Islam and the European Reformation

Islam and the European Reformation
8 min read

Usman Butt

31 October, 2017
Comment: Early Protestant thinkers were obsessed with Islam as the Reformation broke down barriers between Christian and Muslim nations, writes Usman Butt.
Martin Luther nailed his theses to a church door 500 years ago today [Getty]

Islam played a huge role in shaping the European Reformation. It was also being shaped by the Reformation at the same time.

The effects of the Reformation on Europe and the wider world are relatively well known, concepts like "religion", "sectarian", "secularism" and "capitalism", to name a few, were born during the Reformation and exported during the age of European empires.

But Europe was not an isolated continent without any outsider influence before this age of empires; medieval Europe was a crossroads of different peoples, religions and ideas. Islam featured prominently in the thoughts of Protestant and Catholic thinkers, priests and monarchs.

On the 500th anniversary of the start of the European Reformation it is time to remember the complex history that binds Islam and Christianity together in Europe.

The Reformation began on 31 October 1517, when a Catholic theologian and vicar named Martin Luther wrote an angry letter to Pope Leo X (1475-1521), denouncing his Catholic Church selling "indulgences" to notables and the general public in order to finance the re-construction of St Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Indulgences were payments made by "sinners" to the church to reduce the punishment they will receive for their sins in purgatory, after they die. Pope Leo X was from the wealthy Medici trading family, which only angered Martin Luther further - as, to his mind, the pope could have paid for the re-construction himself.

Martin Luther was still obsessed with the question of Islam. He insisted on translations of key Muslim texts into European languages, and even had the Quran translated into Latin

According to some versions of the story, Martin Luther was so enraged by all of this that he took 95 theses and nailed them to the door of his church in Wittenberg, Saxony-Anhalt, in what is now Germany. 

This came to symbolise the corruption of the Catholic Church and became the basis of the Reformationist movement.

But even as trying to reform the Catholic Church took on a life of its own, Martin Luther was still obsessed with the question of Islam. He insisted on translations of key Muslim texts into European languages, and even had the Quran translated into Latin to learn more about Islam.

In 1528, he wrote the pamphlet, On War against the Turk, in response to Ottoman attempts to seize Vienna, in which he called on Europeans to resist the Turkish invaders. While he viewed Islam as evil, Martin Luther seems to have viewed Islam as less evil than the pope, who he called the anti-Christ, and the Jews, who he referred to as the devil's incarnation.

He would make statements in On War against the Turk that were favourable to the Ottomans, "a smart Turk makes a better ruler than a dumb Christian", he writes. More importantly, he called on fellow Christians to see the good as well as the bad in the Turks and Muslims, and emphasised that the fight against the Ottomans was "self-defence" and not a holy war.

The rupture within the Catholic Church would result in the creation of a new religious sect, the Protestants. While Martin Luther was indispensible in the eventual creation of Protestantism, he died a Catholic. The first Protestants were a group of dissenting or "protesting" princes and rulers who petitioned the Imperial Diet at Speyer, the judicious arm of the Holy Roman Empire in Germany, to lift the ban on Martin Luther preaching in 1529.

It would take a century after the petition for Protestantism to become a fully-fledged sect with its socio-political identity. Even so, those inspired by Martin Luther began to look at reconciliation between Islamic and Protestant teachings. Some Christian thinkers of the time believed the Sunni Islam of the Ottoman Turks was closer to Protestant beliefs than it was to Catholic belief.

The ban of imagery in places of worship, not seeing marriage as a sacrament and rejecting monastic orders was picked up as areas of commonality by the Protestants.

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Besides doctrinal similarities, many Protestants saw the Ottomans as a useful ally against the Catholic Church. Istanbul became a seat of refuge for Protestants fleeing Catholic persecution, where they were tolerated and allowed to set up their own church under the Sultan.

French Protestant preacher Jean Bodin (1530-1596), wrote glowingly about his Ottoman exile: "The great emperor of the Turks does with as great devotion as any prince in the world honour and observe the religion by him received from his ancestors, and yet detests he not the strange religions of others; but on the contrary permits every man to live according to his conscience: yes, and that more is, near unto his palace at Pera, suffers four diverse religions viz. that of the Jews, that of the Christians, that of the Grecians, and that of the Mahometans."

