Who's Who

Friends or Foes? The Islamic East and the West

Christopher J. Walker asks whether the two religions that frequently appear locked in an inevitable clash of civilizations in fact share more than has often been thought.

Christianity and Islam are often perceived to be elemental foes. Their antag­onism is frequently assumed to be one of the iron facts of history; and perhaps those who see them as condemned to permanent hostility are right. Yet if we look at the record of history over the last 1,400 years, we find a more nuanced picture.

For long periods relations were quiescent, and tensions handled through diplomatic channels, not military adventurism. The two civilizations clashed only seldom, and sometimes there was a collaborative content to east-west, or Islamic-Christian, relations. Thus the ‘most Christian king’ of France was allied to the Ottoman empire in the mid-sixteenth century, and the England of Elizabeth I also established a semi-alliance with the eastern power. Queen Victoria too grew dedicated to supporting the Ottomans from the 1870s. On each occasion the alliance with the Muslim power was favoured above Christian ones: the French being in conflict with Austria, and the English with, first, Spain and later Russia – all devoutly Christian powers.

The complex dealings between the two faiths can be broken down into overlapping but distinguishable areas of belief, culture and political/military relations. It is sometimes claimed that state and religion are and always have been identical in Islam, but the historical facts do not support this interpretation.

The Koran is reverential towards Jesus. But, like the Bible, in matters of faith and public behaviour it contains passages both of pacific toleration and armed confrontation. There­fore little guidance on cooperation or conflict can be found in  sacred books. Interpretation, and the record of history, are more important.

Christianity became militarized following its acceptance by Constantine as the imperial faith in the fourth century ad. Thus the Emperor Theodosius campaigned against views seen as heretical, while Heraclius, who in the early seventh century, shortly before the emergence of Islam, fought a bitter five-year struggle with the Sasanid Persians, was driven in part by devout con­siderations. Islam emerged in an environment which was partly pagan, partly Jewish and partly Christian. Within Arabian paganism there had been a strong impulse to believe in one superior god. When, following the death of Muhammad in ad 632, the new faith spread beyond Arabia, its leaders fought impartially against the militarily exhausted empire of Zoroastrian Sasanid Persia (which it crushed) and Christian Byzantium (into which it made significant inroads).

Culturally the early Muslims absorbed the eastern Roman culture of late antiquity; the seventh-eighth-century Umayyad ruins at Anjar, Lebanon, resemble late Roman ruins of the eastern Mediterranean. The Great Mosque in Damascus and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem were decorated by mosaicists loaned from the Byzantine court. Conversely, within a few decades Byzantine structures were being influenced by Arab architectural models and taste.

Belief was central to the Late Antique world. Heresy was taken seriously by the Byzantine empire. Doctrines on the nature of the Trinity had been established in the fourth century ad, and on the human and divine aspects of Christ in the fifth. Yet the accepted formulae were unacceptable to many eastern Christians, and Islam, monotheistic but indifferent to details of Christian dogma, was welcomed by some in the eastern regions, since it did not seek to crush beliefs in the way the Byzantine church did. Other Christians, too, saw the Islamic stress on the unity of God a welcome reassertion of something that had been lost in the Nicene formula of the Trinity.

The Armenian Bishop Sebeos initially welcomed the new faith as a divinely sent belief-system; it was only after the unsuccessful Muslim siege of Constantinople in the 670s that he saw it otherwise. What he had once held to be holy mono­theism he now viewed as a sinful enemy, similar to the Persian foe against which Heraclius had campaigned.

Though initially an expansionist faith, Islam soon became fully established as a political entity, expressed in the institution of the caliphate. Thus, when Charlemagne sent ambassadors to Baghdad to  the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid just before 800, his intention was to make contact not with a leader of another monotheism but with the head of a powerful empire. He was not endorsing a faith but ex­changing ambassadorial gifts. The Caliph responded by sending an elephant to Aachen. Charlemagne was probably also courting the Caliphate over the head of the Byzantine emperor – and the Caliph’s ready response was driven by anxiety about the survival of an Umayyad ruler in Spain, a potential rival to the Caliph. Such diplomatic play between states devoted to different faiths calls into question the political reality of concepts such as ‘Christendom’ or the Muslim ‘umma’ (or community). In Baghdad, the reception of the Greek ambassadors in 917 was an occasion for elaborate and spectacular court ceremonial.

