The Islamic Lineage of American Literary Culture

Muslim Sources from the Revolution to Reconstruction

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Jeffrey Einboden
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     2016.
     240 pages.
     $74.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199397808.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Jeffrey Einboden’s The Islamic Lineage of American Literary Culture examines the formative impact of Muslim sources on American literature from the Revolutionary War to Reconstruction through five American writers—Ezra Stiles, William Bentley, Washington Irving, Lydia Maria Childs, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Einboden argues that these five iconic figures shared a fascination for the Qur’an, the central religious text of Islam, and various Islamic texts and traditions, which permeated their “personal lives and labors,” and left an indelible mark on successive generations of American writers and readers (xiii). Rather than offering a theoretical framework, the author seeks to highlight the “material legacies” and “familial” links of American literary engagement with that of Islamic texts and traditions (xi; xiii). His work supports the “global turn” among Americanists, and contributes to the growing body of scholarship on the cultural history of Islam in America. Islamic Lineage’s meticulously researched sources make this study valuable not only to scholars of American Studies, Religious Studies, and Material Culture, but also to non-specialists interested in early American encounters with Islam.

In addition to a brief introduction, the book contains five principal chapters. Each chapter introduces the biography of the individual writer and demonstrates their experimentation and engagement with Arabic scripts and/or Islamic texts through unpublished letters, sermons, journals, memoirs, and marginalia. Among his findings, Einboden reveals that Stiles and Bentley, leading New England intellectuals of the day, shared a mutual interest in Arabic, the Qur’an, and Muslim sources, despite opposing religious commitments—Calvinism and Unitarianism respectively. Irving, best known for his short stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” is little known for his infatuation with Iberia’s Muslim past, or his serious studies of the Arabic language. Einboden argues that Irving’s “Arabic Notebook” belongs to Irving himself and contains—as do his other notebooks—the author’s personal translations of the Qur’an. A nineteenth-century abolitionist and women’s rights activist Childs, the only woman represented in the book, shared Irving’s penchant for interpreting the central religious text of Islam. These interpretations were radical revisions of George Sale’s translation of the Qur’an (1734), and Childs integrated them into works—notably The Progress of Religious Ideas, Through Successive Ages and Aspirations of the World: A Chain of Opals. Whereas Irving’s translations are later used for entertainment, Childs’s translations are picked up for political purpose by both male and female writers, and brought forward into new contexts and centuries (119-20).

The book has two weaknesses: first, although Einboden strives to forge links between the five authors, at times these links appear forced. The cohesiveness of the overall work also suffers from the lack of a conclusion.

Second, the author’s indiscriminate use of the terms Arabic, Arabian, Islamic, and Islamicism—absent a critical definition or framework—is jarring. Examples of this are found throughout the text and include phrases such as [Stiles’] “Arabic Revolutions” or “evolving ‘Arabian’ identity,” “Islamic receptions,” “while consecrating him Islamically,” “Islamic interests,” “Irving’s Islamic efforts,” “‘studying’ Islamic tongues,” “Islamic ‘removals,’” Islamic ablutions,” “Irving’s own Islamic endurance,” “Islamic afterlives of Irving and Childs,” “Child’s Islamic borrowings,” “Islamicism of works such,” “Emerson turns again to an Islamic identity.” Over half a century ago, the great American historian of Islam Marshall Hodgson warned scholars of the dangers of using the term Islamic casually in representing both Islam the religion, and the overall society and culture of areas where Islam had been a major influence (The Venture of Islam, University of Chicago Press, 1974). Shahab Ahmed’s monumental study What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton University Press, 2015) reveals that contestations over the meaning of Islam and Islamic endure in the contemporary period. In the absence of a critical framework, Einboden not only obfuscates his analysis of early American authors’ engagement with Islam and Islamic texts such as the Qur’an, but he also assigns their engagement an alterity, as if even the most robust engagement with such texts and traditions can render one Arabian or Islamic. What is Islamic about Irving’s endurance? Or the afterlives (legacies) of Irving and Childs? By the end of the book, these questions are unanswered, and so is the significance of these engagements.

Criticisms aside, The Islamic Lineage of American Literary Culture is an important and welcomed work. It encourages readers to revisit the works of iconic American writers and consider the enduring legacy of Muslim sources on American literature.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Irfana M. Hashmi is assistant professor of religious studies at Whittier College.

Date of Review: 
March 7, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeffrey Einboden is Associate Professor of English at Northern Illinois University.

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