Martin Luther and Islam: A Study in Sixteenth-Century Polemics and Apologetics (The History of Christian-Muslim Relations)

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 Martin Luther And Islam
  • Book Author:
Adam S. Francisco
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The Ottoman assault upon Vienna in 1529 sent shockwaves through-out Germany. Although the Habsburg army had successfully thwarted the attack, according to eyewitness accounts some 30,000 people in sur-rounding towns and villages had either been killed or taken back to Istanbul for sale in the slave market.1 What was perhaps more unsettling, at least to those who were perceptive of the ideological motivation behind the siege, was the determination of Sultan Süleyman (1520–1566) and his Muslim Turkish army to ‘conquer the infidel lands for Islam.’2

In response to the threat, and after reading what he considered the best description of Ottoman religion and culture—Georgius de Hungaria’s Tractatus de moribus, condictionibus et nequicia Turcorum (1481)—Martin Luther (1483–1546) wrote, ‘Since we now have the Turk and his religion at our very doorstep our people must be warned lest, either moved by the splendour of the Turkish religion and the exter-nal appearances of their customs or displeased by the meagre display of our own faith or the deformity of our customs, they deny their Christ andfollowMu.hammad.’3

Assessing the nature of Ottoman religion and culture, and the threat that it posed to Christians even further, he con-tinued:

We see that the religion of the Turks or Muh. ammad is far more splendid in  ceremonies—and,  I  might  almost  say,  in  customs—than  ours,  even including  that  of  the  religious  or  all  the  clerics.  The  modesty  and  the simplicity of their food, clothing, dwellings, and everything else, as well as the fasts, prayers, and common gatherings of the people [at mosque] that this book reveals are nowhere seen among us …. [W]hich of our monks,be it a Carthusian (they who wish to appear the best) or a Benedictine, is  not  put  to  shame  by  the  miraculous  and  wonderous  abstinence  and discipline among their religious?

Our religious are mere shadows when compared to them, and our people clearly profane compared to theirs. Not even true Christians, nor Christ himself, not the apostles or prophets ever exhibited so great a display [of religiosity]. This is the reason why

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many persons so easily depart from faith in Christ for Mu .hammadanism and adhere to it so tenaciously. I sincerely believe that no papist, monk, cleric or their equal in faith would be able to remain in their faith if they should spend three days among the Turks.4

In fact, he impulsively added, ‘if it should come to the point of argu-ing about religion, the whole papistry with all of its trappings would fall. Nor would they be able to defend their own faith and at the same

time refute the faith of Muhammad.’5 In light of this startling evalua-tion, Luther thought it was vital to address the religion of the Turks, for, as Richard Southern wrote years ago, ‘he looked forward to the probability that Christendom would be engulfed in Islam.’6

As is the case with nearly every other aspect of the Reformer’s thought, there are quite a few scholarly surveys dealing with the theme of Luther, the Turks, and Islam,7 but few have examined, specifically, his criticism of Muslim beliefs and arguments in favour of the Christian religion. Even those that have attempted to do so suggest he was not really concerned with the ideology of Islam, and thus failed to engage it theologically. For example, in his influential essay, Martin Luther und der Islam, Ludwig Hagemann argues that Luther ‘was not concerned with Islam as a religious factor.’ Instead, his ‘argument with Islam was essentially determined by two factors: 1.

 It was shaped by the contemporary military threat of Europe by the Muslim Ottomans. 2.It rested completely upon his own existential dispute with Rome.’ Both of these ‘obstructed his view’ of Islam as a ‘faith with its own roots and originality’, he contends, and, rather than his knowledge and perceptions of the problems of Islamic doctrines, best explains his ‘massive critique’ of the Turks and their religion.8 More recently, in his unpublished 2003 dissertation, ‘Martin Luther’s Response to the Turkish Threat’, David Choi argues that, while Luther was informed of Muslim beliefs, his argumentation with Islam was only a matter of coincidence. Accordingly, he wrote, Luther ‘was interested in the Turks primarily as a pastor and only secondarily as a theologian and inciden-tally as a scholar and polemicist.’

