Posted on October 27, 2004

Sufi Or Not Sufi? That Is The Question

Guardian (London), Oct. 24

The influence of William Shakespeare on western culture has made him arguably Britain’s greatest export. Now it is being claimed that his work resembles the teachings of the Islamic Sufi sect.

The argument will be put forward next month at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. It comes as part of a week of events focusing on Islam to address concerns raised by the ‘war on terror’ and improve understanding of the links between Islam and British culture.

While it has been suggested that Shakespeare dabbled with espionage and Catholic political activism, the new theory will attempt to persuade Shakespeare scholars that the playwright was a member of a religious or spiritual order which can best be compared to the philosophy of Sufism.

The respected academic Dr Martin Lings will put forward this thesis in his lecture on 23 November. ‘Shakespeare would have delighted in Sufism,’ said Lings, who is 96 and an adherent of Sufism. ‘We can see he obviously knew a lot about some kind of equivalent sect or order.’

Lings argues that the guiding principles of Sufi thought are evident in Shakespeare’s writing. The plays, he believes, depict a struggle between the dawning modernist world and the traditional, mystical value system. And, like the Sufis, the playwright is firmly on the side of tradition and spiritualism.

‘It was the end of the Middle Ages and the birth of atheism,’ he says. ‘It was the beginning of the ideas of enlightenment and the beginning really of the modern era. Shakespeare is the last outpost of tradition.’

Lings believes that characters in some of the best known works exemplify the Sufi quest for purification, while others represent Shakespeare himself.

‘I am going to say that it is wrong to say we know very little about Shakespeare because he is present in his plays to a remarkable degree,’ said Lings, who was keeper of oriental manuscripts and printed books and in charge of Koranic manuscripts at the British Museum. He argues that the journey of Edgar, in King Lear, is like the Sufi’s search for truth, in which the seeker is helped by angelic characters and impeded by diabolic agents.

While the magician-like figure of Prospero, orchestrating the action in The Tempest, and the manipulative Duke of Vienna in Measure for Measure are commonly seen as Shakespeare’s alter egos, Lings traces the teachings of a spiritual order akin to Sufism in their words.

The famous line of Prospero’s ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on’ is a complete fit, he claims, adding that King Lear’s words also eerily echo Sufi ideas when he tells his faithful daughter: ‘Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia, the gods themselves throw incense.’ Lings makes the point that the Bard is ‘quite at home’ with ‘Gods’ in the plural.

The International Shakespeare Globe Fellowship Lecture will take place in the middle of the Islam Awareness Week on the 22-28 November and will be preceded by a lecture from Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, the founder of the Zaytuna Institute in California, who will look at Shakespeare’s sonnets from a Sufi perspective.

Throughout the week the outside walls of the theatre on the banks of the Thames will be illuminated with scenes of Islamic culture.

On the final weekend a souk will take over the premises, with stalls selling eastern wares. The week will also form part of the 4th centenary celebrations of the first recorded performance of Othello, which will be marked by staged readings of four plays featuring Moors and Turks.