George Bernard Shaw’s views on Islam
Mystery of the quotation from him
Compiled by Zahid Aziz
A quotation from the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) is often presented in Muslim literature, beginning with the words:
“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 original source of the quotation is never indicated and does not seem to be known.
However, recently I found an account of a brief interview with Bernard Shaw in the magazine The Light, dated 24 January 1933, in which he made these comments. The interview was conducted by a correspondent of this magazine in Bombay when Shaw’s cruise ship stopped there. The Light was published from Lahore (then in British India) and was the English organ of the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement. It is still in publication outside Pakistan by branches of the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement.
The previous issue of The Light, dated 16 January 1933, carried the following news on its front page:
Bernard Shaw and non-Violence
Mr. G. B. Shaw who is on a world tour touched Bombay on the 8th instant and amused the corps of press reporters who assailed him on board, with his usual wit and humour. Through the garb of wit, however, he pointed out many home-truths. Asked about disarmament he remarked: “It is nonsense. If you disarmed nations, they will fight with fists.” This should give some inkling as to what he thinks of Mr. Gandhi’s non-violence. What makes Mr. Shaw a prominent figure in the world of thought is, among other things, his penetrating insight into the realities of things. He does not shut his eyes against the realities of life and sees human nature as it is. To suppose that warfare can be eliminated from the affairs of man is to give too much credit to human nature. The Quran speaks of human nature in a similar strain. This is the very objection that the angels raised to the creation of man — viz., that he would make disturbance in the earth and shed blood. Mr. Shaw has repeated the same thing in his own way. Fight man must. If there are no arms, they will fight with fists. Islam does not, ostrich-like, shut its eyes against this trait of human nature and content itself with a sweet sermon on peace and non-violence. It lays down effective rules and regulations to meet this beast in man and at times it might even be necessary to roughly handle it. And this is where the Mahamaji’s light seems to fail him when he shuns this stern method of dealing with evil. Perhaps it is one of the considerations, this recognition of the realities of life on the part of Islam, which made Mr. Shaw forecast that within a century Islam would be the religion of Europe. Anyway, we have asked our Bombay correspondent to interview him about his forecast.
See image of original page from The Light.
Note: The reference to Shaw’s forecast is to a line in his play Getting Married, in which a character says: “I believe the whole British Empire will adopt a reformed Mohammedanism before the end of the century.” The text of this play is available online; for example at this link in Project Gutenberg (I have made a local copy here) and this line is on p. 137 of the pdf file. For convenience I have extracted that page here.
Account of interview with George Bernard Shaw
The Light of 24 January 1933 carries the following headline and sub-headline on the front page:
Bernard Shaw’s Latest on Islam
“Muhammad, 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.” — he says.
Underneath this is a note by the Editor as follows:
[In our last issue we said in our note on Mr. G. B. Shaw that we had asked our Bombay correspondent, Mr Munir Haindaday, B.A., to interview the distinguished tourist, about his famous prophecy as to the Islamization, within a century, of Europe in general and of England in particular. The following is an account of the interview which, containing as it does, the view of one of the greatest thinkers of the present age on one of the most momentous issues of the day, must, we are sure, arouse world-wide interest. Editor]
The article below this note is the following:
On January 13th I received your telegram to interview Bernard Shaw. The next day I tried to obtain a pass for the “Empress of Britain”, the luxury liner which on its voyage round the world halted at Bombay for a week. The presence of the world-famous person attracted quite a stream of eager visitors to the “Empress of Britain” where admission was regulated by passes. Unfortunately I was told that it was too late for me to get any pass, the number being limited. Disappointed, I proceeded the same day, January 14th, to Appollo Bunder where after each hour a tender was leaving for the “Empress of Britain,” and determined to stay there as long as Shaw could be seen. I was really fortunate in having not to wait at all. A tall figure with silvery beard holding a binocular in his hands attracted my attention from a distance and I hurried to the spot to find that he was none other than the famous G. B. S. Here again I was partly unfortunate because only five to ten minutes were left for the tender to start. Hurriedly I went up to him and when his attention was drawn towards me, I put your wire in his hand which he took with a curious look at me. When he had read it I opened the conversation, telling him that the Light, a weekly Islamic journal from Lahore, had sent me that telegram to interview him in connection with his forecast in his book, Getting Married, regarding the Islamization of Europe within a hundred years. “Will you therefore be kind
enough to explain the nature of this forecast more fully and clearly?,” I asked him. I must confess I never expected I would be able to make Mr. Shaw speak because it was already getting time for the tender to leave. But he was most affable towards me as he was towards everyone who went to see him. Stroking his silvery beard and looking at his watch, G.B.S. thus spoke in his characteristic manner:
“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. In the next century it may go still further in recognising the utility of that creed in solving its problems and it is in this sense that you must understand my prediction. Already even at the present time many of my own people and of Europe as well have gone over to the faith of Muhammad, and the Islamization of Europe, to use the expression of your own query, may be said to have begun.”