Thus, he concludes that Luther was not really concerned with critiquing the Qur”¯an, attacking the prophethood of Mu .hammad, criticising and refuting Muslim beliefs, or arguing for the superiority of Christianity. Rather, he was primarily interested in encouraging Christians to ‘repent, love the gospel, and be obedient to their authorities’ as a way of dealing with the threat of the Ottoman Turks.9

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This study will demonstrate that Luther’s approach towards Islam was much more theological and apologetic than is generally acknowledged.10 As such, his thoughts and writings on the Turks and their religion deserve more attention in the history of Christian perceptions of and responses to Islam, for, in his unique attacks on Islam as well as his assimilation of apologetic material from previous centuries, he put forward his own subtly-nuanced approach towards the Muslim world.11

This will be demonstrated, first, by exploring the historical background of Christian views and approaches to the Muslim world during the medieval period up until the first half of the sixteenth century in order to obtain a general view of previous approaches. It will also help establish the broader historical context which provided the impetus for Luther’s engagement with Islam.

The dimensions of Luther’s thought concerning the threat that the Ottomans posed to Europe will then be focused in on and surveyed to provide a comprehensive picture of his ideas regarding how Germany and its Christians should respond to the threat. Included in this aspect of Luther’s mental world, as will be shown, was a growing anticipation of contact between Christians and Muslims. This immediately gave rise to his conviction that the adverse ideology of Islam had to be countered. Thus, before turning to an examination of his various attempts to ‘defend’ the Christian faith

and ‘refute the faith of Muhammad’, his study and perceptions of the beliefs and practices of Ottoman Muslim society are examined. While Luther was no Islamicist, he did obtain, considering the circumstances and historical context, a fairly decent knowledge of Islam, and drawing upon his knowledge he set out in 1529 to inform his readers about the religion of the Turks.

In two successive periods he attempted to expose the inherent problems with Muslim beliefs as well as to provide arguments against their religious practices and doctrines and defences of the superiority and legitimacy of the Christian faith. All in all, while borrowing and adapting many arguments and criticisms from medieval authors, Luther provided a somewhat fresh approach to Islam, ranging from formal theological argumentation to practical advice for Chris-tians living amidst Muslims.

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The foregoing study will prove beneficial for at least three reasons. To begin with, it will contribute to Luther scholarship in general, especially his place in the history of Christian apologetics, for neither of the two most popular and accessible historical surveys—Avery Dulles’ His-tory of Apologetics and Otto Zöckler’s Geschichte der Apologie—even mention his engagement with Islam and the Qur”¯an.12

It will also provide a per-spective into Luther’s thought on a non-Christian religion other than his notorious dealings with Judaism. And thirdly, it will be helpful for understanding the intellectual turmoil that was established in this key period of Christian-Muslim relations, which, in turn, provides the back-drop for many of the tensions that remain in the modern era.13

Before delving into this study, a few comments are necessary in order to explain some of its stylistic peculiarities. First, and already appearing above in notes 3 through 5, citations from Luther’s writings are always given to the standard critical edition of his works, the Weimarer Aus-gabe (WA), in the following format: volume:page number.line(s).

 If a translation of a cited text has been used, then the source for the trans-lation is provided in parentheses (e.g., LW for the American Edition of Luther’s Works) following the Weimar reference. If there is no English translation available (or it is inadequate), the original text is also pro-vided in the footnote. Furthermore, when Luther’s works are refer-enced, a short title is provided rather than referring non-descriptively to ‘WA.’ With regard to titles, whether it is Luther’s writing or another medieval or early modern work, they generally appear as they did in their time unless only a title assigned by a modern editor is available.

On a different note, dates provided with the names of authorities such as sultans, popes, and emperors correspond to the terms of their par-ticular office. All others, unless otherwise indicated, refer to the lifespan of the individual. And finally, regarding Arab names and terminology, I have generally followed the same transliteration system of the Journal of Islamic Studies, although terms such as Mecca, Medina, caliph, et alia are spelled in accordance with their common useage.

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