Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Islam in an Age of Confessionalisation

Suleiman the Magnificent
I hadn't been to one of the Birkbeck EMPHASIS seminars in ages. Every time I go to one, I leave with my head bursting with knowledge, usually in several types of dead language. So one a year is probably my max. This one on Islam and Christianity in the Early Modern World, presented by Jan Loop caught my eye, as this topic has been on my study to-do list for a while. Hoping for a break from my wiredrawing bench, I inevitably came away with a few ideas of new areas to pursue regarding the Lutheran polemic which forms part of its decoration. It was bound to be relevant because that is how connections work...

Some of the names and concepts that Dr Loop mentioned as if they were old friends to him were entirely unknown to me; people instrumental in shaping Christian / Islamic relations for good or bad like Johann Heinrich Hottinger, Adrian Reland, Ludovico MarracciMaturin Veyssière La Croze and Miguel Servet. And I'd never heard of Socinianism. This stuff is not so much esoteric as  'behind a locked door of a dusty library store room' material. However from the mid-late 1500s until the 1700s, this was of life and death importance. From the east to the west, fundamental religious beliefs were under attack, and the splintering of a once unified European Christian church had shaken many to the core.  

They knew that to refute something, you need to know exactly what you're talking about. Europe perceived the Islamic world (specifically the Turks) as a major threat to security. Which is why early modern theologians had to understand the Koran and Islamic teaching. At this time there was a groundswell of people who read and understood this other holy book. It had been in Latin for centuries but it was reprinted in 1543 as Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete (1143), edited by Theodor Bibliander. Though it served as a humanist exploration into religious text as historic document, the original purpose of the translation was to assist in the conversion of Muslims to Christianity. This reprint also served as a source for polemic.

Islam was seen as a Christian heresy, for Catholics it was as much a sect as Protestantism, Calvinism, or Lutheranism. Catholics pointed out that Calvinists placed no store by the Virgin, good works, and were basically Muslims. Polemical discourse focuses on the 'them' of 'them and us', using differences to highlight areas of conflict and alienation. They saw Mohammed as a Christian renegade, just as much as Luther, Calvin et al. However the Protestants, alike, saw the antichrist in both the Catholics and Muslims.

An example of this was Miguel Servet (1509-1553) who was eventually burned at stake in Calvinistic Geneva. At his trial, Servet was condemned on two counts, for spreading and preaching Nontrinitarianism and anti-paedobaptism (anti-infant baptism). Of paedobaptism Servet had said, 'It is an invention of the devil, an infernal falsity for the destruction of all Christianity'. The other  question was 'whether he did not know that his doctrine was pernicious, considering that he favours Jews and Turks, by making excuses for them, and if he has not studied the Koran in order to disprove and controvert the doctrine and religion that the Christian churches hold, together with other profane books, from which people ought to abstain in matters of religion, according to the doctrine of St. Paul'. He was condemned by Calvinists.

The doctrine of the Trinity had caused schism from the earliest time of the Christian church. A handy podcast introducing some of the issues was broadcast recently. Although debate rages on about this, the notion of Trinity is addressed in the Koran, 'God is only one God, He is far above having a son, everything in the heavens and earth belongs to Him and He is the best one to trust'. It is clear that for Muslims God is not three but one.

Dr Loop suggests that for thinkers like Johann Heinrich Hottinger and Adrian Reland, the Koran could be seen as a historical document - a virtual eye witness statement of the original construction of the church. It was valuable to study this literature for an insight into the history of church. Hottinger says: 'one could learn about the dogmas, which have recently - immediately after the birth of Muhammadanism - crept into the church, against the authority of scripture, greatly offending the infidels and damaging orthodoxy'. Therefore, the Koran could be used to see what the early church was like, stripped of later dogma.

A question was asked after the presentation regarding the motives of Adrian Reland and why he had produced De religione Mohammedica libri duo (Of the Mahomedan religion) in 1712. It was a book to explain what the religion was about, as it is taught to practitioners of the faith. It wasn't like other previous guides. No real answer was forthcoming but I suggested, a ceasing of hostilities and a change in attitude to the East - the Turks were no longer seen as the Anti Christ banging at the Viennese gates of Christian Europe. As I saw in Dresden, the Electors of Saxony were obsessed by the orient, rather than threatened by their religion. It seems my hunch was right as I have just found, 'the latter part of the Ottoman 17th century was convulsed by a decades-long, intermittent war with the Habsburgs. The Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699 is legitimately argued as the marker for the beginning of the end of Ottoman expansion'.*

Also it wasn't just the militaristic threat, both Catholicism and Protestantism at this time were stronger. The various reformations on both sides had done their work and missionaries were striking out into the 'new world'. Islam wasn't such a threat to a reliously-fractured Europe any more - the Turks had provided an apocalyptic vision to writers and artists. The threat came to nothing.

I'm aware that I haven't done justice to Dr Jan Loop's presentation, and I have skipped over his discussion regarding Hottinger's Kufic script collections and the Arabic vowel point controversy. Secretly, this didn't interest me so much...and you can go look it up yourself in his book.

* Islam-Christian Transfers of Military Technology, 1730–1918 by Virginia H. Aksan

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