Islam: Imagined, Practiced, and Forbidden

Frances Tanzer

Historians have understood the history of Islam in the early modern Atlantic world as a history of “meetings” between Christians, Muslims, and Jews across a notably broad range of geographic and temporal spaces.  This bibliography is divided to reflect the geographical “meeting points” established in the historiography–the Mediterranean world (including the Ottoman Empire, Spain, and the North African coast), the British Empire (including England, the American colonies, and the Ottoman Empire), the slave trade between Western Africa, England, Spain, and the American colonies, and the missionary activities between the United States and Lebanon. Despite this geographic division, themes of aggression, tolerance, martyrdom, expansion, and missionary work appear throughout.

Shifts in the representation of Islam as an aggressive and violent religion, in contrast to a more tolerant and flexible religion appear to parallel events in the present. In fact, historians of this topic often implicitly or explicitly reference present concerns in their prefaces, introductions, and conclusions.  Samuel Chew’s The Crescent and the Rose: Islam and England during the Renaissance was published in 1937 during the Arab revolt against British colonial rule in Palestine from 1936 to 1939. Chew’s work analyzes images of Muslims in England, but often reproduces the stereotypes in the early modern English images he describes of Muslims as violent and aggressive. The tone in Chews work, and its reviews at the time of publication, belie a wariness of Muslims and Islam that alludes to fears that might have been particularly pronounced because of the Arab revolt.

Works from the 1960s tend to be corrective, and try to better understand the origin of anti-Muslim stereotypes and power dynamics between Muslims and Christians. In Norman Daniel’s work published in 1960 he establishes a long history of English anti-Muslim stereotypes, and then points the finger at specific historians who he argues have reproduced the stereotypes embedded in certain sources materials in their work.  Writing in 1967, Schwoebel positions Christians as the aggressors against Muslims.  These two works were written in the context of decolonization, conflicts between Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Israel, and larger trends of shifting away from Eurocentric views of power dynamics.

Images of Islam as a shaper of identity and resistance among slaves brought from Africa developed alongside histories of English image making.  Terry Alford and Philip Curtain’s biographical works describe the lives of slaves who brought Islam to southern colonies. Published in the 1960s and 1970s during the Black Power movement and a period of renewed interest in Islam within Black communities, these two biographies serve in many ways as the antidote to the stories of the Christians meeting Muslims. Here Muslims meet Christians and bring their own traditions.  Michael Gomez’s body of work continues this theme, illustrating how Islam was a source of power for slaves, the presence of cultural interchange between Africa and the Atlantic world, and the development of religious practice among slaves that combined Islam, Christianity, and African religions.

In the 1990s, just after the gulf war, there was another upsurge in studies of Islam. Bernard Lewis’ Cultures in Conflict again painted the Muslims as aggressors. Goffman’s The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe sought to present an “ottomancentric” view that shows Muslims as tolerant. Post-September 11th, works usually reference the terrorist attacks in the introduction. The attacks appear to have sparked interest in Christian-Muslim relations–with an attempt to locate the root of hate (see Kidd), often with a sympathetic view of Islam.  Study of the present in the past of all of these works reveals both how much issues of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish relations touch contemporary life, but also serves as a reminder of how impressions of Muslims in the present can inform interpretations of them in the past.

Analysis of these works in conjunction also presents the potential for new connections and suggests holes that could be filled by new research. As argued throughout, this is the study of meetings, however, in many cases the Muslims are seen only through the eyes of the Christians, or western Europeans. This points to the practical and conceptual limitations that historians face in presenting narratives that take on such large spaces and timeframes. Often language and access to sources serves as a barrier to the presentation of complete histories–Nabil Matar is an example of a historian who had the intention of “showing both sides of the story,” but who seems limited in the presentation of Muslims. Michael Gomez is one of the few historians on this list who includes discussion of Islam practiced among slave population in the Caribbean.

More research needs to be done on how Islam came to the Caribbean, and to the new world, by other means. More specifically, Thomas Kidd’s American Christians and Islam illustrates how Islam existed in the American colonies as an idea brought by evangelicals who had experienced English literature and images on Ottomans (the same literature that Chew, Schwoebel, Daniel, and Matar discuss). Curtain and Alford’s biographies, Peter Clark’s synthesis, and the collected body of Michael Gomez’s work, explain Islam as a religion practiced by slaves brought to the colonies from West Africa.  Elizabeth Hirschman’s Jews and Muslims in British Colonial America argues that Sephardic Jews and Moorish Muslims occupied positions of power in colonial America–which seems to confirm the trend in Ottoman studies to shift power from the English to the Ottomans. It would be interesting to place these narratives in conversation–to see if there were moments when Islam as an idea, a religion practiced among slaves, and religion practiced among free colonists ever converged. In this way, a summary of the current research on Islam that includes the entire modern Atlantic world is intended to spark conversation between ideas that typically remain segregated by geography, time, or conceptual limitations.

