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Volume 6626

A Clash of Cultures
A Look at the Role of Arabs
in the Fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs
by Alan Hanson

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In early 1910, while in the city of Sidi Aissa in French occupied Algeria, a curious John Clayton stepped into one of the town’s seedy cafés. After punching out a trouble maker, Tarzan found himself assailed by numerous other Arabs, yelling, “Kill the unbeliever!” and “Down with the dog of a Christian.”

Such insults directed at Whites by Arabs are familiar to readers of the Tarzan stories. Burroughs often used such language to reveal the open animosity that his Muslim characters felt toward his white protagonists and villains alike. Good and evil, the struggle between what underscored most of ERB’s literary themes, were portrayed in their extremes by Burroughs. As noted in Part One, ERB utilized both good and bad Arab characters. However, when it came to their religion, nearly all of the Arabs in his stories looked with disdain upon all Whites and Christians.

As the “kill the unbeliever” refrain mentioned above reveals, Burroughs believed the gulf between Muslims and Christians had its foundation in opposing beliefs of the two religions. Islam is based on the teachings of Muhammad, an Arab born in the city of Mecca on the Arabian Peninsula around 570 A.D. Muhammad preached belief in a single God, the God of Moses, the same God to which Christians adhere. However, although Muslims believe that Jesus was an early prophet of God, they reject the notion that Jesus was the Messiah and that he was the son of God. Muslims, rather, assign the role of God’s final messenger to Muhammad, and so strong is that belief that the statement of faith in God and Muhammad is one of the Seven Pillars, or obligations, of Islam. (On one occasion in Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, Burroughs had one of his Arab characters make the statement of faith that is the cornerstone of Islam. When the young Zeyd was accused of trying to assassinate his sheik, Ibn Jad, he responded with, “As Allah is my God and Mohammed his prophet I did not do it.”) The unwillingness of Christians to embrace the teachings of Muhammad, then, is what prompted ERB’s Arabs to refer to them contemptuously as “unbelievers.”

The Sinister Meaning
In itself, being called an “unbeliever” would hardly seem insulting to a Christian, but, as the above passage from The Return of Tarzan demonstrates, that term used by a Burroughs Arab was extremely sinister, since it was almost always accompanied by a secondary, stronger insult and threat of violence. First the Muslim would express his superiority over the Christian by comparing him to an animal, either a dog or a pig, followed by a death threat, which the angered Arab often tried to bring about on the spot.

For example, in Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, Mohammed Beyd expressed his deep hatred for the Belgian Albert Werper in the following graphic terms.

“Dog of a Christian, look upon this knife in the hands of Mohammed Beyd! Look well, unbeliever, for it is the last thing in life you shall see or feel. With it Mohammad Beyd will cut out your black heart. If you have a God pray to him now — in a minute more you shall be dead.”

Again, in Tarzan the Invincible, after Wayne Colt interrupted Abu Batn’s attempt to rape Zora Drinov, the Muslim turned his attack on the American, crying, “Dog of a Nasrâny! Lay not your filthy hand on a true believer.” And simply for having white skin, Tarzan almost lost his life at the hand of the Arab Fahd in Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. As a small band of Arabs surrounded the unconscious Tarzan, Fahd said, “I fired at el-fil (elephant) and killed a Nasrâny (Christian).” A companion added, “It is indeed a Christian dog, and naked too.” When it became clear that Tarzan was not dead, Fahd drew his knife, announcing, “I will finish him off.” When a companion stopped him, Fahd casually responded, “It is but a Nasrâny.”

Tarzan survived that day, but in this, as well as other instances in his stories, Burroughs clearly conveyed a feeling of contempt that Muslims held for the lives of Christians. In fact, on a couple of occasions, Burroughs made reference to a Muslim’s right, even obligation, to kill Christians. Again, in Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, while the Arabs of Ibn Jad sat discussing the wisdom of killing Tarzan, one of the old men cried out, “By Ullah, there never be any reason why a true believer should not take the life of a Nasrâny!” And, in Tarzan and the Mad Man, Sandra Pickerall was near death at the hand of her Muslim captor. “You are an infidel,” he told her, “and for every infidel I kill, I shall have greater honor in heaven.”

