Sunday, July 02, 2006

Shaw on Islam? Part I: C Loves a Mystery

One of our local papers' letters columns has its share of regulars and irregulars. One of the latter generally takes the position of Islamic apologist. In a recent letter, among the usual pleasantries about 'People of the Book' and plaudits for the mercy of Saladin and tolerance of Caliph Omar, he tossed off some quotes that I found rather intriguing:

I like to quote George Bernard Shaw, the great scholar and philosopher: "If any religion had the chance of ruling over England, nay Europe, within the next hundred years, it could be Islam." He also said, "I have always held the religion of Muhammad in high estimation because of its wonderful vitaltity. It is the only religion which appears to me to possess the assimilating capacity to changing phase of existence, which can make itself appeal to every age." (Shaw, The Genuine Islam, Vol. 1, No. 8, 1936). This great scholar was well-read, and wrote these words after doing thorough research. There are other great Western scholars who also have come to the same conclusion. [C's note: He does not, however, mention any of them by name.]
[Source: The Augusta Chronicle, Sunday, June 25, 2006. A copy of the text accessible without registration is listed below. The original is available with registry via the newspaper's archive.]

Now I've read a little Shaw (plays, mostly,) and D a bit more than I, but we're by no means Shavian scholars. Still, some things about those quotes (and their context) struck us as odd. Not having read every single word Shaw ever wrote, I'd be a fool to deny the statements are his. In fact, based on what I do know of the man's life and views, I think it's plausible they are. (That fact does not increase my confidence in his judgement, his scholarship notwithstanding.) Nonetheless, two things about the quotes perturbed me:

(1) What documentation is there for Shaw having made these remarks, and why have I never before heard of them? (After all, for a Bio major I did spend entirely too much of my college years in English lit classes. You'd think it would have come up at some point.)

(2) What in Heaven's name was the letter writer thinking? (This one will have to be a separate post, else I will go way too long.)

Now, taking on Question (1.)

Curious about the quotes and their original context, I went a-huntin'. Our 1971 Britannica had a lot to say on Shaw's philosophical and political views, but was blithely unaware of his status as a prominent Islamophile. Ditto Wikipedia. My old Norton's Anthology of English Literature included the text of Mrs. Warren's Profession and a few pages of mostly literary commentary, but nothing on Islam. Online, in addition to Wikipedia, I set off on the usual searches: Shaw websites, Shaw on Islam, Shaw quotes, and the quote itself word-for-word. I also searched for the cited resource The Genuine Islam. My findings follow:

A search of quote directories for the quotes or anything similar turned up nothing. Not that there aren't plenty of them out there, and not that they didn't have reams of Shavian material, mind you. The above quotes were just not included in any collections I searched. Likewise, none of the Shaw biographical sites mentioned his proposed affinity. If Shaw was a fan of Islam, that fact is so obscure that references are scanty indeed.

A search on Shaw on Islam got me a little bit further, and one on the quotes themselves went far to clearing out the enormous quantities of flotsam and jetsam normally dredged up in a Net search. I found many sites dedicated to Islamic apologetics that either cited the quotes themselves or some other reference to Shaw's enthusiasm for Islam. I was only able to locate such references on a few non-Muslim sites. The first quote was posted by a commenter in a thread on the decline of Europe on, and on an atheists' forum, in which it was brought up in a 'Hey, anybody know anything about this?' context. (Nobody did, but quite a bit of speculation followed regarding Shaw's admiration for Mussolini and fascism at about the same time.)[I have since lost track of the url for this site.]

A search for the source The Genuine Islam left me genuinely mystified. Is it a book by Shaw? [An essayist on one Islamic site I visited indicated that it was.] A periodical? Was it actually published in 1936, or did it merely cite quotes supposedly made in that year? It wasn't listed on Wikipedia, or anywhere else that I noticed, among his works. I could possibly find something in an exhaustive search of research library catalogs (or possibly archives of Books in Print or Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, but my initial findings were not encouraging. I trawled through and the Library of Congress' public use site and turned up nothing comparable; a search engine turned up plenty of pages with the words 'genuine' and 'Islam' on them, but no single title of that name except for one of those Islamic apologetics sites.
Thus the results of my meanderings over the 'Net left me with two possible conclusions:

(1) The quotes were made up out of whole cloth by someone other than Shaw (presumably an Islamic apologist who saw some benefit in the perceived admiration of a notable non-Muslim intellectual.) They have since been tossed around on a handful of like-minded websites and occasionally crop up as rumors elsewhere, but haven't gotten very far because they are obscure and not credible.

Although the odd semantics of the first quote and syntax of the second lend some support to this view, I'm still not convinced it is correct. I have yet to find (despite efforts,) the one thing that would put the quotes' credibility to rest for good: a definitive debunking by a reliable authority. Moreover (as I have mentioned already,) based on my very general knowledge of Shaw's ideas, I have no reason to doubt their authenticity. Still, the available data don't entirely assuage my doubts, either.

