Protestantism and Islam
Protestantism and Islam entered into contact during the 16th century when Calvinist Protestants in present-day Hungary and Transylvania first coincided with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. As both were in conflict with the Austrian Holy Roman Emperor and his Roman Catholic allies, numerous exchanges occurred, exploring religious similarities and the possibility of trade and military alliances.
Protestantism is a branch of the monotheistic Christian religion which originated in Europe in the early 16th century. It adheres doctrinally to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and other theological doctrines of the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, but split from the Western (Roman) Catholic Church as a “Protest” against ecclesiastical corruption, pastoral abuses and certain doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. Protestantism itself had multiple variations from the start, specifically among followers of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli and later, Thomas Cranmer.
Islam is a monotheistic religion, arising around 700 AD, that considers itself the final authentic practice of the faith of the patriarch Abraham. While it is Abrahamic, it presents views of Jewish scripture (the Tanakh) and of Jesus that are incompatible with Judaism and Christianity, respectively.
The subject of this page is to consider the historical political, military, and cultural/religious interactions of Protestant and Islamic rulers.
The bulk of this page examines a hypothesis that Protestant states and the Islamic Turkish state acted to align themselves based on various common interests. One aspect of this hypothesis posits that, in the 16th and 17th centuries, Turkish and Protestant rulers shared a common geopolitical opposition to the Roman Catholic Holy Roman Empire, and tensions with France and Spain, the other large Roman Catholic states, and that this common interest gave rise to alignment in political and military alliances. It is also discussed whether Protestantism and Islam aligned theologically on iconoclasm, and, culturally—in terms of the religiously-motivated cultural mores of that era – in opposition to the person or office of the Roman Catholic Pope.
Protestantism and Islam entered into contact during the 16th century when Calvinist Protestants in present-day Hungary and Transylvania coincided with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. As Protestantism is divided into a few distinguishable branches and multiple denominations within the former, it is hard to determine the relations specifically. Many of these denominations can have a different approachment to this matter. Islam is divided as well into various denominations. This article focuses on Protestant-Muslim relations, but should be taken with caution.
Relations became more adversarial in the early modern and modern periods, although recent attempts have been made at rapprochement. In terms of comparative religion, there are interesting similarities especially with the Sunni, while Catholics are often noted for similarities with Shias, as well as differences, in both religious approaches.
At the same time the Protestant Reformation was taking place in numerous areas of northern and central Europe, in harsh opposition to Papal authority and the Holy Roman Empire led by Emperor Charles V. This situation led the Protestants to consider various forms of cooperation and rapprochement (religious, commercial, military) with the Muslim world, in opposition to their common Habsburg enemy.
Early religious accommodation (15th–17th centuries)
During the development of the Reformation, Protestantism and Islam were considered closer to each other than they were to Catholicism: “Islam was seen as closer to Protestantism in banning images from places of worship, in not treating marriage as a sacrament and in rejecting monastic orders”.
The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was known for his tolerance of the Christian and Jewish faiths within his dominions, whereas the King of Spain did not tolerate the Protestant faith. The Ottoman Empire was indeed known at that time for its religious tolerance. Various religious refugees, such as the Huguenots, some Anglicans, Quakers, Anabaptists or even Jesuits or Capuchins were able to find refuge at Istanbul and in the Ottoman Empire, where they were given right of residence and worship. Further, the Ottomans supported the Calvinists in Transylvania and Hungary but also in France. The contemporary French thinker Jean Bodin wrote:
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.— Jean Bodin.
Martin Luther, in his 1528 pamphlet, On War against the Turk, calls for the Germans to resist the Ottoman invasion of Europe, as the catastrophic Siege of Vienna was lurking, but expressed views of Islam which, compared to his aggressive speech against Catholicism (and later Judaísm), are relatively mild. Concerned with his personal preaching on divine atonement and Christian justification, he extensively criticized the principles of Islam as utterly despicable and blasphemous, considering Qu’ran as void of any tract of divine truth. For Luther, it was mandatory to let the Qu’ran “speak for itself” as means to show what the Christian Religion saw as a draft from prophetic and apostolic teaching, therefore allowing a proper Christian response. His knowledge on the subject was based on a medieval polemicist version of the Qu’ran made by Riccoldo da Monte di Croce, which was the European scholarly reference of the subject. Luther was writing his own translation of Riccoldo’s Refutation of the Koran in 1542 when wrote a letter to Basle’s city council to relieve the ban on Theodore Bibliander’s translation of the Qu’ran into Latin. Mostly due to his letter, Bibliander’s translation was finally allowed and eventually published in 1543, with a preface made by Martin Luther himself. His own translation of Riccoldo was also the first version of Koranic material in the German Language. With access to the actual Qu’ran, Luther saw some of Ricoldo’s critics as actually exaggerated, but nevertheless agreeing with virtually all of them.