The theme of Ottoman Muslim tolerance was a consistent theme in Protestant writings from the period; this was usually contrasted with Catholic Spain's intolerance towards the movement.

The Ottomans viewed the Protestants favourably; Sultan Suleiman (1494- 1566), wrote an open letter to the Lutherans of Flanders in which he declared his closeness to them "since they did not worship idols, believed in one God and fought against the Pope and Emperor".

Throughout the period of the Reformation, a number of alliances were forged between the Ottomans and Protestant rulers, although, despite claims of similarities, this does not mean the Ottomans were exclusively pro-Protestant in foreign policy terms - they would work with Catholic powers when their self-interest required them to do so.

Nonetheless, the Reformation changed the face of Europe in many ways; one was breaking the taboo about allying with a Muslim power against other Christians. 

Perhaps the best example of this is the Anglo-Moroccan alliance. In 1551, Thomas Wyndham, an English naval officer and explorer, set sail for Morocco with the hope of establishing trade between England and Morocco. His mission came at a sensitive time, as Catholic Spain had emerged into the most powerful country in Europe. The Protestant English were fearful of Spanish power and were looking for possible allies to help curtail the Spanish threat.

He received a favourable reaction in Morocco and English traders were soon sailing to north Africa, much to the dismay of the Spanish crown. Trade grew and Queen Elizabeth created the Barbary Company in 1585, which formalised the expansion of trade with North and West African states, particularly Morocco.

The European Reformation disrupted Christian discourse in a number of areas. Islam was part of this disruption as the Reformation made it acceptable for Christian powers, rulers and thinkers to align with Muslim powers

Morocco caught the English imagination and Shakespeare captured the enchantment with the Moroccans in his play Othello. The character of Othello the Moor is believed to be based on Abd el-Ouaheed ben Messaoud, the Moroccan envoy sent to London to deepen ties between the two countries. General Othello is brave, honest, intelligent, moral and upright - and marries a Venetian woman, Desdemona, the daughter of a power Venetian politician.

However, Othello is tricked by his manipulative and Machiavellian right-hand man, Iago, into believing his wife has been unfaithful. Othello kills Desdemona but upon learning of the deceit kills himself. What makes Othello interesting is not only that a Moor was made into the hero, but the fact the antagonist was named Iago - Iago is a derivative of Sant Iago (Saint James), the Catholic patron saint of Spain.

Whether or not Shakespeare was engaging in propaganda remains a matter of debate, he was surely reflecting the mood of Elizabethan England. A political and military alliance between England and Morocco was actively explored and attempted. Numerous letters were exchanged between Queen Elizabeth and Sultan Ahmad al Mansur; plans for military expeditions aimed at curtailing Spanish power were made.  

In the 1580s, Portugal underwent a dynastic crisis as Spain made claims to the Portuguese throne, but Don Antonio, a Portuguese prince, claimed his sovereign right to rule. Don Antonio was weaker than his adversary, King Philip II of Spain, but he found an ally in England. However, the English were limited in the support they could offer and so turned to the Moroccans to help keep Don Antonio in place.

This initially failed and Don Antonio fell too quickly for either England or Morocco to do anything. However, attempts to return Don Antonio to power were attempted by both the Moroccans and the English - but each time one side could not meet the requirements of the other. Nonetheless, the significance of the Anglo-Moroccan alliance not only included bringing a Muslim and Christian power together against another Christian power, but it was also the beginning of a new way of thinking in England that would give rise to the British Empire.

The European Reformation disrupted Christian discourse in a number of areas. Islam was part of this disruption as the Reformation made it acceptable for Christian powers, rulers and thinkers to align with Muslim powers.

Islam has, since its emergence, been a part of the scene in Europe; it has influenced European thought and predates both the European colonial encounters with Islam and Muslims as well as the post-second world war immigration boom from Muslim-majority countries into Europe.  

Studying the history of the Reformation teaches us that Islam, Christianity, Europe and the West are not homogenous solids that we inherit today, and trying to find commonality is nothing new - nor is the invention of liberal multiculturalists, but a continuous historical process that takes on new forms each decade. 

Usman Butt is multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.

Follow him on Twitter: @TheUsmanButt

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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