Why Arab Muslims love Paradise Lost – and their leaders hate it

‘The Arab world could really benefit from a good dose of Milton.’ Anti-government protesters in front of revolutionary graffiti, Cairo, 2013. Photograph: Amr Dalsh / Reuters/Reuters

Three hundred and fifty years to the month since Paradise Lost was published, John Milton’s epic poem continues to cause controversy. An academic who taught it in Egypt has been accused, by her own university, of spreading “destructive ideas” that have disturbed “public order … in an anarchic call disguised as a comparative literature textual analysis”. Most strikingly, she is accused of “glorifying Satan”.

The 10,000-line poem, one of the most influential in English literature, displays the vanquished Satan’s attempt at revenge as he journeys through the universe towards Eden to tempt Adam and Eve, before all three are punished by God. But Milton’s portrayal of his most striking character isn’t what the Egyptian authorities think it is. While we may certainly feel sympathy for him and even admire his ambition, we also see his obvious and fatal flaws, not least entering a face-off against God that even he admits is unwinnable.

I spent six years writing a book about Milton in the Arab-Muslim World, which involved visiting students and tutors at universities across the region, and investigating the poem in light of the modern-day political, social and religious context. One particularly eye-opening moment was when a group of Cairo-based students explained that they understood their own value systems better after encountering Milton’s Satan, though one of them quickly added that her parents wouldn’t have allowed her to read Paradise Lost if they knew what it was about.

I noticed a range of themes that spoke directly to these students. Muslims believe in Satan’s existence more than any other group today. Belief in his day-to-day impact remains a part of popular culture, which links the devil to sinning, anger, nightmares and, in more remote regions, black magic and exorcism. Many Muslims still enter rooms with their right feet and eat with their right hands so the devil doesn’t join them. While Satan isn’t mentioned in Genesis, the Qur’an has well over a hundred references to him, and far from being silenced in Islamic tradition, he plays a key role in differentiating truth from falsity. Milton’s is probably the most astute representation of a complex, psychologically driven Satan in the history of literature.

More important, given its current political situation, the Arab world could really benefit from a good dose of Milton, particularly his Satan. Put plainly, Milton was a revolutionary and Paradise Lost is an anti-authoritarian text.

A staunch republican at a time when most people believed that the monarch was divinely chosen, Milton advocated the execution of King Charles I in 1649 before serving in Oliver Cromwell’s government. As if that wasn’t enough, he also spoke out against the Catholic church, didn’t believe in the trinity and wrote pamphlets about the merits of divorce.

By the time he came to write Paradise Lost, he had lost his sight and, with the monarchy restored, he was under house arrest with many of his friends having been executed. Satan’s opposition to God in the poem has long been interpreted as a metaphor for republican opposition to the monarchy. Any apparent glorification of Satan in the poem, then, might be down to Milton’s belief that seemingly unchallengeable systems should indeed be challenged.

That’s why one Kurdish columnist during Saddam Hussein’s time defended Satan’s challenge to authority as “motivated only by his revolutionary emotion”. But it’s also why, at the start of the uprisings against Bashar al-Assad, a Syrian state newspaper warned citizens about reading the recently translated poem, reminding them that Satan’s rebellion against God was unsuccessful and that Milton’s republicanism ended disastrously. Like God and the monarchy, the article concluded, the Assad regime will win out.

Despite its fluctuations, the Arab spring has shown how millions of people realised that overthrowing long-established regimes isn’t the distant dream it once was, but a possibility worth pursuing. At its heart, Milton’s work is concerned with the problem of unshakable hierarchy, especially when it appears unjustified. Satan doesn’t understand why God’s new creation, the Son, is given a higher status than him. He wonders why the fallen angels are either imprisoned in the dungeons of hell or killed in massive numbers (like Milton’s fellow rebels). Both detention and mass executions chime with the responses of Arab states to any form of dissent against the established powers.

And the hierarchies imposed in the Arab world aren’t limited to dictatorships, but can extend to the coercive nature of globalisation, to unashamed patriarchy, and to anything that is elevated to a sacred and unimpeachable status: supreme monarchies, militaries, institutions and public figures. Arabs reading such a daring text may question the establishments that have controlled them for decades, whether in the name of religion or nationalism.

Milton’s Satan also offers insights into the danger of new forms of authoritarianism and the use of appealing principles or rhetoric. To begin with, Satan is a great public orator, a populist figure for the fallen angels. By the end, he faces their “public scorn”. God punishes the fallen angels by taking away their ability to talk: a stark reminder of modern day censorship, but also of the flaws of sacred, idealised figures and how today’s hero can become tomorrow’s villain.

Though Suez University bemoans the fact that by reading an imaginative version of Satan’s story we are “rejecting that which is sacred in favour of the authority of the human mind”, to me, questioning authority and individual reflection both sound quite useful. Particularly in these troubled and troubling times.

Islam Issa is a lecturer in English literature and the author of Milton in the Arab-Muslim World.

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