"The world's a theatre of theft": Islamic Imposture in Tomkis' Albumazar


Corinne Zeman


Writers in Tudor and Stuart England fixated on Islamic “imposture,” the notion that Islam was an elaborate deception by an upwardly mobile charlatan. To flesh out their descriptions of religious imposture, writers made heavy use of Islamicate loanwords, proper names, and ethnonyms. These cross-cultural borrowings resulted in a racialized vocabulary of theft, widely deployed in early modern rogue pamphlets and city comedies to stigmatize the criminal underclass of London. In addition to the racialized recalibration of class structures, the discourses of Islamic imposture had a hand in transforming scientific inquiry, as they were strategically deployed to invalidate the Islamicate astrological tradition. The discursive collocations of racialization, astrology, and fraud are effectively illustrated by Thomas Tomkis’ Albumazar (1614), a little-studied university drama modeled on Giambattista della Porta’s L’Astrologo (1606). This Jacobean city comedy remakes a real-world Persian astrologer, Abū Maʿshar al-Balkhī, into the ringleader of an astrological criminal racket in London. Its scenes couple the semantic thievery of playwrights with the Arabic connivances of swindlers and their dupes, a pairing that turns language itself into contraband. Ultimately, Tomkis’ comedy allows us to reflect on the epistemic violence enacted by bad-faith, racialized translations and specifically, how the English canon fortified itself by criminating its literary and intellectual models.

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