Victorian Images of Islam


Clinton Bennett


(Original version published in International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 15 No 5. July 1991, pp 115 – 119.).


The Nineteenth Century Revisited  



ow did Christians in the Victorian era make theological sense of Islam? Did nineteenth century Christians merely perpetuate medieval images of Islam, almost all negative?  Or did they develop new approaches based on better scholarship of sources and primary texts?


When I began my research on these questions I assumed that nineteenth century attitudes to Islam were monochrome, apart from exceptions like Thomas Carlyle who wrote from outside Christian orthodoxy.  But this soon proved not to be the case.


My initial idea was to concentrate on the contribution of Sir William Muir (1819 – 1905), whose life spanned the then closely related worlds of colonialism, missions and scholarship.  Muir’s scholarship, judged by Albert Hourani as ‘still not quite superseded’, was motivated by his support for the missionary cause (Hourani, 1980 p 34). He believed that if missionaries were successfully to refute Islam (which those missionaries he supported aimed to do), they would need more accurate information than what had been available to their predecessors.  Muslims could look with ‘contemptuous incredulity’ on the works of Maracci and Prideaux, but now, Muir wrote, Christians could use Islam’s own ‘best sources’ to prove to Muslims ‘that they are deceived and superstitious in many important points’ (Muir, 1897 p 66).


For some of his contemporaries Muir certainly succeeded.  However, scholars were able to use Muir’s Life of Mahomet (1861) and other books to confirm opinions that sometimes differed from his:  they accepted his facts but questioned his interpretations and conclusions.  Not everyone in Victorian England accepted without question jingoistic attitudes of cultural and religious superiority.  Also, the too comfortable and convenient alliance between Christian missions and everything Western did not pass without criticism, even by some who stood within the Christian tradition.


An Early writer who questioned traditional attitudes toward Islam was the Reverend Charles Forster (1787 – 1871), whose book Mahometanism Unveiled appeared in 1829. In our century, Albert Hourani and Norman Daniel have found Forster sufficiently noteworthy to summarize his theories in Europe and the Middle East (1980) and Islam, Europe and Empire (1966). Muir reviewed Forster’s Mahometanism Unveiled in one of his own early articles – part of a series in the Calcutta Review later republished in The Mohammedan Controversy (1897). Muir described the public debates in Northwest India between the Christian missionary, Karl Pfander (1803 – 1855) and the Muslim ulema, Sayyed Rahman Ali, Mohammed Kazim Ali and Sayyed Ali Hassan.  Muir  credited Pfander with victory and suggested that with even better sources at their disposal, the position of Christian missionaries was unassailable (for Pfander, see my 1996 IBMR article).  This was the context in which Muir reviewed Forster’s book.  Positively, Forster’s book contained, said Muir, a ‘vast fund of useful information which will repay a perusal’ but the book advocated an argument that, if accepted, would both prove ‘the divine origin of Islam’ and endanger Christian mission (ibid, p 45). Muir commented how the ulema [Muslim scholars] would welcome such a book, written by a Christian cleric.


Two Views Contrasted



y survey of contemporary reaction to Forster revealed that most reviewers, while acknowledging his scholarship, were unhappy with his conclusions. Missionaries such as John Muehleisen Arnold (1817-1881) and John Drew Bate (1836 – 1923) took issue with Forster’s thesis as late as 1859 and 1884 respectively. However, I also discovered that other nineteenth century writers adopted approaches to Islam resembling Forster’s. 


Muir saw the Christian-Muslim encounter as a battle for world supremacy



This suggests that there were two schools of thought, mutually aware and mutually critical of each other.  The first, represented by Forster (his book was the first to be published), may be characterized as ‘conciliatory’; the second, represented by Muir, as ‘confrontational’.  This latter description does not imply a value judgement, since Muir himself saw the Christian-Muslim encounter as a battle for world supremacy.  Indeed, Muir believed that Islam represented Christianity’s ‘mortal foe’ (ibid p 48).


In my research I examined two scholars alongside Muir, namely William St Clair-Tisdall (1859 – 1928) and John Drew Bate and two alongside Forster, Frederick Denison Maurice (1805 – 1872) and Reginald Bosworth Smith (1839 – 1909).  I chose Forster, Maurice and Smith very carefully, because my interest is with scholars whose aim was to make Christian sense of Islam. (Other writers, such as Godfrey Higgins, 1771 – 1833 and John Davenport, active in the 1860’s, wrote sympathetically about Islam but rejected traditional formulations of Christian faith (see Higgins, 1830 and Davenport, 1869).


