The history of English exchange with Islam stretched back to the pilgrimage and crusading heritage of the early middle ages. The collapse of the Christian Byzantine empire following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 shifted international political power, whereby Ottoman expansion ‘propelled Mahomet into a wider Christian consciousness’.[1] Expanding trade routes with the Ottomans, as well as North Africa and Persia, pushed Mahometans into increasing prominence from the Elizabethan period.[2]

‘Mahometan’, and to a lesser extent ‘Musselman’, were the early modern terms for followers of Islam at a time before ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ were in use.[3] The post-classical Mahometanus was a rendering of the Arabic name for Muhammad (d. 632), the founder of Islam, an Abrahamic religion along with Judaism and Christianity.[4] While ‘Moors’ referred to North African Muslims, sometimes also enmeshed with the term ‘blackamoor’, ‘Mahometans’ often related to Ottoman might [see ‘Turk’]. In 1529, for example, Thomas More described the ‘Machometanys’ as ‘a sensual sect [that] dyd in a fewe yeres draw the great part of the world unto it’.[5] In their desire to establish conformity to the Church of England, Protestant authorities in post-Reformation England sought to dispel parallels between Christians and Mahometans that sprang from their shared Abrahamic roots.[6] Elizabethan and Jacobean travellers and writers projected Mahomet as a false prophet, a charlatan who relied on tricks and deception to gain followers. Tales circulated that Mahomet had invented the Quran with the assistance of a renegade monk named Sergius, in a narrative that enmeshed Islamic prophecy with Catholic superstition. Giles Fletcher, in The policy of the Turkish empire (1597), relayed that Mahomet and the ‘fugitive Monke’ decided to ‘coyne’ a new religion that was ‘neyther perfect Jew nor perfect Christian’, but a patchwork of several pre-existing religions, intermingled with their own irreverent fantasies and desires which ‘those of the Mahometan sect and religion have ever bin and are yet still persuaded’.[7] Protestants must reject ‘Mahomet, that cozening Arabian’, Joseph Hall urged in 1607, whose ‘rude ignorance … palpable imposture … [and] barbarous fictions … a wise Christian will scorne’.[8]

Even the more sensitive portrayals of Mahometans by English eyewitnesses tended to describe Islamic societies as corrupt or ‘counterfeit’. The gentleman traveller George Sandys, visiting the Ottoman Empire in the early 1610s, catalogued the people and customs he encountered on his voyage in his Relation. Sandys observed the circumcision of children, who were taken into mosques in white turbans, where ‘they dream that they shall all be assumed by Mahomet into Paradise’.[9] Sandys was chagrined by the ailing Christians who, hungry and crooked with age, publicly converted to Islam, but his greatest criticism was for the ‘fables’ and superstitions that Mahomet and his followers advertised as truth. The afterlife, based on ‘the impious saying of Mahomet’ was to be a world of ‘sensuall felicities’, of ‘fragrant shades’ with ‘amorous virgins’.[10] This, Sandys insisted, was ‘rude and vulgar’ – nothing but a trick by Mahomet ‘who by sensuall doctrine sought to have the rude world follow him’.[11] At the same time, as John Pory acknowledged in ‘Of Mahumet, and of his accursed religion in generall’ in his Historie and Description of Africa (1600), ‘Mahumet his law’, though ‘it embraceth circumcision’, also ‘looseth the bridle of the flesh, which is a thinge acceptable to the greatest part of men’.[12] It was perhaps because of this awareness of the seductive sway of Islam that Protestants repeatedly discussed the illegitimacy of the ‘inchantments’ of false doctrines, whereby English writers discredited Islam by emphasizing that Mahomet had never been anything but a man. Poisoned to death, his body torn by dogs, his ‘carcasse’ rotted and had not resurrected: ‘MAHOMET … did his bodie lye unburied … who having filled the worlde with Idolatrie and infidelitie by his blasphemous traditions … seemed to have beene borne … for the ruine & confusion of many millions of soules’.[13]

