Islam's lasting influence on Elizabethan England

Islam's lasting influence on Elizabethan England
5 min read
07 October, 2016
Society: The legacy of strategic relations between England and the Islamic world led to military alliances, trade relations and even had an impact on arts and literature, reports Jamil Hussein.
Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun was Moorish Ambassador to Elizabeth I [Getty]
It may seem like Britain is turning its back on the world in the wake of the Brexit vote. But England's history betrays the view that it is an inward-looking, insular nation.

Brexiteers evoked memories of the past: of England - and by extension Britain - standing strong on its own. But when England led the largest Empire in history, it was inextricably linked to the wider world. And its relationship with the Islamic world in particular was crucial in laying the foundations for its global dominance.  

It is popular in many quarters today to dismiss Islam as a new and alien influence that "threatens" Britain. 

But a new book by professor Jerry Brotton, The Sultan and the Queen: The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam, sheds light on how England's national sovereignty in the 16th century, instead of being threatened, was heavily dependent on Muslim empires.  

The book plots how England's arguably greatest and most stable period in history was in part due to the Islamic world's political, economic and cultural influence on the country. 

Trade relationships with Muslim empires were by far the biggest influence on Elizabethan England. Such trade started before Queen Elizabeth I's reign, but she formalised relations with the Barbary states, Persia and the Ottomans from the 1570s.  

"Trade, of course, brings with it all kinds of consequences and influences, not always intended ones," says Jerry Brotton, professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary University of London.

"This was the case with the Anglo-Islamic alliances under Elizabeth. They were not driven by religious toleration but commercial opportunism and realpolitik.

"What they did was enable the two cultures to mix and exchange with each other in many ways."

What they did was enable the two cultures to mix and exchange with each other in many ways

Elizabeth had no money to fund new trade alliances or pursue colonial interests to rival the Portuguese or Spanish. Instead, she supported the trading ventures of joint stock companies. 

These were commercial associations owned by shareholders. The capital funded the costs of commercial voyages and the profits were divided among shareholders. 

"This enabled the crown to support initiatives among London's merchants without spending any money," says Professor Brotton.  

"It also allowed the companies to raise a significant amount of capital to be used in setting up long-distance commercial adventures."

The Muscovy Company, incorporated in 1555 as the first English joint stock company, traded with Russia and Persia. Similar companies created during Elizabeth I's reign included the Levant Company and East India Company, which eventually ruled large parts of India.  

"Without the joint stock practice we might not have had a British Empire, which was particularly indebted to the commercial activity of the East India Company," says Professor Brotton.  

The trade flows made military alliances easier. England was a minor player on the world stage and since its split from Roman Catholicism under Henry VIII in 1533, the country had been diplomatically isolated, commercially marginalised, and under threat of Catholic invasion.  

The Shakespearian era was in part defined by
relations with the Islamic world [Getty]

So aligning with great imperial powers, such as the Ottoman Empire, provided England with some security.  

"Certainly the Anglo-Ottoman alliance made King Philip II of Spain a little more cautious in his moves against England, fearing that he might overstretch himself by pursuing war in the north Atlantic and the Mediterranean," says Professor Brotton.  

The Pope excommunicated Elizabeth as a "heretic" in 1570. This meant she was outside the papal edict forbidding Christians from trading with Muslim "heretics". The shrewd queen used this comparison to ally with the Ottomans. 

"Elizabeth's letters to Murad III (the emperor of the Ottoman Empire) suggests that she played on this connection, stringing their mutual opposition to 'idolaters' like Catholics that believed in intercession (saints, relics, etc) - as something that was alien to Protestantism and Sunni Islam," says Professor Brotton.  

The relationship also benefited the Muslim empires. The famous English woollen cloth - a staple export during that period - was not popular in North Africa and the Middle East but materials for weaponry were.  

"In the 1570s the Ottomans were fighting the Persians and needed weapons," says Professor Brotton. "English lead and tin were extremely helpful in boosting their war effort - and it probably also played its part in Ottoman conflicts with the Spanish. 

"Beyond that, the Muslim empires gained a Christian ally in their fight against Catholicism." 

Beyond that, the Muslim empires gained a Christian ally in their fight against Catholicism

The diplomatic, political and commercial relationship with Turkey, Morocco and Persia transformed the domestic economy of Elizabethan England - from what people ate, to what they wore and even what they said.  

English merchants, artisans and sailors travelled into the eastern Mediterranean and encounters with Muslims transformed their lives. 

"As well as sugar, silks and spices, Persian and Ottoman rugs and carpets covered Elizabethan interiors - they're everywhere in the background of Elizabethan portraits," notes Professor Brotton. 

"'Sugar', 'candy', 'crimson', 'turquoise' (or 'Turkey stone'), 'indigo', 'tulip' - even 'zero' - all entered the language and took on their modern associations during this period, primarily thanks to the effects of Anglo-Islamic trade."

Culture and the arts were also influenced. Between 1579 and 1624 there were more than 60 plays with Islamic characters, themes or settings. Even Shakespeare got in on the act, writing stories that included Muslim characters, though often in a negative light. 

A Moroccan ambassador's visit to London in 1600 prompted Shakespeare to write nuanced and progressive roles for Muslims characters, with the depiction of Othello the most celebrated.  

"Shakespeare followed rather than set fashion," says Professor Brotton. "He referred to Turks in no less than thirteen of his plays, many of them in the History Plays - including a reference to Muhammad in Henry VI Part One. 

"Shakespeare is clearly interested about the ambiguity of Muslim characters: would they provide salvation or damnation?" 

With historians portraying the Elizabethan era as a "Golden age" in English history, it is clear Muslims very much provided the former rather than the latter. 

The pragmatic relationship England had with Muslim empires and the wider world encouraged the flow of goods, people and ideas. It shows those who today take an isolationist view of the world that England has always done better by looking outwards. 

And it is this opening of borders and engaging with the wider world that has been crucial in making England and Britain the global player it is today.

Follow Jamil Hussein on Twitter: @Jamil_TWN