Let the Turk believe and live as he will, just as one lets the papacy and other false Christians live.— Excerpt from On war against the Turk, 1529.
However, this statement mentions “Turks”, and it is not clear whether the meaning was of “Turks” as a representation of the specific rule of the Ottoman Empire, or as a representation of Islam in general.
Martin Luther’s ambivalence also appears in one of his other comments, in which he said that “A smart Turk makes a better ruler than a dumb Christian”.
Efforts at doctrinal rapprochement
The Ottomans also felt closer to the Protestants than to the Catholics. At one point, a letter was sent from Suleiman the Magnificent to the “Lutherans” in Flanders, claiming that he felt close to them, “since they did not worship idols, believed in one God and fought against the Pope and Emperor”.
This notion of religious similarities was again taken up in epistolary exchanges between Elizabeth I of England and Sultan Murad III. In one correspondence, Murad entertained the notion that Islam and Protestantism had “much more in common than either did with Roman Catholicism, as both rejected the worship of idols”, and argued for an alliance between England and the Ottoman Empire.
In a 1574 letter to the “Members of the Lutheran sect in Flanders and Spain”, Murad III made considerable efforts to highlight the similarities between Islamic and Protestants principles. He wrote:
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.— 1574 letter of Murad III to the “Members of the Lutheran sect in Flanders and Spain”.
Such claims seem to have been politically inspired as well, with the Ottomans trying to establish religious common ground as a way to secure a political alliance. Elizabeth I herself however made efforts to adjust her own religious rhetoric in order to minimize differences with the Ottomans and facilitate relations. In her correspondence with Murad, she stresses the monotheism and the anti-idolatry of her religion, by uniquely describing herself as:
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— Letter of Elizabeth I to Murad III.
Military cooperation between the Ottoman Empire and European powers started in earnest with the Franco-Ottoman alliance of 1535. The alliance provided strategic support to, and effectively protected, the kingdom of France from the ambitions of Charles V. It also gave the opportunity for the Ottoman Empire to become involved in European diplomacy and gain prestige in its European dominions. Side effects included a lot of negative propaganda against the actions of France and its “unholy” alliance with a Muslim power. According to historian Arthur Hassall the consequences of the Franco-Ottoman alliance were far-reaching: “The Ottoman alliance had powerfully contributed to save France from the grasp of Charles V, it had certainly aided Protestantism in Germany, and from a French point of view, it had rescued the North German allies of Francis I.”
Even after the 1571 Battle of Lepanto Ottoman support for France would continue however, as well as support for the Dutch and the English after 1580, and support for Protestants and Calvinists, as a way to counter Habsburg attempts at supremacy in Europe. Various overtures were made by Ottoman rulers to the Protestants, who were also fighting against a common enemy, the Catholic House of Habsburg. Suleiman the Magnificent is known to have sent at least one letter to the “Lutherans” in Flanders, offering troops at the time they would request, Murad III is also known to have advocated to Elizabeth I an alliance between England and the Ottoman Empire.
Overall, the military activism of the Ottoman Empire on the southern European front probably was the reason why Lutheranism was able to survive in spite of the opposition of Charles V and reach recognition at the Peace of Augsburg in September 1555: “the consolidation, expansion and legitimization of Lutheranism in Germany by 1555 should be attributed to Ottoman imperialism more than to any other single factor”.
The Dutch Revolt and Islam
Fundamentally, the Protestant Dutch had strong antagonisms to both the Catholics and the Muslims. In some cases however, alliances, or attempts at alliance between the Dutch and the Muslims were made possible, as when the Dutch allied with the Muslims of the Moluccas to oust the Portuguese, and the Dutch became rather tolerant of the Islamic religion in their colonial possessions after the final subjugation of Macassar in 1699.
During the Dutch Revolt, the Dutch were under such a desperate situation that they looked for help from every nationality, and “indeed even a Turk”, as wrote the secretary of Jan van Nassau. The Dutch saw Ottoman successes against the Habsburgs with great interest, and saw Ottoman campaigns in the Mediterranean as an indicator of relief on the Dutch front. William wrote around 1565:
The Turks are very threatening, which will mean, we believe, that the king will not come to the Netherlands this year.— Letter of William of Orange to his brother, circa 1565.
The Dutch looked expectantly at the development of the Siege of Malta (1565), hoping that the Ottomans “were in Valladolid already”, and used it as a way to obtain concessions from the Spanish crown.