The term ‘Mahomet’ and English descriptions of Mahometanism in England did not just involve religious doctrine, but encompassed ideas about social order and political organisation, one that invited the English to think about, and articulate, their own hierarchical norms. Mahomet’s role as prophet related to his to territorial gain, as Fletcher described in The policy of the Turkish empire. ‘In this manner did MAHOMET erect a new Religion and kingdome amongest the Sarracens in the yeare of grace 623’, Fletcher wrote, ‘making Siria the seate of his Empire’.[14] Mahomet ‘was then grown to be a great power and estimation by reason of his wealth and the opinion of his Religion’, which rendered him ‘highly adored, both of the Arabians and the Egyptians’.[15] Having spent several years in captivity in Constantinople, Sir Thomas Sherley returned to England in 1606 and wrote his ‘Discours of the Turkes’, describing the arrival of Turks in Asia Minor as responsible for ‘the erronious & devilishe sect of Mehemett’.[16] Sherley related deviant religion to destabilising social order in his description of sodomy: ‘Theyre manner of living in private & in generalle is moste uncivil and vicious … for theyre Sodommerye they use it soe publiquelye & imprudentelye as an honest Christian would shame to companye with his wyffe as they doe with theyre buggeringe boyes’.[17] The threat of Mahometanism did not just imperil the individual soul, therefore, but the entire fabric of the commonwealth, as private acts in domestic settings subverted the patriarchal order so integral to early modern English society. A further danger was that Muslims absorbed, and even welcomed or rewarded, converts. A deep, implicit unease emerged from the vehemence against Mahometans, and the possibility that Islam might prove stronger than Christianity.[18] This helps explain the vehement invectives against Englishmen who ‘turned Turk’, as the pirate John Ward had in the 1610s [see ‘Turk’], as well as the public conversions staged by churchmen. When Meredith Hanmer celebrated the ‘Turk’ who had rejected ‘the superstitious lawe of Mahomet’ and now embraced ‘his truth faith in Jesus Christ, received into the congregation of the faithful’, it was important to publish the news.[19]

The English encountered Mahometans beyond the Ottoman Empire. The seventh century Muslim conquest of Persia meant that the Shi’a Safavid dynasty ruled independently of the Turkic Sunni caliphates. At times, the English sought alliances with the Safavids against Ottomans through their mutual interests. The Persian empire fascinated English humanists who sought templates for empire, and who were drawn to Persia through its classical heroes. English attitudes to Persia were ‘markedly different to fearful attitudes to the Ottomans’, where ‘Safavid ideology held a place for exemplary figures from Persian antiquity, including both Cyrus and Alexander’.[20] Philip Sidney hailed the conqueror Cyrus and the Persian empire as the ‘portraiture of just empire’ in the early 1580s, and the English continued to think of themselves in relation to Persia at various points in the seventeenth century.[21] Tellingly, discussions of ‘Mahomet’ tended to be absent in these more positive appraisals of Islamic power by highlighting Cyrus’ religious toleration prior to the Ottoman conquest.

The brothers Sir Anthony and Sir Robert Sherley travelled to Persia in 1599, where the shah welcomed them at court. Ever an opportunist, Sir Anthony received the title of mirza, an honour usually reserved for Muslim princes, and became especially close to Shah Abbas, with whom we could be seen walking arm and arm down the city streets in seemingly close friendship.[22] Sir Anthony acknowledged that Persian attitudes towards religion were politically strategic, and the shad was ‘exceeding curious and vigilant to suppress through all his dominions, that religion of Mahomet which followeth the interpretation of Ussen’, referring to the shah’s Shi’a beliefs and his desire to suppress Sunni followers.[23] While Sir Anthony spent less than a year in Persia, his younger brother Robert was eighteen when he arrived, and lived there eight years. Through pressured to convert to Islam whilst in Persia, Sir Robert converted to Catholicism instead and married a baptized Circassian woman, who may have been one of the first Persian women to live in England.[24] The poet Thomas Middleton celebrated Sir Robert as ‘this famous English Persian’, but also praised Sir Thomas for seeking ‘Christian confederacie against Mahomet & his Adherents’.[25]

The dramatisation of the adventures of the three Sherley brothers, Anthony, Thomas, and Robert, in the play by John Day, William Rowley, and George Wilkins, The Travels of the Three English Brothers (1607) is illustrative of a long-standing tradition of representation of Islam and the ‘Mahometan’ in the wider popular and literary culture of the period. Within the wider narrative tradition, Muslim characters had appeared frequently in medieval crusading romances. The Sowdone of Babylone (c.1400), for instance, involves the invasion of Rome by a Sultan and his son, Ferumbras, who eventually converts to Christianity, along with his sister, Floripas. Apart from the ever-present issues of conversion and temptation (often represented by the figure of the Muslim woman), the ‘Mahometan’ in such texts had often functioned as the figure against and in response to which Christian chivalric ideals could be explored. The enduring influence of that tradition shaped the representation of adherents to Islam - ‘Saracens’ - in the hugely influential Italian chivalric narrative poems like Matteo Boiardo\'s Inamoramento de Orlando (1483, 1495) and Ludovico Ariosto\'s Orlando furioso (1516) in Italy. In England, Edmund Spenser’s Redcrosse knight battles Saracens and an evil dragon from ‘Tartary’ in Book I of The Faerie Queene (1590). On the English stage, as scholars like Jonathan Burton and Matthew Dimmock, among others, have shown, representations of both ‘Mahomet’ and ‘Mahometans’ continued to occur throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[26] It is difficult to ascribe the range of these texts to a single conceptualisation of difference - be it religious or cultural - or a single idea of ‘otherness’. Instead, as Burton argues, ‘Islam functions as a discursive site upon which contesting versions of Englishness, Christianity, masculinity, femininity, and nobility are elaborated and proffered. The result is a representative practice, particularly apparent in English drama, which accommodates the solicitous, peaceful Turk and the bloody miscreant Turk, the convert and the temptress, the saint and the tyrant.’[27]

English writers engaged with Mahometans in more nuanced ways than popular print might suggest, particularly as the seventeenth century progressed. Prior to the English translation of the Quran in the mid-seventeenth century, many scholars and writers had relied on an error-ridden medieval Latin translation that exhibited little effort to convey the stylistic features of the original text.[28] This suggests that it was not just superstitions or prejudices that informed English views towards Mahometans, but insufficient or faulty knowledge, coupled with preconceptions about the inherent state of damnation shared by any who had not accepted Protestantism. William Bedwell’s Mehammedis Imposturae (1615), though the title suggests mere polemic, engaged with an anonymous Arabic text, containing three dialogues between two pilgrims returned from Mecca. One became Christian. The other was a Mahometan who sought to learn the true nature of salvation, and asked for essential points of the faith as they were understood by the Quran and the gospels. The book concluded with the converted Sheich Sinan winning Doctor Ahmed to Christianity, but the text nonetheless displayed an interest in cross-religious exchange and understanding, even if it ultimately ended with highlighting the superiority of Christianity.[29] The translator Bedwell was a well-respected Arabic scholar who worked on an Arabic-Latin dictionary and served as an interpreter to the Moroccan ambassadors at court in 1600. Imposturae, and, later, Mahomet unmasked (1624), included an index of the chapters of the Quran and ‘Arabicke termes used by Historians’, though, as Bedwell noted, this was for ‘the confutation of that Booke’.[30] The first English translation of the Quran, The Alcoran of Mahomet, appeared in 1649, produced by Charles I’s chaplain, but based on a French source. Henry Stubbe, writing in the later seventeenth century, sought to combat the misinformation about other cultures and peoples that continued to circulate. ‘We have so many fabulous and ridiculous Accounts, both of Mahomet and his Imposture’, Stubbe maintained, ‘a great deal of fabulous, ridiculous trash, with which most of the Christian Narratives of him are stuff’d’.[31]

Converts to Islam became a growing concern for English secular and religious leaders as the nation’s commercial activities placed Englishmen and women in increasing contact with Muslim peoples. In 1637 the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, published A Form of Penance and Reconciliation of a Renegado or Apostate from the Christian Religion to Turkism, formally structuring the reintroduction of English converts to Islam back into church and society.[32] Outlining the process of recovery that would lead to a convert being reconciled and reintroduced into English orthodoxy, Laud ordered the individual was to come to the church ‘in a penitent fashion in a white sheet and white wand in his hand, head uncovered’ and beg the congregation to ‘remember in your prayers a poor, wretched apostate or renegade’.[33] The individual was to do this for four weeks until he or she could ‘penitently confess that I have grievously offended the majesty of God and deeply wounded my own soul’.[34] One such case illustrating English authorities’ responses to Islamic conversion took place in the spring of 1649, when East India Company agent Thomas Breton wrote of his grief to ‘imparte unto you a sad story’ of Joshua Blackwell, a company employee at Agra, who was ‘irrecoverably lost’ after becoming a Muslim.[35] Breton’s surety that Blackwell was beyond reformation was an acknowledgment of Mughal legal acts, which prevented any interaction that would lead to the reconversion of an individual. Yet despite Breton’s assertion that he was beyond ‘redemption’, Blackwell initiated a series of correspondences which would lead to him being readmitted the Protestant community.[36] Although Blackwell eventually promised ‘perseverance in his Christian profession’, he found himself forced by circumstance to return to England to avoid being ‘subject to the abuse of every Mahometan that knowes your condition’.[37]