It was at this point that the tender by which G.B.S. was to go back to the “Empress of Britain” gave out a whistle and the talk abruptly came to an end. I really felt sorry for my failure in obtaining the pass, otherwise there would have been a nice coincidence for me to go in the same tender with the great dramatist and I would have heard a good deal more from his own lips about this famous forecast. But whatever he did say is enough to indicate what one of the greatest thinkers of the modern age thinks of Islam and the great role it has yet to play in redeeming a disordered and distracted humanity.
See image of original pages from The Light.
External sources on Shaw’s stop in Bombay
References to George Bernard Shaw’s stop at Bombay during his cruise and giving interviews are found in some other sources. Here are some links:
Shaw’s reply to The Islamic Review in 1949
The Islamic Review was the organ of the Woking Muslim Mission in the UK, which was run by members of the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement, with co-operation of other Muslims, from 1913 to the mid-1960s. (For further information about this Mission and magazine, please visit: www.wokingmuslim.org). In the January 1949 issue, on the Letters page (p. 63), the Editor reproduces an enquiry he sent to George Bernard Shaw and Shaw’s reply. The Editor writes:
We recently wrote to the great philosopher and playwright
to ask him whether a quotation attributed to him was correct.
The quotation, which appeared in a certain journal, ran as
“I have always held the religion of Mohammad in high
estimation because of its wonderful vitality. It is the only
religion which appears to me to possess that assimilating capability of the changing phase of existence which can make itself
appeal to every age. But the Europe of the present century
is far advanced. It is beginning to be enamoured of the creed
“The Medieval ecclesiastics either through ignorance or
bigotry painted Mohammad in the darkest colours. They were
in fact trained both to hate the man Mohammad and his
religion. To them Mohammad was Anti-Christ. I have studied
him — the wonderful man in my opinion far from being an
Anti-Christ must be called the Saviour of Humanity.”
George Bernard Shaw.
The letter to Shaw is then printed:
George Bernard Shaw, Esq.,
Ayot St. Lawrence, Herts.
6th September 1948
I enclose herewith a copy of a quotation headed “WONDERFUL”, which has appeared in the pages of a
journal circulating in the East and elsewhere. The quotation
appears, you will notice, above your own name, and is of much
interest to us.
I am approaching you now to ask you:
- Whether the quotation is indeed genuinely yours
and whether it is verbally exact ?
- Whether you would kindly state the source from
which the quotation has been taken, together with
The reason for my troubling you in this matter is that we
are greatly desirous of reprinting the enclosed quotation, if
genuine and with your kind permission, in the first number
of the new series of The Islamic Review, which, enlarged and
modernised and illustrated, we are planning to produce, starting
from January, 1949. As the celebration of the Prophet
Muhammad’s birthday falls on this occasion in January next,
the inclusion of this quotation from your writings would be
George Bernard Shaw’s reply is then printed:
These quotations are not authentic.
I have always ranked Mahomet as one of the greatest of
the Prophets, making a huge success where Jesus made a complete failure. But I have also insisted that whereas Christianity
in its corruption was saved by the Reformation, only a reformed
Islam can conquer the world today.
I said: “The conversion of savages to Christianity is the
conversion of Christianity to savagery.” All the great Eastern
religions, noble as they are in their original inspiration and
doctrine, are deeply corrupted by the idolatry and miracle
mongering by which they govern the peasantry.
7th September, 1948. G.B.S.
See image of original page from The Islamic Review.
This correspondence was then reproduced from The Islamic Review in The Light, 16 February 1949 (p. 2, col. 3). I could find no comment on George Bernard Shaw’s reply in any subsequent issue of The Islamic Review or The Light.
George Bernard Shaw’s reply does not prove that he never uttered those words. Since he made this statement orally to a reporter, it is highly unlikely that he would have a written record of this statement or be able to recall it more than 15 years later. The questions by the editor of The Islamic Review clearly suggest that he believes that Bernard Shaw would have a published record of it.
