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Emerson and Islam

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), a quintessentially American writer and thinker, is also one of the most international. Greek, Roman, Chinese, Indian, Persian, French, British, and German philosophers and literary figures pervade his work. As we think about “Western values” and “the clash of civilizations” today, it may be useful to consider the significant role that Islam plays in Emerson’s thought. To begin, we need look no farther than the conclusion of Emerson’s greatest essay, ‘Self-Reliance,’ where he quotes “the Caliph Ali,” whom he learned about from Simon Ockley’s History of the Saracens (1718): “Thy lot or portion of life, is seeking after thee; therefore be at rest from seeking after it.” Emerson uses Ali to distinguish an accidental property like an inheritance from an essential or “living property,” something “that perpetually renews itself wherever the man breathes.” This kind of property cannot be effectively pursued, but it can be received and employed.

Emerson regarded the Koran, as he regarded the sacred texts of all religions, as a work of poetry and invention that influenced world history by offering a vision and inducing enthusiasm. “Every great and commanding moment in the annals of the world,” he writes in ‘Man the Reformer’ (1841), “is the triumph of some enthusiasm. The victories of the Arabs after Mahomet, who in a few years, from a small and mean beginning, established a larger empire than that of Rome, is an example.” This is the Emerson who wrote in ‘Self-Reliance’ that “Nothing great is achieved without enthusiasm.”

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Ralph Waldo Emerson ca 1857, scewing derivative work: 2009. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

But Emerson qualifies his approval of the Arab conquests. He predicts “a nobler morning than that Arabian faith, in the sentiment of love.” This is not a plea for Christianity, nor an entire rejection of Islam, but an embrace of what Emerson calls “love” or “universal sunshine,” and which he finds in many cultures. At the center of his own great essay, ‘Experience,’ Emerson finds this sunshine in a “region of being” that is as much American as Islamic: an “august magnificence, old with the love and homage of innumerable ages, young with the life of life, the sunbright Mecca of the desert … I am ready to die out of nature, and be born again into this new yet unapproachable America I have found in the West.” Interpreting these lines and the paragraph in which they occur is a large enterprise, but what I am calling attention to here is the conjunction of Mecca and America in a crucial section of a representative American writing.

Another line of Islamic thought in Emerson comes from the Persian poets, especially the fourteenth century poet Hafiz. In ‘History’ (1841), Emerson places Hafiz among the major writers of world literature, along with Homer and Chaucer. Emerson’s engagement with him deepened after he obtained Joseph von Hammer’s German translation of Hafiz’s Divan in 1846. Emerson appreciated Hafiz’s multiple aspects and tendencies: as a mystic and a proponent of wine and the beauty of nature and women, and as an active, ironic opponent of self-satisfied conformity. Emerson admired the “easy audacity” with which Hafiz approaches all topics:  he “tears off his turban and throws it at the head of the meddling dervis, and throws his glass after the turban.” Although Hafiz sincerely “praises wine, roses, maidens, boys, birds, mornings, and music,” Emerson writes in ‘Persian Poetry’ (1858), that he “lays the emphasis on these to mark his scorn of sanctimony and base prudence.”

This sounds somewhat like Emerson himself, who in his younger days scandalized Harvard audiences with his “American Scholar” and “Divinity School” addresses, and who explained that to be self-reliant was to have an “aversion” to “conformity.” The portrait of Hafiz also resonates with an imagined Persian sage named Osman (the Turkish form of the Arabic “Osama”) who appears in Emerson’s journals and at the end of one of Emerson’s most deceptive essays, ‘Manners’ (1844). “The Shah at Schiraz,” Emerson writes with his characteristic taste for the overturning of established meanings, “could not afford to be so bountiful as the poor Osman who dwelt at his gate.” Osman’s humanity was “so broad and deep,” Emerson continues, “that although his speech was so bold and free with the Koran as to disgust all the dervishes, yet was there never a poor outcast, eccentric, or insane man, but fled at once to him — that great heart lay there so sunny and hospitable in the centre of the country … And the madness which he harbored, he did not share. Is not this to be rich?”

How can we learn to appreciate this kind of sunny wealth, and where are our contemporary Osmans? In his mid-nineteenth century innocence and wisdom, Emerson raises these and other questions for us today, in essays that show us not the clash but the confluence and interpenetration of civilizations.

Featured image credit: Roof of the Hafiz tomb, by Pentocelo (Own work). CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. abu ayoub

    “Osman” is the Turkish version of “‘Uthman” in Arabic.

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