Muslims in the Western Imagination

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Sophia Rose Arjana
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     2015.
     280 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199324927.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Muslims in the Western Imagination gathers together a 1300-year genealogy of the ways Westerners have dehumanized Muslim men by conjuring them into monsters. After beginning with medieval distortions of the Prophet Muhammad, Sophia Rose Arjana explores how Saracens and Turks were vilified in fabulous forms as perverse, deviant, diabolic, and violent. Another chapter offers insightful interpretations of literary works whose monstrous protagonists are made to bear Muslim markings, including Philip Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, William Shakespeare’s Othello, William Beckford’s Vathek, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The book’s American archive is largely comprised of aliens, vampires, zombies, and terrorists in film, including in George Lucas’s Indiana Jones and Star Wars series and Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007), which anachronistically reads brutal Islamic alterity back into a prior classical past. Arjana argues that this compendium of compelling delusions has formed a common and continuing “grand narrative” (7) endowed with a powerful ideological agency to “determine” (1) how real Muslims have been physically treated.

The study’s heritage of monster-making reveals a deep and abiding animus against Islam by mustering an archive of archetypes that has persisted though medieval, orientalist, and gothic “epistemes” to inform today’s anti-Muslim stereotypes. Nevertheless, Arjana’s exploration of what is actually Muslim about these monsters is as protean as their own bodily forms. Though Arjana is a scholar of Islamic studies, she emphasizes the mythology of the monsters themselves rather than focuses on aspects of Islam that purportedly authorized such “ideological alienation” (9). The monsters are often hybrid conflations of Muslim, Jew, and African so commingled as to be integral with each other, and the study does not interrogate the historical roots of  contrasting racial types such as Semitic, Moorish, and Malay. Arjana acknowledges that the monstrous chimeras founded in the Middle Ages were “nothing but musings and conjectures written by individuals who had never opened the pages of a Qu’ran or met a Muslim” (37). Yet, the study never examines Western interpretations of the Qur’an, nor attends to how Islam was monstrously figured within Christian theological discourse, specifically the way that Protestant eschatology figured Islam as a plague of stinging locusts issuing forth from a bottomless pit. Her book also neglects the shadowy form of the djinn (“genie”) as a Muslim monster, as well as the countervailing process within Islam, so prominent in today’s terrorist attacks, of demonizing the kafir, or unbeliever.

Arjana posits that her chronicle of “hate-signs” (52) was motivated by an ethical attempt to understand the inhumane treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. She cites author Stephen King’s suggestion that people create horrors to deal with fears and anxieties that exist in the real world (165). Her “central concern” is to probe how these recurring phantasms, with their “imaginary violence, …affects real Muslim bodies” (3). She goes so far as to assert that her scholarly effort is a “jihad” intended “to reveal Muslims as human beings” (16). However, by dramatizing the staying power of these distortions, which have for so long dismissed Muslim actualities, the compilation may itself become an ironic vehicle for proliferating these fictions. The author indicates that she is planning a sequel that focuses on constructions of the Muslim female that have been construed on more favorable terms, a study that may allow a deeper consideration of the dialectic of revulsion and attraction that charged these images. In a much more indelible way than simple cartoon sketches of the Prophet Muhammad, the imaginary cultural fantasies assessed in this work reveal how Westerners have made monsters of themselves through obscene and inhumane attempts to defuse the challenge of Islamic difference, a process presently embodied in the monstrous figure of the terrorist. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Timothy Marr is Associate Professor of American Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sophia Rose Arjana holds an M.A. from Columbia University, an M.T.S. from Emory University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Denver and Illiff School of Theology. Her main areas of research are imaginary Muslim monsters, Muslim representations in popular culture, non-hajj pilgrimage traditions in Islamic societies, liturgy in North American Muslim communities, and Jewish and Islamic liberative theology. She has published articles on Islamic shrine architecture and the role of racial constructions in Orientalist discourse and has forthcoming book chapters on female and queer imams in the United States, liberation theology, and the Iranian sociologist Ali Shari'ati.

Comments

Christopher Ocker

Thanks for calling attention to the complexity of early modern western responses to Islam.

S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate

The "monster" seems one of the richer theoretical categories for the study of religion these days. Lot of productive work, like Arjana's, that utilize the language to good effect. 

Todd Green

This is an outstanding book, a unique and illuminating perspective on Western constructions of Muslims. Arjana's analysis is sophisticated and nuanced. I highly recommend it!

Ted Vial

What's super useful about this book is the way it places comtemporary rhetoric about Muslims in a long historical context. There are, of course, always more questions to be taken up, as the reviewer notes. But this book handles nicely the questions it explicitly sets out to tackle. Plus it's a great read. 

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