The contrast between the schools is evidenced by two additional factors.  Firstly, Forster et al wrote from Britain and, with the exception of Smith, who befriended Muslims as a result of his writing and who briefly visited North Africa, they had no personal acquaintance with Muslims.  Muir et al claimed extensive encounter with Muslims and wrote from India and the Middle East.  Secondly, Forster et al were neither specialists in Islamics nor Eastern languages but rather were accomplished scholars in other disciplines who applied their particular skills to the study of Islam. Muir et al were recognised Orientalists with access through Arabic and Persian to the source texts.


Members of the two schools were clearly influenced by certain attitudes that Christians have at times adopted.  Muir, for instance, identified strongly with Henry Martyn (1781 – 1812), whom he called ‘champion of England’s honour’ in first entering the ‘sacred contest’ (for Martyn, see my 1992 IBMR article).  He was also influenced by earlier works, such as the Apology of Al-Kindi, which he translated into English (Muir, 1882). 


Maurice held that Christianity needs the revitalization that contact with other faiths can supply.


For his part, Forster was influenced by his awareness of the creative and positive exchange that took place between Christian, Muslim and Jew in Moorish Spain.  He also strongly identified with George Sale (1697 – 1736), whose memory, he said, had been ‘very undeniably aspersed by controversial writers’ (Forster, 1829 V2 p 475).


In my research, I sought to locate each of the six figures within their specific intellectual, social, and ecclesiological context.  In this detailed analyses, the following questions helped me to explore the contrasts between the two schools:



On balance, the conciliators answered positively, the confrontationalists negatively.


Charles Forster: Biblical Key?



orster was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, and a protégé of Bishop John Jebb (1775 – 1833).  After assisting Jebb as Curate and later as Chaplain, Forster became Rector of Sisted in Essex and one of the Six Preachers in Canterbury Cathedral.  In addition to Mahometanism Unveiled he wrote numerous books, mostly concerned with his rather eccentric obsession with palaeography. In his The Historical Geography of Arabia (1844), which both Muir and the Muslim scholar Sir Sayyed Ahmad Khan (1817 – 1896) regarded as an authority, he returned to one of the themes of his earlier book (see Khan, 1891 p 17; Muir, 1861 Vol 1 pp cix – cx). His interest in Islam was prompted by an observation of Dr. Johnson: ‘There are but two objects of curiosity – the Christian world and the Mahometan world, all the rest may be considered as barbarous’. Forster attempted to understand the relationship between these two worlds and God’s providential intentions for humanity.  He thus took issue with Edward Gibbon’s secular interpretation of history.  Forster believed that God stands behind all history as its prime mover; he suggested that the restoration of God to history could not be selective. Consequently, Islam’s origin, numerical success, and apparent permanence no less than Christianity’s could be explained only with reference to the ‘one great primary cause and effect of all things, the special superintending providence of God’ (Forster, 1829 Vol 1 p 65).  Examining traditional arguments advanced by Christians to explain Islam’s origin and development, Forster found them inadequate. 


Believing that the Bible contains the blueprint of all history, he looked to Scripture to locate Islam’s origin within God’s providential plan, which he found in his interpretation of the Abraham-Ishmael tradition.  God’s promise that Ishmael would receive a blessing represented, he said, a covenant with Ishmael’s seed, of which Muslims are members just as Christians are members of Isaac’s seed.  This covenant, though subordinate to the Isaac covenant, carried both a spiritual and a material blessing. Therefore, said Forster, Islam evidences spiritual fruit and can prepare the way for the reception of Christianity.  Similarly, Islam had conferred material benefits on mankind.  In her golden Age, her scholars had developed astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, navigation, and philosophy, while her universities had taught Christian as well as Muslim students.  He marshalled evidence, drawn especially from Spain and Sicily, to support this.  He explained hostility between Christians and Muslims by citing Genesis 16: 12, ‘With his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him and he shall live at odds with all his kin’ (NRSV).  However, he believed that Islam was gradually converging toward Christianity, whose ally it is in the task of enlightening and civilizing the world.  This unity will be achieved by ‘extraordinary providential interposition’ (ibid, V 2 p 372).


