‘Our Byron?’ the woman asks. I nod. ‘Sorry’ she says, pausing for a moment ‘the English Byron?’ the pitch of her voice and her eyebrows rising in tandem. I note the exaggerated enunciation, ‘Eng-er-lish’ with the stress on the first syllable. I look down at the white tablecloth.
I’m in a Georgian country house in the Scottish Borders, answering a woman’s questions about my studies over elevenses in the dining room. With our tea growing cold in Wedgwood china, I find myself telling her about the Islamic presence in the Romantic movement. I tell her how Byron had once said that the Qur’an ‘contains the most sublime poetical passages far surpassing European poetry,’ how he described the Muslim call to prayer as ‘beautiful beyond the bells of Christendom,’ that he was determined to portray Islamic beliefs and rituals accurately in his poetry, as evidenced in the letters he wrote to his editor. The conversation comes to an awkward halt when I reply ‘Yes, the English Byron.’
I have returned to this house set in almost 200 acres of estate with the hope of writing what I desperately want to read: contemporary British Muslim nature writing. There is now a growing recognition of the lack of diversity in British nature writing. The establishment of the Nan Shepherd Prize for underrepresented nature writers and the founding of the Willowherb Review, a journal for nature writers of colour, serve to address this problem. Many under-represented writers are motivated by a desire to dismantle the nature writing genre, distancing themselves from it or renouncing it. Perhaps another way to challenge the tradition would be to use the genre’s own conventions, cultural references and literary landmarks to show that it owes its existence to other cultures and communities. As a Muslim woman, the true subversion of the Nature Writing genre lies not in rebelling against the Romantic or Transcendentalist notions of nature but in reclaiming these traditions as my own. I find it encouraging that the earliest uses of the word reclaim occur in the context of nature. To reclaim meant to ‘call or bring back a hawk’ in falconry; reclaiming meant to ‘restrict the growth of trees to a manageable level’, it also meant ‘to make wasteland, especially land under water fit for cultivation or habitation.’
On the drive up to the house, the hills loomed large and filled the whole car window. The scale of them elicited a simultaneous shrinking and expansion of self so clearly depicted in Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic painting The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. Painted circa 1818, it is a rückenfigur depiction of a man atop a mountain surveying a rocky vista shrouded in mist. Friedrich’s painting, often reproduced in books when the subject turns to Romanticism, has acquired a certain notoriety in some circles. Synonymous with the Romantic aesthetic, some consider it to be emblematic of the white, lone, male figureheads of the Romantic movement; others reference it to describe the prevailing voice of the male, first-person narrative in the nature writing genre; others still, use it as a visual shorthand to denote a certain kind of obnoxious hill-bagging personality, ‘The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’ as the ursummit-selfie.
The Romantic movement is rightly criticised for its Orientalism. However, many of us are unaware that the Romantics had an experiential engagement with Islam that went beyond intellectual exploitation. A nascent body of scholarship is addressing this lacuna, the most recent and comprehensive work on this subject is Jeffrey Einboden’s Islam and Romanticism which explores how the consumption of Muslim sources such as Sufi poetry and the Qur’an, acted as creative catalysts for the Romantic writers, inspiring them in their public literary output as well as their private lives.
After reading Einboden’s book, my own observations of Islamic imagery in the Romantic movement were confirmed. Where others might see a coterie of narcissistic white men, I see Byron’s prolific and scrupulously accurate use of Islamic imagery in his Turkish Tales. When I read Emerson’s Saadi I see his use of the medieval Muslim poet’s vocabulary to describe American landscapes and contemporaneous concerns. Reading Whitman’s A Persian Lesson is realising that it is a paean to the Muslim poets Rumi and Hafiz. In Mahomet’s Gesang, I am reading Goethe’s paralleling of the Prophet Muhammad with an invigorating river flowing through a European landscape and his rejection of the negative clichés associated with Islam. Islamic theology, poetry and philosophy have shaped the sensibilities and imaginations of the seminal Western authors writing about the natural world.
I think about the conversation I had with the woman back at the house. Her undisguised disbelief that Byron was inspired by Islam was not an uncommon reaction, others have told me outright that I must be stretching the facts. Why is the Islamic influence on Britain’s literary canon so hard to stomach? Perhaps it is because such a suggestion threatens to overhaul our understanding of the British landscape.
Thirty-eight of the eighty-nine Donalds (hills between 2000 and 2999 feet situated south of the Highland fault boundary) fall within the Scottish Borders. The sculpted hills in this part of the Scottish borders look deceivingly smooth from afar but I will not be walking a Donald. I have set my sights on a trig point at the top of a small hill. As I set out from the steading, I am reminded of the words of the poet George MacKay Brown: ‘hills tell old stories.’ I can’t help but think of a hill closer to home: Primrose Hill in London with its druidic William Blake inscription (‘I have conversed with the spiritual Sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill’) and of hills further away, two ancient hills called Safa and Marwa in the desert of Saudi Arabia. I remember the story Muslims are told as children. Sent into the wilderness by Abraham, Hagar ran back and forth between Safa and Marwa seven times searching for water for her infant son Ishmael. It has always interested me how a Hagar’s quest for water is re-enacted by Muslims on the Hajj pilgrimage when they run between Safa and Marwa seven times in her honour.
