Why just two Muslims won the Nobel for literature?

Before learning how to read and write the English alphabet at the age of 15, it was Persian I grew up intellectually on. So, it’s but natural on my part to have a slight native proclivity towards the languages viz, Persian, Arabic, Turkish and also Urdu. Never in life have I associated people with religions and languages as I don’t belong to any damn ethnic, nationalistic, linguistic and religious identity. I, therefore, could never belong to any faith, but loved a group of languages more than I liked French, Portuguese, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Greek among others.

So, when I look at the list of the Nobel laureates in literature right from 1901, I wonder did the Nobel committee find just two Muslim greats for Nobel: Naguib Mahfouz (Egyptian for 1988 Nobel) and Orhan Pamuk (Turkish in 2006)? Where were Reza Baraheni, Shariar Mandanipour, Forugh Farrokhzaad (1935-1967, considered to be the finest woman writer from Iran in the 20th century), Sadegh Hedayat , Pezeshkzand, to name but a few? And why were remarkable Arab playwrights of the likes of Sa’dallah Wannus, Yusuf al-’Ani, Al- Tayyib al-Saddiqi et. al. ignored by the Nobel committee? I met Pamuk in 2007 at Ankara University, Turkey. He’d already won the Nobel. When I posed the same question to him and prodded further, he smiled and said, “You may call it West’s literary prejudice against the Islamic world.”

The West always looked at Arab literature as the “literature of the desert-folks”. The legendary British scholar of Arabic, Sir Hamilton Gibb lamented this fact in his magnum opus: “Arabs’ contribution to western poetry and plays” (1939, Oxford).
All facets of Arab literature were seen by the partisan West as either the interpretations of Qura’n and Hadith (compilation of Muhammad’s teachings and sayings) or fragments of extemporaneous Arab poetry, “incomplete” in form and contents (“fractured literature,” to quote Islamic scholar Professor Bernard Lewis of Princeton University, US).

This very erroneous impression of Arab literature and its exponents is still embedded in the psyche of the West. Iranian poetry, though appreciated in the West by English and European scholars, was thought to be chiefly based on sublime mysticism of Jalaluddin Rumi, Khaqani, Hafiz Shirazi, Fariduddin Attar, Sana’i, Nizami and Jaami. Even to a perceptive occidental mind, modern Persian literature has been just a footnote to the Persian mystic poets of yore.

The entire West is blind to the dynamism of Persian and Arabic languages and has never got over its jaundiced perceptions about the Islamic world and its vast literature that transcends scriptural and theological prerequisites and parameters.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 November 2014 on page no. 11

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