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Lord Byron still rightly commands continuing fascination as the 'poster boy of the Romantics', the prototype rock star with that complex and colourful love life, the poet whose 'Don Juan' was cited by Bob Dylan as an influence. But there's another aspect on Byron - his engagement with Islam - that is currently almost completely unnoticed, but certainly worth discussion.

For Byron, throughout his life - from his boyhood reading to his deathbed when he was declared 'an enemy of the Porte' by the Sultan in Istanbul - had possibly the closest relationship with Islam that any classic British poet has achieved. The connection certainly ran deep, and at a time when relations between the West and Islam have become one of the hottest topics around, this aspect of Byron's life and thought undoubtedly provides perspectives, thought-pieces, maybe even directions for us today.

Perhaps a good place to start is with Byron, in 1810, in Athens under Ottoman rule, taking his evening ride down by the sea. Talking to Shelley's cousin Tom Medwin in Pisa he told how he had 'observed a crowd of people moving down to the shore, and the arms of the soldiers glittering among them. ..I thought I could now and then distinguish a faint and stifled shriek. I dispatched one of my followers to enquire the cause of the procession. What was my horror to learn that they were carrying an unfortunate girl, sewn up in a sack to be thrown into the sea ! I did not hesitate as what was to be done. I knew I could depend on my faithful Albanians, and rode up to the officer commanding the party, threatening, in the case of refusal to give up his prisoner, that I would adopt means to compel him. He did not like the business he was on - or perhaps the determined look of my bodyguard - and consented to accompany me back to the city with the girl, whom I soon discovered to be my Turkish favourite. Suffice it to say, that my interference with the chief magistrate, backed by a heavy bribe, saved her; but only on condition that she immediately quit Athens'.

The girl had been sentenced to death by the Turkish ruler of Athens for acting in a sexually free manner - possibly with Byron himself. The story supports the comment that 'Lord Byron could never be the idle spectator of any calamity', but also reveals his courageous opposition to the inhumanity that can arise from the application of Islamic law.

Let's immediately contrast this with another Byronic encounter with Islam, this time from the realms of his imagination, in the final cantos of Don Juan, written about eighteen months before his death. Byron's appreciation of the vitality of peoples and nations has been pointed to as a fundamental quality of his life and work; this emerges in his treatment of Russian/Turkish warfare in Canto XIII of the poem. The final stanza ends with the victory of Russian forces, and the poem's hero left alone with an orphaned Muslim girl. What Byron wrote displays a sorrow at the eradication of Islamic culture, and an empathy with the sole survivor:

'The Moslem orphan went with her protector,

For she was homeless, houseless, helpless.

All Her friends, like the sad family of Hector,

Had perished in the field or by the wall.

Her very place of birth was but a spectre

Of what it had been; there the muezzin's call

To prayer was heard no more.And Juan wept

And made a vow to shield her, which he kept'.

The empathy in those lines reveals the depth of his humane engagement with Islam - why else would Juan weep? It demonstrates his refusal to demonise other groups, the impulse that is the primary force behind ethnic cleansing.

In his childhood, as mentioned above, Byron's imaginative life was kindled by boyhood reading about the East, including a history of the Ottoman Empire. He recalled later: 'it was the first book that gave me pleasure when a child; and I believe it had much influence on my subsequent wishes to visit the Levant, and gave, perhaps, the oriental colouring which is observed in my poetry'. Certainly an engagement with Islamic thought can be seen in his first collection of poetry Hours of Idleness. His poem 'To Eliza' records a frank disagreement with aspects of Islamic theology, and is worth considering in full:

Eliza, what fools are the Mussulman sect,

Who to women deny the soul's future existence!

Could they see thee Eliza, they'd own their defect,

And this doctrine would meet with a general resistance.

Had their prophet possess's half an atom of sense

He ne'er would have woman from paradise driven;

Instead of his houris, a flimsy pretence,

With woman alone he had peopled his heaven.

Yet still, to increase your calamities more,

Not content of depriving your bodies of spirit,

He allots one poor husband to share among four!

- With souls you'd dispense; yet this last, who could bear it?

His religion to please neither party is made;

On husbands most hard, to the wives most uncivil;

Still I can't contradict, what so oft has been said,

'Though women are angels, yet wedlock's the devil'.

In a society trying to treat all cultures with respect, Byron's post-Enlightenment boldness is startling - from 'what fools are the Mussulman sect' to 'Had their prophet possess'd half an atom of sense....' I can hear the charge of 'Islamophobia' already, but I'm not so sure. Personally I wouldn't attack people's ideas by calling them fools, but this brutality of the mind (or frankness) is a part of western life, and certainly an inheritance of the Enlightenment; it is a tradition that people from Islamic backgrounds cannot expect their ideas to be exempt from.

Salman Rushdie put it well when he wrote: 'to attack people's ideologies or belief systems is not to attack the people themselves. This is surely one of the foundation beliefs of a free society. Citizens have the right to complain about discrimination against themselves, but not about dissent, even strongly worded impolite dissent, from their thoughts. There cannot be fences erected around ideas, philosophies, attitudes, or beliefs'. In the end 'To Eliza' makes genuine and legitimate criticism of an aspect of Islamic thought (and how delightful is the description of the houris who motivate suicide bombers as a 'flimsy pretence'): 'Islamophobia' consists of ethnic cleansing, racist attacks, demonisation of whole populations.

Again, his refusal to demonise Muslims emerges at the end of his life in Missolonghi in during the War of Independence.. Thinking back to his visit to Turkey he said 'he used to like the Turks when amongst them', and in Missolonghi he freed twenty five Turkish prisoners with a letter to the Turkish governor of Patras, asking that any Greek prisoners falling into Turkish hands be treated 'with humanity; more especially since the horrors of war are sufficiently great in themselves, without being aggravated by wanton cruelties on either side'. Elsewhere he wrote: 'when the dictates of humanity are in question I know of no difference between Turks and Greeks' - a perception that despite the long history of animosity between the two countries does sometimes come to the fore  - as when Turkey was devastated by earthquakes and Greeks responded with sympathy and practical help.

He'd also noticed in his time in Turkey that religions have a common ethical core. He once said he'd encountered as much, if not more, day-to-day decent neighbourly conduct while in the Muslim East as he met with in Christian Britain, and maybe this is the key to the integration of Islamic peoples into western societies. Whatever genuine intellectual differences and attitudes exist, hopefully day-to-day practical humanity will, in the end, carry the day.

When the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition on Byron opened in 2002 there was a significant amount of comment on how little Byron's work is known - students of English literature apparently graduate without knowing a word of his work. But now, with Britain getting into its stride as a multicultural society - but still encountering difficulties of integration - it seems to me that Byron's poetry offers a potentially fruitful ground to explore. His Eastern Tales - The Giaour, The Corsair, The Seige of Corinth, The Bride of Abydos - as well as parts of Childe Harolde and Don Juan, display a familiarity and engagement with Islam that is probably unparalleled in English poetry. Perhaps as proof of the lack of attention paid to them in educational circles, I'm only just starting to get familiar with them myself. But already it is obvious that they could form the basis for something useful - a potential meeting place for those from Western and Islamic cultures.

Jan 30 2011

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