Islam in Britain


Islam in Britain

The cover jacket of Professor Matar's book is an illustration from 1676 showing two Englishmen being served coffee, in the company of a turbaned Turk with twirled moustaches. The Turk is big and at ease, while his table companions are sitting in a demure fashion. It is an apt imagery that applies not just to the social interaction in the first coffee houses that appeared in Britain around this period, but to the wider inter-relationships between Britain and Muslims in the seventeenth century. Nabil Mater, Professor of English at the Florida Institute of Technology, has provided us with a work of meticulous scholarship that is timely for British Muslims today.

First, because it helps the older school children in discovering that they too have something to say about Cromwell and the Armada and Newton. Second, to explore the prospects for the British Muslim community in the light of these historical precedents.

The Muslims in the Mediterranean basin had the greatest impact on Britons in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This expanse included Istanbul, the centre of the Ottoman Empire; Aleppo, a crucial link in the Silk Route; Beirut, "the Marte-towne whereunto all the ships coming from Europe doe arrive"; Jerusalem, the city of pilgrimage; Cairo, a centre of trade, witnessing "the greatest concourse of Mankind in these times, and perhaps that ever was; Algiers, "the whip of the Christian world, terror of Europe"; and Fez, "a world for a city". While the European kingdoms were able to expand westwards and colonise the Americas, Muslim naval power dominated the Mediterranean. When the threat of the Spanish Armada loomed in the mid-1580s, Queen Elizabeth did not hesitate to ask the Ottoman Sultan Murad for naval assistance against the Spaniards. Of all the countries of Europe, Britain enjoyed the most extensive trade with Muslim lands in this period. The balance of power tilted away from the Ottomans after their defeat in Vienna in 1683 followed by the Karlowitz Treaty of 1699. The hundred and thirty year period covered by Nabil Matar is therefore a moment in history when Britain was dealing with a self-contained and militarily formidable Muslim world. "Because of its magnitude and civilisation, this Empire played a significant role in the formation of British (and European) history: for it was always engaged and alluded to, recalled and examined - and became part of the English worldview in much the same way that the Communist bloc during the Cold War partly shaped Western self-understanding." His book probes the extent of this engagement through studies of English writings of the period.

From Professor Matar's scholarship we learn that the first English convert to Islam whose name survives in an English source, The Voyage made to Tripoli (1583), was a "son of a yeoman of our Queen's Guard…His name was John Nelson". A Chair of Arabic at the University of Oxford was established in 1636, and it was known that Charles I collected Arabic and Persian manuscripts. Britain would soon suffer its Civil War, with society divided along political and religious lines: it was as much to do with the ideological clash between Rome and the Church of England as with the position and powers of Parliament. The turmoil of the period may have encouraged some Englishmen to break with tradition and Matar cites an account written in 1641 that referred to "a sect of Mahomatens" being "discovered here in London".

By 1646, King Charles was holed up in Oxford under siege by Cromwell's army and the worst of the fighting was soon to be over with defeat for the Royalists. In December 1648, the 'Council of Mechanics' of the new Commonwealth voted for a toleration of various religious groups, including the Muslims. The next year, in 1649, the first English translation of the Qur'an, by Ross, was printed. It had two imprints, attesting to a wide circulation, "notwithstanding", says Matar, "the inaccuracy of the translation or the bigotry of the translator".

Following the regicide in 1649, sole authority now rested with Cromwell, 'Lord Protector'. Reference to Islam and Muslims was part of the discourse of the times. Cromwell's enemies attacked the revolutionaries for their disrespect of parish priests and rejection of the 'High Anglican' official tenets: "And indeed if Christians will but diligently read and observe the Laws and Histories of the Mahometans, they may blush to see how zealous they are in the works of devotion, piety and charity, how devout, cleanly and reverend in their Mosques, how obedient to their Priests, that even the Great Turk himself will attempt nothing without consulting his Mufti." The revolutionaries, according to their critics, followed their own self-declared religious authorities, while even the Sultan heeded the advice of the Mufti on religious matters. Other writers who were unsympathetic to the revolution compared the 'Professours of Religion' amongst the Turks with 'the Puritans' of Cromwell. In Cromwell's camp there were men like the remarkable Henry Stubbe, scholar in Latin, Greek and Hebrew and friend of Pococke, the first professor of Arabic in Oxford. According to our own contemporary (English) Muslim scholar in Cambridge, Abdal Hakim Murad, Stubbe "had sided with Parliament during the civil war, holding, with Cromwell, that the righteous man may sometimes justly bear the burden of the sword. An admirer of Cromwell, he became an admirer of the Prophet".

