Muslim Arrivals, Old and New
The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London, Nile Green, Princeton University Press, 2015, 416pp, £24.95 (hardback)
It is the perennial dilemma for any scholar wishing to write books that sell: how to do justice to academic rigour whilst keeping the work accessible to the general reader. A new book by Nile Green illustrates the pitfalls of trying to straddle both markets. Green, a professor of history at UCLA in California, has previously written several decidedly academic books on Islam and its relations with the West in the 19th century, including Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840 - 1915 (2013) and Terrains of Exchange: Religious Economies of Global Islam (2015). Though his latest book, The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslims Learned in Jane Austen’s London, continues in that thematic vein, it is pitched emphatically towards the general reader by means of two somewhat over-played hooks: contemporaneity with Jane Austen — framing its narrative against the life and work of the 19th century’s best-known novelist — and a humanistic meditation, bordering on the sentimental, on the nature of friendship. The result is an unevenly textured book whose register flits between history buff-marginalia and the saccharine condescension of popular documentaries.
The Love of Strangers tells the story of a small group of Iranian students sent to London by the Persian crown prince, Abbas Mirza, in 1815. The students, whose range of interests spanned several métiers, were Mirza Riza (artillery), Mirza Ja’far (chemistry), Muhammad ‘Ali (locksmith), Mirza Ja’far Husayni (engineering) and Mirza Salih (languages). Their mission: to acquire the latest learning in the fields of culture, science, technology and armaments, to enable Iran to embrace modernity and better defend herself
against the threat from Imperial Russia. ‘The six young Muslims,’ writes Green, ‘represented nothing less than a national development policy.’
The group passed an eleven-month stint in Croydon, hoping to find employment as language teachers with the East India Company’s extensive military colleges. (The Persian language was the East India Company’s language of administration until 1837.) Thereafter, we follow them on a whistle-stop tour of the country. Mirza Salih acquaints himself with a paper mill in Hampton Gay, near Oxford; Mirza Salih and Mirza Ja’far visit Cheltenham and the West Country, taking in Bath, Gloucester Cathedral and the Bristol dockyards, where they see a steam-powered iron ship. They witness a country in the midst of a revolution in religious freedom, a period which saw the emergence of the Methodists, the Baptists and the rise of the Unitarians, and ultimately culminated in the emancipation of the Catholics in 1829: ‘In arriving at this turning point in the pluralization of England’s religious landscape [they were] among the earliest Muslim explorers of Christian dissent.’ The most interesting part of their itinerary is their stay at Oxford. Green notes the irony that, despite the visitors’ earnest interest in secular knowledge, the Oxford of 1815 was still very much mired in theistic preoccupations of an earlier era. At this point, two-thirds of Oxford graduates went on to careers in the church. No wonder Mirza Salih described them in his diary as madrasas — theological and legal colleges.
After a good deal of hobnobbing and networking, the students managed to secure some impressive placements. As work experience gigs go, these were pretty high-end: Muhammad ‘Ali apprenticed himself to a prominent Royal gun-maker; Mirza Ja’far and Mirza Reza attended the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, under the wing of the legendary Colonel William Mudge; Ja’far and Hajji Baba were taught medicine by Dr John Shaw, whose revolutionary surgical techniques saved the lives of many amputees after the Battle of Waterloo. Mirza Salih, who undertook an apprenticeship in printing, dined with the evangelicals of the Bible Society, by some distance the country’s biggest publisher at the time. The society’s first president, Lord Teignmouth, was a former governor-general of India; it was at this time taking an interest in printing in Persian and Arabic, with
a view to disseminating translations of the Bible and converting Asia to Christianity.
