The Islamic Challenge



AMID the internal conflicts of Christendom, political or theological, some thoughtful men were disturbed by the apparent neutrality with which Providence looked upon the greater contest between Christianity and Mohammedanism. That faith had been driven from Spain, but Darul-Islam (“the world of Islam”) was still immense. It included Indonesia and northern India; indeed, this was the age of the brilliant Mohammedan Mogul dynasty at Delhi (1526–1707). It embraced Afghanistan, much of Central Asia, and all of Iran, where in this period Persian art would display its sunset glory. West of Persia the Islamic realm was the Ottoman or Turkish Empire, then rivaled in extent only by the empire of Spain. It kept in its grasp all the coasts of the Black Sea, controlled the mouths of the Danube, the Dnieper, and the Dniester, and helped its allies, the Tatar khans, to control the Crimea and the mouth of the Don. It took in Armenia, Asia Minor, Syria, Arabia—all the Near East. There it held the most famous cities of the ancient and medieval world: Babylon, Nineveh, Baghdad, Damascus, Antioch, Tarsus, Smyrna (İzmir), Nicaea (İznik), Mecca, and Jerusalem, where by Moslem permission Christians worshiped at the tomb of Christ. In the eastern Mediterranean it secured the great islands of Cyprus, Rhodes, and Crete. North Africa was overwhelmingly Moslem, from the Red Sea to the Atlantic: Egypt was governed by pashas appointed by the sultans; Tripoli, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco were ruled by local Mohammedan dynasties whose submission to the sultans varied inversely with their distance from Constantinople. This was the age of the Saadian dynasty (1550–1668) in Morocco, when its capital, Marrakech, hummed with commerce and shone with art. In Europe the Ottoman power extended from the Bosporus through Hellas (usually including Athens and Sparta), the Balkans, and Hungary to within a hundred miles of Vienna; through Dalmatia to the gates of Venice; through Bosnia and Albania to just a leap across the Adriatic into papal Italy. There, and at besieged Vienna, the great debate was not between Protestants and Catholics, but between Christianity and Islam. Within that Moslem cordon Christendom lived its divided life.

No matter how far west Islam reached, it remained Oriental. Constantinople was a window on Europe, but Ottoman roots stretched too far back into Asia to let proud Turkey ape the West. In some parts of Islam the heat of the desert or the tropics burned out the vital spirits; the uninhabited distances discouraged commerce; men could not bestir themselves so acquisitively as the West Europeans; they cultivated immobility and were more readily content. The unchanging crafts of Islam were exquisite, but required time and taste and did not lend themselves to large-scale industry. The caravans were patient, but they could not compete with the commercial fleets of Portugal, Spain, England, and the Netherlands, which used all-water routes to India; however, some ports on the Mediterranean, like Smyrna, prospered from the transfer of goods between ships and caravans. The Mohammedan religion inspired men to hopeful bravery in war, but to an enervating fatalism in peace; it lulled them with dervish dances and mystic dreams; and though it had in its youth allowed great science, it had now frightened philosophy into a scholasticism of barren pedantry. The ulema—the scholar-theologians who wrote the laws on the basis of the Koran—formed the children in faithful orthodoxy, and saw to it that no Age of Reason should raise its head in Islam. There the conflict between religion and philosophy gave religion a decisive victory.

Moreover, that religion made easy conquests in lands won from Christendom. In Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria the Eastern Christian Church still had patriarchs, but the Christian population was rapidly diminishing. In Asia Minor the Armenians and in Egypt the Copts remained Christian, but generally in Asia, Africa, and the Balkans the masses had gone over to Mohammedanism. Probably the reasons were practical: if they remained Christian they were excluded from public office, they paid a substantial tax in lieu of military service, and of every ten children they had to surrender a son to be reared as a Moslem Janissary for the army or the bureaucracy.

Otherwise the Christians in Islam enjoyed a religious toleration such as no Christian ruler would have dreamed of according to Mohammedans in Christian states. At Smyrna, for example, the Moslems had fifteen mosques, the Christians seven churches, the Jews seven synagogues.1 In Turkey and the Balkans the Greek Orthodox Church was protected by Turkish authorities from any molestation in their worship.2 Pepys thought that most of Hungary yielded to the Turks because it had more religious liberty under Ottoman rule than under the Catholic emperors.3 This was certainly true of heterodox Christians. “The Calvinists of Hungary and Transylvania, and the Unitarians of the latter country,” reported Sir Thomas Arnold, “preferred to submit to the Turks rather than fall into the hands of the fanatical House of Hapsburg,” and “the Protestants of Silesia looked with longing upon Turkey, and would gladly have purchased religious freedom at the price of submission to Muslim rule.”4 More striking still is the judgment of the leading Christian authority on the history of modern Greece:

Many Greeks of high talent and moral character were so sensible of the superiority of the Mohammedans that, even when they escaped being drafted into the sultan’s household as tribute children, they voluntarily embraced the faith of Mahomet. The moral superiority of Ottoman society must be allowed to have had as much weight in causing these conversions … as the personal ambition of individuals.5

This “moral superiority” of the seventeenth-century Ottomans is difficult to assess. Tavernier, who traveled and traded in Moslem lands in 1631–33, 1638–43, and later, reported, “Turkey is full of thieves, that keep in troops together, and waylay merchants on the road.”6 The Turks were known for their calm benevolence, but the same religion that tamed their unsocial impulses in peace released them violently in war with “infidels.” The enslavement of captured Christians was sanctioned, and there were slave-capturing raids by Turks on Christian lands near Ottoman frontiers;7 however, in number and cruelty the Turkish trade in slaves lagged far behind the Christian slave raids in Negro Africa. Sexual indulgence was apparently more abundant and enervating in Islam than in Christendom, though it was usually kept within the orderly limits of polygamy. Turkish society was almost exclusively male, and since there was no permitted association of men with women outside the home, the Moslems found companionship in homosexual relationships, platonic or physical. Lesbianism flourished in the zenana.8

Among a large minority there was an active though circumscribed intellectual life. Literacy was probably higher in European Turkey, in the seventeenth century, than in Christendom. We may judge the abundance of the literature from a bibliography that Hajji Khalfah compiled (1648) of over 25,000 books in the Arabic, Turkish, and Persian languages. Hundreds of volumes were available on theology, jurisprudence, science, medicine, rhetoric, biography, and history.9 Prominent among the historians was Ahmed ibn Muhammad, whose History of the Mohammedan Dynasties of Spain has often buttressed our story; we have known him chiefly as al-Maqqari, so named from his native village in Algeria. Most of his book is made up of passages transcribed or abridged from earlier narratives, yet it is a remarkable production for its time, giving an account not merely of politics and war, but of morals, law, women, music, literature, and medicine, and bringing the record to life with vivid details and humanizing anecdotes.

Nearly every literate Turk wrote poetry, and (as in Japan) the rulers competed zealously in the game. Mehmet Suleiman Oglou, more melodiously known as Fuzuli, composed the finest love lyrics of the age; they sound silly in the poor translation available in English, but we catch his meaning—that the young women of Baghdad were warm and soft and smooth to the touch, timid and tender till yoked. Mahmud Abdu’l Baqi (d. 1600), greatest of Ottoman lyric poets, after being the favorite singer of Suleiman the Magnificent, continued to warble for thirty-four years after his patron’s death. Nefi of Erzurum (d. 1635) wrote satires with a sting, one of which must have reached Allah, for while Murad IV was reading it a thunderbolt fell at the royal feet; so the Sultan tore up the volume and banished the poet from Constantinople. He was soon recalled; but another satire pricked Vizier Beyram Pasha, who had him beheaded.10

Ottoman art still produced masterpieces. The Mosque of Ahmed I rose in 1610 to dominate the capital with its six soaring minarets, its succession of swelling domes, the massive fluted columns of its interior, its mosaic arches, lordly script, and shining ornament. Five years later Ahmed dedicated to his favorite wife the lovely Yeni-Validé-Jamissi Mosque. Two majestic mosques were added to Damascus in this period; and in Adrianople the unrivaled architect Sinan, who had designed the Mosque of Suleiman, built for Selim II a temple that some rank higher than any in Constantinople.

No civilization has surpassed Islam in the making of artistic tiles. See, for example, those in the Mosque of Ahmed I, or, still more beautiful, those that adorn the entrance to the mausoleum of Selim II, near St. Sophia’s: bouquets of white and blue flowers in a field of green, blue, and red sprays and foliage; living flowers could not be fairer, and might envy this permanence. In this age İznik—where, thirteen centuries back, Constantine had presided over the historic council that fixed the Christian creed—was famous for its lustered tiles; there are convincing samples in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Miniature painting in Turkey echoed that of Persia, which we shall look at presently. Calligraphy was in so high repute (story had it that a line of handwriting by Mir Imad was sold for a gold piece even in his lifetime)11 that no book was printed in Turkey before 1728. In textiles too the Turks were pupils of the Persians, but they yielded to no others in excellence. Turkish rugs were not quite as delicate in texture, intricate in design, or rich in color as the Persian, but they stand high in the history of this art. Already in the fifteenth century Turkish rugs had won renown in the West, for we see them in the paintings of Mantegna, and later in Pinturicchio, Paris Bordone, and Holbein. Many Tudor mansions were carpeted with Turkish rugs; even the hardy Cromwell had twenty-two;12and we find them represented in the Gobelin tapestries illustrating the life of Louis XIV. The West was learning that the East had arts as well as guns.

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