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Good to Think WithHelen Pfeifer
Vol. 42 No. 11 · 4 June 2020

Good to Think With

Helen Pfeifer

2404 words
Useful Enemies: Islam and the Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought 1450-1750 
by Noel Malcolm.
Oxford, 512 pp., £25, May 2019, 978 0 19 883013 9
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Injune 1599, with just six months to go until the apocalypse, the Dominican friar Tommaso Campanella and his friends plotted a revolt against Spanish rule in southern Italy. Their plan depended on an agreement with the grand admiral of the Ottoman navy, Ciğalazade Yusuf Sinan Pasha, a convert to Islam who was himself of Italian origin (he had last been seen about a year earlier, visiting his mother in Messina). The Italians would launch the rebellion on land, and the Ottomans would then arrive with thirty ships and three thousand men, liberating southern Italy from its Spanish overlords once and for all.

But when the Ottomans neared the coast on 10 September, no one was there to meet them. Campanella and dozens of his compatriots had been rounded up and imprisoned by the Spanish authorities. Writing in 1602, at the start of a 27-year prison term, Campanella described the outcome he had hoped for: the establishment of a utopian society he called ‘la città del Sole’, ‘the city of the sun’. This society would be strictly meritocratic, fiercely monotheistic and intolerant of idolatry; it would provide warm public baths and inns where travellers could stay for up to three days free of charge; boys would be recruited for military service at the age of 12, to ensure their loyalty to the state. Historians have identified a variety of sources for Campanella’s idiosyncratic vision, from Plato to Thomas More. What no one before Noel Malcolm noticed – although it would be unmistakable to any student of the early modern Middle East – is the extent to which the city of the sun was modelled on the Ottoman Empire.

From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, as Malcolm shows in this magisterial book, Europeans saw the Ottoman Empire not only as an opponent on the battlefield, but as an intellectual resource. Nearly all the classic political theorists of the era, from Machiavelli to Montesquieu, grappled with the Ottoman model, as did a great many now forgotten thinkers. One reason for this was proximity. The Ottomans were a European power, controlling large areas in South-Eastern and Central Europe where Christians constituted the majority; by 1541, their rule stretched deep into Hungary. They were a major presence in the Mediterranean, vying with, and ultimately triumphing over, the Spanish Habsburgs for control of the North African coast. For the French, the Ottomans were a key ally, the bulwark, as many Frenchmen admitted, that kept them from being overrun by the Habsburgs. Although this ‘alliance with the infidel’ offered endless fuel for Protestant derision, Protestants were not above such marriages of convenience. The Dutch in the 1570s, the English in the 1580s and the Transylvanians in the early 1600s – all made efforts to enlist Ottoman support. In fact, it can be argued that the Ottomans contributed to the success of the Reformation, since the Lutheran princes in Germany made their support for armed intervention on the Habsburg-Ottoman military border conditional on religious concessions at home.

It was, however, the Ottomans’ difference from Europeans, in particular their status as a Muslim polity, that made them so good to think with. They were often cast as alien. One popular theory portrayed them as descendants of the Scythians, ancient nomads thought to have lived barbarous lives in the steppes north of the Black Sea. Another interpretation, which flourished after the Ottomans put an end to the Eastern Roman Empire with the conquest of Constantinople, painted them as enemies of classical learning.

The question was how these seemingly antithetical actors might be integrated into European diplomatic and military relations, in an era when religious considerations tended to underpin political ones. The French found it hard to justify their ‘unholy alliance’: it was one thing to ally with an Islamic power for the collective defence of Christendom – something sanctioned by most contemporaries – but quite another to do so in order to defeat another Christian power. In an effort to see off criticism, French Catholics increasingly argued that the Ottomans, like any European state, were subject to the ‘law of nations’ (ius gentium), and that it was therefore not only legitimate but necessary to uphold agreements made with them. Though many disagreed with this argument, including those who felt that it was always wrong to contract an alliance with infidels, it did pave the way for a more capacious understanding of ‘international society’, one that included states whatever their religion.

But perhaps the greatest conundrum that the Ottoman Empire presented to Western Christian observers was how to explain its success. In the 15th and 16th centuries especially, when the Ottomans were vacuuming up territories left and right, it was hard to deny that theirs was an extremely well-functioning state. This could easily be interpreted – as the Ottomans themselves interpreted it – as evidence that they alone enjoyed God’s favour. One common Christian rebuttal was that Ottoman success reflected not Islam’s divine sanction but its deliberate creation by Muhammad for the purpose of acquiring power. Though Machiavelli never mentioned Islam in his discussion of the stabilising potential of organised religion, many of those inspired by him did, arguing that the Ottoman state was strengthened by scriptural injunctions to wage holy war and by prohibitions on wine, which made for more disciplined armies.

