In the 16th century, the Muslim world would come to rescue an isolated Protestant England from a disasterous fate by making it an ally and trade partner.
How did 16th century England, relatively unknown on the world stage, develop a strategic alliance with the Ottoman Empire that ended up saving the otherwise diminutive island from collapse?
Elizabeth I, the ‘Virgin Queen’, ascended the English throne in November 1558 and died on this day, 24 March in 1603. She reigned as a Protestant monarch and was thus isolated among a cluster of Catholic lands.
It was then the Muslim world that indirectly came to her rescue by accepting Elizabeth as an ally and trade partner.
The Pope excommunicated Elizabeth from the Catholic church in 1570, which resulted in the lone western Protestant kingdom having limited allies and restricted commercial opportunities with Europe.
Her father, Henry VIII, saddled Elizabeth with a national debt of £300,000. She was left in a position to either sink or swim, and in an act of political expediency, Elizabeth looked for allies in the wealthy Muslim world.
It would be the Ottoman Empire and Moroccan rulers that saved Elizabethan England from a disastrous fate by reciprocating the hand of friendship and opening up trade with this floundering, and at the time, non-descript island.
An expedient alliance
The Muslim world had a long connection with Christian empires, even before Elizabeth entered into these alliances. Since the advent of Islam in the 7th century, the Christian world was miserably aware of this tour de force, that rapidly expanded its territories, wealth and influence, controlling strategic trade routes.
Christian empires had previously enjoyed being a central power, but were challenged by this new religion that inspired rulers who were to dominate the world landscape both politically and economically for over a thousand years. The battle for the Holy Land through a series of Crusades (1096-1291), first called for by Pope Urban II, epitomises the West’s rivalry and fear of the Islamic world.
In England, Elizabeth was aware of the Muslim empires, and she and her advisors knew that an alliance would be expedient for England.
Elizabeth courted the Moroccan kingdom, and Ottoman Empire in particular, although attempts were made with Persia as well. She developed an especially close alliance with the Ottoman Sultan Murad III, and his wife Safiye Sultan.
When first wooing the Sultan, she spoke of the similarities between Protestantism and Islam. Historian Jerry Brotton, who writes extensively about this subject in his book ‘The Sultan and the Queen’, states that Elizabeth wrote to the Sultan on 25 October 1579, and was keen “to assure Murad that she shared his antipathy towards Catholic “idolatry” and those “falsely” professing Christ.”
This shared correspondence was to last for 17 years, and Elizabeth also continued to exchange gifts with Safiye Sultan during this time. Although they never physically met, Elizabeth sent ambassadors on her behalf to negotiate trade deals. As a result of this alliance, many English people travelled to the Moroccan and Ottoman empires during Elizabeth’s reign, and delegations also visited England.
Elizabeth was gifted a female Tartar slave from her ambassador, Anthony Jenkinson, who purchased her from Astrakhan near the Volga River (what is now called Greater Russia). Her name was Aura Soltana and became part of Elizabeth’s entourage, and is said to be the first Muslim woman who came to England.
Exotic goods and foods were brought to England from Turkish coffee, Moroccan sugar (that was loved by Elizabeth and turned her teeth black), nutmeg, currants, pistachios, carpets, jewellery and cotton.
Brotton writes: “Few prosperous Elizabethan homes were without 'Ottoman carpets,' elaborately knotted floor and wall coverings with Islamic motifs made by Anatolian, Egyptian, Syrian or Persian weavers, as well as silk quilts or embroidered tapestries.”
But the intrigue and fascination of an exotic vibrant culture soon turned into a twisted obsession.
There was a desire to mimic the Muslim East as it was more advanced and wealthy. However, it was hard for the English to reconcile that Muslims were ‘heretics’ with an alien faith.
This dichotomy in the Western psyche still remains; how could these ‘heathens’ and their culture also be so desirable? This confusion led to misperceptions and distortions about Muslims being conjured up in mainstream society.
Genesis of the ‘otherised’ Muslim
Theatre in England was starting to grow in popularity around this period. The first commercial playhouse opened in 1576, and stories that involved the Islamic world and its Muslim characters turned out to be massive crowd-pullers. There were in fact, more than 60 plays between 1576-1603 that featured Turks, Moors and Persians.
Christopher Marlowe, one of England’s most famous playwrights and a contemporary of William Shakespeare, wrote the play Tamburlaine, a story about 14th-century ruler Timur, founder of the Timurid dynasty. The play was fictional and depicted Timur as a barbarian and brutal warlord who claimed to be greater than God. The audience loved it, but unfortunately, it embedded a misperception in their minds of a world most had never seen nor understood.
“Marlowe‘s genius was to take the fear, hypocrisy and greed surrounding Elizabethan England’s relations with the Islamic world and transmute them into electrifying theater. Conflict, doubt and anxiety always make for better drama than moral absolutism,” Brotton says.
The legacy of painting a one-sided, distorted, and fictional view of Muslim people and history and embedding it into English culture, has arguably been the genesis of anti-Muslim sentiment that is still around today.
Shakespeare continued in this vein, using Muslim figures and places in his works. However, his Muslim characters, ‘Moors’ and ‘Turks’, were more tragic heroes than blatant villains. His most famous depiction of a Muslim as a main character was ‘Othello’, who is described as a Moor from Venice.
“Shakespeare’s Moors were exotic yet unsettling. Standing on the threshold between Rome and Venice, they threatened to invade the domestic economy, and to pollute English women and bloodlines,” Brotton states.
Fatima Manji, in her insightful book Hidden Heritage, about Britain’s longstanding Islamic connections, points out that modern-day productions of Othello focus primarily on the character’s race. However, it is worth noting that in the time that Shakespeare was writing, the word ‘Moor’ did not just refer to a darker skin tone but a Muslim from anywhere in the Islamic world.
Elizabethan England did not use the term ‘Muslim’; instead a multitude of words to describe followers of the Islamic faith was used, from ‘Moor’, ‘Arab’, ‘Saracen’ to ‘Turk’. The words were often used interchangeably and can lead to much confusion about Muslim presence and impact on history because the dots are often not connected.
These facts from history shatter the mainstream narrative that Muslims are alien to the Western world and only arrived in Britain as part of the immigration waves of the 1950s and 1960s. This is a myth and belies the depth of interaction that the West had with the Muslim world.
As well as the influence that the Islamic world exerted on this small, once insignificant island.