The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London
In late September 1815, a ship sailed into the provincial harbor of Great Yarmouth carrying what was at the time a most unusual cargo: a party of frightened Iranian students. In the hope of furthering their studies, they were traveling to the land they called Inglistan, seeking in particular what they called the ʿulum-i jadid, or “new sciences,” for which England was gaining fame. Four years earlier, two other Iranian youths had arrived with the same purpose, though in 1813 one of them had died; he was buried in St. Pancras churchyard in London. And so there remained six of them.
In December that year, there appeared a famous depiction of the country into which the young Muslims had wandered: Jane Austen’s Emma. To this day, Emma defines our image of the time, an age of elegant ballrooms, exquisite manners, and crimson-jacketed captains. It was into the living version of that fictionalized world that the Iranians had sailed. Though Miss Austen would die two years after their arrival, her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion did not appear till 1818, when the six Muslims were still living in London and exploring other towns like Bath. But in September 1815, it was all just beginning, and over the following months, these Muslim gentlemen would be more fully, and politely, introduced to Miss Austen’s country by their aptly named chaperone, Mr. D’Arcy.
In principle, there was nothing strange about Muslims coming to study in a distant non-Islamic land: the Prophet Muhammad had famously urged all Muslims to “seek knowledge unto China”—that is, to follow learning wherever it led, even to the ends of the earth. Nonetheless, these pioneering Muslim students—taliban or “seekers of knowledge,” as they termed themselves—marked the beginning of a new age in the old relationship between Europe and Islam. Arriving in London over a decade before the Egyptian scholar Rifaʿa al-Tahtawi led his delegation of Arab students to Paris, the six Iranians were the first group of Muslims to ever study in western Europe. At a time when the presence of Muslims in Europe is increasingly brought into question, what they learned—and the friendships they made with non-Muslims—gives us a different way of imagining the relationship between “Islam and the West.” Their human story lends an alternative etiology, a more harmonious genesis, for modern Muslim and Christian relations. For if nothing else, the following pages show that Muslims could be rationalists and progressives and Europeans religious bigots.
One of the Iranian students, Mirza Salih of Shiraz, wrote in his native Persian a diary that describes their student years in England. Never translated, at a distance of two centuries, the diary allows us to follow the fortunes of the shivering youths who arrived on the coast of East Anglia that early autumn evening in 1815. Recounting their escapades in detail, the diary tells of adventures that involved industrialists, freemasons, professors, political radicals, missionaries, and more than a few of Miss Austen’s wise and beguiling women. In his 'Culture and Imperialism,' the celebrated critic Edward Said tried to deconstruct Jane Austen’s novels to detect in them a hidden imperial underworld, to as it were find slaves in the cellars of Mansfield Park. Mirza Salih’s diary is the key to the cellar door, leading us from the novel’s dark allusions to foreigners into the bright sunlight of the larger, international world that encompassed Austen’s little England.
For his diary metaphorically opens the cellar door onto the immigrant corridors above to show how a group of Muslim migrants found their way into the fashionable soirées of London and Bath. Since Mirza Salih had a sense for pathos and drama, his diary entries carry the wit and charm of their era. Together with a cache of the students’ letters stored for two hundred years in the files of the Foreign Office, these sundry forgotten jottings drill a spyhole through the centuries into the neglected Muslim wing of Mansfield Park.