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Book Review

How Islam influenced British culture and civilisation 400 years ago

ISLAM IN BRITAIN: 1558-1685 By Nabil Matar. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1998. pp: 226 (inc notes, bibliography and index). Hbk: UK37.50.
Iqbal Siddiqui

The golden age of Islamic civilization, the thousand years from about 700 to 1700 CE during which Muslims ruled from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and were the driving and leading force in human history, laying the foundations of much of what is now considered ‘modern’, have been carefully airbrushed out of modern western history books. History, the west teaches us, can be traced from the Greek and Roman ‘ancients’, through ‘the Dark Ages’, to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the sudden emergence of modernity in/from Europe in the last 300 years or so.

Only one non-European civilization is paid even lip-service in most modern readings of history, and that is the Chinese, seen through the travels of western ‘explorers’ such as Marco Polo. The reasons for this are not difficult to see: Chinese civilization was safely distant at the time, and is reassuringly dead now. Unlike Islam, which has over a billion followers worldwide, Confucianism can no longer threaten western aspirations to permanent global domination.

Modern China, like Japan, Korea, the southern American countries, and every other part of the non-Muslim world, is built on western ideas, accepts western definitions of modernity, and looks only to the west for its future development. In these terms, it is as much a part of western civilization as Britain, France and the US.

Of course, the importance and contribution of Muslim civilization is well known and recognised at the academic level. Research into ‘Middle eastern’, ‘Asian’ and ‘African’ history - much of which is really Muslim history - is some of the most vibrant in the discipline, as numerous journals, seminars and symposia testify. An impressive-looking bibliography of western books on Islamic civilization can also be presented. But it is when history is distilled for wider consumption, through publications, television documentaries and other media aimed at ordinary people, or through the teaching of history in schools and universities, that the Muslim presence disappears.

This in itself is evidence that this tendency is not a coincidence, but rather intended to ensure that ordinary people are not exposed to knowledge which might lead them to challenge the official version of western history, or the usual presentation of Islam and Muslims as backward, uncivilized and inherently incapable of shaping history.

Nabil Matar’s new book, Islam in Britain 1558-1685, is an excellent and valuable addition to literature on the Islamic impact on the west, the fact notwithstanding that it is unlikely to be allowed to change the established understandings of the history of the time. In Britain, it is being particularly marketed for the Muslim readership, which the publishers clearly hope will increase its sales considerably. And that is not a bad thing, for Muslims will undoubtedly appreciate it and learn from it. However, it would be far greater use if it were read and appreciated by non-Muslims as well, which is unlikely to happen. But that is not Matar’s fault, and the book merits examination in its own right.

The area and period it covers is significant. The English-speaking west traces the birth of modernity to England, and in cultural and political terms, the late-Tudor and Stuart periods of English history - from the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558 to the death of Charles II in 1685 - are regarded as crucial. It was during this period that England first developed the overseas interests which were to grow into the British Empire, and that the balance of political power shifted from monarch to parliament.

In terms of Europe’s inter-action with Islam also, the period is significant. This was the time when Muslim power in the Mediterranean and eastern Europe was at its peak, until the defeat of Turkish armies at Vienna in 1683, followed by the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699. This power was not only seen as a threat, but reflected also in European diplomacy and international politics, much as the position of the west cannot be disregarded in any international matter anywhere in the world today.

Politics apart, this was a time when all of Europe looked to the Muslim world as a higher and dominant civilization in cultural terms, the way much of the world has come to look at the west in more recent times. That is not to say that the Muslim civilization was liked or welcomed; it was often seen as alien and hostile, certainly by rulers and also by many ordinary people. But it was also grudgingly envied and admired, recognized as having cultural and social achievements, and a quality of life, which the emerging European states and their people could only aspire to.

English historians have tended to regard England as having been relatively insulated by distance from any significant Muslim influence, compared to other European countries, something Matar’s book conclusively discounts. Seeing the extent to which Muslim civilization influenced life in England during this period, one can only wonder what influence Islam must have had elsewhere in Europe.

A large part of Matar’s book is taken up with consideration of conversion to and from Islam. Matar demonstrates, largely on the basis of literary and other documentary sources, that huge numbers of Englishmen converted to Islam during this period, and that this was a cause of great concern in both the English government and the Church.

These conversions were of every conceivable kind. In many cases, seaman from poor backgrounds in England who were captured by Muslims chose to convert to Islam after seeing life in Muslim societies, for example in north Africa, and contrasting it to life in Britain. The fact that Islam had no class or race distinctions was often a factor.

Matar emphasises that there was little or no compulsion for these men to convert, and that it was possible for them to live and prosper in Muslim lands even as Christians. The fact that these conversions were genuine and heartfelt is underlined by Matar’s accounts of English Muslims who later returned to England, but continued to profess and practise Islam, often despite pressure to re-convert to Christianity.

In some cases, men forced to reconvert and attend Christian services continued to practise Islam in secret. In this, their experiences can be compared to those of Muslims in Spain, Tataristan, central Europe, central Asia and other areas who were obliged to maintain their Islam in secret after their lands were conquered by non-Muslim rulers, and of west African Muslims, many of whom secretly maintained their Islam for generations after being taken to north America as slaves.

Nor were conversions to Islam limited to poor people whose lives were immeasurably improved in Muslim lands. Numerous educated, wealthy, successful members of England’s elite took an interest in Islam’s advanced culture and society, and chose to convert. Among them, Matar lists one Benjamin Bishop, who ‘had been appointed consul [ie ambassador] in Egypt in 1606 after which he converted to Islam and disappeared from public records.’

Concrete information of Englishmen converting to Islam in England is sadly lacking, which Matar attributes to the risks such an apostate would face, but there are intriguing hints to be found, among them a pamphlet published by Puritans in 1641 warning of a sect of ‘Mahometans’ discovered in London and informing people that ‘this sect is led along with a certaine foolish beliefe of Mahomet, which professed himselfe to be a Prophet’ (the odd spellings are in the original text-Ed).

The danger that these converts to Islam were felt to pose to England is reflected in the term used for them: renegades. This is not a religious term, but a political one, with a sense of treachery, of changing sides and dealing with an enemy. This reflected the extent to which Muslim civilization was considered a political threat even in England, an island of Europe’s western coast. By contrast, Matar demonstrates the efforts of some Christian missionaries to convert Muslims to Christianity to have met scant success, even though these few successes were much trumpeted in Europe.

Conversion apart, Matar also discusses the impact on English science and culture of Muslim ideas, conveyed by Muslim publications generally and the Qur’an in particular. The Qur’an was first published in a complete English translation by one Alexander Ross in 1649, and was popular enough to require reprinting. The translation and its presentation was hostile and bigoted, but Ross still felt the need to reassure readers that there was no risk of it subverting good Christians and persuading them to renege.

Matar also catalogues with impressive thoroughness some of the ways in which Muslim religious ideas influenced Christian thinkers and philosophers of the day, including the Quaker thinker John Wesley.

Matar’s book is handicapped perhaps by its dependence on English language literary sources, a reflection of the author’s specialization in English literature. Nonetheless, it has much information and numerous insights which would be enlightening to Muslim and non-Muslim readers alike.

The pity is that non-Muslims, who could perhaps gain the most from it, are unlikely to read it at all; or if they do read it, to approach it with enough humility to see its greatest lesson for them: that the white Europeans do not have a monopoly on culture and learning, and it is possible for them to learn something from other people, particularly from the Muslims whose civilization dominated the world just a few decades ago, and who have been so carefully written out of western history.

Muslimedia: March 1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 1

Dhu al-Qa'dah 13, 14191999-03-01

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