A new book on the Ottoman Empire's relationship with contemporary Christians reveals a notable degree of cultural exchange and debateby Sameer Rahim / May 6, 2019 / Leave a comment
When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453 it sent shock waves through Christendom. Pope Pius II made an emotional appeal for a new crusade: “we are being assaulted and murdered in Europe, that is, in our fatherland, our own home, our own residence.” Islam was regarded by one Florentine as a “sham” with Turks inclined to “debauchery and idleness.”
Yet as Noel Malcolm explores in this learned and fascinating account, once the Ottomans had established themselves as a settled enemy, European thinkers became more interested in understanding their religion, statecraft and society.
By 1530 Erasmus could go so far as to describe Muslims as “semi-Christians.” As Europe tore itself apart in sectarian wars, the Ottomans were cited favourably by comparison—a rhetorical technique neatly labelled by Malcolm as “shame-praising.” Protestant states such as Elizabeth I’s England pursued alliances with the Sultan against Catholic Spain. As travellers observed the “intense cult of orderliness and silence that surrounded the Sultan,” in the Topkapi palace, the old stereotype of the “idle” Turk gave way to grudging respect, and the foundation of the idea of Oriential despotism. Later on, critiques of Islam provided a model for free-thinkers to challenge Christian beliefs.
Malcolm sifts the evidence carefully to show the sheer variety of early modern European views of Islam, “from fear and fierce disapproval to fascination, admiration and envy.” Though he doesn’t indulge in any, there are parallels to be drawn with our own time of strained relations between east and west. Conflict engenders curiosity in some—in 1734 George Sale translated the Koran from Arabic—but, as Malcolm notes, there was also a stubborn persistence of polemical and ignorant views from “armchair writers” in western Europe.
Useful Enemies: Islam and the Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, 1450-1750 by Noel Malcolm is published by OUP (£25)