Who Is Superior? A Needless Literary Debate

Sikandar Ali

23 December, 2020 12:00 AM printer

In the social media in an elite group a debate was triggered by a post that claimed that Hafiz, Sadi and Rumi were greater artists than Shakespeare and maintained that readers could benefit more by going back to the writings of those Muslim writers. The comments that followed in the threads show that there are many who shared the writer’s views.

Broad generalisations of this kind are difficult to assess and still more difficult to refute even when they seem to suggest something absurd. No one denies that Hafiz, Saadi and Rumi are great artists, unsurpassed in certain respects. But is it necessary to institute a comparison between them and Shakespeare?

The subject itself is a sensitive one. Those who support the views might consider it blasphemous to subject poets like Hafiz, Saadi and Rumi to any criticism which would imply that they are not the equals of Shakespeare.

There is no international jury or committee deciding whether a poet in Iran or a dramatist in England is the greatest in his own genre. But there does develop over a course of centuries a consensus about certain achievements, a consensus distilled from the opinion of hundreds of critics and observers and confirmed by their successors generation after generation. That is how the world has come to regard Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides of ancient Athens and Shakespeare of Elizabethan England and Moliere of 17th century France as the greatest dramatists of the world. To try to prove this judgment wrong is to defy critical opinion which has crystallised over many centuries. To acknowledge their preeminence is surely not to taint the honour of one’s religion.

In the first place, Shakespeare is not a poet in the sense Hafiz, Rumi or Saadi are.  The Persian poets of the middle ages belong to the school of Sufism and invariably draw their inspiration from Islamic theology. The Mughals carried their works to the Indian subcontinent and made them known to a small circle of Muslim readers whose literary taste was shaped by their writings. The existence of Greek literature till then was outside the boundary of their knowledge.

Poetry in the east was supposed by the common reader to be instructive, to have a didactive aim in view, to drive great moral lessons home. The Persian poets excite such readers most who take literature as a form of sermon. Their verses are often cited by many for their epigrammatic quality, for their terseness, sometimes because they contain a word or phrase which savours of something exotically beautiful. Moreover, to a section of readers obsessed with the Islamic world of the Middle Ages, verses of these poets provide a rose-tinted vision of what life was like in the past.      

A fairly large body of our readers of earlier generation treated Shakespeare as if he were only a poet. Though Shakespeare has written beautiful sonnets, he owes his reputation mainly to his genius as a dramatist. His plays pack theatres and provide Hollywood blockbusters with scripts, and his works are considered fundamental to the teaching of English literature, inspiring millions of pages of scholarship and criticism every year around the globe. He has given us many of the words we speak, even the thoughts that provoke our cognitive responses. Shakespeare's gift for a well-turned phrase is without parallel, and he is frequently quoted even by persons who have never seen or read his plays. His plays not only provide lessons of superior intellectual thoughts but also stimulate sensible actions. They teach decency, courtesy, benignity, generosity and humility which are universal and eternal. His works have given pleasure to readers and viewers for almost four centuries. In our hours of joy and anguish, in our moments of happiness and sorrow, in our moments of meditative calm and philosophical resignation, it is Shakespeare's thoughts and his language that come instinctively to our minds. Therefore his popularity cannot be considered as merely a passing fad. As his works have stood the test of time, it seems reasonable to assume that the works of Shakespeare will continue to be popular for a good many centuries to come.

Shakespeare’s preeminence rests on his profound knowledge of human life, his understanding of its subtleties and its many-sidedness. It is on this account that Shakespeare is sometimes called the greatest psychologist that ever lived. He represents something priceless, embodying some of the highest values of which man has any knowledge, offering us poetry and drama of an order almost unmatched in the history of Western or Eastern literature. While most others are content to concern themselves with this or that aspect of life, he goes farther than anybody in his quest of the meaning of the human life. To deny him the praise is to perjure ourselves.

Now the question is: must we nurse myths about ourselves? Must we reject the truth that there is something called universal civilisation whose standards are based on the highest achievements of man irrespective of race and colour and region? The fact is that once you work yourself up to a frenzy you can go from one absurdity to another without seeming to be illogical. 

None would for sure dispute the fact that the Muslim world has not been able to give birth to a Newton or a Einstein. The same thing could be said of the painters. Most of the great painters of four or five centuries ago-Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Van Gogh etc. were either Italian or Dutch or Spanish. By the same token it can be said that there are no Muslim counterparts to Vasco da Gama or Columbus or to Galileo and Copernicus. The most astonishing evidence of the mental torpor which lay like a curse on the Muslim world is furnished by the fact that even when the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the English began establishing colonies or settlements in Asia, particularly in India, no Muslim ventured to visit Europe to see for himself the kind of civilization it had created.

Should the ego of a Muslim blur his vision so as not to see the obvious? What perplexes one is the contradiction between the frankness with which we acknowledge our backwardness in science and technology and the arrogance we display in our assessment of the merits of literary achievements. This arrogance is stupid and does nothing but sustain illusions. Far from promoting intellectual inquiry such illusions induce intellectual indolence and encourage people to be content with low standards.


The writer teaches English at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology. He can be reached at: [email protected]