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The Contrarian: Islamic Delights

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Fundamentalism has become the face of Islam in the West. It was not always so and need not be in the future, says Tim Stanley.

Poster for 'The Sheik'When I was a boy there was a bookshop in a nearby village that sold vintage copies of indecent books. The classics were kept in the upstairs room, where I was able to hide away for hours and read them uninterrupted.

The volume I enjoyed the most was a 15th-century love manual called The Perfumed Garden. It was written by Sheikh Nefzawi, a Muslim who lived in the Nefzaoua region of present-day Tunisia. Around 1420 he was invited to compile a guide to the wonders of love-making for the Hafsid ruler of Tunis. The resulting work reads like an erotic encyclopedia, including tips on technique, how to avoid certain ailments and advice on increasing prowess. The Perfumed Garden came to England in 1886, translated by the explorer Sir Richard Burton. Burton noted that sex manuals were surprisingly common in Muslim North Africa, but argued that this text deserved special attention for ‘the seriousness with which the most lascivious and obscene matters are presented’. To the 13-year-old me, attending an all-boys school in a pre-Internet world, it was indeed deadly serious stuff.

That such a book was able to find an audience in 19th-century England forces us to reassess Victorian attitudes towards both Islam and sexuality. Today the West sees Muslim culture as aesthetic. But to the Victorians the Islamic world was mysterious, exotic and erotic. Young men trying to escape the frigid confines of Victorian Britain often went on tours of North Africa or north-west India. Conversions were not uncommon. One particularly scandalous convert to local Islamic culture was James Achilles Kirkpatrick, who was appointed the British Resident in Hyderabad in 1764. Although an army colonel, Kirkpatrick wore native garb, smoked a hookah, chewed betelnut, learnt Hindustani and Persian and maintained a small harem. Eventually Kirkpatrick converted to Shia Islam and married a local Hyderabadi noblewoman, Khair-un-Nissa. The marriage scandalised his superiors, not least because it was inter-racial. Kirkpatrick was removed from his post and went into hiding. He died in Calcutta on October 15th, 1805. A little while later Khair-un-Nissa was seduced by the new British Resident in Hyderabad, Henry Russell. She lived out her life as his mistress.

Muslim culture really arrived in Britain with the Great Exhibition of 1851. Muslim art and artefacts were put on display and the overflow became housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Queen Victoria herself was not immune to the charms of the Near East. In 1887 she was ‘gifted’ a young Muslim servant called Abdul Karim. The queen was spellbound by her present. Recently discovered letters between the two reveal that she often signed herself as ‘your loving mother’, followed by a flurry of kisses. Karim taught Victoria how to write in Urdu and Hindi, introduced her to curry, which became a regular item on the royal menu, and eventually became her highly decorated secretary. His entire family moved into the palace and his father was permitted to smoke a hookah indoors. Naturally it wasn’t hard for the royal court to interpret Karim’s influence as the cruel manipulation of an ageing female libido by Arabic charm.

The image of the Islamic world as an oasis of sensual delights lasted well into the 20th century. In the 1920s female audiences swooned over Rudolph Valentino starring as The Sheik. In the 1970s the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini enjoyed a box office hit with his erotic interpretation of the Arabian Nights. What changed western attitudes towards Islamic culture was the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which catapulted a radical interpretation of Shia into our consciousness – obsessed with poverty, morally censorious and aggressively anti-western. Suddenly aware of the terrible deprivations of life in the Middle East, the West could no longer project its erotic fantasies upon the region.

Nevertheless the existence of texts like The Perfumed Garden is testament to a different, more harmonious age, when the relationship between Islam and Christendom was driven by vibrant cultural exchange. It also dispels the western myth that Islam is a monoculture. It is one faith spread across various cultures – some puritan, some exotic, but all literate and captivating.

Tim Stanley is associate fellow of the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford University.

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