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COMMENTARY: The White Mughals

c. 2003 Religion News Service (Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. is author of most recently of “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press.) (UNDATED) Something of Don Quixote lives in each one of us which encourages us to […]

c. 2003 Religion News Service

(Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. is author of most recently of “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press.)

(UNDATED) Something of Don Quixote lives in each one of us which encourages us to charge at our favorite windmill.

William Dalrymple is charging at a mighty windmill: with those who argue that Islam is a threatening, anarchic and an alien force and that the West will never get along with it. Dalrymple is out to challenge those writers and scholars who believe in this view of the world.

Dalrymple establishes with his latest book _ “White Mughals” _ that there was a time when the West and the East, Christians and Muslims, not only knew each other as traders and friends but also could fall in love.

Dalrymple’s title refers to those British officers who shared or took power from the Muslims who were then ruling India. He uses Mughals in a general sense, a term inspired from the Mughal dynasty that ruled India for three centuries until the middle of the 19th century. Eventually the term Mughal became “mogul” when it arrived in Hollywood.

“White Mughals” tells the story of a love affair between a British political officer and a young Muslim girl in 18th century India. James Achilles Kirkpatrick, in his mid-30s, glimpses Khair un-Nissa, a 14-year-old Muslim girl, being forced into an arranged marriage with a much older man, and falls in love. Khair un-Nissa’s mother and grandmother help her to secretly meet Kirkpatrick. The English officer converts to Islam. They are eventually married and have two children who are sent off to England for education. Their happiness is not to last. James dies of a fever at the age of 38 and Khair un-Nissa finds herself a widow at the age of 19. But she never recovers from the loss and fades away to die by age of 27. Their passionate affair, marriage and early deaths drive the story.

The two children who have been sent off to England for education survive them _ William George and Kitty. William George dies tragically early. Kitty has no contact with her family in India until she walks into a stately home and recognizes a painting with her brother in it. It leads to her reconnection with her past in India. Her grandmother is still alive and the two women now begin a long and painful correspondence after a silence of more than three decades.

Kirkpatrick’s story is not unique. By his time, one-third British men in India were living with Indian women, many taking on Indian ways, clothes, habits and even religions, crossing cultures to become “White Mughals.” This situation would change as the British emerged to become the sole superpower in the subcontinent. By the middle of the 19th century, almost no marriages were being recorded between the two cultures.

I had met Dalrymple, who also wrote “In Xanadu” and “City of Djinns,” at Cambridge University and invited him to American University to speak to my World of Islam class.

“There are stereotypes of Muslim women being a Taliban postbox,” Dalrymple told the class. “The women in this story will give Islam an extremely different image of what it means to be Muslim.”

My students were riveted. Quick and already interested in the subject, they were able to follow the argument and apply the principles.

One student quoted in the American University newspaper said, “There has been a lot of talk lately that the West and Islam cannot exist together. His book shows that the West and Islamic cultures have been compatible in the past and have the potential to be again in the future.”

David Robinson, in reviewing the book for The Scotsman, had summed up its strengths: “A superlative, groundbreaking story that fully justifies all the effort, all the costs, all the risks (it took to write). … At a time when Isalamophobia is rising to danger levels in the West we need this reminder more than ever that once, however briefly, East and West met in tolerance and peace _ and love.”

Dalrymple’s book is already on British best-sellers’ lists and has won many prizes. There is already talk of Hollywood turning the story into a major blockbuster.

If Hollywood does convert Dalrymple’s book into a movie, I hope it does not soften Dalrymple’s powerful message contained in the last lines of his book:

“Even today, despite all the progress that has been made, we still have rhetoric about `clashing civilizations,’ and almost daily generalizations in the press about East and West, Islam and Christianity, and the vast differences and fundamental gulfs that are said to separate the two. The white Mughals _ with their unexpected minglings and fusions, their hybridity and above all their efforts at promoting tolerance and understanding _ attempted to bridge these two worlds, and to some extent they succeeded in doing so.

“As the story of James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa shows, East and West are not irreconcilable, and never have been. Only bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear drive them apart. But they have met and mingled in the past; and they will do so again.”

KRE END AHMED