BOOK REVIEW: Elizabethan England’s relations with the Muslim world

25th Nov 2016
BOOK REVIEW: Elizabethan England’s relations with the Muslim world

This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World. By Jerry Brotton. London: Allen Lane. 2016. HB. Pp358. £20

The author of this book is a professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London. As an academic and prolific writer, he has published several books including A History of the Word in Twelve Maps (2013) and The Renaissance Bazaar: From the Silk Road to Michelangelo (2003). He is an award-winning author and his writings have been translated into more than a dozen languages. He was born in Bradford and attended school in Leeds where he studied with students of many different background including Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. His early experience of multiculturalism in the North of England provided the author with the impetus to explore England’s relations with Islam spanning more than five centuries.

In the book under review, which is the author’s latest publication, he argues that England’s relations with the Muslim world was not only extensive but also much friendly than it is generally appreciated. Once Queen Elizabeth I was convinced that she would not be welcomed within the Catholic fold, she turned her attention to the Islamic world and actively strengthened England’s relations with prominent Muslim powers of the time including Shah Abbas the Great of Persia and the Ottoman Empire.

In the words of the author, ‘Tudor fascination with the Islamic world went back at least as far as the reign of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII. He and his court enjoyed wearing Ottoman clothing, with the king often described as appearing at festivities ‘appareled after Turkey fashion’, dressed in silk and velvet, and sporting a turban and a scimitar, adopting an Ottoman style that is now regarded as characteristically ‘Tudor’. As well as rich silk, velvet and other fabrics, Tudor merchants imported exotic commodities from Islamic lands that included cotton, rhubarb, currants, sweet wines and intricate textiles, as well as the Moroccan sugar that Elizabeth consumed in such copious quantities. As early as the 1550s Englishmen were doing business in Muslim countries as far apart as Morocco and Syria, travelling by land and sea, exchanging ideas and beliefs with Muslims from different social groups and religious denominations.’ (p8)

In other words, during her reign Elizabeth not only moved her attention away from Catholic Europe in favour of the Muslim world but she also actively encouraged the promotion and exchange of political, cultural and commercial activities and enterprise with the leading Islamic powers of the time. That, in turn, led to growing awareness and understanding of Islam and Muslim cultures in Elizabethan England. Artistic and cultural productions like Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, which was first performed in 1587, based on the life and career of Amir Timur, the great Central Asian conqueror. Likewise, William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (first performed in 1594) and The Merchant of Venice (first performed in 1605) reflected England’s growing interests, interaction and exchange with the Islamic world.

Indeed, according to the author, ‘By the time Shakespeare prepared to say farewell to the London stage and retire to Stratford in 1611, the English were leading figures in the eastern Mediterranean trade even though King James had turned away from military and diplomatic alliances with Islamic rulers. The Levant Company was exporting English goods worth £250,000 per annum to Turkey, prompting one of its merchants, Sir Lewis Roberts, to write that the company had ‘grown to that height that (without comparison) it is the most flourishing and beneficial company to the commonwealth of any in England’.’ (p298)

As it happens, this book covers a period of English history when the impact of the European Reformation created so much unease and uncertainty in England. Living as we do at a time when we are all too often are reminded of the so-called ‘clash of civilisations’, it is worth recalling that connections between England and the Islamic world goes much further than it is generally known or appreciated. Ignorance of our history and culture, according to the author, has significantly contributed to increasing misunderstanding and misconceptions about Islam and Muslims across Britain (and the Western world as a whole) at a time when Muslims have become an integral part of not only British culture and society but across the Western hemisphere.

Consisting of an introduction, 11 chapters and an epilogue, along with extensive notes and references, this book is an important contribution and it deserves to be read widely. The author should be congratulated for this highly readable and timely book.

Muhammad Khan

Author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of the West (Kube Publishing, forthcoming)

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