History holds lessons for Islam and West
England is a multicultural society with a significant community of Muslim believers. The campaign that led to the election of the first Muslim mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, threw up many arguments about the relations between this multicultural city with its Muslim population and with the broader world of Islam.
Developments over the past half century, intensified by the collapse of political order in the Middle East and home-grown terrorism in Europe, require the United Kingdom and other European countries to confront the nature of their relations with the world of Islam.
European leaders often behave as if history had no bearing on today’s events. Indeed, some seem to think that history started the day they took office. Hence, the catastrophic mistakes made by Britain when it backed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and France and Britain when they were cheerleaders for the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Contrary to those who believe a clash of civilisations is inevitable, the conflict between Christian Europe and the Dar al Islam of yesteryear “was then, as now, defined as much by the struggle for power and precedence as by technology”, Jerry Brotton wrote in This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (Allen Lane 2016).
Travelling to the late Elizabethan period shows only too well that the late 16th century was, in that respect, very similar to modern Britain. The encounter between Britain and Muslim communities was “not a multicultural idyll but neither was it defined by theological absolutes”, Brotton said.
Brotton’s book tells the compelling story of how Protestant England came closer to Islam than at any time during its history. Henry VIII broke with Rome and his daughter Elizabeth was excommunicated by Pope Pius V in 1570; England was shunned as a rogue state by Catholic Europe — it needed powerful friends in strategic locations. Where better could such friends be found but in Morocco and the Ottoman empire?
This set the stage for half a century of adventures, conspiracies, deals and misunderstanding, an all but forgotten story that the author chronicles as a thriller.
A good deal and a quick gain more often than not trumped theological niceties. The horror with which Bernardino de Mendoza explains to his master in Madrid that English ships are carrying to Istanbul cargoes of tin and lead needed to cast guns is palpable, all the more as these metals were often taken from the trappings of England’s own Catholic past, ornamental features stripped from churches during the Reformation.
The world of England was more monoglot and its religious divisions starker than the multi-confessional and polyglot world of the Sublime Porte. In 1599, Thomas Dallam travelled with a clockwork organ surmounted by singing birds that shook their wings, a gift from his queen to Sultan Mohammed III. He was guided by a man he calls “our Turk” who turned out to be born, like himself, in Lancashire.
This and similar stories speak of a hybridisation between East and West that shines through the travels of the Leicestershire trader Anthony Jenkinson to the courts of Suleiman the Magnificent and the mishaps of the freelance diplomat and rogue Sir Anthony Shirley.
Jenkinson dispatched a slave-girl known as Aura Sultana from Astrakhan as a gift for the queen. Four years later she turns up in a ledger of Elizabeth’s servants as “our dear and well-beloved woman the Tartarian”, who taught her mistress “the fashion of wearing Spanish leader shoes”. Speak of globalisation avant la lettre.
Equally compelling is that, alongside narratives of military and trade alliances, literary works emerged that ruminated on the complex new engagements. From minor writers to such canonical figures such as Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, the plays of the late 16th century show a fascination with the Other in all its manifestations the like of which did not occur again until three centuries later.
In Tamburlaine, Marlowe’s genius was “to take the fear, hypocrisy and greed surrounding Elizabethan England’s relations with the Islamic world and transmute it into great electrifying theatre that generated conflict, doubt and anxiety, which always makes for better theatre than moral absolutism”, Brotton wrote.
In two chapters — London turn Turk and Mahomet’s Dove — the author tries to understand the renewed interest in the 1980s in the “bleeding barbarity” of Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s most acclaimed plays when it was first performed. There is nothing in the play that would have astonished anyone who had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp.
Brotton concludes that “distinguishing between civilisation and barbarism was a problem that had preoccupied Elizabethan Protestants in their relations with Catholic Europe and the Islamic world for decades. To Elizabeth and her advisers, it was difficult to see who was more barbaric: idolatrous Catholics trying to eradicate heretical Protestantism or Muslim infidels offering military and religious salvation”.
We face similar moral and political dilemmas today. Our political leaders could do worse than read this magnificent book.