When England Admired Islam
Without Muslims there would be no sugar or Shakespeare in England. Jerry Brotton’s “The Sultan and the Queen” traces Islam’s profound influence over English culture during the half-millennium between the Crusades and the rise of the British Empire in the Middle East.
Updated Nov. 4, 2016 6:33 p.m. ET
Portraits from 1622 by van Dyck of the adventurer-diplomat Sir Robert Shirley and his wife, Teresia. PHOTO: NATIONAL TRUST PHOTOGRAPHIC LIBRARY
Queen Elizabeth I had bad teeth. The snaggle-toothed sovereign owed her decay to copious amounts of sugar that began flowing into England from Morocco in the 16th century. Candied fruits were her absolute favorite.
The story of Elizabeth’s unfortunate smile is but one facet of a much larger and far more important history of economic, cultural and political relations between the queen’s rather negligible island, the sultan of Morocco and the fabulously wealthy Muslim world that dominated half of the Mediterranean and controlled Europe’s access to the east. Jerry Brotton’s wonderful book reveals this instructive history of Protestant England’s intense interactions with Islam, showing how Muslims shaped English culture, consumerism and literature during the half-millennium between the Crusades and the rise of the British Empire in the Middle East.
It was the pope who made possible this fruitful relationship between Protestantism and Islam. Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570. Cutting her out of the Catholic Church separated England from most of Europe. Denied the markets of Spain, Italy and France, Elizabeth had to look beyond the continent for trading partners. She tried first with Russia. This worked for a time, but the White Sea proved ice-locked for too much of the year. Stretching her gaze even farther, she set her sights first on Morocco, then for a moment Iran and eventually the largest Muslim state in the world, the Ottoman Empire. (The Sultan And The Queen by Jerry Brotton)
The queen started sending her merchants and diplomats to Marrakesh for sugar and saltpeter, to Istanbul for cotton and indigo and to Aleppo for Iranian silks and Indian spices, and Mr. Brotton follows the often harrowing stories of many of these English merchant-diplomat-spies (the lines were not always clear) as they pursued goods, cash and markets. Relying mostly on these figures’ travel writings, Mr. Brotton walks us through places that have become tragically familiar of late, cities such as Raqqa and Fallujah, which were centers of wealth in the 16th century.
Trade with the east eventually led to the invention of a new financial instrument: the joint-stock company. Moving money and merchandise over such great distances with peoples whose trustworthiness and religion were both suspect proved far too risky for Elizabeth or any merchant to attempt on her or his own. The joint-stock company allowed them to share the risk and reward. As trade between east and west ballooned under Elizabeth, England remained a junior partner. Still, silks, rhubarb, currants, spices, sweet wines and sugar were soon streaming into England, changing tastes, creating new fads and making a lucky few a lot of money.
As Mr. Brotton tells it, for England economic necessity nearly always trumped anxieties about trading with Christianity’s perceived enemies. Both Catholics and Protestants—but especially the latter, given their relative political and economic precarity in the 16th century—undertook all sorts of theological gymnastics to justify their deepening relations with Islam.
From the very start, Martin Lutherregarded the pope as a scourge far worse than the Ottoman sultan. The Turk may have been a devil, but the pope was the antichrist himself. As Protestantism developed, first in Germany and then as Elizabeth’s state religion, Protestants refined their ideas about Islam. The Turk came to be seen as a test from God—a challenge to the believer’s faith that, if endured, would help forge the purity of his soul. The word “Turk” itself came to mean greed, envy and worldliness—all that Protestantism was to overcome.
In Luther’s worldview, the pope killed the eternal Christian soul, while the Turk could only destroy the fleeting body. Thus a Protestant could much more easily justify his economic relations with Muslims than with Catholics, who were Protestantism’s irredeemable enemy. Plus, Islam and Protestantism shared an iconoclasm and anti-clericalism that separated both faiths from Catholicism’s perceived excesses.
For Catholics, Luther’s writings about Turks and Catholics, the growing alignment of English and Muslim trade interests, and Protestantism’s apparent love affair with the overwhelming power of the Ottomans all proved the dangers of Elizabeth’s overtures to the east.
The Catholic powers weren’t wrong. Elizabeth wanted much more from the Muslim Ottomans than sweets: She wanted ships and guns to help her war against the Catholic powers. Both before and after she crushed the Spanish Armada in 1588, Elizabeth coveted a military alliance with the Ottomans to deal Spain the deathblow she so desperately craved. England had a strong navy, but not strong enough. And unfortunately for Elizabeth, all of the ambassadors she dispatched to Istanbul in the 1580s and 1590s left the sultan’s court empty-handed. From an Ottoman perspective, the petty bickering of the weaker powers of Western Europe was not worth the time or effort. The Ottomans had far more pressing concerns with the Safavids in Iran to their east and on the Hungarian frontier in the west.
The second half of Mr. Brotton’s account takes us from the world of high-seas economic and military intrigue to the London stage to show the cultural impact of Islam—or, more accurately, the cultural impact of Western ideas about Islam. This transition from the theater of war and trade to the literal theater may at first seem abrupt, but Mr. Brotton proves adept at tracing the ways in which Elizabeth’s relations with the Muslim world not only brought new goods and tastes to England but also a flood of new ideas, characters and storylines for writers like Christopher Marlowe, George Peele, Robert Greene and, of course, William Shakespeare.
The literary culmination of Elizabethan England’s fascination with Islam was “Othello.” Modeled perhaps on the Moroccan ambassador Muhammad al-Annuri, who was visiting England in 1600, Shakespeare’s character represented the crushing contradictions of early modern identities and the ultimate impossibility of reconciling them. He is called a Moor, thus both black and Muslim. He is a former slave who remains not quite free; a convert who was somehow just still a bit too Muslim; and an outsider who secretly marries the white, Christian European Desdemona. “I am not what I am,” Iago says for Othello. One must choose—Christian or Muslim, free or slave, white or black, European or Ottoman. A Christian Moor, the black husband of a white wife, a former Muslim fighting for Catholic Venice, Othello stages all of these simultaneous differences, inevitably failing to resolve them as he finally succumbs to the only resolution possible: He stabs himself in front of his rapt audience.
Elizabeth herself died before the play was ever staged. With her perished England’s momentary dalliance with the Muslim world. Her successor, James I, negotiated a rapprochement with Spain, bringing Protestant England back into a still mostly Catholic Europe. In the years that have followed, the impossibilities of reconciling Othello’s differences, of Christianity and Islam and of the east and the west have endured, while Islam’s formative role in English history and the lessons of constructive Christian-Muslim interactions has mostly been forgotten.
—Mr. Mikhail, a professor of history at Yale, is the author of the forthcoming “Under Osman’s Tree.”