Contacts soon became more direct. William of Orange sent ambassadors to the Ottoman Empire for help in 1566. When no other European power would help, “the Dutch cause was offered active support, paradoxically enough, only by the Ottoman Turks”. One of the Sultan principal advisers Joseph Miques, Duke of Naxos, delivered a letter to the Calvinists in Antwerp pledging that “the forces of the Ottomans would soon hit Philip II’s affairs so hard that he would not even have the time to think of Flanders”. The death of Suleiman the Magnificent later in 1566 however, meant that the Ottoman were unable to offer support for several years after. In 1568, William of Orange again sent a request to the Ottomans to attack Spain, without success. The 1566-1568 revolt of the Netherlands finally failed, largely due to the lack of foreign support.
In 1574, William of Orange and Charles IX of France, through his pro-Huguenot ambassador François de Noailles, Bishop of Dax, tried again to obtain the support of the Ottoman ruler Selim II. Selim II sent his support through a messenger, who endeavoured to put the Dutch in contact with the rebellious Moriscos of Spain and the pirates of Algiers. Selim also sent a great fleet which conquered Tunis in October 1574, thus succeeding in reducing Spanish pressure on the Dutch, and leading to negotiations at the Conference of Breda. After the death of Charles IX in May 1574 however, contacts weakened, although the Ottomans are said to have supported the 1575-1576 revolt, and establish a Consulate in Antwerp (De Griekse Natie). The Ottomans made a truce with Spain, and shifted their attention to their conflict with Persia, starting the long Ottoman–Safavid War (1578–1590).
The British author William Rainolds (1544–1594) wrote a pamphlet entitled “Calvino-Turcismus” in criticism of these rapprochements.
The phrase Liever Turks dan Paaps (“Rather a Turk than a Papist”) was a Dutch slogan during the Dutch Revolt of the end of the 17th century. The slogan was used by the Dutch mercenary naval forces (the “Sea Beggars”) in their fight against Catholic Spain. The banner of the Sea Beggars was also similar to that of the Turks, with a crescent on a red background. The phrase “Liever Turks dan Paaps” was coined as a way to express that life under the Ottoman Sultan would have been more desirable than life under the King of Spain. The Flemish noble D’Esquerdes wrote to this effect that he:
would rather become a tributary to the Turks than live against his conscience and be treated according to those [anti-heresy] edicts.— Letter of Flemish noble D’Esquerdes.
The slogan Liever Turks dan Paaps seems to have been largely rhetorical however, and the Dutch hardly contemplated life under the Sultan at all. Ultimately, the Turks were infidels, and the heresy of Islam alone disqualified them from assuming a more central (or consistent) role in the rebels’ program of propaganda.
During the early 17th century the Dutch trading ports housed many Muslims, according to a Dutch traveler to Persia there would be no use in describing the Persians as “they are so numerous in Dutch cities”. Dutch paintings from that time often show Turks, Persians and Jews strolling through the city. Officials that were sent to the Netherlands included Zeyn-Al-Din Beg of the Saffavid empire in 1607 and Ömer Aga of the Ottoman Empire in 1614. Like the Venetians en Genoese before them, the Dutch and English established a trade network in the eastern Mediterranean and had regular interactions with the ports of the Persian Gulf. Many Dutch painters even went to work in Isfahan, central Iran.
From 1608, Samuel Pallache served as an intermediary to discuss an alliance between Morocco and the Low Countries. In 1613, the Moroccan Ambassador Al-Hajari discussed in La Hague with the Dutch Prince Maurice of Orange the possibility of an alliance between the Dutch Republic, the Ottoman Empire, Morocco and the Moriscos, against the common enemy Spain. His book mentions the discussion for a combined offensive on Spain, as well as the religious reasons for the good relations between Islam and Protestantism at the time:
Their teachers [Luther and Calvin] warned them [Protestants] against the Pope and the worshippers of Idols; they also told them not to hate the Muslims because they are the sword of God in the world against the idol-worshippers. That is why they side with the Muslims.— Al-Hajari, The Book of the Protector of Religion against the Unbelievers
During the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), the Dutch would strengthen contacts with the Moriscos against Spain.
French Huguenots and Islam
French Huguenots were in contact with the Moriscos in plans against Spain in the 1570s. Around 1575, plans were made for a combined attack of Aragonese Moriscos and Huguenots from Béarn under Henri de Navarreagainst Spanish Aragon, in agreement with the king of Algiers and the Ottoman Empire, but these projects foundered with the arrival of John of Austria in Aragon and the disarmament of the Moriscos. In 1576, a three-pronged fleet from Constantinople was planned to disembark between Murcia and Valencia while the French Huguenots would invade from the north and the Moriscos accomplish their uprising, but the Ottoman fleet failed to arrive.
