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The first Muslims in England

 

Sixteenth-century Elizabethan England has always had a special place in the nation's understanding of itself. But few realise that it was also the first time that Muslims began openly living, working and practising their faith in England, writes Jerry Brotton.

From as far away as North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, Muslims from various walks of life found themselves in London in the 16th Century working as diplomats, merchants, translators, musicians, servants and even prostitutes.

The reason for the Muslim presence in England stemmed from Queen Elizabeth's isolation from Catholic Europe. Her official excommunication by Pope Pius V in 1570 allowed her to act outside the papal edicts forbidding Christian trade with Muslims and create commercial and political alliances with various Islamic states, including the Moroccan Sa'adian dynasty, the Ottoman Empire and the Shi'a Persian Empire.

She sent her diplomats and merchants into the Muslim world to exploit this theological loophole, and in return Muslims began arriving in London, variously described as "Moors", "Indians", "Negroes" and "Turks".

Before Elizabeth's reign, England - like the rest of Christendom - understood a garbled version of Islam mainly through the bloody and polarised experiences of the Crusades.

 

No Christian even knew the words "Islam" or "Muslim", which only entered the English language in the 17th Century. Instead they spoke of "Saracens", a name considered in medieval times to have been taken from one of Abraham's illegitimate offspring who was believed to have founded the original twelve Arab tribes.

Christians simply could not accept that Islam was a coherent religious belief. Instead they dismissed it as a pagan polytheism or a heretical deformation of Christianity. Much Muslim theology discouraged travel into Christian lands, or the "House of War", which was regarded as a perpetual adversary of the "House of Islam".

But with Elizabeth's accession this situation began to change. In 1562 Elizabeth's merchants reached the Persian Shah Tahmasp's court where they learned about the theological distinctions between Sunni and Shi'a beliefs, and returned to London to present the queen with a young Muslim Tatar slave girl they named Aura Soltana.

She became the queen's "dear and well beloved" servant who wore dresses made of Granada silk and introduced Elizabeth to the fashion of wearing Spanish leather shoes.

Hundreds of others arrived from Islamic lands and although no known memoirs survive, glimpses of their Elizabethan lives can still be gleaned from London's parish registers. In 1586 Francis Drake returned to England from Colombia with a hundred Turks who had been captured by the Spanish in the Mediterranean and press-ganged into slavery in the Americas.

One of them, known only as Chinano, is the first known Muslim to convert to English Protestantism.

He was baptised at St Katharine's Church near the Tower of London, where he took the name William Hawkins, and insisted that "if there were not a God in England, there was none nowhere".

Perhaps he meant it and relished his new Anglican identity, or he knew what to say to his new English masters. Whatever the truth, like many of his fellow Turks he quickly disappeared into London's bustling life, taking with him his true religious beliefs.

How sincere Chinano's conversion was may never be known, but he was not alone, and others like him were clearly keen to make a living in diverse urban occupations.

They included weavers, tailors, brewers and metalsmiths. Other registers record Muslim women being baptised like Mary Fillis, a "blackamoor" daughter of a Moroccan basket-maker who after working in London as a seamstress for 13 years and "now taking some hold of faith in Jesus Christ was desirous to become a Christian".

 

Source:-  http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35843991

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