The Surprising Links Between Paradise Lost and the Qur’an

Mezotint image of Satan sitting atop a black globe looking over a host of demons

Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council (1824), by John Martin © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Christianity and Islam are sometimes presented in terms of a clash of civilisations. In this light, it may be surprising to discover that John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost – which reimagines the biblical creation story – included elements drawn from Islam and the Qur’an. Sharihan Al-Akras explains more in this research conversation with READ, based on a recent article co-authored with Dr Mandy Green.

Milton’s poem seems firmly rooted in a Christian tradition. What inspired you to start looking for connections to the Qur’an within it?

Paradise Lost is known for its powerful effect on its readers, through its poetic imagery and universal message. It is a tale told in the seventeenth-century, yet it still remains relevant to readers around the world, including non-Christian or non-European readers, such as Arab or Muslim readers.

Unfortunately, much of the conversation about Milton and Arabic thought and culture has been limited to the way people in the Arab world have responded to the poem; very little has been said about the possibility that Milton had knowledge of Arabic or Middle-Eastern thought. Yet on first reading the poem, I could not help but notice, like many Arab readers, the numerous similarities between Milton’s Satan and his Qur’anic equivalent, Iblis, one of the most active demonic figures in Arabic and Islamic literature.

Indeed, I have been actively pursuing this line of research for about two years now. Despite encountering some initial reluctance in the Miltonic community to consider the possibility, I continued to propose that Milton’s epic shows the influence of Middle-Eastern imagery in a number of conferences since 2013. With the important encouragement of my supervisor, Dr Mandy Green, whose detailed knowledge of Milton’s life and Paradise Lost were a pillar beneath this co-authored work, we began to seriously investigate this possibility, only to begin unravelling fascinating evidence. And here we are!

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul was completed just a couple of decades before Milton began writing Paradise Lost. Blue Mosque Courtyard at Dusk, by Benh LIEU SONG (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul was completed just a couple of decades before Milton began writing Paradise Lost. Blue Mosque Courtyard at Dusk, by Benh LIEU SONG (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Did Milton actually read the Qur’an, then? How much did he know of it when composing Paradise Lost?

It would seem even more plausible to credit Milton with having read the Qur’an than to presume that he would have neglected to read it.

Such important, and much anticipated, scholarship has long been hindered by the lack of conclusive evidence that would finally determine the extent of Milton’s knowledge of either the Qur’an or the Arabic language. Therefore, we began to look at accumulative traces of Arabic and Islamic presence in early modern England, in general, and Milton’s scholarly milieu in particular. It seemed to us far more likely than not that Milton would have made himself familiar with the holy book of Christianity’s greatest rival. Even if his interest was not piqued by the publication of the first English version of the Alcoran (1649), he may well have been familiar with the Latin translation that had been readily available since the mid-sixteenth century when Theodor Bibliander had published Machumetis saracenorum principis eiusque successorum vitae ac doctrina, ipseque Alcoran (1543); this work was itself heavily based on the translation produced four centuries earlier by Robert of Ketton, provocatively entitled, Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete (1143).

But it is the first English translation of the Qur’an in 1649, the Alcoran of Mahomet, that is particularly of interest to the discussion here, especially when you consider the precise timing of its publication. It was on 19 March 1649, just a day before Milton was inducted into his new role under Cromwell as Secretary for Foreign Tongues to the Council of State, that there was a mighty commotion in Parliament following the announcement that the first translation of the Qur’an into English was about to be published. Given, too, that Milton had used the Qur’an itself as an example to support his powerful argument against censorship in his Areopagitica (1644), it would seem even more plausible to credit Milton with having read the Qur’an than to presume that he would have neglected to read it.

Is there any evidence of how he or his contemporaries responded to the Qur’an? How did he or they react to this encounter with the Islamic world?

Frontispiece to the 1649 book The Alcoran of Mahomet

The Alcoran of Mahomet (1649) [public domain], via Open Library

The short answer would be ‘certainly’!

The writings on Islam and Muslims, in the early modern period, are so numerous that they vary in style, purpose and political influence. The figure of Muhammad, and the Qur’an, both long occupied the European mind as far back as the medieval period. Legends of how Muhammad forged the Qur’an to spread false Judeo-Christian teachings continued to circulate in texts that share similar negative imagery with accounts that date as far back as the eight century. Muhammad and his Alcoran continued to appear in religious tracts and political writings, making their way into English drama including that of Shakespeare and Marlowe.

The fact that Milton has been so long excluded from this debate remains a mystery, something which this paper aims to change.

Why did Milton want to make use of Islamic ideas in a Christian poem?

Milton’s contemporary reader is reminded that the earthly dominion of the Ottoman Sultanate, its threatening military power, and its satanic allure are bound eventually to fade in the face of Christian truth.