Alliance between the Barbary states and England
Following the sailing of The Lion of Thomas Wyndham in 1551, and the 1585 establishment of the English Barbary Company, trade developed between England and the Barbary states, and especially Morocco. Diplomatic relations and an alliance were established between Elizabeth and the Barbary states. England entered in a trading relationship with Morocco detrimental to Spain, selling armour, ammunition, timber, metal in exchange for Moroccan sugar, in spite of a Papal ban, prompting the Papal Nuncio in Spain to say of Elizabeth: “there is no evil that is not devised by that woman, who, it is perfectly plain, succoured Mulocco (Abd-el-Malek) with arms, and especially with artillery”.
In 1600, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, the principal secretary to the Moroccan ruler Mulai Ahmad al-Mansur, visited England as an ambassador to the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud spent 6 months at the court of Elizabeth, in order to negotiate an alliance against Spain. The Moroccan ruler wanted the help of an English fleet to invade Spain, Elizabeth refused, but welcomed the embassy as a sign of insurance, and instead accepted to establish commercial agreements. Queen Elizabeth and king Ahmad continued to discuss various plans for combined military operations, with Elizabeth requesting a payment of 100,000 pounds in advance to king Ahmad for the supply of a fleet, and Ahmad asking for a tall ship to be sent to get the money. Elizabeth “agreed to sell munitions supplies to Morocco, and she and Mulai Ahmad al-Mansur talked on and off about mounting a joint operation against the Spanish”. Discussions however remained inconclusive, and both rulers died within two years of the embassy.
Collaboration between the Ottoman Empire and England
Diplomatic relations were established with the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Elizabeth, with the chartering of the Levant Company and the dispatch of the first English ambassador to the Porte, William Harborne, in 1578. Numerous envoys were dispatched in both directions and epistolary exchanges occurred between Elizabeth and Sultan Murad III. In one correspondence, Murad entertained the notion that Islam and Protestantism had “much more in common than either did with Roman Catholicism, as both rejected the worship of idols”, and argued for an alliance between England and the Ottoman Empire. To the dismay of Catholic Europe, England exported tin and lead (for cannon-casting) and ammunition to the Ottoman Empire, and Elizabeth seriously discussed joint military operations with Murad III during the outbreak of war with Spain in 1585, as Francis Walsingham was lobbying for a direct Ottoman military involvement against the common Spanish enemy.
English writers of the period often expressed admiration towards the “Turks” and the “Ottoman Empire”, describing it as endowed with “Majestical and August form and features” and being the “Powerfullest nation in Europe”, saying that the Turks were “the only modern people, great in action- he who would behold these times in their greatest glory, could not find a better scene than Turky” and that they had “incredible civility”.
After peace was made with Catholic Spain in 1604, English pirates nevertheless continued to raid Christian shipping in the Mediterranean, this time under the protection of the Muslim rulers of the Barbary States, and often converting to Islam in the process, in what has been described as Anglo-Turkish piracy.
Transylvania and Hungary
In eastern Central Europe, particularly in Transylvania, tolerant Ottoman rule meant that the Protestant communities there were protected from Catholic persecutions by the Habsburg. In the 16th century, the Ottomans supported the Calvinists in Transylvania and Hungary and practised religious toleration, giving almost complete freedom, although heavy taxation was imposed. Suleiman the Magnificent in particular supported John Sigismund of Hungary, allowing him to establish the Unitarian Church in Transylvania. By the end of the century, large parts of the population in Hungary thus became either Lutheran or Calvinist, to become the Reformed Church in Hungary.
At the end of the century, the Hungarian leader Imre Thököly, in resistance to the anti-Protestant policies of the Habsburg, asked and obtained, the military help of the Ottoman Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, leading to the 1683 Ottoman attack on the Habsburg Empire and the Battle of Vienna.
In the 16th century Hungary had become almost entirely Protestant, with first Lutheranism, then soon afterwards Calvinism, but following the Habsburg policy of Counter-Reformation the western part of the country finally returned to Catholicism, while the eastern part has managed to this day to remain strongly Protestant: “although the Habsburg succeeded in re-Catholicising Royal Hungary, east of the Tisza the Reformation remained almost intact in the spirit of peaceful coexistence between the three recognized nations and respect for their diverse creeds”.