The Baghdad Caliphate even sponsored Christian missionary work right across Asia into China. A stele found in Si-ngan-fu, in Shensi pro­vince, written in Syriac and Mandarin in ad 781, announced the arrival of east Syrian Christian missionaries from Iraq: this very extensive Christian missionary enterprise was facilitated by the Caliph, or ‘commander of the faithful’.

In Palestine, Christian pilgrimage, which had been important since the time of Constantine, continued under Islamic rule. Even the de­ranged Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim (r.996-1021) brought only a temporary halt, and although he destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it was splendidly rebuilt within a few years of his death, and the pilgrim trade revived. The situation of native Christians living in the Islamic state, such as St John of Damascus (676-749) and those who came after him, grew no worse. The Jerusalem Fair, held each year in September, was an occasion in which no one cared who was Jew, Christian or Muslim, the only infidel being (as Voltaire was to quip seven centuries later) the moneyless.

The motivation for the Crusades – Pope Urban II’s insistence on seizing the Holy Places in the 1090s, even though the sites were respected and revered by Muslims – lay less in the relations between the two faiths, and more within Western Europe itself and the paroxysms of social and religious upheaval it experienced in the later eleventh century. The new confrontational approach to Islam at this time can be seen in the Song of Roland (c.1098-1100). This epic verse narrative recalls an episode that had taken place in 778, when Christian forces had been allied to Muslim ones. The poem, though, reverses the facts of history, presenting the Muslims as the foul enemy of faith, and turning the event into a self-justificatory epic between a Christian saintly ‘us’ and a demonic ‘them’. The Crusades swept away the reasonable balance that had been secured between Christianity and Islam, and put in their place devout warfare, backed by self-righteousness and appalling des­truc­tion. Following the initial conquest of Jerusalem in July 1099 there was a bloodbath in which Jews suffered as much as Muslims. The Crusades, lasting until 1444 and weltering in barbarian violence and horror, achieved nothing.

In the Abbasid court in Baghdad, which survived until the Mongols saked the city in 1258, Islam was, for a time, believed in a semi-rationalist, non-fundamentalist manner: adherents were known as Mu'tazilites, meaning 'neutrals', a term probably indicating a state between belief and unbelief. It was this half-belief which made possible the large number of translations into Arabic from Aristotle accomplished between about AD 810 and 840: translations which over the next centuries changed the intellectual face of Europe and Asia. The Byz­antine emperor Justinian had closed down the school of Athens in 529 on the grounds that Aristotelian philosophy tended towards heresy; philosophy and science were driven out of the Christian world and found refuge in Sasanid Persia where they joined a tradition of learning and medicine that survived the fall of the Sasanids. These disciplines continued to flourish in Islamic Iran and Iraq when Christianity could not accommodate them. 

Aristotelian philosophy made it possible for ninth-century Baghdad briefly to shine as a reflection of classical Athens, re-establishing the moderate and rational world of learning and human advancement. But not for long. A fundamentalist tendency, the Hanbalites, forerunners of today’s Wahhabis, became dominant in about 850, and closed down speculation and philosophy. Political and religious reaction severely limited science and knowledge. But these disciplines re-emerged elsewhere in the Islamic world, notably in Morocco, where the philosopher Ibn Rushd or Averroes (1126-98) confuted the fundamentalists and enemies of learning within his own faith, and established an important marker: that philosophy, not religion, was the proper arbiter between what might and what might not be known and accepted as true. Religion should be subject to the scrutiny of philosophy, he declared, and not philosophy to religion. 

