Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Writing - England's unlikely allies

The way some people behave you would think that our relationship with Islam is something new. After the split with the Catholic church engineered by Henry VIII England was cut off from the rest of Europe.

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Elizabeth I was excommunicated from the Catholic church by Pope Pius V in 1570 and for the next 30 years her majesty brokered deals with the Ottoman, Persian and Saadian (Morocco) empires that saw hundreds of English men and women crossing Muslim lands. Some converted to Islam and others traded amicably while Elizabeth's diplomats travelled between Whitehall, Marrakech, Constantinople and Qazvin (Persian capital), constructing Anglo-Islamic alliances against their common enemy, the Catholic church.

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The Crusades

The actual alliance goes back even further to the time of the Crusades and the rise of Islam after that time made them an attractive and strong military alliance to western princes. Of course there were conflicts within Muslim factions for instance the Sunni Ottoman empire clashed with its neighbouring Persian Shia empire and then the powerful Egyptian Mamluk sultanate to become undisputed guardians of Islam's holy cities and pilgrimage routes.

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All the while the tensions between the Pope and church in England were being played out trade links with the Islamic world were continuing and growing particular with the Saadians of Morocco. The Queen dispatched envoys to strengthen ties and create a trade worth £28 000 in the 16th century which was greater than the entire revenue from Portuguese trade.

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William Harborne & Sultan Murad III

In 1578 William Harborne was sent to Constantinople to negotiate diplomatic relationships with Murad III. He spent ten years in the country and his Turkey Company blossomed to become hugely successful. At the height of its trade they were dispatching 19 ships of between 100 - 300 tons and crewed by 800 seamen on an average of five times a year. By the 1590s prosperous Elizabethans were enjoying pearls, diamonds, sapphires, silks, carpets, rugs and cotton wool which stimulated the Lancashire textile industry.

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Elizabeth I

Yet when Elizabeth died in 1603 and James VI and I acceded to the throne there was peace with Spain within a tear and the need for an Anglo-Islamic alliance collapsed. The negative information put out over the following centuries about Islamic decadence and despotism destroyed the alliance totally. 

History educates us that Tudor England was not insular and parochial but outward looking and international, and the relations with the Muslim world were an important part of its story.

If we want to understand the role played by many different faiths in this island's history, from Christians and Jews to British Muslims, then it is a story we need to acknowledge now more than ever before.

God Bless