Rich Protestant Transylvanian Saxon merchants traded with the Ottoman Empire and often donated Anatolian rugs to their churches as a wall decoration more according to their iconoclastic beliefs than the images of the saints used by the Catholics and the Orthodox. Churches like the Black Church of Brașov still hold collections of rugs.
Relations with Persia
A group of English adventurers, led by Robert Shirley had a key role in modernizing the Persian army and developing its contacts with the West. In 1624, Robert Shirley led an embassy to England in order to obtain trade agreements.
Eventually, relations between Protestantism and Islam have often tended to become conflicted. In the context of the United States, Protestant missionaries seem to have been active in portraying Islam in an unfavourable light, representing it as “the epitome of antichristian darkness and political tyranny”, in a way that helped construct in opposition an American national identity as “modern, democratic and Christian”. Some famous Protestants have criticized Islam like Pat Robertson Jerry Falwell, Jerry Vines, R. Albert Mohler, Jr. and Franklin Graham. The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy happened in Denmark, a mostly Protestant country.
Besides the obvious differences between the two religious, there are also many similarities in their outlooks and attitudes to faith (especially with Sunni Islam), especially in respect to textual criticism, iconoclasm, tendencies to fundamentalism, rejection of marriage as a sacrament, or the rejection of monastic orders.
Islam and Protestantism have in common a reliance on textual criticism of the Book. This historical precedence combines to fact that Islam incorporates to a certain extent the Jewish and Christian traditions, recognizing the same God and defining Jesus as a prophet, as well as recognizing Hebrew prophets, thus having a claim to encompassing all the religions of the Book.
It should be noted that the Quran itself regards the Christian Bible as corrupt, and holds that Jesus was not physically crucified (Sura 4:156–159).
The rejection of images in worship, although more prominent in Islam, is a common point in Protestantism and Islam. This was already extensively recognized from the earliest times, as in the correspondence between Elizabeth I of England and her Ottoman Empire counterparts, in which she implied that Protestantism was closer to Islam than to Catholicism. This is also a point developed by Martin Luther in On War against the Turk, in which he praised the Ottomans for their rigorous iconoclasm:
It is part of the Turks’ holiness, also, that they tolerate no images or pictures and are even holier than our destroyers of images. For our destroyers tolerate, and are glad to have, images on gulden, groschen, rings, and ornaments; but the Turk tolerates none of them and stamps nothing but letters on his coins.— On War against the Turk 1529 Martin Luther
Rich Protestant Transylvanian Saxon merchants traded with the Ottoman Empire and often donated Anatolian rugs to their churches as a wall decoration more according to their iconoclastic beliefs than the images of the saints used by the Catholics and the Orthodox. Churches like the Black Church of Brasov still hold collections of such rugs.
Islam and Protestantism have in common that they are both based on a direct analysis of the scriptures (the Bible for Protestantism and the Quran for Islam). This can be contrasted to Catholicism in which knowledge is analysed, formalized and distributed by the existing structure of the Church. Islam and Protestantism are thus both based on “a rhetorical commitment to a universal mission”, when Catholicism is based on an international structure. This leads to possibilities of fundamentalism, based on the popular reinterpretation of scriptures by radical elements. The term “fundamentalism” was first used in America in the 1920, to describe “the consciously anti-modernist wing of Protestantism”.
Islamic and Protestant fundamentalism also tend to be very normative of individuals’ behaviours: “Religious fundamentalism in Protestantism and Islam is very concerned with norms surrounding gender, sexuality, and family”, although Protestant fundamentalism tends to focus on individual behaviour, whereas Islamic fundamentalism tends to develop laws for the community.
The most notable trend of Islamic fundamentalism, Salafism, is based upon a literal reading of the Qur’an and Sunnah without relying on the interpretations of Islamic jurists or Imams, rejecting the need for Taqlid. Fundamentalist Protestantism is similar, in that the ‘traditions of men’ and the Church Fathers are rejected in favor of a literalist interpretation of the Bible, which is seen as inerrant. Islamic Fundamentalists and Protestant Fundamentalists often reject contextual interpretation. Another similarity with Protestantism and Salafism is criticism of saint veneration, and emphasis on praying to God alone.
Parallels have regularly been drawn in the similar attitudes of Islam and Protestantism towards the Scriptures. Some trends in Muslim revival have thus been defined as “Islamic Protestantism”. In a sense “Islamization is a political movement to combat Westernization using the methods of Western culture, namely a form of Protestantism within Islam itself”.
Islam and Protestantism share a common vitality in the modern world: “The two most dynamic religious movements in the contemporary world are what can loosely be called popular Protestantism and resurgent Islam”, although their approach to civil society is different.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia