Winter 1993, Volume 10.1

Critical Essay

Richard F. Fleck

Samuel Johnson's Rasselas: A Perspective on Islam

Richard F. Fleck (Ph.D., U of Mexico) is Director of the Humanities Division and Professor of English at Teikyo Loretto University in Denver. His most recent publications include Thoreau and Muir Among the Indians (Archon Books, 1985), "Mountaineity: Thoughts Above Treeline" in Heaven is Under Our Feet (LongMeadow Press, 1991), and Critical Perspective on Native American Fiction (Three Continents Press, forthcoming).

Though Samuel Johnson never traveled to Islamic Africa, his imaginative narrative entitled Rasselas, first published in 1759, gives us an insightful view of Islamic culture. He accomplishes this view not through his depiction of the Happy Valley of Abyssinia nor through his characterization of his protagonists' wanderings in Cairo, but very curiously through the life of the nomadic and warring Arab chieftain who takes Pekuah hostage while Prince Rasselas, Princess Nekayah, and Imlac visit the pyramids. This relatively short interlude from the whole narrative not only contrasts European standards with those of desert-lounging Arabs, but also furnishes us with an essentially positive view of their life of Thoreauvian simplicity in the very midst of the wilds of the desert.

Few critics make insightful commentary on Pekuah's captivity, and surprisingly, Arab critics writing in English, including Edward Said and Magdi Wahba (who translated Rasselas into Arabic in 1959), have little or no commentary on these particular chapters. Mahmoud Manzaloui does make the important distinction that "Islamic learning and civilization are stressed in the book in their secular, and not their Muslim aspect" (Manzaloui 64). Several critics including Arthur J. Weitzman and Richard Eversole pay tribute to Johnson as an exhaustive reader of oriental travel literature. All of Johnson's middle eastern reading suggests at least to Arthur J. Weitzman that Pekuah's encounter with the Arabs was "inserted primarily to destroy the hedonistic and romantic notion of the voluptuous lives led by Moslem men, which had become a staple of Oriental fiction [what Edward Said terms "Orientalism"] in the eighteenth century (Weitzman 50). Peter New writes that Pekuah achieves a certain peace during her period of captivity through a willed resignation which is a positive virtue also in lesser forms of affection: "'I endeavored to appear contented where sullenness and resentment would have been of no use, and that endeavour conduced much to the calmness of my mind.' The endeavour does not bring content, but it does conduce much to tranquillity of mind." (New 126). Edward Tomarken rightfully emphasizes that Pekuah's Arab abductor is not "a swarthy villain, but polite and well-behaved, instead of ravishing his virgin captive, he treats her respectfully, teaches her astronomy, and enjoys her company" (Tomarken 89).

Before delving into these specific captivity chapters and their unique perspective on secular Islam, I should like to discuss Johnson's relevant views on Nature. Samuel Johnson's own views on Nature correspond closely, as Joseph Wood Krutch contends, with those of his fictional persona Imlac (which means giant in Arabic) whose philosophy is clearly expounded in Rasselas: "Whatever is beautiful, and whatever is dreadful, must be familiar to his [poet's] imagination; he must be conversant with all that is awfully vast or elegantly little. The plants of the garden, the animals of the wood, the minerals of the earth, and the meteors of the sky, must all concur to store his mind with inexhaustible variety" (Krutch 310). Krutch reiterates at various points in his biography of Samuel Johnson that what pleased Johnson most about Shakespeare's representation of Nature was that it was based upon sensual experience in the real world not upon pseudo-Aristotelian theory. As will be shown in this paper, the Arab's life along the shores of the Nile under brilliant desert skies lies at the heart of Samuel Johnson's real and not pseudo Nature. And such a desert life clearly serves as an interesting contrast between Western and Near Eastern cultures.

Some attention must be given to the general context of Rasselas to which the chapters of Pekuah's captivity so integrally belong. To summarize, Rasselas becomes unhappy with his Happy Valley simply because it was too static, too routine, and too unimaginative. Not until he meets the poet Imlac is there any hope of his experiencing a real, not Aristotelian, world where there is pain and sorrow against which one can measure the relative degree of current happiness. As Rasselas explains, "I should see the miseries of the world in order to understand my happiness" (Johnson 8). He believes far too much time is wasted in this Happy Valley being happy without understanding why.

After failing to leave the valley by an artist's aerial machine (who, incidentally, fears that if unvirtuous people learn to fly, there may ensue terrifying aerial attacks), young Rasselas meets the poet Imlac whose life has been devoted more to the pursuit of knowledge through world travel and close observation of people than to writing poetry. Through the cultural relativist Imlac, Rasselas not only begins to learn the ways of men of the outside world, but also finds a means of escaping his miserably happy valley. And through Imlac Rasselas gains acquaintance with the richness of ancient Arabic and Persian poetry. Imlac tells the young protagonist of his travels through Persia and Arabia and comments that "wherever I went, I found that Poetry was considered as the highest learning, and regarded with a veneration somewhat approaching to that which man would pay to the Angelick Nature" (Johnson 25). (Notice again how Imlac serves as Johnson's veritable spokesperson.) Imlac believes that the richness of this Islamic poetry lies in its sensual depiction of Nature and Passion (again keep in mind Johnson's appraisal of Shakespeare). Imlac was so impressed by this poetry that he memorized the volumes suspended in the mosque at Mecca.

Imlac's dissertation on poetry (Chapter X) is, according to a number of critics including Joseph Wood Krutch and John Wain, Samuel Johnson's own arts poetica:

Being now resolved to be a poet, I saw every thing with a new purpose; my sphere of attention was suddenly magnified; no kind of knowledge was to be overlooked. I ranged mountains and deserts for images and resemblances, and pictured upon my mind every tree of the forest and flower of the valley. I observed with equal care the crags of the rock and the pinnacles of the palace. Sometimes I wandered along the mazes of the rivulet, and sometimes watched the changes of the summer clouds. To a poet nothing can be useless. (Johnson 26)

As will be shown, the Arab chieftain who takes Pekuah hostage, comes closest in the book to Imlac's concept of poet as imaginative giant. The poet, according to Imlac (Johnson) "is to examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and large appearances" (Johnson 26). Additionally, "He must write as the interpreter of nature, and the legislator of mankind, and consider himself as presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations; as being superior to time and place" (Johnson 27).

In light of these standards Imlac continues his accounts of his travels and observations in various countries for Rasselas' benefit concerning relative international social codes and mores of peoples of the Middle East versus peoples of Europe. Europeans are more aggressive and powerful and therefore invade Asia and North Africa. Why Asiatics are more passive, Imlac contends, is not clearly discernible. But despite the fact that Europeans have tremendous material advantages over Middle Easterners and Africans, they are not proportionately happier.

Rasselas has heard enough from Imlac that he is convinced that the outer world is absolutely essential to his true understanding of happiness even if there are beggars and thieves with which to contend. He discloses his secret desire to leave the Happy Valley to Imlac who proceeds to explain the escape route through caves in the mountain. Rasselas, Imlac, Nekayah, and her companion Pekuah and party set off for Cairo where they will observe closely the manners of men in order to determine in Imlac's earlier fashion if there can be such a thing as happiness. In general Cairo (which is essentially a mirror of Johnson's own London) is displeasing to the visitors because of the strong presence of such disagreeable elements as envy, greed, lawlessness, and gross sensuality. Countryside shepherds are ignorant and uncouth. A wise hermit admits to them that solitude has permitted him only to escape the ways of the bad, but offers him not the councils of the good.

Imlac advises his fellow travelers that the only hope for the human race is for it to be obedient to the universal and unalterable laws with which every heart is originally impressed. To deviate from these natural laws is to deviate from happiness. At this point Rasselas and his sister Nekayah divide their efforts in pursuit of outer-world happiness, the prince among those of high social station and the princess among the more humble. But to their dismay royalty is haunted by jealousy and petty competition while the princess discovers that the humble families are torn apart by perversity and imperiousness. Few parents act in such a fashion as "to enforce their maxims by the credit of their lives" (Johnson 62).

It is when the party reunites and decides to visit the pyramids (Chapter XXXI) and Pekuah is captured and later released (by Chapter XXXIX) that we are most clearly exposed to Samuel Johnson's skillful juxtaposition of the earthy Arab's life style and the pseudo-sophisticated manner of Europeans. Pekuah refuses to enter the dark and gloomy chambers of the Pharaohs in fear of their ancient omnipresent spirits, but it is the live spirits of the Arabs who seize her from her tent outside the pyramids. Only after Pekuah's ransom is paid do her companions learn of her brief stay in an Arab camp where Nature is paramount.

Ironically Pekuah is too homesick for her beloved princess Nekayah to appreciate the poetic joys and freedoms of an Arab's life. But it is through this ironic twist of narrative that the reader is confronted with pure Johnsonian philosophy which very much coincides with the lifestyle and teachings of the Arab chieftain. I beg to differ with Magdi Wahba who states that "the adventures of Pekuah in captivity are a bitter comment on the power of gold" (Wahba 108). I must also differ with Robert G. Walker's contention that Pekuah is exposed to physical evil (Walker 47). Pekuah's adventures are far more than that. Though Pekuah assumes her captors are robbers and savages, her treatment by them is quite the contrary. As Thomas M. Curley contends, Arabs are "extremely hospitable to strangers, and [take] pride in their ancestry and absolute dominion over the desert" (Curley 108). Though she is homesick for her princess, she does experience a certain sense of romance and adventure in a "pathless country" where they "stopped near a spring shaded with trees in a pleasant meadow, where we were set upon the ground and offered such refreshments as our masters were partaking" (Johnson 89). Later that evening Pekuah and her maids are treated to a sumptuous banquet and comfortable sleeping quarters. In the morning she is respectfully addressed by the Arab chieftain who explains, "the purpose of my incursions is to increase my riches, or more properly to gather tribute. The sons of Ishmael are the natural and hereditary lords of this part of the continent, which is usurped by late invaders" (Johnson 91). And he adds, "Do not be disconsolate; I am not one of the lawless and cruel rovers of the desert; I know the rules of civil life: I will fix your ransome, give a passport to your messenger, and perform my stipulation with nice punctuality" (Johnson 91). Pekuah is later told just what her gold ransom is by this courteous pragmatist of the desert. Incidentally, Samuel Johnson defines "ransome" in his dictionary as "Price paid for redemption from captivity or punishment." Since Pekuah's condition is one of captivity (not punishment), may we not assume that her redemption is allegorical of the value of her experience?

During their wanderings, Pekuah came to realize that her Arab chieftain "was a man far from illiterate; he was able to travel by the stars or the compass, and had marked in his erratick expeditions such places as are most worthy of notice of a passenger" (Johnson 92). He explained to Pekuah that buildings are best preserved in places little frequented as when nations crumble under future enemies those easily accessible will be sacked.

The captives are taken to the Arab chieftain's home on an island in the Nile where they fear no evil or danger but are "diverted from impatience by the novelty of the place" (Johnson 94). Their captor is much humored by Pekuah's surprise in not seeing mermaids and tritons which European travelers had believed to be denizens of the Nile. Who is the superstitious onethe sophisticated European or the savage Arab? Who is the most inquisitive about the nature of things? Pekuah, whose mind is so distracted by her homesickness, can barely appreciate her surroundings and only for want of anything better to do does she consent to study the names and courses of the stars with the Arab in his observation tower. Pekuah admits that she could not take interest in the overly submissive Arab women as they spend part of their time uselessly "watching the progress of light bodies that floated on the river, and part in marking the various forms into which clouds broke in the sky" (Johnson 95).

At this point we should recall that it is the duty of the poet to realize that "nothing can be useless." He must familiarize himself with "the changes of the summer clouds" or the "meteors of the sky." Jean H. Hagstrum reminds us that "it is never to be forgotten that Johnson's nature was coterminous with all reality, inanimate and intellectual. Within it there was air to breathe, space to roam, and treasures to dig up. He was fully as censorious of those who failed to sound its depths as he was of those who ignored its boundaries" (Hagstrum 60). And Geoffry Tillotson emphasizes the fact that "in Johnson's view it is a prime duty of man to make the best of the conditions in which he is placed" (Tillotson 102). Pekuah fails in all these regards. It is strange that Carey McIntosh does not heed his own observation: "The pervasiveness of Johnson's irony in Rasselas seems to have gone unnoticed, at least in print, till recently. This voice is pessimistic in general tendency because it operates at the expense of the dramatis personae" (McIntosh 173). Here is what he writes about Lady Pekuah's adventures: "[T]hey do not fulfill their promise as melodrama, and have been identified as 'a detailed romance.' Given the facts'Lovely Maid of Honor Abducted by Haughty Arab Chief'one might expect romantic motives to emerge from behind them, passionate love, undying hate, heroic pride. Pekuah's chronicle, however, is one of avarice and boredom; the Arab is a hardheaded businessman, his harem a group of silly girls, and his castle merely a residence unfurnished with mermaids or tritons" (McIntosh 183).

It must be stressed that Pekuah's boredom and impatience with her captive state (symbolic of life itself) is inversely proportionate to Johnson's notions on poetry and nature, and such notions are therefore further reinforced in the reader's mind. Simply put, the Arab is the medium for the reader's and not Pekuah's thoughtful meditation. Ironically the Arab is drawn to the intelligence of Pekuah as opposed to the pettiness of mind of his own women.