Islam in the Mediterranean world: The Ottoman Empire, the North African Coast, and Spain:

Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II. New York: Harper & Row, 1972-1973.

The first French edition was published in 1949, and then revised in 1966. This is the English translation of the revision. Braudel created a framework for discussing the Mediterranean in the early modern Atlantic world into which many other historians have inserted themselves. He shifted the discussion of the Ottoman Empire and Islam in three important ways. First, Braudel emphasizes geography as a shaper of history–this leads to the inclusion of the Ottoman empire in his discussion of Europe. Second, Braudel uses Ottoman sources. Third, he treats the Ottoman Empire as a civilization rather than a religion.

Ehlers, Benjamin. Between Christians and Moriscos: Juan de Ribera and the Religious Reform in Valencia, 1568-1614. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Ehlers discusses the impact that Ribera, the archbishop of Valencia, had on religion reform and the expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain in 1609.  He traces the development of Ribera’s initial enthusiasm about the prospect of conversion (these Moriscos had been converted in 1520 after the Germanias rebellion), toward his identification of a “Morisco problem,” and push for expulsion beginning in 1582.

Goffman, Daniel. The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002

This is a corrective history of the Ottoman Empire–Goffman is engaged with presenting an “ottomancentric view” of the history of the Ottoman Empire. He responds to recent histories that present the Ottoman Empire as aggressive, problematizing the view that the Ottoman Empire was more aggressive or violent than its European counterparts.  He emphasizes throughout that the Ottoman Empire was engaged with processes of expansion, imperialism, and retreat just like Western Europe. What emerges is an image of flexibility, power, and the potential for religious tolerance and cultural change in the Ottoman Empire.

Harvey, L.P. Islamic Spain, 1250 to 1500. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1990.
Harvey, L.P. Muslims in Spain, 1500 to 1614. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Taken together these works provide a synthesis of the situation of Muslims, and converts from Islam, in Spain from 1250 to 1614, when the process of Morisco expulsion was complete. Harvey uses literary and linguistic theory to argue that after the 1611 to 1614 expulsion Islam existed only as a crypto-religion. Harvey suggests that Moriscos had linguistic methods of retaining their religious beliefs, and merging these beliefs with Christianity.

Hess, Andrew. “The Moriscos: An Ottoman Fifth Column in Sixteenth-Century Spain.” The American Historical Review vol. 74, Issue 1 (1968): 1-25.

Hess argues that Spain failed to fully assimilate the Moriscos for imperial reasons. Using Ottoman sources–government documents and imperial communications–Hess explains Spain’s poor treatment of Morisco’s, and eventual expulsion in 1609, reflected the feeling of the Moriscos as a “fifth column” that could unite with the Ottoman Empire.

Lewis, Bernard. The Muslim Discovery of Europe. New York: W.W. Norton, 1982.

Lewis describes how Muslims in the Ottoman Empire understood Europe from the early modern period until the mid 19th century. He paints the picture of Muslims looking at Europe as a trading partner.

Lewis, Bernard. Jews of Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Lewis illustrates the relationship between Jews and Muslims in the Ottoman Empire and North Africa from the middle ages through the 19th and 20th century. His main investment is in the chapters dealing with the middle ages and the Ottoman empire–in this time argues that the conditions for Jews in Muslim countries were poor, but that they were not persecuted.  He emphasizes that the conditions were better than in Christian Europe, and that practice tended to be better than doctrine.  His discussion of the 18th – 20th century emphasizes increased persecution.

Lewis, Bernard. Cultures in Conflict: Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Age of Discovery. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

This book is based on the Merle Curti Lectures delivered at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in May 1993.  Lewis draws attention to the events of 1492: Columbus reached America, the Christian conquest of Granada, and the expulsion of Jews from Spain. By discussing these events simultaneously he hopes to illustrate how the processes of conquest, expulsion, and discovery were intertwined.

Soucek, Svat. “Islamic Charting in the Mediterranean.” In The History of Cartography, pt. 2,  vol. 1: Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies, ed. J.B. Harley and David Woodward. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Through an analysis of Ottoman maps from the Early modern period Soucek shows that the Ottoman empire understood Western Europe as an equal trading partner.

Schwartz, Stuart B. All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Schwartz uses Inquisition records to illuminate how ordinary people articulated ideas of tolerance in Spain from 1500 to 1820.  He focuses particularly individuals who expressed that salvation can be achieved through Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. He also shows how religious ideas developed in reciprocal conversation, borrowing concepts and practices from each other.

Islam and the British Empire: Image Making in the West:

Chew, Samuel. The Crescent and the Rose: Islam and England during the Renaissance.   New York: Oxford University Press, 1937.

Chew’s study analyzes English Renaissance literature and theater to discuss the development of anti-Muslim English attitudes.  Written in 1937, the monograph references Islam as an immediate threat to society in the present, as well as the past.