(2) The quotes (or at least, the sentiments behind them) are legitimate, but have been generally overlooked either because they are very obscure and comprise only an infinitesimal part of Shaw's extensive range of interests, or because they discomfited his biographers and editors to the extent that they avoided bringing them up. I'm inclined to think that the former possibility is more likely. Shaw was a busy man, who wrote much and said more, and whose interests encompassed a variety of philosophical viewpoints. A few cryptic remarks on a religion that most of his contemporaries considered at best an exotic curiosity and a worst part of a barbaric and degraded culture would be unlikely to attract much attention when he had so much to say on so many other matters. Moreover, though Shaw had a few characteristics in common with Islam (he avoided alcohol and pork--but also all other meat; he was mostly celibate prior to his marriage; he embraced 'benevolent' government control) he held many views in direct opposition--atheism, for example, and the view that traditional marriage stifled a woman's mental growth.

I doubt that deliberate obfuscation of the quotes took place precisely because of the points made above. Prior to the second half of the twentieth century, most Westerners did not see Islam as a threat, or as anything other than a curiosity. Shaw's biographers and editors would likely have taken any endorsements of Islam as merely another quirky idea of his and either mentioned them as an aside or ignored them as unimportant. At any rate, there is little doubt that Shaw did discomfit his colleagues with some of his other views; his atheism was certainly problematic for some, his Socialism for others, his professed admiration for Fascism for most. Yet the written record on these matters is lengthy.

This leaves me little closer to certainly on the 'did he say it' question than when I started out. I remain with no reason to doubt the quotes, but little evidence for them and less reason to assign them much significance. I am posting this in hopes that others will be able to point me to well-referenced, disinterested sources of information on Shaw's view of Islam, and I intend to post further information as I encounter it. I am hoping my community library has a good biography or Complete Works to get me started.

In Part II of this essay, which I hope will be mercifully brief, I will try to explore the second of my two original questions: Why bring up these quotes to promote Islam?

End Notes Were Just Easier:
Some Quotes:
The Quotations Page
Elise Bauer's Personal Page
World of Quotes
Notable Quotes
I also looked at several shorter directories not included here, none of which contained the quotes in question.

Some Shaw Biogs:
Bernard Shaw: A Brief Biography
Online Literature
Famous Irish Lives

Some Non-Islamic Sites that carry the quotes:
Think/Exist I did not find these quotes under the GBS section, but did find them in a section headed Islam. As this site is set up for submissions and anybody can submit a quote, the verifiability is still up for grabs as far as I'm concerned.
Reaction_to_Danish_Cartoons Again, a reader-submitted statement with no verification beyond that I have already given.
Augusta Chronicle Blogs Site--includes the text of the orig. letter

A few Islamic Sites that carry them:
What Non-Muslims Say
hikm: an attempt at wisdom [blog]

These quotes seem to be making the rounds of Islamic sites, and to list them all would take up too much space. Besides, in most cases I have seen the quotes are thrown in as comments with little explanation and no referencing besides that already given. I suggest anyone who wants to study this further do a search on either of the quotes.

As The Genuine Islam remains a literary mystery to me, I include only the address for the site by that name here. If I learn anything more about this work I will post on it at a later date.

Update 1/09: Go here for the latest update or click on full thread below.



Anonymous justsomenamelessquotefiend said...

"Genuine Islam" does seem to exist. It is listed in "Luzac's Oriental List and Book Review" and is subtitled: "Organ of the all Malaya Muslim Missionary Sc." I can not think how Shaw may have been writing for this publication or where else in his works the quotes may have been derived from, but the attributers may be nameable.

All Hail The Power Of The Internet!

11:45 AM  
Blogger CMinor said...

Thank you for the information. By coincidence, my blog partner came across the Wardah Books reference and posted the find Oct. 1. At least now we know the publication exists; unfortunately references to issues other than number 8 remain as hens' teeth so we have to imagine it was a publication of very limited circulation.

Oddly, one of the sites I have browsed through was the catalog of an extensive Shaw collection of a university library--If he submitted anything to this publication there didn't seem to be any record of it in places where it might be found. If I get some time, I might try writing the librarian.

I have seen some anecdotal evidence that Shaw, at least for a time, professed some enthusiasm for Islam as a system (though from all I've seen he remained an atheist to the end himself.) My pard found an online account of a dialogue he supposedly had with a Muslim cleric but he has, unfortunately, not gotten around to writing on this. Possibly some apt quotations lifted from this or a similar meeting were passed along to the editorial staff of The Genuine Islam. Upon their accuracy we cannot begin to speculate, however.

Thus the search continues...
Wed. Oct. 4

5:57 PM  
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11:43 AM  
Blogger Don't laugh, this is Cirrus said...

Several years have passed since this post and I, too, have been on a search to find GBS praising Islam. The stimulus for this search was an odd quote attributed to Shaw being posted on Twi**er by Muslims.
The "Genuine Islam" item is referred to in a blog I think you will find interesting, found here:
The quotes attributed to Shaw have nothing to do with him and those who use them to paint a picture of GBS being in awe of Mohammed are being either dishonest or entirely misled.

3:21 AM  

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