BOOK REVIEW: Muslims in search of knowledge in 19th century England

30th Sep 2016
BOOK REVIEW: Muslims in search of knowledge in 19th century England

The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London. By Nile Green, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Pp388. HB. 2016. $35.00.

Mirza Abul Hasan Khan (1776-1846) was born in Shiraz into a notable Persian family and his father, Mirza Muhammad Ali, served as a secretary to Nadir Shah. Like his father, Mirza Abul Hasan also joined the Persian diplomatic service and subsequently became a prominent statesman who served as a minister of foreign affairs under Fathi Ali Shah and Muhammad Shah of the Qajar dynasty. However, he became famous for his role as Persia’s ambassador to London in 1809 where he received a warm reception at the court of King George III.

Accompanied by his escorting officer, Sir Gore Ouseley, during his eight month stay in London, he became something of a celebrity in the city’s social, cultural and intellectual circles. His meticulous record of his travels and experiences not only provide a detailed and insightful picture of life in London but also shed light on the role of early Muslim visitors to the city (for more information, see A Persian at the Court of King George, 1809-1810, published by Barrie and Jenkins, 1988).

Barely five years after Abul Hasan’s long and memorable sojourn in London, six Persian Muslim students arrived in London in order to study and master modern Western sciences and philosophy. They were keen to uncover the secret behind the rise of modern thought, philosophy, science and technology. Unlike Mirza Abul Hasan, they arrived in London in search of knowledge and wisdom rather than for political or diplomatic reasons.

Thankfully, like Mirza Abul Hasan, one of the six students left behind a diary of their four-year stay in England, highlighting the ups and downs of their lives and experiences not only in London but also at Oxford and Cambridge. Based on the diary of Mirza Salih, in the book under review, Nile Green, who is currently a Professor of History at the University of California at Los Angeles, has provided a comprehensive and equally insightful analysis of the encounter between Evangelical England and Islamic Persia during the early part of the nineteenth century.

According to the author, this is ‘not a book about such abstractions as “Islam and democracy” or “Sharia and civil rights.” It is a book about real people, living alongside one another, rubbing along and even getting along with each other. It is a story about Europeans and Muslims as flesh and blood individuals brought together in a London on the verge of its transformation into the global city we know today. There are many books taking rage and hatred, distrust and disappointment as defining the relationship between the Middle East and the West, a relationship that is increasingly seen through the rubric of cultural difference. What I want to achieve with this book is to write Muslims back into the cultural history of Europe, as both participants and admirers of that culture.’ (pp. xii-xiii)

Consisting of an introduction, six chapters divided into three parts, and a concluding chapter, in this book the author charts the journey of the six students who became some of the first Muslims to come to the West to study modern thought, philosophy and sciences. They arrived more than a decade before Rifa’a al-Tahtawi reached Paris with an even bigger group of Muslim students from Egypt.

Indeed, after disembarking at Great Yarmouth in East Anglia, Mirza Muhammad Salih and his fellow students made their way to London where they observed many a tamasha or spectacles. He and a fellow student then moved to the ‘Madrasas of Oxford’ in order to study there but they failed to gain entry at Oxford University and instead focused their attention on learning English. After swiftly mastering the language, they proceeded to Cheltenham, Gloucester and Bristol where they not only encountered many Evangelicals but also engaged in interreligious exchange, among other things. Mirza Salih recorded in his Persian diary that they subsequently moved to Cambridge where they visited the university museum and libraries.

Despite their interest in scientific and technical subjects (such as mathematics, astronomy, engineering and mapmaking), to their surprise, they found no specialists in those subjects at both Oxford and Cambridge at the time. However, their encounter with Samuel Lee, Professor of Arabic and Persian at Cambridge, proved to be mutually beneficial before they eventually returned to London. They spent the last six months of their stay in London on excursions, sightseeing and sampling local cuisines.

According to the author, they were now ‘at ease in their adopted country, fluent in both its language and social customs. Such sentiments well over from Mirza Salih’s diary, where over and again he showed himself to be a friend and admirer of the English… His opinions were based not on airy ideologies but on concrete encounters with real people, encounters from which he had built his personal ethnography of amity. If he and his companions were guilty of anything, it was the virtuous crime of xenophilia: the love of strangers.’ (p266)

In conclusion, the author argues that the visiting Muslim students not only learned language, science and philosophy but also a good deal about sense and sensibility, mercy and compassion, and respect and tolerance. The fact ‘that they learned these things, cherished them, and exported them, is the most important lesson they can teach us two hundred years later. For there are no such things as “Western” values, “European” values, or even “English” values. There are only values, which people from different places can choose to adopt and carry wherever they will.’ (p317)

This book is an important and timely contribution, and it deserves to be read widely. It is a powerful and pertinent corrective to the erroneous and divisive ‘clash of cultures and civilisations’ narrative that is frequently dished out by a group of misguided ideologues based in the United States and parts of Europe. Highly recommended reading.


Muhammad Khan. M Khan is author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of the West (Kube Publishing, forthcoming).







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