The increased trade routes and diplomatic exchanges of the later seventeenth century broadened English knowledge of Mahometans and fuelled their fascination with Ottomans and Persians, but it could not erase the persistent belief that the ‘the Mahometists … doo erre and wander in the Labyrinth of straunge superstitions’.[38]As the eighteenth century dawned, London feared ‘turning Turk’ once again, less through conversion than through altered bodies with the arrival of coffee from the Levant. ‘Coffee-politicians’, complained one anonymous writer in 1679, were ‘Turky News mongers, who with their Pipes and Dishes look as learnedly, as the Mahometan in the Sign’.[39] Entering the coffee house, wrote one ambler, ‘[m]y friend and I pay’d for our Mahometan-Gruel’.[40] The sociability of imbibing alcohol became an action that socially differentiated the English from Mahometans: ‘To drink is a Christian Diversion,/ Unknown to the Turk and the Persian:/ Let Mahometan Fools/ Live by Heathenish Rules,/ And be damn’d over Tea-Cups and Coffee’.[41] Yet coffeehouse discourse, so enmeshed with current affairs, travel, and politics, signalled the continual presence of Mahometans in English sociability and exchange. Like ‘popish’ chocolate from Spanish America, or Virginian tobacco, the ethno-religious contexts of the regions and people who produced new goods changed how the English viewed themselves.
Anonymous, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moorish Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I[42]
1. Matthew Dimmock, Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad in Early Modern English Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 10.
2. Ibid., p. 9.
3. ‘Mahometan, n. and adj.’, Oxford English Dictionary
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Dimmock, Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad, p. 1.
7. Giles Fletcher, The policy of the Turkish empire (London, 1597; STC 24335), sigs. B2r, D4v.
8. Joseph Hall, The works of Joseph Hall Doctor in Divinitie (London, 1625; STC 12635b), sig. Ee4v
9. George Sandys, ‘The Mahometan Religion’, in Sandys travailes containing a history of the originall and present state of the Turkish empire (London, 1652; Wing S677), p. 44.
10. Ibid, p. 46.
11. Ibid.
12. John Pory, A geographical historie of Africa (London, 1600; STC 15481), p. 381
13. Fletcher, The policy of the Turkish empire, sig. Cv
14. Ibid., sig. Cr
15. Ibid.
16. Quoted in Ian Smith, ‘The Queer Moor: Bodies, Borders, and Barbary Inns’, in A Companion to the Global Renaissance: English Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion, ed. by Jyotsna G. Singh (Chichester: Blackwell, 2009), 190-204 (p. 197).
17. Ibid.
18. Gerald MacLean and Nabil Matar, Britain and the Islamic World, 1558—1713 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 137
19. Meredith Hanmer, The baptizing of a Turke (London, 1586; STC 12744), sig. A2v.
20. Jane Grogan, The Persian Empire in English Renaissance Writing, 1549—1622 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2014), pp. 8-9.
21. Ibid., pp. 8, 43-4. Philemon Holland, Cyrupaedia (London, 1632; STC 26068 ), for example, included the Persian king Cyrus, clad in traditional Greco-Roman attire, occupying one side of the image, with King Charles on the other, wearing a closed imperial crown.
22. Jerry Brotton, The Sultan and the Queen: The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam (New York, NY: Viking, 2016), p. 240.
23. Ibid., pp. 241-2.
24. Bernadette Andrea, ‘Lady Sherley: The First Persian in England?’, The Muslim World, 95 (2005), pp. 279-95.
25. Thomas Middleton, Sir Robert Sherley, sent ambassadour in the name of the King of Persia (London, 1609; STC 17894.5), sigs. C3v, C4r.
26. Dimmock, Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad; Matthew Dimmock, New Turke: Dramatizing Islam and the Ottomans in Early Modern England (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005); Jonathan Burton, Traffic and Turning: Islam and English Drama, 1579—1624 (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2005)
27. Burton, Traffic and Turning, p. 28.
28. Samuel Chew, The Crescent and the Rose: Islam and England during the Renaissance (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1937), p. 434.
29. Ibid., pp. 436-7.
30. William Bedwell, Mohammedis imposturae (London, 1615; STC 17995); see also William Bedwell, Mahomet unmasked (London, 1624; STC 17995.5).
31. Quoted in Dimmock, Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad, p. 18.
32. William Laud, 'A Form of Penance and Reconciliation of a Renegado or Apostate from the Christian Religion to Turkism (1637)', printed in Daniel J. Viktus (ed), Piracy, Slavery and Redemption: Barbary Captivity Narratives from Early Modern England (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2001), pp. 361-6.
33. Ibid., p. 362.
34. Ibid., p. 363.
35. 'President Breton and Messrs. Merry, Pearce and Oxenden at Swally Marine to the Company, 5 April 1649', in The English Factories in India, 1618—1669, Vol. VIII, ed. by William Foster (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1896-1902), p. 260.
36. 'Joshua Blackwell at Agra to the President and Council at Surat, 14 February, 1650', in ibid., p. 299.
37. 'Instruction for President and Council at Surat to Richard Davidge, Proceeding to Court, 7 March 1650', in ibid., p. 302; 'The Rev. William Isaacson at Surat to Joshua Blackwell [at Agra], 7 March 1650', in ibid., p. 304.
38. Fletcher, The policy of the Turkish empire, sig. Yv.
39. Observations on the last Dutch wars, in the years 1672 and 1673 (London, 1679; Wing O104), p. 6.
40. The London Spy (1698), quoted in ‘Mahometan, n. and adj.’, Oxford English Dictionary [accessed 24 May 2017].
41. William Congreve, The way of the world: a comedy (London, 1700; Wing C5878), p. 64.
42. Anonymous, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moorish Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I, 1600
Usage Examples
'Mahomet, that cozening Arabian, whose Religion (if it deserve that name) stands upon nothing but rude ignorance, and palpable Imposture.'