted.
At any rate, there is no gainsaying the fact that Shaw's opinions on Islam are certainly of interest to many, given that I have found more than 450 mentions of words like "Islam," "Mohammed," Mahometan," and "Muslim" - in their various forms and spellings - in Shaw's works and, more importantly, in the pieces of criticism in my database. I will try to bring to light as much material as I possibly can, and I am sure my intelligent readers will be able to draw their own conclusions.
Well, where do I begin? Perhaps the plays are a safe choice (there will be another entry devoted to his non-dramatic texts exclusively). Generally speaking, Shaw does not go beyond a few scattered cultural commonplaces in the text of his plays, albeit with a pinch of Shavian humor on occasion. The most trite include the phraseological "If the mountain will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet must come to the mountain" (The Doctor's Dilemma) and the merely descriptive, like the Egyptian doctor in The Millionairess, who is "what you call a Mahometan" and keeps "a clinic for penniless Mahometan refugees."
More often than not, however, there is a conventional component in the references to muslims and their religious practices. Thus, in the first act of Captain Brassbound's Conversion, which takes place in "Mogador, a seaport on the west coast of Morocco," we are reminded that "Mahometans never spend money in drink." Likewise, in Man and Superman Jack Tanner urges Straker to take him to "any port from which we can sail to a Mahometan country where men are protected from women" - but not viceversa, I may add. In this play, like in the rest - as we shall see - most references to Islam are intertwined with other creeds, amidst a general sense of religious relativism, at least as regards the established religions Shaw was acquainted with. Fittingly, it is in the "Don Juan in Hell Scene" that we find this type of discussion:
DON JUAN. That is perhaps why battles are so useless. But men never really overcome fear until they imagine they are fighting to further a universal purpose—fighting for an idea, as they call it. Why was the Crusader braver than the pirate? Because he fought, not for himself, but for the Cross. What force was it that met him with a valor as reckless as his own? The force of men who fought, not for themselves, but for Islam. They took Spain from us, though we were fighting for our very hearths and homes; but when we, too, fought for that mighty idea, a Catholic Church, we swept them back to Africa.
THE DEVIL. [ironically] What! you a Catholic, Senor Don Juan! A devotee! My congratulations.
THE STATUE. [seriously] Come come! as a soldier, I can listen to nothing against the Church.
DON JUAN. Have no fear, Commander: this idea of a Catholic Church will survive Islam, will survive the Cross, will survive even that vulgar pageant of incompetent schoolboyish gladiators which you call the Army.
THE STATUE. Juan: you will force me to call you to account for this.
DON JUAN. Useless: I cannot fence. Every idea for which Man will die will be a Catholic idea. When the Spaniard learns at last that he is no better than the Saracen, and his prophet no better than Mahomet, he will arise, more Catholic than ever, and die on a barricade across the filthy slum he starves in, for universal liberty and equality.
Similarly, in Major Barbara, Undershaft expresses an equally relativistic idea about faith with special reference to Islam when he claims that "It is cheap work converting starving men with a Bible in one hand and a slice of bread in the other. I will undertake to convert West Ham to Mahometanism on the same terms."
In addition, the social, political, and cultural nature of religion allows for hilarious scenes with a running thread of earnestness "in the womb of time." Take, for instance, the different takes on marriage that three different religions (including Islam) have, as discussed in The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles:
HYERING. Anything fresh from London or Delhi?
SIR CHARLES. The same old songs. The Church of England wont tolerate polygamy on any terms, and insists on our prosecuting Iddy if we cannot whitewash him. Delhi declares that any attempt to persecute polygamy would be an insult to the religions of India.
PRA. The Cultural Minister at Delhi adds a postscript to say that as he has been married two hundred and thirtyfour times, and could not have lived on his salary without the dowries, the protest of the Church of England shews a great want of consideration for his position. He has a hundred and seventeen children surviving.
SIR CHARLES. Then there's a chap I never heard of, calling himself the Caliph of British Islam. He demands that Iddy shall put away all his wives except four.
HYERING. What does the Foreign Office say to that?
PRA. The Foreign Office hails it as a happy solution of a difficulty that threatened to be very serious.
There exists, however, a very peculiar element shared by a few of Shaw's plays that is worth commenting on. On two different occasions, characters of Shaw's plays foresee (or live in) a world in which Mohammedanism is the dominant religion. So, for example, Hotchkiss (Getting Married) remarks that
HOTCHKISS. [...] I happen, like Napoleon, to prefer Mohammedanism. [Mrs George, associating Mohammedanism with polygamy, looks at him with quick suspicion]. I believe the whole British Empire will adopt a reformed Mohammedanism before the end of the century. The character of Mahomet is congenial to me. I admire him, and share his views of life to a considerable extent.
Although Hotchkiss's speech ends with the explicit acknowledgement of "the quintessential equality of all the religions," it is also true that this idea of Islam as the official religion of the world remained in Shaw's dramatic arsenal for decades. So, for instance, part IV of Back to Methuselah (Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman) depicts a futuristic world where the long-lived want to destroy the British Commonwealth (Capital City: Baghdad) before its short-lived inhabitants destroy themselves. The British Envoy is shocked to learn that "the old uns prefer Mahometans." As the Elderly Gentleman explains:
THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN [...] There can be no doubt, I am afraid, that by clinging too long to the obsolete features of the old pseudo-Christian Churches we allowed the Mahometans to get ahead of us at a very critical period of the development of the Eastern world. When the Mahometan Reformation took place, it left its followers with the enormous advantage of having the only established religion in the world in whose articles of faith any intelligent and educated person could believe.
