I mentioned in the passing, in an earlier post, that I had come across a bizarre interview between George Bernard Shaw and a Saudi mystic. Firstly, a correction: the mystic in question is not Saudi as I had initially thought, but was born in Meerut, India; he was a Sufi Sheikh by the name of His Eminence Maulana Mohammed Abdul Aleem Siddiqui and was born in 1892. Here he is, looking splendid, and there is Mr Shaw himself, also looking quite splendid. In fact, when the two met, His Eminence would have been 43, while Shaw himself would have been a ripe old 79.
I wanted to write something on this interview because it has really a rather curious legacy on the internet…. Googling “george bernard shaw islam” will, in fact, bring you right to the very interview that I came across in the archive, which is faithfully reproduced in full right here. The interview, to set the record straight, is in a periodical published by the All Malaya Muslim Missionary Society in Singapore called the Genuine Islam; the interview itself was conducted while George Bernard Shaw was in Mombasa sometime between the 10th and 20th of April, 1935, and the interview was published in the January number of Vol. 1 (1936) of the periodical, which is, as far as I can ascertain, the only volume that was ever published. So far, so good.
Being The Part Where The Muslim Websites Love Bernard Shaw
However, you’ll quickly find that the most quoted part of that interview is not, in fact, any part of the interview itself, which consists for the most part of His Eminence burbling amicably on about finer points of Islamic theology (read for yourself), while Mr Shaw listens and interjects with the occasional question. It is rather from a paragraph that is excerpted out of the main body of the interview into its own quote box — except that this paragraph appears nowhere in the interview itself. It is this same paragraph that has been quoted, in all the links I provided above and more, roughly in the following few ways, labelled for convenient reference. In its most popular form:
[A] I have always held the religion of Muhammad in high estimation because of its wonderful vitality. It is the only religion which appears to me to possess that assimilating capacity to the changing phase of existence which can make itself appeal to every age. I have studied him – the wonderful man and in my opinion far from being an anti-Christ, he must be called the Saviour of Humanity. I believe that if a man like him were to assume the dictatorship of the modern world, he would succeed in solving its problems in a way that would bring it the much needed peace and happiness: I have prophesied about the faith of Muhammad that it would be acceptable to the Europe of tomorrow as it is beginning to be acceptable to the Europe of today.
[B] If any religion had the chance of ruling over England, nay Europe, within the next hundred years, it could be Islam.
I have always held the religion of Muhammad in high estimation because of its wonderful vitality. It is the only religion which appears to me to possess the assimilating capacity to changing phase of existence, which can make itself appeal to every age.
Being The Part Where Truer Things Prevail
As you might ascertain from the way the quote appears and the sites it appears on, Muslims seem rather gleeful about the thumbs-up from such a prominent Western infidel as GBS. I would like, however, to give you the full, unabridged version of this quote, as it appears in the periodical itself, and it is as follows:
[C] I have always held the religion of Muhammad in high estimation because of its wonderful vitality. It is the only religion which appears to me to possess that assimilating capability to the changing phase of existence which can make itself appeal to every age.  The world must doubtless attach high value to the predictions of great men like me. I have prophesied about the faith of Muhammad that it would be acceptable to the Europe of tomorrow as it is beginning to be acceptable to the Europe of today. The medieval ecclesiastics, either through ignorance or bigotry, painted Muhammadanism in the darkest colours. They were in fact trained both to hate the man Muhammad and his religion. To them Muhammad was Anti-Christ. I have studied him — the wonderful man, and in my opinion far from being an Anti-Christ he must be called the Saviour of Humanity. I believe that if a man like him were to assume the dictatorship of the modern world he would succeed in solving its problems in a way that would bring it the much-needed peace and happiness. But to proceed, it was in the 19th century that honest thinkers like Carlyle, Goethe and Gibbon perceived intrinsic worth in the religion of Muhammad, and thus there was some change for the better in the European attitude towards Islam.  But the Europe of the present century is far advanced. It is beginning to be enamoured of the creed of Muhammad.
Being The Part In Which Uncomfortable Questions Are Asked
Firstly, it’s very clear that all online incarnations of this paragraph are hopelessly mashed up. Then there’s the line in [B] — “If any religion had the chance of ruling over England, nay Europe, within the next hundred years, it could be Islam” — which seems to be a tremendous exaggeration and total restating of the line at [C:2]. Secondly, there’s already the fact I mentioned earlier, which is that this particular quote appears absolutely nowhere in the main body of the interview itself. Where did it come from? Did the interviewers specially solicit a statement from Shaw? Under what conditions? Or did they cite it from some hitherto unknown-to-me book that Shaw has written on Islam? Did they simply cobble it together out of things he said later on, over post-interview tea and smokes? Did they…write it themselves?
