He was in some ways a premature Orientalist, very much taken with scenes of the voluptuous and the barbaric; the painting of Delacroix can be viewed as a sort of pictorial Byronism. But he was more than just a voyeur in these exotic latitudes. He took a serious interest in the religions and customs and traditions, and also the political convulsions, of the places he visited or studied. Re-reading Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage recently, I came across this verse in the second canto, where the contest between the Muslim and Christian worlds, in Constantinople and in Athens, is evoked.
The city won for Allah from the Giaour,
The Giaour from Ottoman’s race again may wrest;
And the Serai’s impenetrable tower
Receive the fiery Frank, her former guest;
Or Wahab’s rebel brood, who dared divest
The prophet’s tomb of all its pious spoil,
May wind their path of blood along the West …
The takeover and desecration of Mecca by the ultra-purist Wahhabi sect was then just a decade old. Byron’s registering of this event—and his identification of a faction that now troubles us all—is the first literary mention that I know of.
Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the origins of Wahhabism.
Wahhabism is named after an eighteenth-century preacher and scholar, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792). He started a revivalist movement in the remote, sparsely populated region of Najd, advocating a purging of practices such as the popular “cult of saints”, and shrine and tomb visitation, widespread among Muslims, but which he considered idolatry (shirk), impurities and innovations in Islam (Bid’ah). Eventually he formed a pact with a local leader Muhammad bin Saud offering political obedience and promising that protection and propagation of the Wahhabi movement mean “power and glory” and rule of “lands and men.”
Wahhabism is of course at the center of the global stage today owing to its affiliation with Al Qaeda and ISIS.
This is fascinating to me. The reading world of 1812 was small in number and for a peripheral event, in the scheme of things, such as the sacking of a religious shrine by a then obscure sect in the wastes of Arabia, to enter into the literary record so quickly is remarkable.