"The Only Good Nasrâny …"
All of the Arabs mentioned above — Beyd, Abu Batn, Fahd — clearly fall into the category of “bad” Arabs created by ERB. They were so evil, in fact, that one might attribute their violent tendencies toward Whites as more a factor of their depraved nature rather than their religious beliefs. But Burroughs made it clear that even his “good” Arabs looked down upon Christians and placed little value on the life of a Nasrâny. The best example of “good” Arabs in ERB’s fiction is Sheik Kadour ben Saden’s tribe in The Return of Tarzan. The ape-man admired these “stern and dignified warriors” and even considered giving up his jungle lifestyle to live with them in their desert abode. However, these Muslim warriors whom Tarzan so admired, later showed a willingness to abandon the ape-man because he was not of their religion. When Tarzan was captured by another Arab band and delivered to the villainous Nikolas Rokoff, Ben Saden’s daughter, whom Tarzan had earlier saved in Sidi Aissa, tried to rally her father’s warriors to save the ape-man. She later explained to Tarzan how their religious animosity towards Christians trumped their loyalty to the man who had rescued their chief’s daughter from slavery.

“My father was away. I tried to persuade some of the men to come and save you, but they would not do it, saying, ‘Let the unbelievers kill one another if they wish. It is none of our affair, and if we go and interfere with Ali-ben-Ahmend’s plans we shall only stir up a fight with our own people.”

What would cause even “good” Arabs, honorable and brave in all others ways, to abandon a man who had befriended them just because he was a Christian (for so they thought Tarzan)? Burroughs indicated the reason might run deeper than just a difference of opinion about religious doctrine. In Tarzan the Invincible, Burroughs wrote that the anger that the Arab sheik Abu Batn felt toward the Russian Peter Zveri was, “rooted deeply in his inherent antipathy for Europeans and their religion.” The implication is that Muslims felt the entire white race offended their religion, and every white person they encountered was to be held accountable for that offense. The evidence of that is in how the Arabs considered Tarzan a Christian, even though he had never done anything to indicate that he was one. Nasrâny or not, he was treated with the same contempt by Muslim Arabs who felt an “inherent racial antipathy” toward anyone with white skin.

Lest we condemn Muslims unilaterally, Burroughs also implied in The Lad and the Lion that Whites have the same racial antipathy toward Arabs and their religion. When Azîz, who was a European prince by birth, saw an Arab mistreat a French girl, a fierce anger rose up within him. Burroughs explained, “That the girl was of his own race may have exerted some influence upon his sleeping racial instincts — who may guess?” Of course, Burroughs did not dwell on those “sleeping racial instincts” that affected White feelings toward Arabs. After all, he knew which race bought and read his stories. For economic reasons, the light of virtue needed to fall upon that race in his fiction.

A Desire to Cleanse Africa
This combined racial and religious animosity toward Whites by Muslim Arabs in Burroughs’ fiction was closely tied to a political goal as well. The goal was stated by one of Abu Batn’s band of Arabs, who, with ulterior motives, had attached themselves to Peter Zveri’s revolutionary expedition in Tarzan the Invincible. “He is but an instrument of Allah,” explained the Arab of Zveri, “in the great cause that will rid Africa of all Nasrâny … If we do this thing (kidnap Zora Drinov), perhaps the great cause will be lost.” Abu Batn responded, “It is the cause of the Nasrâny, and it is only for profit.” According to Burroughs, then, the Arab inherent racial dislike for Whites, fueled by religious divisions, was focused on the political goal of driving the Europeans out of Africa.

After the death of Muhammad in 632 A.D., Muslim armies swept across Northern Africa in a series of holy wars resulting in the population’s forced conversion to Muslim. It is easy to see, then, how many of ERB’s Arabs felt justified in trying to evict the European colonizers who they felt had usurped their lands. Tarzan learned in the café at Sidi Aissa that nearly all Algerian Arabs hated their French occupiers. In Tarzan the Invincible, ERB explained that Abu Batn’s hatred for Christians was, “represented by the British influence in Egypt and out in the desert, which they considered their hereditary domain.”

It was not only the British and the French in Northern Africa who drew Arab ire in Burroughs’ fiction. The Islamic desire to cleanse European influence extended into Central Africa, as well, as the following passage from Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar reveals.

“Werper’s eyes went wide, and his heart sank. He was in the clutches of the most notorious of cutthroats — a hater of all Europeans, especially those who wore the uniform of Belgium. For years the military forces of Belgian Congo had waged a fruitless war upon this man and his followers — a war in which quarter had never been asked or expected by either side.”

