Christian-Muslim Relations: A Bibliographical History, Volume 7: Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and South America 1500-1600

  • Book Title:
 Christian Muslim Relations
  • Book Author:
David ThomasJohn A. Chesworth
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History of Christian-Muslim Relations

Christians and Muslims have been involved in exchanges over matters of faith and morality since the founding of Islam. Attitudes between the faiths today are deeply coloured by the legacy of past encounters, and often preserve centuries-old negative views.

The History of Christian-Muslim Relations, Texts and Studies presents the surviving record of past encounters in authoritative, fully introduced text editions and annotated translations, and also monograph and collected studies.

It illustrates the development in mutual perceptions as these are contained in surviving Christian and Muslim writings, and makes available the arguments and rhetorical strategies that, for good or for ill, have left their mark on attitudes today.

The series casts light on a history marked by intellectual creativity and occasional breakthroughs in communication, although, on the whole beset by misunderstanding and misrepresentation. By making this history better known, the series seeks to contribute to improved recognition between Christians and Muslims in the future.

Introduction: Christians, Muslims and empires in the 16th century

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 had far-reaching consequences that not only stretched through the rest of the 15th century but also reverberated through the greater part of the 16th century, too. With their power consolidated on the European side of the Bosporus, the Ottomans quickly extended their territory through south-eastern and central Europe, and threatened regions much further west.

Their defeat of the Mamluks in 1517 brought the heartlands of Islam under their rule and opened up routes to the Indian Ocean, gaining them connections with Muslim rulers in western India and influence along the African seaboards.

The Muslim Ottomans were a matter of pressing concern in royal courts throughout Christian Europe, though they were not perceived as the only major problem. Within Catholic Christendom itself, the fear of rupture under the pressure of claims from Protestant reformers, and dissensions over questions of succession in Hungary and Poland meant that public appeals for unity against the common foe went unheeded.

With-out a united and strong opposition, Ottoman power in eastern Europe rapidly spread, and the map was changed for centuries.

In the west, the powers of Portugal and Spain planned direct confrontation with the Ottomans in the Mediterranean, and also sought indirect means of circumventing their hold on trade routes. The discovery of sea passages into the Indian Ocean offered routes to unimaginable wealth, and also opened new theatres of confrontation with Ottoman interests and a new arena for hostilities between Muslims and Christians.

As a period of expansion of Muslim and Christian rule, the 16th century is a time of unprecedented confrontation far away from the old sites of contest, but with many of the same attitudes and prejudices, as well as the same accusations and recriminations.

In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire was at the height of its power. In the east, Ottoman warships challenged the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, while in the west all the Muslim rulers of North Africa except Morocco submitted to Ottoman suzerainty and thus brought Muslim naval power into the western seas and even to the Atlantic, where corsairs from North Africa raided as far as the British Isles.1

The Ottoman invasion of Europe had started as early as the 14th century, and even at that time Murad I (1362-89) used his control over large parts of the Balkans to institute the devşirme system – an annual ‘levy’ of Christian boys who were forcibly converted and trained for absolute loyalty to the sultan and life-long service in one of the imperial institutions.

 The devşirme system, which lasted until the early 17th century, gen-erated much resentment against the Ottomans.2

Under Murad’s later successors, Murad II (1421-51) and Mehmed II (1451-81), the Ottoman state developed into an international empire. Mehmed made conquests in the Balkans in order to curb Habsburg expansion and block a possible corridor for Christian crusading expeditions.