Stubbe's circle must have known his private views on Muslims and Islam, which could not be publicly disclosed at the time: "their articles of faith are few and plain, whereby they are preserved from schisms and heresies, for altho' they have great diversity of opinion in the explication of their Law, yet, agreeing in the fundamentals, their difference in opinion do not reach the breach of charity so common among the Christians, who thereby become a scandal to all other religions in the world". At least six manuscripts of Stubbe's book An account of the Rise and Progress of Mahometanism, and a Vindication of him and his Religion from the Calumnies of the Christians circulated in a clandestine manner (not to be published until 1911).

Professor Matar believes that Cromwell, and/or his Secretary, John Milton, showed familiarity with the Qur'an in a letter to the ruler of Algiers in June 1656. "Cromwell expected the addressee to abide by the commercial agreements between their two countries because of the nature of Muslim religion: 'We now at this time require the like of you who have declar'd your selves hitherto in all things to be men loving righteousness, hating wrong, & observing faithfulnesse in covenant.' The last words repeat the exact description of Islam as a religion that advocates righteousness and repudiates wrong-doing." Matar rightly concludes that "from sectary to antiquarian to Lord Protector, the Qur'an was a text widely consulted and quoted: it had legitimacy for addressing not only Muslims overseas but Christians in England and the rest of the British Isles".

Cromwell's Protestant Commonwealth died with him in 1658, and following the Restoration of the monarchy and the return of Orthodox Anglicanism, the period of toleration ended. All students signing for their BA at Oxford or Cambridge had to attest to an acceptance of the thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Church, which included belief in a Holy Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Ghost, 'one and indivisible, three in one and one in three'. Englishmen who viewed Islam favourably or had rejected Trinitarianism were accused of heresy. Stubbe himself was imprisoned. It is interesting to note that his contemporary at Cambridge, Isaac Newton, who was much influenced by Muslim Arab scholarship (more about this later), placed the offer of the Lucasian Professorship made to him in 1674 at risk by refusing to take holy orders, a mandatory requirement at the time. Newton secretly rejected Trinitarianism (according to his biographer, Michael White, Newton was 'fanatically opposed' to the concept of Trinity). Fortunately for science, King Charles II granted him a special dispensation and all subsequent holders of the chair were exempted from holy orders.

Professor Matar shows that seventeenth century Englishmen from all walks of life were attracted to Islam, from the son of a humble yeoman, John Nelson, to the Westminster and Oxford educated scholar, Henry Stubbe. He refers to statements from converts themselves to establish what was the 'allure' of Islam. English sources of the time recognised that Muslims did not force Christians to convert. Matar quotes from the English writer George Sandys in 1610, "they compell no man", and Blount, "The Turke puts none to death for Religion." Many Christians, captured by Algerian or Ottoman ships in sea battles or forays on the ports - in 1617 Turkish ships penetrated the Severn - returned to Britain without having renounced their Christianity. One John Rawlins, in 1622, wrote that other Christians "very voluntarily renounced their faith, and became Renegadoes", using the Spanish loan word meaning convert from Christianity to Islam. On the other hand, such was sometimes the desire of Christians to convert to Islam that force was used by their co-religionists to stop them. In January 1681, one Thomas Baker wrote in his diary the following account about an Englishman: "William…Gunner of ye Francis & Benjamin Pink about noone went into ye Castle, & presenting himselfe before the Dey Declared that hee was come to Turne Turk, and severall tymes uttered the usual Words Whereby such Villaines are admitted into that accursed Superstition."

