Islamic Civilization during the European Renaissance

Islamic Civilization during the European Renaissance

=Difficulties in discerning Islamic history during the Renaissance Period=

Information on Islamic civilization in Europe during the Renaissance period (11th to 16th centuries) is scattered and widespread. Due to this, subjects covered in this article are varied in both geography and subject matter. The following article will present Islamic civilization in areas of Europe during the time of the Renaissance.

There are many reasons that history is scarce on the subject of Islamic civilization in this period. One cause is because there was limited direct interaction between the two cultures even though there was plenty of trade between Europe and the Middle East at this time. Merchants would often deal through an intermediary, [James Chamber, "The Devil’s Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe", (Edison: Castle Books, 2003), page 33.] a practice common since the time of the Roman Empire. Historians have noted that even during the twelfth and fourteenth centuries the two parties had little interest in learning about each other. [Jane I. Smith. “Islam and Christendom,” in "The Oxford History of Islam". Edited by John L. Esposito. "Oxford Islamic Studies Online". (accessed January 29, 2008), page 1.]

Another reason for limited knowledge about Islamic civilization during the European Renaissance is due to the persecution of Muslims through the Spanish Inquisition. This persecution forced many Muslims to flee to the Middle East or North Africa. The Catholic Church’s opposition to Islamic civilization is best demonstrated in its plea to the Council of Vienna in 1311 to ban Muslim worship in Europe. [P.S. Konningsveld, “Muslim Slaves and Captives in the Western Europe During the Late Middle Ages,” "Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations", Volume 6.1 (1995): page5.] Such sentiment reveals that many primary documents of the era contain a heavy bias.


Granada was the last stronghold of the region of Spain known as Andalusia, which was considered a pinnacle of culture in the western Muslim Empire. [“Andalusia.” The Islamic World: Past and Present. Edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed February 2, 2008).] Trade from Granada included silk, ceramic, and porcelain. From 1230 until its fall to the Christians, the city was under the rule of the Nasrid dynasty . [“Granada.” The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed February 2, 2008).] Ferdinand III of Castile had conquered all Andalusia by 1251. [“Andalusia.”] It was not until after the 1469 marriage between Prince Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile that Alhambra, the Nasrid palace of Granada, fell to foreign forces. [David Nicole, El Cid and the Reconquista: 1050-1492, (Great Britain: Osprey Publishing Limited, 1988), page 8.] Alhambra fell to the combined forces of Isabella and Ferdinand on January 2, 1492. [David Nicole, page 39.]

Alhambra was known as one of the greatest achievements of urban art in the Muslim world during the time of the Nasrids. [“Granada.”] The Court of the Myrtles and the Court of the Lions are the only two portions of the palace to survive to present time. [“Alhambra.” The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed February 2, 2008).]


The turban in art and politics

The turban was the ideal iconic symbol of Islamic faith and civilization to a large population of Renaissance Europe. The turban appeared in the paintings of Italian and Flemish artists when they depicted scenes of the Ottoman Empire and Biblical lore. Famous figures such as Suleyman the Magnificent, Hagar, and Hayreddin Barbarossa appear in these paintings. The tradition of depicting Biblical characters in turbans has continued through to this century, as at least one of the wise men is always depicted with a turban. [Nabil I. Matar, “Renaissance England and the Turban,” Images of the Other: Europe and the Muslim World Before 1700 Ed. David Blanks, (Cairo: Cairo Press, 1997).]

Turban iconography was highly prominent, especially in Renaissance England. While friendly relations were formed between England and the Islamic civilization of the Middle East in the early sixteenth century, Turkish fashions became popular for the higher classes. During times of interaction with Istanbul, Queen Elizabeth I of England wore Turkish clothing styles. It was believed that she favored working with the Islamic sultans of Istanbul rather than the Roman Catholic leaders of Europe. These suspicions were heightened when she asked Sultan Murad III and his son Mohammad III for military assistance. Although she never did receive any assistance from the sultans, her relations with the Sultan and his son did not waver. [Nabil I. Matar, “Renaissance England and the Turban.”]