 Among his many military triumphs, the siege and capture of Constantinople in 1453 was his most memorable feat, an event of great symbolic and religious significance whose consequences reverberated through both the eastern and the western worlds.3 Mehmed transformed the impoverished city into the bustling centre of his empire, renaming it Istanbul (though it continued to be known by its old name for centuries).4

Mehmed II was succeeded by his son Bayezid II (1481-1512), who consolidated his father’s conquests. Bayezid’s son, Selim I (1512-20), made treaties with the nobility in the Balkans to ensure their allegiance, and concentrated on curbing the growing Safavid influence in the eastern part of his empire.5

 Ottoman-Safavid confrontations in the Caucasus region eventually ended in the Peace of Amasya (1555) between Selim’s son and successor, the great Sultan Süleyman I, ‘the Magnificent’ (1520-66), and the Safavid Shah Ṭahmāsp I (1524-76), which resulted in the partitioning of the Caucasus buffer zone between the two empires.6 The Safavid and Ottoman usurpation of this area, which was home to large Orthodox Christian communities, was remembered by Georgian and Armenian Orthodox churches as a period of martyrdom.

Although active persecution was rare, individuals resisted Ottoman and Safavid control out of religious motives. They were often executed and were later declared martyrs by their churches.7 Meanwhile, Ottoman conquests in Europe came to a temporary halt.

Selim I not only waged war on the eastern borders of his empire, but also fought on the western frontiers, attacking the Mamluks in an attempt to gain control of the silk and slave trade. Military expeditions against the Mamluk Empire had already begun in the 1480s, but under Selim I they resulted in the conquest of Syria and Palestine in 1516, and in the defeat of the Mamluks in 1517.

This victory not only brought about the incorporation of Egypt, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula into the Ottoman Empire, together with the much-coveted holy cities of Islam, but also secured Ottoman control over the overland spice route.8

The Ottoman conquests of Palestine, Egypt and other areas with large non-Muslim communities led to the production of a great quantity of legal documents and royal decrees (firmans) pertaining to the status of non-Muslims in the empire, regulating conversion, the jizya, the permissibility of changing churches into mosques, the rights of non-Muslims in court, the right to celebrate non-Muslim religious festivals, the rights of pilgrims and so on.9

Selim’s successor, Süleyman I, followed in his great-grandfather  Mehmed II’s footsteps. After consolidating his power in Egypt, he turned his attention to Central Europe, capturing Belgrade in 1521, defeating the Hungarian armies at the Battle of Mohács in 1526 and unsuccessfully laying siege to Vienna in 1529. In 1532, he made a second attempt to capture Vienna but was waylaid by the Croatian commander, Nikola Jurišić at Köszeg, near Sopron in present-day Hungary.

 A third attempt to capture the city, again unsuccessful, was not made until 1683, and this marked the end of Ottoman expansion in Central Europe and the rise of Habsburg control over Hungary and Transylvania.10

Ottoman advances in Europe were facilitated by the absence of any united resistance. Complaints that Hungarian nobles were more concerned with petty squabbles among themselves than with the advancing enemy were common in the 16th century, while it became almost routine for prominent scholars and writers from threatened areas such as Croatia to address often elaborate speeches to the pope or the emperor, or to gatherings of national leaders.

They had little apparent effect. One of the main impediments to resistance against the Ottomans was the contest over the Hungarian throne. After King Louis II was killed at the battle of Mohács in 1526, two candidates emerged, John Zápolya, a leading Hungarian general, and Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, brother-in-law of Louis II and brother of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.

Both had themselves proclaimed king, dividing the loyalties of the Hungarian nobles, and in 1527 Ferdinand’s forces moved against John Zápolya’s. Zápolya was forced to flee, and in 1529 he sought the help of Sultan Sül-eyman, ceding Hungary as an Ottoman vassal state.

He was thus enabled to take his throne, but never secured it against the Habsburg threat, and at one point was forced to name Ferdinand as his successor. He died in 1540, leaving an infant son, John Sigismund. Ferdinand came forward to claim his throne, and Süleyman advanced against him, taking possession of central Hungary. The dispute over the rightful ruler continued for years, with the Habsburgs and Zápolya’s successors fighting against each other, rather than against the Ottomans.

During the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent, the Ottoman armies acquired a reputation for unrivalled cruelty, both to their enemies in the

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