Monday, 13 December 2010

Religious questions of attribution

Anyone who follows the topic of misattributions will know that there's an inexorable pull toward attaching quotations to celebrities, and I recently bumped into a couple of unexpected examples. While browsing for biographical details of Thomas Carlyle, I found these quotations:
The best lesson which we get from the tragedy of Karbala is that Husain and his companions were the rigid believers of God. They illustrated that numerical superiority does not count when it comes to truth and falsehood. The victory of Husain despite his minority marvels me!
- attributed to Thomas Carlyle

If Husain fought to quench his worldly desires, then I do not understand why his sisters, wives and children accompanied him. It stands to reason therefore that he sacrificed purely for Islam.
- attributed to Charles Dickens
These refer to the death of Husayn ibn Ali, who died under harrowing circumstances at the Battle of Karbala (680 CE) and is annually mourned as a martyr by Shi'a Muslims; the quotes, among others, are widely cited on Shi'a websites as examples of Western endorsement of the significance of the event.  It is of massive historical and cultural significance, even to the point of the commemoration transplanting into other cultures - see Hosay - and a number of eminent Western authors have commented sympathetically on it, such as Gibbon ...
In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Hosein will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader
- page 441, Edward Gibbon, The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, 1828
... and the orientalists Reynold Alleyne Nicholson and Sir William Muir. 1

However, Carlyle and Dickens are both authors whose works and biographies are known extensively, and I've not been able to verify the attribution for these. It's not theoretically impossible that Carlyle wrote the first - he wrote extensively (if ambiguously) on Muhammad in his On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History - but the earliest citation I can find for it is a 1978 edition of The Light, a journal of the Bilal Muslim Mission of Tanzania. For the Dickens one, the earliest reference I can find is to the 1977 book The Martyrdom of Imam Husain, Grandson of the Holy Prophet (ed. Yousuf Lalljee). Can anyone shed further light on their origins?

If they're misattributions, it would be highly unfair to single them out as Islamic examples, as many other (and far more egregiously contrived) examples are findable in Christian literature and website texts. An especially rich lode involves American founders, who have been posthumously conscripted into endorsing a theist agenda for the governing of the USA. Sometimes this is by outright misattribution of author, and sometimes by massaging out-of-context material. The weblog Fake History documents a good selection, with well-researched paper trails of how the misattribution developed. Examples include:
We recognize no sovereign but God and no king but Jesus!
- attributed to John Adams and John Hancock, but debunked by reference to primary sources

What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ
- attributed to George Washington, but actually constructed by splicing invented text into a fragment from Washington's reply to the Delaware Nation.

My ears hear with pleasure the other matters you mention. Congress will be glad to hear them too. You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it.

Religion is the basis and foundation of government
- attributed to James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance; but actually spliced from material in an entirely different context:

SECTION 15, Because finally, "the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his religion according to the dictates of conscience" is held by the same tenure with all his other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us; if we consider the "Declaration of those rights which pertain to the good people of Virginia, as the basis and foundation of government," it is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis.
A further class of religious celebrity attribution problem is the celebrity anecdote. See, for instance, the completely fictional Internet meme that Albert Einstein proved the existence of God to an atheist professor (Malice of absence, Snopes.com) and Lady Hope's story that Darwin recanted (The Lady Hope Story, talk.origins).  I've no doubt many more can be found.

1. The source here - Clinton Bennett's Victorian images of Islam - makes interesting reading on how Victorian orientalists combined a genuine cultural interest in Islam with an agenda that such knowledge was beneficial to colonial control.

- Ray

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