The walk to Chapel Hill takes me past the kitchen garden and I’m reminded of what the former cook here told me. He said that when seeds were sown in this garden, two names from the Divine Ninety-Nine names of Allah: ‘Al-Qabid’ (The Constrictor) and ‘Al-Basit’ (The Expander) were recited aloud to aid their growth. Many Muslims believe that each of the Ninety-Nine names have profound meanings and distinct effects and that to recite a name out loud in dhikr (remembrance) is to call forth its power.
After walking through the slender birch trees of Whitrig Wood, Chapel Hill lies ahead. I scythe open the long grass with my arms to stop my feet from getting tangled. Sphagnum moss saturated with water provides welcome cushioning underfoot and seeding stems of bog asphodel stud the grassland like stunted terracotta-coloured stalks of wheat. I realise burgundy tufts of grass at intervals are responsible for the scorched appearance of the hills from a distance. Further ahead, flashes of blue intersperse the grass, I think they’re cornflowers at first but on closer inspection the bulbous flowerheads are studded by long filaments that extend past the corolla. I can see why the ‘devil’s bit scabious’ is likened to a pin cushion. Blue-green blades of Carex flacca carpet the ground and when I look down at the warp and weft of the glaucous coloured grass it is like looking down into a swirling vegetal sea. In the blustering wind, quivering lilac petals of a Campanula rotundiflora stand out, its common names are: bluebell of Scotland, harebell, witches thimble. I watch how the delicate petals are untroubled by the pummelling rain.
As I make my way up the hill, my mind drifts to Hagar again. After she raced between the hills, a source of water was divinely revealed to her and the force of its flow caused her to say, ‘Stop!Stop!’ Hagar’s exclamation became the name of the well: ’ZamZam.’ In his lecture on Hagar, Tim Winter describes how medieval Christians considered Islam to be ‘of the flesh, of nature’, while Christianity was ‘of the spirit.’ As the Prophet Muhmmad is a scion of Ishmael, Muslims were referred to as Ishmaelites and Hagarenes. St Augustine, in his treatise De Civitate Dei, describes Ishmael as having been ‘born in the course of nature’ while Isaac, the Christian progenitor was ‘born in fulfilment of promise.’ Genesis describes Ishmael as a ‘wild man’ who ‘grew and dwelt in the wilderness’ and Luther, in his commentary reiterates that Ishmael is ‘fond of wilderness and is wild and roaming.’ In the Middle Ages, Ishmael’s association with the wilderness confirmed his wild and uncivilised nature and in turn, Islam’s ‘barbarity.’ I recall another obsolete meaning of the word reclaim: ‘to civilise a people considered wild or savage.’ Interestingly, despite their polemical motivations, Islam’s relationship to nature was undisputed by these medieval thinkers, an understanding of the religion that is not widely known today.
Growing on a clod of land jutting out of the hill is a wind warped tree of what I think is hawthorn. The windblown branches are winding and horizontal and its roots on one side protrude from the earth. When the German theosopher Jacob Boehme called Islam ‘a wild tree toward the north’ I expect he had an image like this tree in mind. Born in the late sixteenth century, Boehme wrote obscure, mystical treatises on religion and is often called the ‘father of German philosophy.’ In Aurora, a philosophical text on the trinity, he considers Islam’s proximity to nature to be a virtue of the religion. Roland Pietsch, scholar of Islamic philosophy, wrote that for Boehme ‘Hagar is not the mother of Ishmael but of nature itself.’
It is not surprising then when we consider how William Blake, an avid follower of Boheme, included Hagar in his drawing, A Vision of the Last Judgement. The final painting is now lost but an earlier watercolour version survives, along with Blake’s notes on it. I saw this earlier version when I went to the William Blake exhibition at the Tate in 2019. As Hagar, Ishmael and Prophet Muhammad are not in this version, I tried to picture where they might have been in the final painting. I wonder if Blake included Hagar in his painting because of her proximity to the wilderness? Was his depiction of Hagar as the matriarch of Islam a deliberate departure from the well-established tradition of Hagar paintings by seventeenth century artists like Rubens and Rembrandt? Whatever his motives, the inclusion of Hagar and Islam’s Prophet in Blake’s painting and his vision of salvation is not insignificant. In his essay, ‘Blake and the Prophetic Tradition’, Norman O. Brown wrote, ‘We will not get Blake and Tradition right until we see the tradition as Prophetic Tradition, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam […] to bring Islam into the picture is a Copernican Revolution.’ If the conversations I’ve had about Islam and British poets are anything to go by, I think that we will not get Britain and contemporary nature writing right until we include Islam. We can’t understand Byron or Blake and the land they lived in and wrote about without mentioning Islam. Bringing Islam into the picture is Nature Writing’s Copernican revolution.
Standing by the trig point on Chapel Hill, I can see a mercury-coloured lake in the distance. A low stone wall snakes across the landscape and the sky holds the pewter outline of the hills beyond. As we endeavour to diversify Nature Writing, Romanticism’s debt to Islam remains obscure to many of us. The figure in Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog has enjoyed much attention but I’m more interested in what remains hidden in the fog. Just as the misty landscape in the painting is an imagined place, an assortment of various locations combined by Friedrich to form a new vista, so too is the literary landscape of Romanticism and Nature Writing cobbled together from different traditions. Muslims are not passive recipients of the Western nature writing genre; we need not feel alienated by a tradition that our religious forbears played an important role in shaping. Until we are able to recognise this, Hagar and the wild tree toward the north will remain lost in the fog.
Amina Khan is currently completing her Masters in Medieval History. You can find her on twitter at @_amina_khan.
Photo by the author.