16th & 17th Century
Sixteenth & Seventeenth Century
This was a time when Muslim naval power dominated the Mediterranean. 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 Fez, “a world for a city”. 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.
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. The Bodleian Library in Oxford has the manuscript of a letter to Charles from Sutlan al-Walid of Morocco – part of this reads, “To our exalted presence has come your noble servant, John Harrison, well and in good health and with far-reaching, sincere hopes. He has taken up residence with us, encompassed by kindness and treated with all manner of genorisity….
The turmoil of the Civil War may have encouraged some Englishmen to break with tradition and an account written in 1641 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.
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.
Cromwell, 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.” From secretary 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.
Stubbe’s contemporary at Cambridge, Isaac Newton, who was much influenced by Muslim Arab scholarship 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.
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 School, to be sent to the Universitie, both in Lat: Gr: Heb: Arabic 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 – itself an Arabic word.
An illustration from 1676 shows 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 coffeehouses that appeared in Britain around this period, but to the wider inter-relationships between Britain and Muslims in the seventeenth century.