Until the late Middle Ages, Averroes was known simply as ‘the commentator’ by Christian scholastics, so great was his authority on Aristotle: in the mid-thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas sought to confute him, but by using his rival’s methods and arguments. For Europe at this time, an important series of intellectual events was centred on Spain, and the Arabian translations of Aristotle. Although the Castilian reconquest of Iberia from the Arabs gained momentum while the Crusaders were wrecking the Holy Land, unlike the Frankish Crusaders the Castilians respected Islamic learning and preserved its libraries, notably that of the Toledo mosque. The king of Castile called himself ‘the Emperor of the Two Religions’. Arabic texts and commentaries were translated into Latin, and entered Europe via France. Several English scholars showed interest: Adelard of Bath travelled to Spain in the early twelfth century, learnt Arabic, the language of science, and returned home with important texts; Robert of Ketton translated the Koran into Latin in 1143; Daniel of Morley and Alfred the Englishman were also intellectual pilgrims to Toledo. In semi-­Islamic Sicily, Thomas Brown worked as a lawyer in multi-ethnic Palermo from 1137, advising and giving judgments for the Latins, the Greeks and, as Kaid Brûn, for the Arabs, each according to their different legal traditions. Michael Scot, from Fife, (d. 1235), worked in Toledo before becoming Emperor Frederick II’s chief astrologer in Sicily, and translated Aristotelian texts from both Hebrew and Arabic. 

Aristotle’s works were banned in Paris in 1215, but, in the face of student defiance, the ban was relaxed, only to be re-instated, ineffectually, in 1277. Latin Averroism emerged strongly at the University of Padua, uncompromisingly Aristotelian in the late Middle Ages. Marsilius of Padua’s text of 1324, Defensor Pacis, which was much influenced by it, was read by Luther and other Church reformers of the sixteenth century. It declared that priests and bishops should not be set over the laity, but rather that ordinary people should have the final word in devout matters, including the sacraments: in Aristotelian terminology, the laity were the ‘final causes’ of religion. Richard Morison, Henry VIII’s am­bassador to Emperor Charles V, had studied at Padua. He wrote that ‘the bysshop of Rome’ was ‘more crueller than Turke or Saracen and thinketh his victory worth nothing, except he drive out ryght religion, except he utterly bannyshe Christe.’ 

By this time, trading relationships had been established between Henry VIII and the Ottoman empire, and in the early 1580s a kind of alliance between England and Turkey emerged. An embassy and trading company were established. The opportunity to mount a challenge to the mercantile power of Venice and France was the English priority, but there was an undoubted political element, with Elizabeth seeking to use the Muslim power as a counterweight to Spain. Diplomatic correspondence of the time stressed the shared opposition of Protestantism and Islam to idolatry (meaning Catholic sacred imagery). Anti-Muslim ideology, which had been present in the miracle plays of late medieval England, now virtually disappeared. No Elizabethan poet refers to ‘the infidel’. Elizabeth’s confidant Francis Walsingham wroteA consideracon of the trade into Turkie (1578), a text which was purely practical. 

In 1598, encouraged by the Earl of Essex to travel to Persia, the English brothers Anthony and Robert Sherley entered the service of Shah Abbas (r.1587-1629) as freelance diplomats. Each became an ambassador to Europe, with a plan to create an alliance between European states and Safavid Persia, a Shi’ite state antagonistic to Sunni Ottoman Turkey. In the 1460s a Turkoman confederation (based in the Anatolian town of Diyarbakir) had allied itself with Venice against the Ottoman empire, so the idea of an anti-Ottoman alliance was not new. And in 1523 Shah Ismail, the first ruler of the Safavid dynasty, had written to Emperor Charles V regretting that they were not united against Ottoman Turkey. After the Ottoman fleet had been destroyed by Christian forces at Lepanto in 1571, the Pope invited Safavid Persia to act against Turkey. However the then shah Tahmasp I ‘cared only for women and money’, and nothing transpired. The idea of a Persian– European alliance was fanciful, and it failed; but it had a currency for about 150 years, and shows that Islamic powers were far from monolithic. 

In terms of belief, the Radical Reformers in Europe took a more open-minded attitude to Islam, since they tended to oppose the doctrine of the Trinity as a late addition to Christianity. Thus Michael Servetus, burnt alive by the Calvinists of Geneva in 1553 for disbelieving in the Trinity as set out in the Athanasian Creed, declared that we should ‘hear what Muhammad says... for one truth of an enemy is more trustworthy than a hundred lies on our side’. In his final book which led him to the stake and of which today only three copies remain worldwide, Servetus assessed the Koran as a significant religious text. He had read the Koran in Robert of Ketton’s translation, which had been printed in Zürich by Theodore Bibliander in 1543. 