Forster criticized earlier writers for bending facts to accommodate their theories. ‘Prejudice’, he wrote, had too often ‘usurped the place of sound reason’.  Too much attention was given to ‘preconceptions’, too little to ‘facts’.  Christians had spared little thought of the effect on Muslims of a ‘wrong appreciation of their religious system’ (ibid, Vol 1 p 4; Vol 2 p 375). Christians were wrong, said Forster, to try Muhammad by a standard he did not know.  He knew only a ‘vile parody of Christianity’ and should therefore be compared not with Christ, whom he did not know, but with Moses whom he did know.  Thus compared, and given that he ‘possessed no extraordinary advantage, no superior illumination’, Forster judged that Muhammad had genuinely attempted to raise, not lower, moral standards (ibid, V1 p 78).


Forster’s work attracted fierce criticism as well as cautious praise and remained a debating point throughout the century.  One critic referred to his ‘infidel theory’ as ‘approaching the verge of blasphemy’; another wrote that if Islam was ‘truly entitled to the pedigree and praise bestowed it by Mr. Forster … our societies ought to … [print] cheap Korans [and send] Moulahs to the heathen’ (see Edinburgh Review, 1830 p 350 – 3; Wesleyan Methodist Magazine, 3rd series, 1829, p 753).


John Frederick Denison Maurice – A Theological Key?



ohn Frederick Denison Maurice, described by Alec Vidler as ‘the most originating of Victorian theologians’, was familiar with Forster’s thesis, which, he said, by attempting to deal fairly with facts that Christians had often perverted, had benefited the Christian cause (Vidler, 1970 p 39; Maurice, 1845 p x).  The son of a Unitarian minister, Maurice became an Anglican priest and first professor of theology at King’s College, London.  He was dismissed in 1853 for alleged departure from orthodoxy but remained throughout his life a serving priest and was later professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge.  His single contribution to theology of religions was his The Religions of The World, his Boyle Lecture for 1846.


He began with a premise not dissimilar to Forster’s – that all religions have their origin in the divine.  They stem from some something that is better than their human followers, which sustains them despite human weakness.  This ‘inner strength’ was not due to man’s own spiritual nature or faculties but to what he called ‘the higher ground’, or, anticipating Paul Tillich, ‘the ground of our being’ (Maurice, 1846 p 25 – 26; Tillich, 1953, V1 p 49). Each religion, he suggested, stressed a vital aspect of divine truth while only Christianity holds all aspects together in absolute harmony.  Christianity, in contact with other religions, can therefore supply the wholeness they need to become effectual.  Christianity, though, like all systems, suffers decay and stands itself in need of the revitalization that contact with other faiths can supply.  Therefore, if other faiths need Christianity, Christianity also needs them; thus theology of religions becomes a universal concern.  Maurice reacted against Thomas Carlyle’s pantheism, although Carlyle’s psychological portrait of Muhammad was his principal source.  Similarly, though reacting against Gibbon, Forster had made good use of his Decline and Fall.


Maurice’s main contribution was the placing of a theology of religions that positively valued other faiths within a wider theological framework.  Briefly, this centered on his profound conviction that God had both created and redeemed mankind.  All are therefore ‘in Christ’ whether they know it or nor. Hindus and Muslims as well as Christians stand in a relationship with him.  ‘Unity’, says biographer Florance Higham, ‘whether in a person or a people, was of the essence’ of Maurice’s understanding of the Gospel (Higham, 1947 p 25). Islam’s value, Maurice suggested, was its clear proclamation that God is and that he seeks men out. Islam emphasises the fact of God’s being and is most vital when proclaiming that fact.  It degenerates, said Maurice, when it attempts to substitute ‘visions of His nature’ for that fact.  This becomes fruitless speculation and results in Muslims becoming worshippers of a ‘dead necessity’ instead of witnesses of a ‘Living Being’ (Maurice, 1846 p 152).  Maurice found little comfort in beliefs about God.  Instead, he demanded belief in God, ‘unobstructed intercourse with the Deity’ (Sanders, 1942 p 221).


Smith regarded Islam as suitable for Africa and Asia while Christianity was suitable for Europeans.


