This Orient Isle

This Orient Isle June 24, 2016

Back in February, I posted about the tight alliance that bound (Protestant) Elizabethan England with Muslim Morocco, and what that suggested about the limitations of religious or confessional politics in that era. A very good book on that theme is Jerry Brotton, This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (London: Allen Lane, 2016), and he has recently publishing some related columns and articles. One passage in particular grabbed my attention.

In the sixteenth century, Protestants and Muslims alike had a common enemy in the Catholic powers, mainly the Habsburg Empire and Spain. At various points, a Muslim-Protestant alliance seemed highly desirable, but some leaders tried to go beyond just a mere working partnership. In 1574, the Ottoman Emperor Murad III sent a friendly note to the Protestants in the Netherlands and elsewhere who were in full rebellion against Spain. (He actually addressed it to the “Lutherans,” which was not quite right). Part of it reads as follows, and it was meant as high praise:

As you, for your part, do not worship idols, you have banished the idols and portraits and bells from churches, and declared your faith by stating that God Almighty is one and Holy Jesus is His Prophet and Servant, and now, with heart and soul, are seeking and desirous of the true faith; but the faithless one they call Papa does not recognize his Creator as One, ascribing divinity to Holy Jesus (upon him be peace!), and worshiping idols and pictures which he has made with his own hands, thus casting doubt upon the oneness of God and instigating how many servants to that path of error.

Given the centrality of image-breaking to Protestant militancy and expansion in these years, how could the Ottomans fail to think that the rebels were well on the way to becoming good Muslims? It was an understandable mistake.

Throughout that period, Muslims normally did an excellent job of picking up the points of commonality, and rulers like Elizabeth reciprocated in their diplomatic communications. As she wrote to Murad,

Elizabeth, by the grace of the most mighty God, the three part and yet singular Creator of Heaven and Earth, Queen of England, France and Ireland, the most invincible and most mighty defender of the Christian faith against all the idolatry of those unworthy ones that live amongst Christians, and falsely profess the name of Christ.

If they could not agree on every detail, Muslims and Protestants alike knew they were lethally opposed to idolatry.

When the US government signed the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, denying that the US was founded on the Christian religion, Americans were following in an ancient diplomatic tradition. That went further than Europeans had, but the effort to make nice was on familiar lines.

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