Baker was not willing to condone apostasy from an Englishman and upon hearing the news went "into the Castle and Took him Rogue as is, and Wilbee, doubtlesse". Coercion was necessary to prevent Christians from freely converting to Islam. Modern Western historians have distorted this episode in European history. Bernard Lewis, for example, has described the Christians who converted to Islam in this period as 'few' and chiefly 'adventurers'. Of course there were the poor and ill-treated sailors and cabin-boys who jumped ship at Muslim ports to seek a new life in a prosperous and tolerant society that easily accepted converts. But there were the English gentry and the merchants too who embraced in Islam, not for material reasons but by becoming impressed with the customs and mores of their Ottoman Muslim counterparts. Sir Thomas Shirley warned soon after trade with Turkey began to flourish that the more time Englishmen spent in the lands of Islam, the closer they moved towards adopting the manners of the Muslims. Muslim society in the Mediterranean basin did not discriminate against such new comers on the basis of ethnic or social origin. The egalitarianism of opportunity in the Muslim empire was well-known in England: lists of Turkish and Janizzari leaders often included reference to their renegade status, and in the late seventeenth century, fourteen 'beys' or 'rais' were known to be of Christian origin. Islam was a tolerant religion that attracted adherents because of its teachings, its intellectual vitality and the fact that Islam brought honour and dignity.

While Britons' conversions to Islam in the seventeenth century do not appear to have changed the tide of history, the intellectual and cultural impact of Muslims was profound and far-reaching. Texts in Arabic in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and medicine were central to higher education in England in the seventeenth century. In order to obtain access to the advanced knowledge of the day, not only were translations commenced at Oxford and Cambridge, but preparations were made to train a generation of Arabic scholars. A visitor to Westminster School observed in his diary, "I heard & saw such exercises at the election of scholars at Westminster Schoole, to be sent to the Universitie, both in Lat: Gr: Heb: Arabic &c in Theames & extemporary Verses, as wonderfully astonish'd me, in such young striplings." Linguistic ability was important, because, in the words of Isaac Barrow, Cambridge Professor of Mathematics, 'the mastery of Arabic was necessary for the advancement of learning'. Muslim intellectual giants came to be known by their anglicised names 'Alfarabi, Algazel, Abensina, Abenrusd, Abulfeda, Abdiphaker, Almanzor, Alhazen'. Walter Salmon included among the authorities of his Practical Physik (1692) 'Geber Arabs', or the chemist (and alchemist) Jabir ibn Hayyam. Robert Boyle, the chemist known to every schoolboy, studied Arabic sciences in order to be able to challenge the 'groundless traditional conceptions' in contemporary learning. Boyle in turn acted as a guide for Isaac Newton, a seeker of the truth who naturally became drawn to the esoteric sciences (perhaps better called the mystical arts). Newton, in the words of Maynard Keynes, 'regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty'. Newton left behind more than a million words on the subject of alchemy, and the task of deciphering this mass of material has occupied scholars since 1936. It is still ongoing, and interestingly, a significant portion of manuscripts is now in the Yahuda Manuscript Collection of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. His biographer Norman White has attempted to trace a mental connection between Newton's religious beliefs and scientific discoveries (see Isaac Newton, The Last Sorcerer, 1997; pp161-162).

In the next two centuries the military and intellectual initiative slipped away from the Muslims, while Britain became a hot-house of industrial and scientific advances and entered its own 'age of empire and progress'. Britain also changed ideologically, losing faith in its moribund and illogical Anglican clerics. The new Darwinian world view ('One great slaughter-house the warring world!') would not elicit any sympathy for enfeebled peoples of the East, nor would it respect the cultural achievements of a non-white race. Lord Macaulay, the high priest of Victorian Britain remarked: "I am quite ready to take oriental learning at the valuation of orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole of native literature of India and Arabia."

The Muslims shut the gate of ijtihad and suffered the consequences; the British Establishment elite, because of commercial interests, prestige and racial pride, sealed their ears to the wisdom of Islam.

The racial arrogance of the Victorians and Edwardians would allow them to become Hellenophiles and philo-semites, but never Islamophiles. That is not to say that there were no Englishmen in the nineteenth century prepared to defend Islam - Thomas Carlyle is an example. Similarly Marmuduke Pickthall had the courage to defend the Turks in the early twentieth century. It is in this context too that we should appreciate the contribution of Justice Syed Ameer Ali, author of the classics A short history of the Saracens (1889) and The Spirit of Islam (1891). On retiring from Indian service in 1904, he settled with his English wife in a country manor near Newbury, and devoted the remaining twenty four years of his life to a literary campaign to disabuse the British of their Anglocentrism.

Professor Matar observes that "modern historians have not recognised the over-arching impact of the Arabic civilisation on England". His work should be commended for seeking to set the record right. Moreover, Muslims can take heart that the emergence of a multi-cultural Britain is in keeping with the oldest traditions of the land.

M A Sherif
(First published in The Muslim News, January 1999)