However, the Gospel’s picture of God’s nature as incarnate in Christ, if ‘grounded’ in a Muslim’s ‘original faith’ and not presented as a substitute for it, can ‘preserve the precious fragments of truth’ in Islam and, ‘forming them into a whole’, make it ‘effectual for the blessing of all lands over which it reigns’ (Maurice, p 154).  Thus for Maurice, as for Forster, Islam possessed spiritual values and occupied a place in God’s providence.  Christians need not, said Maurice, ‘regard its continuance wholly as a calamity’ (ibid, p 23).


Reginald Bosworth Smith: An Historical Framework?



eginald Bosworth Smith also argued in favor of a conciliatory approach to Islam.  After a brilliant career at Oxford, where he became President of the Union, Smith taught at Harrow College.  The biographer of Lord Lawrence, he was also well known for his influential letters and articles on public and political issues.  A classicist, his contribution in the area under review was to supply a sounder historical context to Maurice’s theological framework. Smith’s Mohammed and Mahammedenism was first published in 1874.  As had Forster, Smith criticized earlier writers for writing ‘to prove a thesis – Muhammad was either to be a Hero or an imposer’ (Smith, 1874 p 52). Consequently, he says, we learn much that has been said about Muhammad but comparatively little of Muhammad himself.  While acknowledging ‘paramount allegiance to Christianity’, Smith attempted to penetrate behind the historical records to the facts they describe, believing that God should not be ‘localized exclusively in one place or creed’ but traced ‘everywhere in measure’. Inspiration in the ‘broadest sense of the word’, he believed, ‘ was ‘found everywhere in all the greatest thoughts of men, for the workings of God are everywhere, and the spirits of men and nations are moulded by Him to bring about his purposes of love’ (ibid, 1876 ed p xvi) Both Maurice and Smith believed in the ultimate triumph of God’s love. Smith wrote of ‘that … unity above and beyond [the] unity of Christendom which, properly understood, all earnest Christians so much desire; a unity which rests upon the belief that the children of the one Father may worship Him under different names: that they may be influenced by one spirit, even though they know it not, they may all have one hope, even if they have not one faith’ (ibid, p xxv – xxvi).


Like Forster, Smith argued in favour of Islam’s civilizing role.  He saw Islam as an ally.  Influenced by evolutionary thinking, he tended to regard Islam as suitable for Africa and Asia, and Christianity as suitable for Europeans. (Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species appeared in 1859). However, he also questioned Europe’s assumption of racial and cultural superiority and suggested that Christian missionaries could learn much from the example of their Muslim counterparts, who ‘showed forbearance and a sympathy for native customs and prejudices and even for their harmless beliefs’.  Smith explicitly rejected Muir’s verdict that Muhammad was guilty of imposture and that a moral decline occurred after the Hijrah [migration from Makkah to Madinah in 620 CE). Instead, a substantial unity can be traced through each stage of Muhammad’s life.  From first until last, Muhammad claimed ‘that title only with which he had begun, and which the highest philosophy and the truest Christianity will one day, I venture to believe, agree in yielding to him – that of a prophet, a very prophet of God’ (ibid p 344). Additionally, Smith attracted the gratitude, friendship, and appreciation of some Muslims, who found his picture of Muhammad one they could believe. These same Muslims called Muir ‘an avowed enemy of Islam’.


Muir on Forster


In his 1845 review of Forster’s book, Muir not only rejected the view that Islam contained any spiritual value but also the idea that it prepared the way for the reception of Christian faith.  Instead, it presented an ‘impenetrable barrier … which effectively excludes every glimmering of the true light’ (Muir, 1897 p 3; see also 1861, Vol 4 p 322). Muhammad, too, should be judged not against Moses, but against Christ and so judged stands condemned: his cruelty, craft, artifice and licentiousness outweigh his urbanity, loyalty, moderation and magnanimity.  Muir, Tisdall and Bate all refer to Islam as ‘anti-Christian’. Tisdall wrote, ‘Islam is an anti-Christian faith, a Christless creed [that] has preserved in the life and character of its Founder an enduring principle of degradation’ (Tisdall, 1894 p 122). Nor, these scholars argued, was Islam capable, as Forster and Smith suggested, of reformation. (Both Tisdall and Bate refer to Smith’s book).  Muir wrote, ‘The Islam of today is substantially the Islam we have seen throughout history.  Swathed in the bands of the Koran, the Moslem faith, unlike the Christian, is powerless to adapt to varying time and place, to keep pace with  the march of humanity, direct and purify the social life and elevate mankind.  Freedom, in the proper sense of the word, is unknown, and this, apparently, because, in the body politic the spiritual and the secular are hopelessly confused’ (Muir, 1892 p 598). Nor had Islam, in their opinion, made any significant contribution to human progress.  Tisdall wrote, ‘no great civilization, no scientist of note, no renowned school of philosophy, has ever arisen on purely Muhammedan ground’ (Tisdall, op cit  p 201). Moorish civilization was explained by a combination of external influences and by its distance from orthodox Islam.  Islam, too, was characteristically propagated by violence, a claim that Forster and Smith had questioned.