If I may interrupt my train of thought for a second, reading Shaw makes many of the so-called "enfants terribles" of literature appear outmoded and conventional - I don't know what the hype is about.
At any rate, I personally believe that Shaw tries to provoke his audiences when he portrays a muslim future, especially as a counterpoint to the prevailing religious (not exclusively religious) bigotry of his time - an issue that also pervades some of his plays, hence the following exchange from On the Rocks:
SIR ARTHUR. [...] The Archbishop says "Avoid figures; and stick to the fact that Socialism would break up the family." I believe he is right: a bit of sentiment about the family always goes down well. Just jot this down for me. [Dictating] Family. Foundation of civilization. Foundation of the empire.
HILDA. Will there be any Hindus or Mahometans present?
SIR ARTHUR. No. No polygamists at the Church House. Besides, everybody knows that The Family means the British family.
Needless to say, there is a play where the religious element is so strong and the tone so serious that any reference to Islam should be considered carefully. I am talking, as you have rightly guesssed, about Saint Joan. Towards the end of Scene IV, there is a lively discussion between Cauchon and Warwick that involves several references to the muslims in the Middle Ages. Shaw's natural tendency to anachronism in his historical plays, and his habit of comparing even the most remote places and eras to the British Isles of his own lifetime, would lead anyone to believe that there is a bit of twentieth-century philosophy in what follows. In fact, as we shall see, practically all the notions that have been discussed hitherto can be found in this scene.
To begin with, Cauchon, the man of the Church, certifies Joan's heresy on the grounds that she does not use the Church as the rightful interlocutor in her conversations with God.
CAUCHON. [...] She sends letters to the king of England giving him God's command through her to return to his island on pain of God's vengeance, which she will execute. Let me tell you that the writing of such letters was the practice of the accursed Mahomet, the anti-Christ. Has she ever in all her utterances said one word of The Church? Never. It is always God and herself.
The idea that Mahometanism may one day be successful because it has a philosophy/creed but not a caste of clergymen seems to be turned on its head here for dramatic purposes, but it remains basically unaltered.
Warwick, the seasoned soldier who has travelled the world, embodies the idea of religious relativism that has previously been discussed.
WARWICK. I am a soldier, not a churchman. As a pilgrim I saw something of the Mahometans. They were not so ill-bred as I had been led to believe. In some respects their conduct compared favorably with ours.
After these words, when Cauchon reprimands him for his lack of theological knowledge and the boldness of his statement, Warwick once again stands his ground and addresses the question of religious bigotry as the basis for religious conflict - be it the Crusades or any of their present-day counterparts, I guess.
WARWICK. [...] I am sorry you think I must be either a heretic or a blockhead because, as a travelled man, I know that the followers of Mahomet profess great respect for our Lord, and are more ready to forgive St Peter for being a fisherman than your lordship is to forgive Mahomet for being a camel driver. But at least we can proceed in this matter without bigotry.
After all, in Warwick's own words, Christendom and Islam "are only east and west views of the same thing."
If we forget for a moment about the abstract - and sometimes abstruse - concept of religion, Shaw also makes some personal comments about the figure of the prophet Mohammed (Mahomet). Although most of the juicy bits about him belong in the second part of this post, I think it is fair to end this one with the comments included in Buoyant Billions, especially because they frame Shaw's vision of Mohammed. First of all, this play lists the prophet of Islam as one of the "World Betterers" the world has known, with some illustrious company:
SON. No: you have always been a model father. But the profession I contemplate is not one that a model father could recommend to his son.
FATHER. And what profession is that, pray?
SON. One that is always unsuccessful. Marx's profession. Lenin's profession. Stalin's profession. Ruskin's profession. Plato's profession. Confucius, Gautama, Jesus, Mahomet, Luther, William Morris. The profession of world betterer.
Despite this, we have to take Mahomet as a "righteous man" who perhaps had no other choice but to do what he did:
SON. Yes; and when they find them why do they run after them? Only to crucify them. The righteous man takes his life in his hand whenever he utters the truth. Charlemagne, Mahomet, St Dominic: these were righteous men according to their lights; but with Charlemagne it was embrace Christianity instantly or die; with Mahomet the slaying of the infidel was a passport to Heaven; with Dominic and his Dogs of God it was Recant or burn.
Finally, in a brilliant flash of Shavian wit, we cannot possibly forget that Mahomet's wisdom may have something very earthly about it.
THE WIDOWER. Oh, she is not dead: I let her divorce me. We are now quite good friends again. But to understand this question it is not enough to have been married once. Henry the Eighth would be the leading authority if he were alive. The prophet Mahomet was married more than fourteen times.
In this blog entry, the first of a series of posts on "Shaw and Islam," I have tried to illustrate how this religion and its symbols are portrayed in Shaw's plays. Because of the filter of literary language and dramatic technique, one cannot take the above excerpts as representing Shaw's personal opinions - at least not faithfully. However, they provide a background against which I hope the next set of fragments (from prefaces, letters, speeches, and interviews) will stand out. Let us hope we can shed some light on the subject and leave unsourced voices to the sphere of mysticism.