The Islamic civilization in Kosovo was highly influential to the province. Many members of Kosovo’s higher class, such as the Serbs and the Vlachs, converted to Islam during the Dusan period (1331-1355). A large part of the reason for the conversion was probably economic and social, as Muslims had considerably more rights and privileges than Christian subjects. As a result Kosovo’s three largest towns were majority Muslim by 1485, where Christians had once formed a dense population before the rise of the Ottoman Empire. The movement was effective due to the wandering of Sufis who traveled around the region teaching religion as they went. By the 1500’s, towns like Prizren, Skopje, and Dakovica had established centers of learning that became crucial in inspiring and educating scholars who would then use their knowledge to benefit the Ottoman empire and the Muslim world. From this time onward, many books circulated in the region that had a Persian influence while written in the Albanian language and Arabic alphabet. The oldest genre in this style is known as Bejtexhinji poetry. [Isa Blumi. “Kosovo.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. (accessed January 29, 2008)]

Muslim scholars of the era

By the fourteenth century, Muslim and Christian scholars became interested in the religions and histories of each other. In this century, Muslims wrote many works that concerned religion and history. Such an example is the Persian scholar Rashid al-Din (1247-1318), who wrote two history books. The first concerned the history of the Franks. The second focused on ancient Rome, Christian saints, and pagan traditions. Rashid al-Din is credited with the introduction of Christian history and lore to the eastern world of Islam. [Jane I. Smith, page 2.]

Writing at the same time as Rashid al-Din was the Hanbal jurist and theologian Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyah (1263-1329). He was trained in both the religious and nonreligious sciences of the time. His book entitled Those Who Have Changed the Book of Christ, argues the earlier work of a Transjordan Melkite bishop. [Jane I. Smith, page 3.]

Muslim slaves

Slavery at the time of the European Renaissance was a socio-economic factor especially around the Mediterranean Sea region. It was accepted and approved for both Muslims and Christians. Most slaves came from warfare, privateering, or the international slave trade. Only some of the Arabian slaves in Europe were Muslims by origin. [P.S. Konningsveld, P.S., page15.] Many of the Muslim slaves were baptized before they were sold for the first time and then were given a new Christian name. There were, however, some Muslims who were not baptized and who kept their original names, but if they had children the newborns were immediately baptized. Most Muslim slaves converted to Christianity because there was hard social pressure at the time for them to convert. They also improved their social position by converting to Christianity, such as they would rise from a slave to a serf. [P.S. Konningsveld, page16.]

There were a small percentage of learned Muslim captives who were among the intellectual elite in their original hometowns among the Muslim prisoners and slaves. Captured Muslim scientists, physicians, and copyists were in high demand at slave markets. Learned Muslim captives were held in high regard by the authorities and they were sold for very high prices. They were wanted for the knowledge and advancements the Arabs had made over the Europeans. Copyists of Arabic manuscripts were needed in Spain to translate Arabic texts for the practice of medicine, the study of Arabic philosophy, and because of the popular interest in Europe for the translations of Arabic scientific texts. Learned Muslim captives played a very important role in the spread of Arabic science and philosophy over the Christian world. [P.S. Konningsveld, page10.]

The liberation of Muslim slaves was a state affair and elevated the popular esteem of the sovereign government. Muslim slaves were either freed or exchanged through special legislation and international treaties. [P.S. Konningsveld, page6.]

Examples of learned Muslim captives

One account of a highly esteemed Muslim slave comes from the year 1340. The slave was from the town of Villafranca, Spain, and was owned by municipal authorities in the town. The slave was a learned physician who specialized in eye diseases. Word of this physician reached King Pedro IV of Aragon, who had an ill councilor in his court. The king ordered his jurors to bring the slave to him in Barcelona and treat his ill councilor.

Another account is of Moroccan geographer al-Hassan al-Wazzan al-Fasi, who made important contributions to geography and Italian texts. In 1519, al-Fasi was captured by a group of Sicilian pirates while he was on his way home from Egypt. When he was picked up he had scholarly notes on him that he had made from his travels through Africa. The pirates soon realized his value and they gave him to Pope Leo X in Rome. Al-Fasi was baptized on June 6, 1520, and renamed Joannis Leo, but he became known as Leo the African or Leo Africanus. Leo Africanus learned Italian, taught in Barcelona, and made Arabic notes in a book called Description of Africa, which was used for many years as an important source of geographic information on Muslim Africa. [P.S. Konningsveld, page10.]

Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire emerged in 1299 and lasted until 1919. The Ottomans were strong proponents of Sunni Islam. [Everett Jenkins, Jr., The Muslim Diaspora: a Comprehensive Reference to the Spread of Islam in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2000), 2:7.] In the thirteenth century, the kingdom was only in a small portion of northwest Anatolia but by the 1500s, it expanded to the heartland of the Byzantine Empire and its capital, Constantinople. The height of the Ottoman Empire occurred under the sultans Selim the Grim, also known as Selim I (1512-1520) and Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566). Under their reigns, the Turks conquered Egypt, Syria, and the North coast of Africa, the Red Sea, the island of Rhodes, and the Balkans all the way to the Great Hungarian Plain. In addition, the Ottoman Empire's allies, the Barbary States, sent Barbary pirates to raid parts of Western Europe in order to capture Christian slaves to sell at slave markets in North Africa throughout the Renaissance period. [cite web |url= |title=British Slaves on the Barbary Coast] [cite web |url= |title=Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates by Christopher Hitchens, City Journal Spring 2007]

Muslim Women

Muslim women were highly admired by English men during the Renaissance. They especially caught the attention of English writers at the time and were often idealized by them. [Nabil Matar, “The Representation of Muslim Women in Renaissance England,” The Muslim World, 86, (1996) page 50] What the English writers saw in Muslim women greatly differed from libertinism (disregard of authority or convention in sexual or religious matters), which the writers feared among English women. Muslim women at the time were thought to be the perfect representation on how an Englishwoman should act, and they were presented as the foil for English women as well. Muslim women were constantly compared to European women and idealized by English authors as a perfect image of female docility. [ Nabil Matar, “The Representation of Muslim Women in Renaissance England,” page 60.] English authors liked how Muslim women in the Ottoman Empire had familial submissiveness and were separated from political and religious affairs. Alexander Ross, a writer and controversialist living in the first half of the seventeenth century, praised the Turks for being “more modest in their conversation generally than we; Men and Women converse not together promiscuously, as among us.” [Nabil Matar, “The Representation of Muslim Women in Renaissance England,” page 51.] Ross believed that England could learn a great deal from the Muslims. [Nabil Matar, “The Representation of Muslim Women in Renaissance England,” page 51.] During the Renaissance, English women disrespected their husbands because they were free to do what they wanted, which society believed led to a moral deterioration. [Nabil Matar, “The Representation of Muslim Women in Renaissance England,” page 52.] European women also began leaving home to become male-like figures in society. Other European women attacked male chauvinism and defended the status of women by handing out pamphlets. Women rebelled against male religious hierarchy and began to replace men as preachers and pastors. [Nabil Matar, “The Representation of Muslim Women in Renaissance England,” page 61.] Christian writers highly admired Muslim women because they were frugal compared to English women, they were respected by their husbands because they did not play “false” with them, and because Muslim women went immediately back to work after giving birth and they still had time to raise their children themselves, unlike English women. [ Nabil Matar, “The Representation of Muslim Women in Renaissance England,” page 53 and 54.]

In appearances, Englishmen believed that Muslim women were prettier than English women were. Englishmen also liked how Muslim women wore decent apparel and always covered their faces until they were in their homes and in the presence of their husbands. According to one man, Muslim women were “modest in their garments and they are commonly so well fitted and made as a man cannot behold anything more modest and comely.” [Nabil Matar, “The Representation of Muslim Women in Renaissance England,” page 56.]

The Muslim model became an example of the “exotic” and “Utopian” ideal because it was not possible in European society. [Nabil Matar, “The Representation of Muslim Women in Renaissance England,” page 60.] European men sought to reinforce the traditional role of women and wanted their women to adhere to the model of Muslim women as frugal, obedient, wearing modest apparel, and respectful towards their husbands. Muslims and Englishmen differed in various ways, especially in their religious beliefs and militarism, but they did agree with each other on the representation of Muslim women. [Nabil Matar, “The Representation of Muslim Women in Renaissance England,” page 61.]


ee also

*Islamic contributions to Medieval Europe

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