Muir’s Missionary Legacy


Among missionaries, Muir’s work was thought definitive.  Tisdall and Bate are but two example  of missionary scholars who acknowledged indebtedness to Muir’s scholarship. Tisdall was a CMS missionary in India and Persia who received the DD from Edinburgh (where Muir was Principa) for his many books on Islam and other faiths.  Bate, a Baptist missionary, best known for his Hindi dictionary, also developed an interest in Islam, unusual for Baptists.  His The Claims of Ishmael appeared in 1884. He became a member of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1881.  Thus, all three ‘confrontationalists’  received academic recognition (Muir was awarded several honorary doctorates from prestigious universities).


Some historians, however, criticized Muir for allowing theological opinion to influence his historical narrative, and for failing to apply to his own tradition the critical apparatus he applied to Islam.  For example, he applied form and redaction criticism to the Qur’an but wrote as if the Pentateuch was the work of one hand (see Freeman, 1872 and Cox, 1868).  Smith, whose book was maligned by the missionary press but was very well received by many eminent Orientalists, regarded it as axiomatic that the Christian student of another religion should constantly ‘turn the mirror in upon’ oneself (Smith, p xii). Nevertheless, even with his belief in satanic inspiration, Muir certainly portrayed Muhammad more accurately and sympathetically than had earlier writers in the English language.


The Primacy of the Theological Task


In conclusion, I suggest that the very different views of Islam adopted by the two schools were due less to geographical location, encounter or lack of encounter with Muslims, or to scholarly method, than to their theological a priorities.   While the British based writers used secondary sources, they used the very best available and cannot fairly be accused of inadequate scholarship.  However, they did begin predisposed to think positively about Islam.  They looked for God’s hand and found it. Consequently, their picture was, on balance, a positive one, which stressed a genuine spirituality and vindicated Muhammad of many traditional Christian charges.  They saw continuity rather than discontinuity between Muhammad at Makkah and Muhammad at Madinah and were positive about the value of Islamic sources.


Muir and company began convinced that Islam was morally and spiritually bankrupt and at best of human origin.  They therefore deconstructed Islam, assuming deceit and dishonestly of Muhammad and his biographers. Interestingly, they shared Islam’s view of revelation but applied this to the Bible, not to the Qur’an.  Forster, Maurice and Smith, on the other hand, began with a concept of revelation as God’s action in history, and in experience.  God was not confined to one revelation of himself in one place at one time.  Rather, revelation was an ongoing process.  Revelation through Scripture and through the Christ event is vital but not exhaustive.  Smith especially was unhappy with attempts permanently to capture religious experience in formal creeds, since, ‘poetic imagery’ too easily becomes mistaken for ‘scientific exactness’ (here, he followed Thomas Arnold) (ibid p 66; see Arnold, 1873).


My conclusion therefore argues that theological premise is likely to be a more dominant factor in determining our attitude to another faith than encounter itself.  The importance of a theology of religions is consequently underlined.  For Forster and Smith, the meant ‘mystery’; chapters of God’s providential history remained unwritten, and God alone knew their text.  Muir, Tisdall and Bate, however, could not ‘dare to know’ more (Immanuel Kant, 1724 – 1894, offered ‘Sapere Aude’, ‘Dare to Know’, as the motto of the Enlightenment). Nothing new could be learned or discovered beyond the Christian world, because for them Christianity contained all truth to the exclusion of any other faith.




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This article is derived from my doctoral work at the University of Birmingham.  The thesis, ‘Nineteenth Century Christian Views of Islam:  The Evidence of Six British Writers’ (1989) was published as Victorian Images of Islam by Grey Seal, London (1992).


© Clinton Bennett 2001