The Socinians, or Polish Fathers, radical Reformers who were among the first to practise Christian toleration of other Christian believers, were also open-minded to Islam. Their approach to religion and the Bible text was rational and humane, and they were appalled by the burning of Servetus. Faustus Socinus (1539-1604), who gave his name to Socinianism, understood that abandoning the Trinity might look like adopting Islam; yet he stressed that believing (as he did) in the Son of God was unacceptable to Muslims. 

Theological radicalism was powerful in Hungarian-speaking Transylvania, a borderland between the Habsburgs and Ottomans, where the Reformation had been welcomed with thunderous acclamation, and many people had become Unitarian. In 1568, under the rule of the Unitarian king John Sigismund, whose suzerain was the Ottoman emperor, Europe’s first edict of Christian religious toleration became law. 

The first English translation of the Koran appeared in 1649. In 1682 English Unitarians attempted to find some community of purpose with Islam, represented by the Moroccan ambassador, in London. They sought his protection against the over­bearing and aggressive be­haviour of the Anglican clergy at a time when the established Church was asserting itself ruthlessly against dissenters. 

In 1695, the philosopher John Locke, a devout man of Puritan stock and a likely Socinian sympathizer, acknowledged that Islam came from the same root as Christianity. The Deists of the following generation, philosophical believers in a world faith shorn of enthusiasm, endorsed Islam’s rationality, and in the 1720s  Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, Queen Anne’s former Secretary of State, proposed a genealogy of religion whereby Christianity had corrected the errors of ancient paganism, and Islam had seen off the superstitions that had crept into Christianity. Islam, he declared, could be a divine revelation. 

Islam was seen as a rational belief system in the tradition of Aristotle in the 1671 Latin translation, by the Edward Pocockes, father and son, of a text by the twelfth-century Islamic philosopher Ibn Tufayl. Pococke senior, professor of Arabic at Oxford,  had been a protégé of Archbishop Laud, a friend of Hugo Grotius, and a Christ Church colleague of John Locke. This text, which the Pocockes published under the title Philosophus autodidactus, also constituted the earliest example of ‘desert island’ fiction. The tale relates how a baby boy was cast up on the shore of a desert island in a casket, suckled by a gazelle, and, growing up alone, learnt by experience about the nature of the world, the laws of physics, the friendly and the hostile environment, and eventually about God. Three English translations rapidly followed. It is possible that through the Pocockes’ version, Ibn Tufayl’s text influenced Locke as he started work on the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), arguably the cornerstone text of the British empirical tradition. 

The eighteenth century was a great age of Middle Eastern travel and travel-writing. The Ottoman empire had ceased to instil fear. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), renowned for her letters from Turkey, saw the faith of the Koran as close to ‘plain deism’; the disputes among the schools of Islam ap­peared to her to be similar to those between Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists in Europe, and she reported that her Turkish host asked after John Toland, the leading Deist in the British Isles, which suggested to her that  Islam tended towards the non-miraculous and non-extremist, and that Ottoman ideas about natural religion were coterminous with notions current in Europe.

Yet many of the Christian peoples of Central and Eastern Europe hated the yoke of their Ottoman rulers. The Ottoman army and administration were apt to unravel into inertia or thuggery. It was not hard for European states to unfurl a banner of liberation against the stalled empire. Bit by bit the armies of Western and Central Europe drove the Turks to a corner of south-­eastern Europe. However, there was an exception to the anti-Ottoman mood.  From 1791 Britain adopted a pro-Ottoman policy which, apart from Canning, lasted a century. Prime minister William Pitt initially wanted to send a naval force to defend the Turks at Ochakov against Russia. Despite winning a vote in Parliament he declined to act, realizing that the country, opposing adventurism, was against him. The Ottomans maintained favour in the Britain of William IV, although David Urquhart (1805-77), a British diplomat in the Ottoman capital, tried in 1834 to provoke war between Britain and Russia by navigating a schooner, the Vixen, across the Black Sea and into a Russian port, and then accused Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston of being a Russian agent when he failed to declare war on behalf of Turkey.

Queen Victoria was dedicated to the Turks and their empire for much of her life, an attitude echoed by a swathe of the British public; at the time of the Crimean War one finds the Reverend Charles Kingsley encouraging the troops to ‘Be sure you are doing God’s work’ by fighting in alliance with the Turks. Here was an inversion of the Crusading spirit; the Christian minister was cheering on British troops about to fight alongside an Islamic empire against the forces of a Christian monarch. 