I have no answers to these questions, and perhaps more qualified scholars of Shaw might be able to point me in the right direction. I don’t really think the interviewers wrote the quote entirely themselves, though, for reasons that involve the line at [C:1]. The internet citations generally cut off right before this line, and looking at it, it’s easy to see why the first person who quoted it might not have wanted to include it. “The world must doubtless attach high value to the predictions of great men like me — that sounds like the sardonic, humorous Bernard Shaw I’m familiar with, but might have sounded a little too much like mockery to his enthusiastic Muslim stenographer. And perhaps it was mockery — why not? Shaw was famously irreverent; just a few years previously he had published a short story on religion which had utterly scandalized even his closest friends. It appears to have involved, among other scandalous things, an actual drawing of Muhammad (which Shaw irreverently exhorts his publisher, John Farleigh, to “keep as handsome as you can, [for] he was a princely genius…By the way, he abhorred images, and took the second commandment au pied de la lettre.”1
Being A Recounting Of The Subject’s Religious Views
Shaw nourished his fascination with religion around the early 1930s with a series of trips around the world, seemingly undertaken in large part to inspect religions in different societies — in Egypt, in Africa, in India, the Far East and Southeast Asia, North America, and at one point even to New Zealand. In 1933 he had this to say about Hinduism and Islam in a letter to the Reverend Ensor Walters:
[In Egypt and India] the apparent multiplicity of Gods is bewildering at the first glance; but you presently discover that they are all the same one God in different aspects and functions and even sexes. There is always one uttermost God who defies personification. This makes Hinduism the most tolerant religion in the world, because its one transcendent God includes all possible Gods…Hinduism is so elastic and so subtle that the profoundest Methodist and the crudest idolater are equally at home in it.
Islam is very different, being ferociously intolerant. What I may call Manifold Monotheism becomes in the minds of very simple folk an absurdly polytheistic idolatry, just as European peasants not only worship Saints and the Virgin as Gods, but will fight fanatically for their faith in the ugly little black doll who is the Virgin of their own Church against the black doll of the next village. When the Arabs had run this sort of idolatry to such extremes [that] they did this without black dolls and worshipped any stone that looked funny, Mahomet rose up at the risk of his life and insulted the stones shockingly, declaring that there is only one God, Allah, the glorious, the great… And there was to be no nonsense about toleration. You accepted Allah or you had your throat cut by someone who did accept him, and who went to Paradise for having sent you to Hell. Mahomet was a great Protestant religious force, like George Fox or Wesley….
There is actually a great Hindu sect, the Jains, with Temples of amazing magnificence, which abolish God, not on materialist atheist considerations, but as unspeakable and unknowable, transcending all human comprehension.2
Shaw was to go on to observe that “before Mahomet and the founder of the Jains were dead in their graves”, the religions they had founded had already begun to ‘backslide’ into polytheism, and “all the Gods and no Gods became hopelessly mixed up, exactly as the Apostles backslid when Jesus was killed”. A decade later, his views on Islam did not seem to have changed in essence from this; and furthermore, his remarks in 1947 show that he had not in fact taken seriously any of what His Eminence had explained to him about the nature of Heaven and Hell in Islam. In the interview, Shaw had asked the Maulana: “[How can you] possibly present the picture of Heaven and Hell, which is portrayed in the Qur’an, in a manner convincing to persons conversant with science, whose minds are inured to accept nothing without visible or palpable proof?” to which His Eminence reeled off a long explanation, relying largely on the usual argument of metaphor, as well as some cutting edge mangling of atomic theory. Shaw largely ignored this, and retained his conviction right up to his 1947 letter to Mabel Annie Stobart that Muslim Hell was something “reinvented by Mohammad”, “a very frightful hell, of disgusting diseases and no houris; [but] the sort of place that the Arabs could understand and believe in; and it put the fear of God into them”.3 Incidentally, he seems also to have retained his deep respect for Jainism.
Given his views on the tendency of religion to ‘backslide’ once deprived of the strong authority figure (and in this one discerns traces of his peculiar respect for Stalin and other fascist dictators) it’s no wonder that in the interview he persistently asks the Maulana whether or not he can be so sure that this is in fact what the Qur’an says, or whether he can be sure that other ‘more orthodox’ or ‘present day’ Muslims would share his balanced views (he asks this at least twice). This probing, despite the genial tone of the whole conversation, is what stays with me, and what makes [C] for me, along with its slightly dubious origins, something I would at the very least hesitate to cite so freely, let alone with such unscholarly wantonness as has been exhibited in its proliferation all over the internet.
Being The Part Where The Fruits Of Wantonness Are Reaped
With such wantonness, unsurprisingly, confusion has arisen. This guy quotes that awfully exaggerated first line in [B] and wonders why Shaw, an atheist, would say that (he didn’t). This reader asks on Yahoo! Answers what Shaw has actually said about Islam, and receives [B] in response, which is voted ‘Best Answer’. This one brazenly claims that Shaw promotes the takeover of England by Islam. This one tries to hunt down a book entitled ‘The Genuine Islam’ by George Bernard Shaw, and is told that the book is probably not a GBS book and is an urban legend. Even Wikiquote is slightly confused.
I hope this post, despite my total lack of Shaw expertise, will go some small way towards helping untangle the confusions, in particular the confusions that arose out of a genuinely critical spirit, but also the confusions amongst so many Muslim websites who have so eagerly adopted him as some kind of speaker for their faith. At the very least, let this be a cautionary tale about poor citation practices. I’m only too pleased to stand corrected by anyone who knows better about Shaw and such things than I do. For those interested, and if you don’t believe me, the periodical is held in the National Library in Singapore and at the New York Public Library. Possibly elsewhere, too.