When Pekuah is returned at long last to her traveling companions at a monastery, they all resume their search for happiness with a contemplative astronomer who has deluded himself into believing he has enormous cosmic powers. This other astronomer is greatly impressed, incidentally, with the amount of knowledge Pekuah gained from her Arab captor on the stars. Fortunately for the astronomer his new-found friends help him come to the realization that his delusions of power and grandeur are ridiculous and that he is but one atom in the mass of humanity. His very contemplative life is in marked contrast to the very active life of the warring Arab chieftain. Curiously though, the Arab of the Nile knows as much about the stars as does the learned astronomer. The Arab in retrospect, then, serves as an interesting balance of active versus contemplative, and yet Pekuah was too preoccupied with her homesickness to really appreciate the rich variety in his life (from warring to shifting his camp to staring at the Nile to gazing at stars). As Rasselas comes to realize, "Variety is so necessary to content" (Johnson 116). It is the Arab chieftain (whom Pekuah alone saw) who comes closest to filling Imlac's description of a poet: "Their time is regularly distributed; one duty succeeds another, so that they are not left open to the distraction of unguided choice, nor lost in the shades of listless inactivity" (Johnson 116).

Before Rasselas, Imlac, Nekayah, Pekuah, and company return to their Happy Valley knowing in a limited way the nature of the outer world, they all discuss the nature of the human soul with their Egyptian astronomer friend. Perhaps the Egyptian kings believed that as long as the body is preserved, the soul lives, but ironically those kings may have been "snatched away while they were busy, like us, in the choice of life" (Johnson 121). It is more than coincidental that Pekuah was snatched away at the site of the pyramids to lead ever so briefly what the reader would consider to be an exciting and adventurous life with the Arab and his band; however, she was so preoccupied with her chosen former way of life that she was unable to appreciate the eternity of the moment. As the Koran reads, "All that is in heaven and earth gives glory to Allah." It is of great importance to see the spiritual significance in everything, even the Nile River which Lady Pekuah ignores but which Princess Nekayah later addresses as though it were a person.

Samuel Johnson gives us an insightful perspective on the secular aspects of Islam through the adventures of one who is snatched away in life at the site of pyramids where the spirits of kings remain chained to dead bodies. Is not Samuel Johnson allegorically illustrating to his readers the importance of living life fully by observing the clouds, stars and desert and by leading lives with ever so essential Arabic variety and excitement regardless of the circumstance? Imlac reminds us that what now seems disastrous may later be recompensed. To wish, like Pekuah (near the end of the book), for a safe and secure life in an abbey, is to escape from the joys of living. The life of an Arab chieftain, though it has its obvious drawbacks of materialism and selfishness, has lots to offer philosophically and spiritually. Perhaps, at least unwittingly, Pekuah does help prepare Prince Rasselas to assume the responsibilities of the Happy Valley as the future ruler who will succeed his father. As Robert G. Walker insightfully comments, "that Johnson's characters see but through a glass darkly is no reason to discount the importance of the glimpses of truth that they get" (Walker 41).


Curley, Thomas M. Samuel Johnson and the Age of Travel. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1976.

Eversole, Richard. "Imlac and the Poets of Persia and Arabia," Philological Quarterly 58 (Spring 1979): 155-170.

Hagstrum, Jean H. Samuel Johnson's Literary Criticism. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1968.

Johnson, Samuel. The History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia. London: Oxford U P, 1968.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. Samuel Johnson. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1944.

McIntosh, Carey. The Choice of Life: Samuel Johnson and the World of Fiction. New Haven: Yale U P, 1973.

Manzaloui, Mahmoud. "Rasselas and Some Medieval Ancillaries." Bicentenary Essays on Rasselas. Ed. Magdi Wahba (Cairo: Cairo Studies in English, 1959): 59-73.

New, Peter. Fiction and Purpose in Utopia. New York: St. Martin's P, 1985.

Tillotson, Geoffry. "Time in Rasselas." Bicentenary Essays on Rasselas. Ed. Magdi Wahba (Cairo: Cairo Studies in English, 1959): 97-103.

Tomarken, Edward. Johnson, Rasselas, and The Choice of Criticism. Lexington: The U of Kentucky P, 1989.

Wahba, Magdi. "A Note on the Manner of Concluding in Rasselas." Bicentenary Essays on Rasselas. Ed. Magdi Wahba (Cairo: Cairo Studies in English, 1959): 105-110.

Walker, Robert G. Eighteenth-Century Arguments for Immortality and Johnson's Rasselas. English Literary Studies (Monograph Series No. 9). Victoria, Canada: U of Victoria, 1977.

Weitzman, Arthur J. "More Light on Rasselas: The Background of the Egyptian Episodes." Philological Quarterly 48 (January 1969): 44-58.