England’s eye-opening foray into the Muslim world in the 16th century

I’ve just finished reading “The [jaw-dropping] Untold History of the United States” by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick. Here’s another untold history I haven’t yet read – but the review looks interesting, so it’s on my list:

“In a year when the election of London’s first Muslim mayor and the Brexit vote made headlines, the publication of historian Jerry Brotton’s new book, “The Sultan and the Queen,” seems particularly appropriate. While histories of 16th-century England generally emphasize the country’s isolationism, Brotton argues that to the contrary, England actively sought closer ties with the Islamic world. “The Sultan and the Queen” explores a less-well-known aspect of Elizabethan history, namely England’s nascent commercial and political relationships with the Muslim powers of the day: the Ottoman Empire, Persia and Morocco.

9780525428824-fullsize-cmykIn 1570, Queen Elizabeth I’s excommunication from the Catholic Church led to England’s exile from its European trading partners as well as its release from papal edicts against trade with Muslim nations. When merchants proposed that England seek closer links with the Muslim world, Elizabeth agreed. North America had not yet become a source for significant exports, so from these Muslim lands England hoped to gain sugar, spices, silk, cotton and even potassium nitrate to make gunpowder. During the queen’s nearly 45-year reign, she sent numerous delegations to powerful Muslim empires, frequently with purposes that extended beyond business.

At the time, England was not the dominant world power it would later become, and little was known about Islam or life in Muslim lands, despite the fact that the Ottoman Empire was much more formidable than England. In England, Muslims were known as Saracens, a racialized term that referred to Arabs or dark-skinned Crusaders. Yet in many ways, Brotton asserts, the Muslim world in 1578 was much more cosmopolitan than England. Writing of an English soldier’s first visit to Morocco during this period, Brotton observes that coming from “the monoglot world of England and Ireland and its stark religious divisions between Protestant and Catholic, the multiconfessional and polyglot world of Marrakesh must have come as a massive shock,” with its “Berbers, Arabs, Sephardic Jews, Africans, Moriscos and Christians” as well as the many languages spoken in its streets.

As trade relations became more firmly established, hundreds of Muslims traveled to England, where the English reported on their unfamiliar clothes and customs. When the Moroccan sultan al-Mansur sent a delegation in 1600 to London (ostensibly for trade but covertly to discuss the prospects of a joint attack on Spain), witnesses noted that in addition to being “strangely attired and behavioured,” the emissaries “killed all their own meat within their house. . . . They use beads, and pray to Saints.”

It is impossible to read these words and not think of the Syrian refugee crisis, one of many moving reminders of why this book is particularly resonant today. History is long, even if cultural imaginations often hardly extend back before the colonial period. “The Sultan and the Queen” evokes an England struggling to find a place for itself in a world that it had not yet learned to dominate, and often making colossal diplomatic blunders in the process. Brotton is a gifted writer who is able to present this history as an exciting series of critical and suspense-filled encounters. His masterful blending of the influential stage dramas of the day with the historical incidents that influenced them makes theater and history come alive. In a lesser writer’s hands, both Shakespeare and the fevered political engagements with the Muslim world could easily have come across as dry relics of the distant past.

As England, like so many countries these days, tacks between isolationism and integration, between building walls and welcoming refugees, Brotton’s colorful and fascinating history of earlier encounters between England and the Muslim world is a potent reminder that in many respects, we have been here before.” Read the full review in The Washington Post

THE SULTAN AND THE QUEEN
 The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam

By Jerry Brotton Viking. 338 pp. $30

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