The most serious losses sustained by the Ottoman empire during the nineteenth century were inflicted not by a Christian state but by Egypt. Twice, in 1833 and 1839, the Egyptian forces of Mehmet Ali’s son Ibrahim came close to unseating Ottoman power throughout Arabia, Syria and Anatolia; each time European threats and diplomacy restored the status quo, and eased the Turkish empire back to paramountcy. For reasons of realpolitik, Europe, led by Britain, rescued the Ottomans from the more dynamic Islamic power of Mehmet Ali’s Egypt. 

The support for Ottoman Turkey offered by Victoria and her prime minister Disraeli reached a kind of apogee in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. Although Britain stayed out of the conflict, passions ran high, with the Queen threatening to abdicate unless her government adopted a stronger pro-Turkish attitude. 

The Ottoman empire was now ruled by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who maintained the trappings but little of the belief, intellect, statecraft or inclusiveness, of earlier Islamic leaders, substituting obstinacy and paranoia. His faith was a sort of disbelieving devoutness. His empire became one of internal spying and surveillance, with almost no civil society. Britain’s alliance was severely tested, especially when he undertook a series of slaughters of Armenians in the mid 1890s. Prime minister Lord Salisbury responded by distancing Britain from Istanbul, favouring Cairo instead. 

By half ignoring Turkey, Britain allowed Germany to establish a strong presence. The Sultan’s regime was overthrown in July 1908 in an army-backed coup d’état, and the new minister of war went to Berlin. The Turkish secular constitutional regime had no time for mosques or churches as official symbols. Religion was now a private matter. For six months there was a sense of unity within the empire. But then dictatorship and clannish hatred began to assert themselves: Armenians were massacred at Adana, and constitutionalism appeared a sham.

Religion was barely an issue in the First World War. The Young Turk leaders persuaded the sheikh ul-Islam, the religious leader of the empire, to proclaim a jihad against the Allies, but this was political spin since they themselves held no beliefs, and were in alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. 

1918 brought regional changes: the Young Turk leaders fled, and Anatolian Turkey went its own way under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal. The Arab heartland was – except for Arabia itself – parcelled out between Britain and France. The 1922 British mandate for Palestine wrote the 1917 Balfour Declaration into its text, legitimizing Zionist colonization with no clear safeguards for the native population. In Arabia the 1920s saw the rise of Ibn Saud and Wahhabism as a religious ideology somewhat similar to the punitive Calvinist model of Reformation-era Geneva. 

In 1921 Persia/Iran fell under the control of an Iranian-Turkoman cossack officer who took the title of shah; in the Second World War the country was carved up between Britain and the USSR. In 1953 its democracy was overthrown by Britain and America, and in 1979 Islamic revolution took over. 

Overall in east-west relations, faith has defined political allegiance to a lesser extent than is commonly imagined. Religion may have infused government, but the configurations of diplomacy, and sometimes personal preference, have led to alliances between powers not of the same faith. Early science in Europe developed, in a large part, from ideas generated or regenerated within the Islamic world, and Islam, in its good times, found space for pluralism and toleration when Europe was characterized by severity against heresy or by devout absolutism. Islam’s plainness and directness held an appeal to some thinkers in the undevout eighteenth century. However, with the Ottoman decay of Islamic thought and statecraft, and the lure of the Turkish empire for European imperial strategists and prospectors, the issue turned to how to manage Ottoman/Islamic decline. The memory of past interactions became obscured. Then in the twentieth century, first Europe and later America displayed a tone towards the Islamic world of patronizing bossiness and faulty internal knowledge, mixed in with millennial religious aspirations and greed for oil. This tone has changed the nature of the dialogue, for the worse.

Further reading

  • Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom (Blackwell, 1996)
  • C.H. Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Harvard UP. 1927, reprinted)
  • Nabil Matar, Islam in Britain 1558-1685, (Cambridge U. P., 1998)
  • Maxime Rodinson, Muhammad (I.B.Tauris, reprinted 2002)
  • G.J. Toomer, Eastern Wisedome and Learning (Clarendon Press, 1996).

Christopher J. Walker is a freelance writer and the author of Islam and the West (Sutton Publishing, 2005). This article is adapted from a talk given at the Cambridge History Festival in 2006.

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