Material below added February 2019
Other references to Shaw’s quotation in The Islamic Review
1. The earliest such reference would appear to be in the January-February 1934 issue in an article entitled An Appeal to Humanity by Shaikh Mushir Hussain Kidwai of Gadia (d. 1938), a strong supporter of the Woking Muslim Mission. He writes:
Mr. Bernard Shaw has said:
“I believe if a man like Muhammad were to assume the dictatorship of the modern world he would succeed in solving its problems in a way that would bring it much-needed peace and happiness.”
Probably Bernard Shaw does not know that Muhammad is alive today as he was when he effected the most marvellous revolution… As soon as he is thoroughly known and correctly understood, he will assume the dictatorship of Europe himself and save Europe, save humanity and bring the “much-needed peace and happiness” all over the world.
— The Islamic Review, January–February 1934, pages 5–6 (link to issue)
The same author refers to Shaw’s quotation again briefly in the July 1936 issue on page 244.
2. Also in the July 1936 issue there is an article entitled La Ilaha Illallah Muhammad-ur-Rasulallah, by M.T. Akbar, K.C., in which the author takes a decidedly different approach. Speaking of Western writers on Islam he writes:
Our Holy Prophet was at first described as an imposter, then he was an epileptic subject, a neurotic, a psychopath. It is the fashion now not to be so violent but more subtle. There are some who praise him in their early writings, but when the pressure of their environment begins to affect them, they try to whittle down their first opinion. A notable example is Mr. Bernard Shaw. Muslims were vastly delighted by his earlier pronouncements and began to quote him freely …
My readers will remember Shaw’s first opinion. …”
According to the author, Shaw then started back-peddling on his statements of praise of the Holy Prophet. He writes:
My readers can see the slightly altered change of front of Shaw in “The Black Girl in Search of God,” and now in his preface to his three new plays, “The Simpleton,” etc. The following is the extract from the preface:
“Mahomet, one of the greatest of the Prophets, found himself in the predicament of my nurse in respect of having to rule a body of Arab chieftains whose vision was not co-extensive with his own, and who, therefore, could not be trusted when his back was turned, to behave as he himself would have behaved spontaneously. He did not tell them that if they did such and such a thing the cock would come down the chimney. They did not know what a chimney was. But he threatened them with the most disgusting penances in a future life if they did not live according to his word, and promised them very pleasant times if they did. And as they could not understand his inspiration otherwise than as a spoken communication by a personal messenger, he allowed them to believe that the Angel Gabriel acted as a celestial postman between him and Allah, the Fountain of all Inspiration. Except in this way he could not have made them believe in anything but sacred stones and the seven deadly sins.”
Here Shaw adopts ridicule to undo the effect of his previous revelation.
— The Islamic Review, July 1936, pages 262–263 and pages 264–265 (link to issue)
The preface referred to in this article, the full title of which is ‘Preface on Days of Judgment’, can be read at this link in Project Gutenberg where the text of his play The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles is available.
3. In the October 1950 issue there is an article entitled Two Friends, One Muslim, the Other Christian, discuss the Problems Facing their World, on pages 5–8, by the well-known German Jewish convert to Islam Dr Hamid Marcus, Ph.D. The whole article is in the form of a dialogue between a Guest, a Muslim and a Christian. In the last paragraph, the Guest concludes as follows:
Bernard Shaw on the future of Islam
The best-known writer of Europe is at present surely the Englishman Bernard Shaw. He says, in his Getting Married, that if any religion has the chance of ruling over England, nay Europe, within the next hundred years, it can only be Islam. Is this assertion a joke of the great satirist Shaw? In his satire, there is always some truth. The joke is the mask of his truth, and at the same time the thorn, the painful scratch of which makes it impressionable? What is it now that fascinates Shaw in Islam? He shares with Islam faith in the intellect as the light on the road into the future of humanity; he shares with it the ardent desire for progress, he hates the career of lip-service, which can only form beautiful words. His endeavour is to show practical deeds and he is the advocate of a democratic aristocracy. Shaw is, therefore, in deep earnest in his conviction that all the elements are existing in Islam, which qualify it to be the religion of the future for the whole of humanity.
— The Islamic Review, October 1950, page 8 (link to issue)
It can be seen that the interpretation of Dr Hamid Marcus is more thoughtful and subtle than the simplistic view of M.T. Akbar in his July 1936 article referred to above in (2).