Daniel, Norman. Islam and the West: The Making of an Image. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1993.

Daniel published the first edition in 1960–the republication date of 1993 suggests an increased interest in the study Islam-Christian relations in response to the Gulf War.  Daniel states that the ideological basis for Western hostility towards Islam formed in Medieval Europe, with the 8th century invasions of Umayyad Caliphate from North Africa into the Iberian Peninsula.  He then argues that anti-Islamic attitudes embedded in source materials have worked their way into scholarship–he implicates specific historians and studies.

Goffman, Daniel. Britons in the Ottoman Empire, 1642-1660. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998.

This work is not explicitly about Islam, but it provides an interesting bottom-up look at everyday life for English individuals living in the Ottoman Empire during the English Civil War.  Goffman looks at diaries, memoirs, and trading notes to reveal the extent to which English people were involved in local life. This study provides an interesting counterbalance to the other works in this section, illustrating that real, often intimate, meetings between English and Ottomans occurred, and that the English did not only experience Muslims through art and literature.

Matar, Nabil. Turks, Moors and Englishmen in the age of Discovery. New York:   Columbia University Press, 1999.

Matar attempts to round out the image of exchange and image making between the Ottoman Empire and the English Empire. He shows how assumptions inherited from Western imperialism were retroactively applied to Ottoman-British relations during the early Modern period, yielding misunderstandings about how the Ottoman’s were encountered. Matar is engaged with correcting the power dynamics in the historiography of this relationship–illustrating how the Ottoman Empire exercised control in their relations with the English. Matar’s main argument is that the English superimposed their understanding of the Native Americans in the colonies on Muslims in the Ottoman Empire.

Schwoebel, Robert. The Shadow of the Crescent The Renaissance Image of the Turk. New York: St. Martins Press, 1967.

This work engages with the period from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the rise of the Ottoman Empire until Luther’s theses in 1517–which Schwoebel views as a moment that shattered the unity of European Christianity and caused them to focus inward, and away from the Ottoman Empire.  What is significant in this work, is that Schwoebel argues that Christians were aggressors against Muslims and not the other way around. He states that Western images of Muslims formed only after the fall of Constantinople.

Islam in Western Africa and the Colonies:

Biographies and African Studies:

Alford, Terry. Prince Among Slaves. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.

Curtin, Philip. Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of Slave Trade. Prospect Heights, III: Waveland Press, 1997 (first edition 1967).

The study of Islam among slave populations in the colonies first appeared in the form of biographies of slaves from African studies scholars.  In these biographies slaves bring Islam with them from Africa, and then re-articulate Islam in their new context, often merging ideas of Christianity, Islam, and other African religions.

Monographs and Essay Collections:

Clarke, Peter B. West Africa and Islam: A Study of Religious Development from the 8th to the 20th Century. London: E. Arnold, 1982.

This is a synthesis of the history of religion in West Africa from the 8th century to the 20th century. It is one of the first studies that is sympathetic towards the topic of Islam in West Africa.

Hirschman, Elizabeth. Jews and Muslims in British Colonial America: A Genealogical History. North Carolina: McFarland & co., 2012.

Hirschman presents a study of power dynamics in the British colonies–countering the image of Islam existing only among slave populations.  She uses genealogies, settlers lists, and wills to argue that Sephardic Jews and Moorish Muslims were in positions of power and constant interchange with the British.

Gomez, Michael. “Muslims in Early America.” Journal of Southern History volume 60, Issue 4    (1994): 671-710.
Gomez, Michael. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

“Muslims in Early America” is included in Exchanging Our Country Marks. The article, and the large collection of articles, presents African slaves as an immigrant group, emphasizing that slavery and racism forced slaves to view themselves not as an ethnicity, but as a race. Islam enters the study as a method of holding onto African heritage, while merging some practices with Christianity.

Gomez, Michael. Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Gomez traces a long history of Islam in the colonies. Part I connects Islam to slave revolt in Caribbean, Brazil, and the American South.  Part II discusses the intellectual history of Islam among African Americans, bringing discussion into the 20th century with analysis of the renewed interest in Islam due to ideas of Black Power and Nationalism.

Kidd, Thomas. American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009

Explores the evangelical understanding of Islam from colonial times, through English literature that included images of Muslims from the Ottoman Empire, to the post-September 11th evangelical discussion of Islam as a fundamentalist religion and apocalyptic terrorism. Kidd explores the tension between missionary work and beliefs that placed Muslims into apocalyptic scenarios.

Missionaries in the Middle East:

Makdisi, Ussama Samir. Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008.

This is the story of a Maronite convert to evangelical Christianity in 1825, who was tortured and killed by the Maronite church five years later. Makdisi focuses on the ways of discussing and understanding this convert by different groups after the fact. He emphasizes the ways that the missionary image of natives shaped their attitudes in the Middle East–they viewed this as a place to make up for failures at home, while the Maronite’s viewed the missionaries as heretical.