One of the recurring themes we constantly encounter in attacks upon the Muslim community or upon Islam itself, is the accusation that somehow, the Muslim World has missed out on that essential component of western civilization, the “Enlightenment”. While no-one would deny that this is what helped civilizing Europe and bringing it out of its dark, intolerant past, we need to examine that phenomenon more closely.
The Enlightenment, which for the English speaking world stretched from the early 1600s until the early 1800s, was a period during which the old traditions and superstitions of Europe were overthrown. Scientific thinking developed, untrammeled by clerical considerations, executive government became subject to law and the will of the people, the Established Church could no longer claim total obedience.
Since the time of the Emperor Theodosius and the imposition of the Christianity defined by the Nicene Creed, heresy or deviation from official church teaching was a crime punishable by death. Rebellion against the emperor also merited death.
The twin pillars of Christian civilization for over a thousand years were a divinely instituted church which could not be questioned, alongside the divinely appointed ruler who had absolute authority over his subjects. The Protestant Reformation began in 1517 when Luther challenged the authority of the Roman Pope and survived. Before this heretics had been burnt alive, but this one was protected by political allies and his ideas spread. In the following decades new ideas, facilitated by the spread of books from the new printing press, meant old ideas were challenged, as were styles of political control.
In England, where the determination of Parliament to resist the claims of Charles I to rule by divine right led to the English Civil War, the influx of new ideas was world shattering. The king was executed in 1649, a republic was established, and a religious revolution occurred. Religious radicals of the time looked around for possible blueprints for a future English society which would not be as bloody as their past.
While the collapse of the republic and the return of Charles II put a hold on much of this ferment, the radical ideas did not disappear. For example, Henry Stubbe, who had been a soldier of the republic then became a member of the Royal Court and wrote propaganda for the king, was also writing the very radical “The Originall and Progress of Mahometanism”. This remained in handwritten form as its ideas were so dangerously advanced for the time, but it had a profound effect upon political development in England over the next 100 years. It was apparently circulated hand to hand over that period.
Once his thinking had been freed from the restrictions of the time, he examined Christian teaching with a fresh mind. He found that much of what was being taught as “Christian” had in fact no relation to the message of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament. The book begins with a chapter demonstrating how the message of Jesus Christ has been perverted by the Church. He regarded the sacraments as pagan rituals introduced many years after Jesus and he said of the disciples of Jesus : “They did never believe Christ to be the natural Son of God, by eternal Generation, or any tenet depending thereon, or prayed unto him, or believed the Holy Ghost, or the Trinity of persons in one Deity.”
All Euro-Christian commentators up until Stubbe had written in a hostile and oppositional manner about Islam and Prophet Muhammad. He was the first serious scholar to move away from the old anti-Muslim sources then current, to Arabic histories and chronicles in Latin translation. Although these sources were available to others, it was only Stubbe who studied them in depth and who used them to establish a clear picture of Islam and its founder. Garcia argues “ that the beginnings of the Enlightenment in England can be traced, in some measure, to Stubbe and his views on Islam”.
Garcia writes that according to Stubbe, Muhammad “was a virtuous republican who promoted the seven Noahetic precepts, the Mosaic law, and Christ’s word. Stubbe’s account offers a reassuring message for English nonconformists: in an age dominated by Trinitarian persecution, only Islam’s tolerant principles can guarantee a constitutional republicanism that would allow them to become citizens equally entitled to rights, property, and privilege. “
A whole movement developed in England which undermined the ancient twin pillars of absolute church and absolute monarch. The radicals who espoused this cause were known at the time as the “Protestant Mahometans” the ‘Mahometans’ being the old name for Muslims. At this time the Exclusionist struggle began. The Exclusionists aimed to prevent James II, the successor to Charles II, from taking the throne. As he was a Roman Catholic and an advocate of despotic divine right rule, he was understood to threaten both religious freedom and political liberty.
The Protestant Mahometans, as they were called, were strong advocates of a limited Protestant monarchy, which would be subject to parliament and the law. They also openly advocated freedom of religion, based on the Islamic model. The Tories, supporters of James II , used an islamophobic assault similar to that used by Islamophobes today. They accused supporters of constitutional monarchy and religious toleration of links to foreign Protestant subversives who were, at the time fighting alongside the Ottomans against the Austrian monarchy which was trying to take Hungary.
Count Teckely had aligned himself and the Protestants of Hungary with the Ottomans in the struggle against the Catholic Hapsburgs of Austria. They knew that they would be wiped out by the Hapsburgs but would be protected by the Ottomans under the millet system. In an attempt to associate the English reformers and religious radicals with this subversive alliance of Protestants and Turks, they were called Teckelites . The Tories tried to portray the notion of constitutional monarchy as an Islamic innovation, foreign to Christian tradition. Garcia writes that they claimed “…these infidels plan to overthrow Christendom, renew the English Civil War, and welcome an Ottoman invasion.”
In fact, their ideas prevailed and today we have the constitutional monarchy, since the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and we have freedom of religion. These were the fruits of the English Enlightenment and they were in no small part due to the examples taken from Islam by the reformers of the time. Garcia argues that the Exclusionist Crisis and the Glorious Revolution of the 1680s shaped British history for many centuries to come. “…the “Whig Triumph” of 1688 was an Islamic-inspired event that prevented the counter-reformation from spreading into England.” (Garcia p.58) It also prevented the restoration of Divine Right monarchy. Those thinkers, then called the “Protestant Mahometans” , brought about a revolution in western political and religious thought.