Bridging the Gulf
Although Burroughs clearly portrayed most of his Arab characters as Muslims who hated and looked down upon all Whites for racial, religious, and political reasons, the author at times included elements in his stories that softened that negative image. In a couple of instances, ERB showed that the wide gulf between Arabs and Europeans could be bridged, particularly if religious fervor were left out of the equation. After Zeyd fled the tents of Ibn Jad in Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, Tarzan found him alone in the forest. “I am but a poor man,” pleaded Zeyd. “I but followed where my skeykh led. Hold it not against Zeyd, skeykh of the jungle, that he be in thy ‘beled.’ Spare my poor life I pray thee and may Allah bless thee.” Tarzan assured Zeyd, “I have no wish to harm thee, Beduwy. What wrong has been done in my country is the fault of Ibn Jad alone.” When Tarzan sent the rest of Ibn Jad’s band into slavery in Abyssinia, Zeyd and his sweetheart Ateja asked Tarzan if they could serve him in his home, and Lord Greystoke granted their request.

In Burroughs’ fiction, though, the best example of Arab and European bridging the gulf is in the novel The Lad and the Lion, written in 1914. A young Prince Michael, forced to flee his European principality, eventually found himself in the North African desert. There he met the young Arab woman Nakhla, who at first had a typical Muslim reaction to the strange white man. “She neither expected nor hoped to meet anyone along the way, and least of all a white stranger who was more beast than human and who, in addition, was doubtless a Nasrâny — hated of her people — dog of an unbeliever.” Eventually, the young prince overcame Nakhla’s racial antipathy to Europeans and won her love. Then, though, he also had to win over her father, whose racial and religious hatred of Whites was much more deeply ingrained.

“You, dog of a Nasrâny — naked white beggar — you have the temerity to aspire to the daughter of a great sheik? You — a worthless vagabond without a following — without even a burnoose to your back. Where, pig, would you find the twenty camels with which to pay me for my daughter’s hand, even is she would have such vermin as you?”

Final Analysis
These two examples of religious tolerance aside, still it is clear that the predominate image of Arabs and their religion in Burroughs’ fiction is a negative one. In the end, though, too much should not be made of ERB’s cynical portrayal of Arabs. After all, he wrote primarily to entertain his readers and to sell books, not to make social comment. His kind of adventure required villains, and Arabs fit the bill for his predominately white reading audience.

In addition, Burroughs was critical in his fiction of all organized religions, including Christianity. In Tarzan Triumphant, for instance, he painted darkly the Christian tribe of Abraham and their fundamental beliefs. In a 1929 letter to his son Hulbert, ERB explained his attitude toward all organized religions.

“I was pained to discover how badly you misinterpreted my attitude toward religion. I have no quarrel with religion, but I do not like the historic attitude of any of the established churches. Their enthusiasms and sincerity never ring true to me and I think there have been no great changes in them all down the ages, insofar as the fundamentals are concerned. There is just as much intolerance and hypocrisy as there ever was, and if any church were able to obtain political power today I believe that you would see all the tyranny and injustice and oppression which has marked the political ascendancy of the church in all times. This does not mean that I am not religious. I believe that I am a very religious man, but I do not subscribe to any of the narrow, childish superstitions of any creed.”

 The focus here has been on ERB’s contempt for Islam, and in particular on the Twentieth Century “intolerance and hypocrisy” that Burroughs felt had been passed down through the centuries unchanged since Islam’s founding in a much different era. However, we do not have to take ERB’s word for it that all organized religions were the same in this respect. It is a final thread that winds its way discernably through all his fiction. Whether it was Islam or Christianity or some other religion of his own creation, Edgar Rice Burroughs revealed his perceived “intolerance and hypocrisy” in them all. As badly as he treated Islam in his fiction, in the final analysis, when it came to organized religions, to ERB Islam was no worse than all the rest.

— The End —



From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
At the Earth’s Core
The Lad and the Lion
Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar
Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle
The Return of Tarzan
The Eternal Lover
The Son of Tarzan
Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle
Tarzan and the Lion Man
Tarzan the Invincible
The War Chief
Tarzan and the Mad Man
Tarzan Triumphant

Great Middle Eastern Tarzan Art By Hisham S. Almarhaly
Tarzan Cover Art From Arab Comics - 5 ERBzine Pages

Guide to the Alan Hanson Appearances in ERBzine

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