Representations of Islam in Travel Literature in Early Modern England

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

19 Pages, Grade: gut



I. Introduction: Islam As Eternal Threat To Europe

II. The Notion of Orientalism
II.I. The Meaning of the ‘Turks’
II.II. The Meaning of the ‘Orient’

III. Representations of Islam in English literature
III.I. Literary Forms of Criticism of Islam
III.II. Christian Aspects of Writing on Islam

IV. Travel Literature on Islam
IV.I. ‘The Imperial Envy’
IV.II. William Biddulph: ‘The travels of certaine Englishmen’
IV.III. William Lithgow: ‘The totall discourse, of the rare aduentures’

V. Bibliography

I. Introduction: Islam As Eternal Threat To Europe

Today’s expansion of Islam in Western Europe is seen by many people as a threat to Christian identity and tradition of the continent. The ongoing debate over the integration of Muslim foreigners into European societies seems because of its complexity difficult to grasp: on the one hand there is a true will to find common roots and values in both religions, on the other hand there is much anxiety against the foreign culture. The positive approach is severely challenged by Islamic terrorism as well as by conflict between Islamic law and secular state.[1] Furious reactions on Mohammad’s caricatures printed in a Danish newspaper in 2006 were a clear manifestation of Islam’s conflict with the western world. In that case the value of free speech, which, at least formally, enjoys wide respect in Europe, collides with a religion usurping ultimate authority. Contempt against violation of religious feelings and blasphemy may be an issue within Christian Europe anyway; but with a foreign religion the issue becomes even more complicated. A referendum held in Switzerland in November 2009 shows how precarious the situation is: many people do not wish that Muslim buildings are present in their Christian cities. Swiss protest seems to be merely an example of a larger campaign against expansion of Islam in Europe.

The “troubles” with Islam in today’s Europe concerning legal and social issues are accompanied by stereotypical visions of the Islamic world. Stereotypes and prejudices play of course a certain role in every representation or vision of the Other. In regard to Islam they are, however, of a particularly long and rich history. Already after one century from its emergence Islam was seen as a danger to Christianity. As Ziauddin Sardar, a distinguished scholar on Islam, remarks, “the achievements of Muslim civilization made Islam an intellectual, social and cultural problem [for Europe]”.[2] That problem was to be solved in the simplest way possible: by systematic condemnation and degradation of Islamic thought. John of Damascus granted already in 8th century a complete, though totally ignorant view of the Muslim civilization. Muhammad was depicted by him as an Antichrist and he declared Islam to be a conspiracy against Christianity. John of Damascus’ work became after a time a classical source for further representations of Islam, so that all subsequent Christian writings on Islam were to a certain extent based on it. Indeed, throughout centuries everything was done by European writers to diminish the importance of Muslim learning and tradition. The medieval reception of Islam is shown very accurately in the famous Divina Comedia by Dante, where the reader finds Mohammed placed nowhere else but in hell: “(…) see how Mahomet is mangled! Before he goes Ali in tears, his face cleft from chin to forelock; and all the others thou seest here were in life sowers of scandal and schism and therefore are thus cloven”.[3] Untrue and unfair depictions of Islam in Europe are found in Catholic theology by Thomas Aquinas, who is still regarded by the Church as its most prominent philosopher. Aquinas was opposed to Muslims as well as Jews, since it was unthinkable for him that people who wilfully rejected Christian massage could build a culture based on truth and virtue.

Ignorance about Islam may seem understandable as far as fear of religious challenge is concerned, since many critics of Islam felt it was their duty to defend the truth about God. Many of them depicted the Muslim culture in a completely wrong way because of the very fact that they had never been in real contact with that culture. Theological writings over Koran did not require a visitation to the Arab world, one could argue. More detailed investigations about what was behind the teachings would, however, needed to be based on direct encounter. Accounts on Islam based on personal experience would have been then at least more objective and neutral – but the opposite is the case. In the so-called travel literature depictions of Islam are full of bias, fears and unjust insinuations. The purpose of travel writing in early modern Europe was not to represent Islam as it was, but to prove the distinction between the good and evil, whereas Christianity was meant to be the good and Islam the evil. As Sardar says, “[t]he traveller saw what he expected to see, and reported what his audience at home had been conditioned to expect”.[4] That hypocritical attitude was accompanied by the way Europe was conceived by Europeans themselves, namely as the measure and norm of all things.

Representations or rather mis representations of Islam in English literature of the Early Modern Period in general and in travel accounts written in that time in particular will be the subject of this paper. A general characteristic of travel writing on Islam will be given, two selected accounts – by William Biddulph and William Lithgow – will be discussed in a more detailed way. Before one expands on specific literature on the subject, however, a clarification of key terms is necessary. Interchangeable usage of words such as the ‘Orient’, the ‘East’, the ‘Ottomans’ or the ‘Muslims’ poses a lot of systematic problems. Ethnicity, religion, geographical area, and many other aspects of the topic become in this way intermingled. It is for instance important to remember that not every person living in the ‘East’ was a Turk and not every person belonging to the Ottoman Empire was a Muslim. Usage of such words as synonyms was often a result of ignorance, but it was also in many cases intentional: it was supposed to oversimplify reality and make it easier to discredit. Thus, the following chapter will provide an explanation of the terms mentioned, before literary representations of Islam will be presented in this paper.

II. The Notion of Orientalism

Especially important for studies on Islam has proved to be Edward W. Said’s book with the title “Orientalism. Western conceptions of the Orient” (1978).[5] This Palestinian American cultural critic conceives the Orientalism as being not only an academic tradition of writing on Islam, but also “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction between the «Orient» and (most of the time) the «Occident»”.[6] The term “Orientalism” emerged for the first time in 18th century.[7] The oriental discourse was, so to speak, a devise for picking and choosing: selected aspects of Muslim culture were presented in a way it suited the best for author’s purposes. It is in Said’s opinion the core meaning of Orientalism that it was “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”.[8] Common methods of selection were wilful misinterpretation of theological truths and denial of cultural achievements as well as leaving out the facts about Islam that would make it look more positive.