Milton of course is best known for his strong political and religious stances that played an essential role in anti-monarchical arguments. It is not surprising then that he would respond to the Ottoman threat of the time by skilfully and artistically alluding to one of the, if not the, most important texts to ever be published on Islam in England, the Turkish Alcoran.

As the Ottoman Empire was perceived as tyrannical and false by Milton and his contemporaries, it would be most appropriate to expose its false teachings to the Christian reader, through directly alluding to the Ottoman world’s own authoritative and most holy text. By appropriating aspects of Iblis, the Qur’anic devil, for his portrayal of Satan, Milton extended the range of mythographic “shadows” of Christian truth within the epic. He also drew attention to the unreasonable nature of God’s command, to his Christian reader, which is adduced as the cause of Iblis’ fall from grace in the Islamic tradition, and so Milton simultaneously undermined the authority of the Qur’an itself.

Milton’s contemporary reader is reminded that the earthly dominion of the Ottoman Sultanate, its threatening military power, and its satanic allure are bound eventually to fade in the face of Christian truth.

Can you give any examples of the connections between Paradise Lost and the Qur’an?

The most intriguing example, in my opinion, is the mode of temptation Satan resorts to in order to seduce Eve.

The idea of a whispering devil, for example, that is willing to face any obstacle to seduce his targets, is a powerful concept for the Muslim mind. In Book IV, Satan disguises himself in the shape of a toad but is discovered by the angelic guard beside Eve’s ear, attempting to influence her with his demonic power in her sleep. Iblis, in the Islamic world, is most infamous for his whispering, thus becoming known as the ‘whisperer’ (waswas).

In fact, an entire exhortation of protection, in the Qur’an, is dedicated against the whisperings of evil devils. In Paradise Lost, the moment Satan’s presence in Eden is felt, the angelic patrol instantly make ready to drive him away, as the line indicates: “As flame they part/Half wheeling to the Shield, half to the Spear” (IX. 784–5). This powerfully relates to Islamic and Qur’anic descriptions of eavesdropping devils who are repelled by fiery stars and meteors (Shuhub).

Finally, the image of Satan as a powerful sultan in Paradise Lost is, I would argue, intended to undermine the power of the Sultan. In the Qur’an, the devil’s power is described by the word “sultan”; for Milton, such a connection, in its suggestive irony, could not have been overlooked. Satan – the fallen angel and the infernal Sultan – represents all that is misguided. Like the Ottomans and their Alcoran, Satan seemingly enjoys evident, albeit temporary, power, a connection that becomes further emphasized by merging the Qur’anic verses with the political figures of the Muslim empire.

Image of John Milton sitting at a table with books on it

John Milton wrote an epic work of encyclopaedic comprehensiveness. It seems unlikely that he would fail to incorporate Islamic imagery. John Milton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How do you think this approach to Milton requires us to revise the view of Christianity and Islam as distinct and opposing cultures?

Milton’s reservations against the Ottomans and their faith are established in his advocacy for his understanding of Christian truth. Yet to simply dismiss any possible interest by Milton in non-Christian ideas, particularly Islamic, as unlikely, would not give Milton his deserved credit. Milton’s interest in pre-Christian Mythology is well established for his readers. It might be the case that he would view Islamic mythology as similar shadows of Christian truth. As a poet who aimed to write an epic work of encyclopaedic comprehensiveness, it seems unlikely that Milton would fail to incorporate Islamic imagery, especially in his representation of Hell.

Despite Milton’s seemingly negative views of the Islamic ‘other’, it is evident that there lies an underlying conversation that is yet to be explored.

Where would you like to take this research next? Are there any other connections between Christian and Islamic traditions waiting to be explored?

I am currently working on an important project which explores the influence of Milton’s Paradise Lost on Arabic feminist writing. Despite the fact that we are witnessing a renewed interest in Milton’s relationship with Arabic culture, much of the discussion centres on his influence upon male Arab authors, mainly Egyptian ones. There is no project, to date, that sheds any light on how female authors may have evoked Milton’s work and characters, particularly Eve, in their own writing of resistance. The work will discuss how the story of the first woman, Eve, and her negative counterpart, Lilith, were continuously alluded to in Arabic feminist writing to critique social, religious and political obstacles, while referring to Paradise Lost at the same time.

Sharihan Al-Akhras and Mandy Green’s co-authored article Satanic whispers: Milton’s Iblis and the “Great Sultan” is available in the journal The Seventeenth Century [paywalled].


One response to “The Surprising Links Between Paradise Lost and the Qur’an

  1. Pingback: Celebrate World Poetry Day with these essays on poetry across cultures | READ Research in English at Durham·

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