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Professor Nabil Matar - an appreciation

Islam in Britain
Click here for book review

Turks, Moors & Englishmen

Britain and Barbary, 1589-1689

In the Lands of the Christians

Professor Nabil Matar

Professor Nabil Matar is Professor of English and department head of Humanities and Communication at the Florida Institute of Technology. In April 2004 he was invited by Shakespeare's Globe to deliver the 2004 Sam Wanamaker Fellowship Lecture on 'Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Stage Moor', a highlight of the Globe's Shakespeare and Islam programme.

Professor Matar is an authority on interactions between Europe, and England in particular, and the world of Islam in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. He has published four important books since 1998: 'Islam in Britain 1558 - 1685' (1998); 'Turks, Moors and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery' (1999); 'In the Lands of the Christians - Arabic Travel Writing in the Seventeenth Century (2003) and 'Barbary and Britain, 1589-1689 (2005).

He bears his scholarship lightly, presenting material in a highly accessible style but scrupulously referenced to primary and secondary sources. He is presently working on 'Britain and the Muslim World, 1558-1727' with Profesor MacLean (University of York) and plans a further work, 'Europe through Arab Eyes, 1578-1727' which, in his words "will provide further evidence, and an extended interpretation, of Islamic knowledge of Europe and Europeans in the early modern period".

"As he [the Moroccan ambassador] and his delegation entered London, travelling up from Dover, crowds stood watching the white-robed and turban headed Moors. Whether William Shakespeare was standing in the crowd that afternoon we do not know. But as news traveled around the city about the arrival of the Moroccans, Shakespeare might have remembered his late friend and co-author George Peele. Eleven years earlier the two of them had learned of the arrival of the first Moroccan delegation ever to Elizabeth's England. Peele had subsequently written 'The Battle of Alcazar', the first Moor play, and after the arrival of this ambassador, Shakespeare would write 'Othello', the greatest of all Moor plays…Moors on the streets of London … led to Moors on the stage at the Globe. They were a direct result of England's diplomatic initiative into Islamic affairs - associations and collusions that took place between the Christian Queen of England and the Muslim ruler of Morocco".

Professor Nabil Matar, delivering the Sam Wanamaker Fellowship Lecture at Shakespeare's Globe, April 2004

Shakespeare's Globe - Education section

Nabil Matar's work is most timely for several reasons. Firstly it challenges the notion of Islam as an entity somehow separate from a 'Judeo-Christian' West. It is far more accurate to refer to Europe's 'Islamico-Judeo-Christian' heritage - given Matar's discoveries, such as the teaching of Arabic at Westminster School in London in the Sixteenth Century to enable students to access the advanced knowledge of the day. Secondly, for Muslims in Britain in particular, Matar's scholarship opens avenues for identifying with the history of their homeland, notwithstanding the inglorious colonialist era. Any Muslim school child cannot but sit up and take note with a sense of pride if a history teacher were to delve into Matar's accounts of Muslim sea captains supporting Elizabeth I against the Spanish. Thirdly, Matar's work on Arabic travel writing totally debunks Bernard Lewis's accusation that Muslims lacked "curiosity" towards Europeans. Finally, he offers new insights into the very topical problem of Islamophobia: what were the psychological roots that prompted Elizabethan stage writers to demonise Muslims and how do these differ from the factors at play in the minds of the hacks in today's tabloid press?

Professor Matar's own life experiences intersect in a fortuitous way with his subject of study. In both 'Turks, Moors and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery' and his forthcoming 'Barbary and Britain' he delves into the experiences of captives - an important task facing diplomats in the courts of Elizabeth I and later King James was sorting out the exchange of individuals who had been captured by the pirates on both sides. He writes movingly about the campaigns of wives in London to free their menfolk. These are experiences that Matar can well understand: he himself was held captive for six months by mercenary kidnappers during the unrest in Beirut in the mid-1980s, and it was his wife who struggled for his release. Born and raised in the Lebanon, he then migrated to the United States.

Patrick Spottiswoode of Shakespeare's Globe while introducing Professor Matar to his London audience aptly observed that "Dr Matar has almost single-handedly invented the study of Islam in relation to renaissance England".

M.A. Sherif

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