Wilful misunderstanding and knowledgeable ignorance remained the guiding spirit of Orientalism: the term denotes what the West wished to know, but not of what could have been known. Ignorance was not just a result of lacking access to sources, but rather a consequence of bad will of those who were only interested in defending their culture and who were not curious about other cultures at all. The hostile attitude towards the otherness became a visible reaction on Islam in early modern literature: “The account of Islamic religious doctrine and practise produced by early modern Orientalism bears little resemblance to the religion it purports to describe”.[9] According to this the Orientalism means a demonization of Islamic Other and making it a perfect reverse of European culture.[10]

The Islam was a constructed opposition to Christian faith and virtue, it was an opposition that was supposed to strengthen Christianity itself. This interpretation indicates that the general goal of authors writing on Islam could not be as exact rendition of that religion as possible. It was rather their interest to present Islam in the way it suited best to their own goal, which was defence and preservation of their own culture. Since Christian and Muslim cultures have existed for many centuries one cannot say that the Orientalism as a set of imaginings and beliefs is only a sum of false depictions provided by a bunch of ignorant authors. It is rather “a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment. Continued investment made Orientalism, as a system of knowledge about the Orient, an accepted grid for filtering through the Orient into Western consciousness, (…)”.[11]

II.I. The Meaning of the ‘Turks’

As it has already been mentioned, there is a general problem with usage of such words like Ottoman, Muslim or Turkish as synonymous. Muslims as members of a religion were often not perceived as such but rather as members of a particular nation. There was a tendency to ignore their religious identity in favour of a label that signified a “barbaric” ethnicity.[12] In theological disputes Islam was regarded as the enemy and the Turks were the embodiment of that enmity. The enmity developed after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and was motivated by subsequent fear of Ottoman expansion. After the loss of Byzantine Constantinople to the Ottoman forces, Muslims generally became known as ‘Turks’ regardless of their racial or ethnic origins. While sixteenth-century churchmen encouraged the conviction that the Christian faith was under attack, the ‘Turk’ became synonymous with Islam.[13] In a sermon by Bishop of Salisbury in 1565 the ‘Turks’ are called the “sworn and most deadly enemies”.[14] The term became so popular that the “Turkish religion” became the most common way of referring to Islam. The importance of Muslim religion was in this way diminished, since a vague word denoting a ethnical group became prevalent. The awareness of Muslim learning and civilization did not apply to the Ottomans, since they were regarded as barbarians, as Tatars coming from Scythia. The Ottoman Empire was by many authors not even called by its proper name. As the historian L. Carl Brown observes, “[t]he West for its part has stubbornly refused to call the Ottoman Empire by its name, instead labelling this multireligious, multilingual, multiethnic polity as ‘Turkey’ and its ruler ‘Turks’”.[15] It is important to bear in mind that the ‘Turks’ were actually no Turks, but rather Muslims. Interestingly, the word ‘Turk’ became used more generally as a pejorative description of somebody being violent or tyrannically patriarchal.[16]


[1] This conflict is of course also present in Christianity. The verdict of the European Court of Human Rights on hanging crosses in Italian school-classes in November 2009 shows the clash of Christian religion with secular state in Europe very clearly.

[2] Sardar, Ziauddin: Orientalism, Buckingham 1999, p. 17f.

[3] Quoted from Sardar. Ibid., p. 22.

[4] Ibid, p. 17.

[5] Studies on Early Modern Period literature on Islam are a rather young field of literary research. It visibly continues to grow profiting from general rise of interest in Islam since 09/11. Numerous international conferences and scholarly publications are taking place.

[6] Said, Edward W.: Orientalism. Western Concepts of the Orient, Harmondsworth 1995, p. 2.

[7] As Said writes, the term “Orientalism” has the disadvantage of being vague and general. It seems that it is anachronistic to use that term in regard to the early modern literature on Islam, which is the subject of this paper, because “it connotes the high-handed executive attitude of nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century European colonialism”. Ibid., p. 2.

[8] Ibid., p. 3.

[9] Vitkus, Daniel J.: Early Modern Orientalism. Representations of Islam in Sixteeth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe, in: Western Views of Islam in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. by David R. Blanks and Michael Frassetto, New York 1999, p. 207-230, here p. 216.

[10] It is important to note that the English identity in particular was compared and contrasted with many other images in early modern studies. There was not only the Muslim Other, but also the Irish Other, the Spanish Other, the Amerindian Other, and so on. Ibid., p. 1.

[11] Said, Orientalism. Western Concepts of the Orient, p. 6.

[12] This assessment is found in Vitkus: Turning Turk. English Theatre and the Multicultural Mediterranean 1570-1630, p. 216.

[13] See MacLean, Gerald M.: Looking East. English Writing and the Ottoman Empire Before 1800, New York 2007, p. 1.

[14] MacLean, Looking East. English Writing and the Ottoman Empire Before 1800, p. 2.

[15] Brown, L. Carl: Introduction, in: Imperial Legacy. The Ottoman Imprint on the Balkans and the Middle East, ed. by Carl L. Brown, New York 1996, p. 20.

[16] This wide usage of the term ‘Turk’ is exemplified in Shakespeare’s “Othello”.

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Representations of Islam in Travel Literature in Early Modern England
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für England- und Amerikastudien)
Early Modern England & Islam 1560-1640
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representations, islam, travel, literature, early, modern, england
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Adam Galamaga (Author), 2010, Representations of Islam in Travel Literature in Early Modern England, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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