The primary source material for the book is the travelogue of one of the students, Mirza Salih, along with other correspondence. The diary entries are invariably laconic (‘Mirza Salih recorded that he found Professor Lee a hospitable and affable host, as he had Doctor Macbride at Oxford. And why not?’) and a general dearth of supporting information means the narrative is not only teased out but frequently conjectural — there are a great many perhapses, surelys and must-have-seemeds — and the story is embellished with novelistic speculations. Of the group’s stay in London in the winter of 1815, contemporaneous with a sojourn in the capital by Jane Austen, the author wonders if ‘perhaps Miss Austen even encountered them in the street as they went to watch the changing of the guards.’ Indeed the Austen connection is rather excessively milked — writing primarily for a US audience, Green presumably felt this would lend the book a certain accessibility. Publishers are very keen these days to include popular keywords in their book titles in order to maximise their visibility on Amazon searches; Green takes things a step further, reminding us with wearying repetitiousness that these events were happening in the time of Jane Austen: leaving aside the playful précis, in his opening chapter, of his book as a study of ‘the neglected Muslim wing of Mansfield Park,’ the book is littered with references to ‘Austen’s England’, ‘Austen’s London’ and even — bizarrely — ‘the Austenite natives’. By the time we read, on the book’s closing page, that ‘during their years in London, our six Muslims learned a good deal about sense and sensibility’, the barrel has been well and truly scraped.
The genial TV-historian tone strikes a disarming note in a book punctuated by recherché digressions: here a segment on the history of the Bible society, there a vignette on the vagaries of Oriental freemasonry. In truth, the titular ‘six Muslims’ are something of a stage prop, a point of departure; a good deal of this book might have been written without them. The Love of Strangers is a snapshot of early-19th-century England, a nation on the threshold of the changes that would come to define the century:
full-scale industrialisation, religious pluralism and imperial expansion. At times, the register is almost implausibly nicey-nice, such as when Green observes, of a mill owner, that despite being forward-thinking on issues of mechanisation, he ‘wrote to oppose the abolition of child labour!’ - the italicised incredulity is a little surprising for a historian of the period. For the most part though, the tone lends the work a sanguine optimism that fits with its core message: discerning, in the mutual understanding and curiosity of this unusual cultural exchange, the hallmarks of an outward-looking internationalism largely unsullied by national or racial chauvinism. The heavy emphasis on the Iranian students’ faith - in the title, and throughout the book - suggests Green has one eye on the contemporary context: at a time of mounting suspicion towards Muslims in the Western world, he is keen to remind us that there was a time when relations with the Muslim world were characterised by mutual respect and curiosity, and the notion of a ‘clash of civilisations’ is a historically recent construct. In the age of Donald Trump — not to mention Brexit, Pegida, Golden Dawn et al — this is admirable and well-intentioned, but the point feels a tad strained.
For one thing, it is perhaps somewhat of a truism to commend the England of 1815 for its receptiveness to cultural exchange. The mean-spirited wariness of ‘The Other’ was not yet a fact of mainstream cultural life: the ideology of racism would take more definite shape as the century wore on, in tandem with the imperialism it legitimated; nationalism, too, was still a long way from reaching its poisonous apogee; and besides, a good many of the actors in this scene — from the evangelicals to the military establishment and the mill-owners — were scarcely acting out of disinterested motives, as Green’s title would seem to imply.
Green’s contention that the cultural exchange related in The Love of Strangers ‘forms a genesis for today’s London of kebab shops and mosques’ is, similarly, a stretch: there is a world of difference between the mass migration that has enriched urban life in London and other major cities over the past hundred-plus years and the much smaller currents of a privileged minority who migrated for educational purposes. The Iranian upper classes sent their children to Paris, London and Switzerland
throughout the 19th century; relatively few of them opened kebab shops. Whether in 1815 or in 2016, a certain degree of tolerance has always been extended to the diaspora of the global ruling class, regardless of faith or nationality, a largesse that apparently transcends the current anxiety over Islamist radicalism: pop into a fashionable West London boutique today and there is a fair chance you will run into the wives of the Saudi elite, out shopping in Sloane Square while their husbands funnel money into supporting Wahabi extremism in the Middle East. It is not the love of strangers that permits this, but political contingency and reasons of state. In a word, realpolitik.