An alternative explanation for Ottoman ascendance was their alleged use of coercion, the characteristic that led the empire increasingly to be classified as a ‘despotism’. This idea, which enjoyed a long and successful career into the 20th century, drew on Aristotle’s division of governments into monarchy, despotism and tyranny. In his view, despotism was an intermediate category: like monarchy, it was hereditary and governed according to law, but, like tyranny, it was autocratic, and organised mainly to benefit the ruler. Aristotle saw it as a legitimate form of government for a class of people he referred to as ‘natural slaves’. Unlike the Greeks, who exercised rational judgment and needed to be governed by persuasion, Asiatic people were weak-willed and thrived under firm, authoritarian rule. After centuries of relative neglect, despotism as a concept gained traction in the 16th century precisely because it seemed to explain Ottoman governance. And yet, geographic proximity again complicated things. The fact that the empire governed large numbers of European Christians, and that many of them accepted it happily enough, made it difficult to argue that its political stability was a result of its subjects being natural slaves.

Thinkers who started from the premise of Ottoman difference were repeatedly forced to consider the familiarity of their Muslim neighbours. Not only Ottomans, but Germans, Hungarians and Spaniards all claimed some variety of Scythian descent. Fifteenth-century Italian observers were aware that their Ottoman contemporaries didn’t aim to destroy ancient culture so much as to co-opt it: Mehmed II, who led the 1453 conquest of Constantinople, signed letters with the title ‘Caesar of Rome’ (‘kayser-i rum’). Even Islam looked familiar once scrutinised, with its commitment to monotheism, its rejection of idolatry and its respect for Jesus. Many resorted to the story that its development had been influenced by a defector priest called Sergius, who helped Muhammad construct his doctrine around various Christian heresies.

In the short term, many Europeans used their knowledge of the Ottomans mainly to tarnish their opponents. This tactic was exploited most fully in the confessional disputes of the 16th century. Each side sought to discredit the other by making comparisons to Islam. Protestants argued that, like Islam, Catholicism focused on works rather than faith, pointing to their shared emphasis on fasting, alms-giving and pilgrimage. Catholics responded in kind, noting that both Protestants and Muslims permitted divorce, discouraged religious imagery and followed a simplified liturgy. Calvinism in particular was seen as having doctrinal similarities with Islam, especially in its reverence for scripture and belief in predestination. A new term was coined to encapsulate the supposed affinity: ‘Calvinoturcism’.

Most of this had a polemical purpose, of course, and did not lead to soul-searching among Catholics or Protestants. In the long term, however, recognising affinities between Muslims and Christians could have powerful consequences. European thinkers, of whom Voltaire is only the most famous, increasingly applied their understanding of the worldly functions of Islam to Christianity. If Islam was a tool cleverly manipulated by temporal powers, could the same not be said of Christianity? In many ways, Malcolm’s book is a testament to the destabilising power of ideas. Seeking to understand others came at the risk of undermining accepted understandings of one’s own society and religion.

Anyone​ who has studied the history of European writings on other cultures has had to deal with their perplexing mixture of fact and fiction, knowledge and topos. Considered in the light of the growing circulation of people and ideas from the 1400s, the question becomes: to what extent did new knowledge affect perceptions? In 1978, Edward Said offered one of the most compelling – and extreme – answers to this question, arguing that European knowledge of ‘the Orient’ developed largely in isolation from actual fact. No matter how many philologists and colonial administrators devoted themselves to the region, their reports were always a product of European preconceptions rather than meaningful engagement. In Orientalism, Said was writing about the 19th and 20th centuries, a period when some Europeans expressed remarkable disdain for non-Western intellectual traditions, but scholars have identified a similar tendency in earlier centuries. More recently, historians working on the period c.1400-1800 have emphasised the extent to which European understandings of the world depended on a process of exchange, and have highlighted the myriad intellectual transfers – whether face to face or mediated – that shaped European knowledge. Interactions with other cultures could change minds, and frequently did.

Malcolm comes down somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, in line with the newer trend of thought, he insists that European engagement with the Ottomans was transformative, rejecting the notion – easily derived from Said – that such encounters were slotted into an intellectual tradition in a way that primarily served to validate existing conceptions. Ideas about the Ottomans, Malcolm says, were ‘active ingredients’ in European thought, and were used to ‘to shake things up, to provoke, to shame, to galvanise’. On the other hand, he repeatedly shows how impervious European beliefs could be to new and conflicting information. Perhaps the best example of this is the persistence of the despotism paradigm. Despite mounting evidence that Ottoman subjects did not have the status of slaves, that they could hold private property and lived under a sultan whose authority was far from absolute, despotism remained a key trope through which the empire was understood. Where facts were not ignored, they were bent to conform to the dominant idea: new, more positive evaluations of Ottoman governance offered by French writers such as Guillaume Postel and Jean Bodin in the 16th century were quickly revised to skew negative. On the whole, conviction proved stronger than empiricism. ‘To a large extent,’ Malcolm concludes, ‘what we see in the works of Western writers over this period is a consequence of long-term intertextuality’. In stressing the self-contained nature of European knowledge production and its rootedness in a discursive tradition, Malcolm lands not so far from Said.

New knowledge certainly entered an existing intellectual and social system, and was filtered through political and religious priorities which shaped its reception. But recognising this does not necessarily mean agreeing with Malcolm that European political thought was ultimately produced ‘in the West and for the West’. Many ideas produced for the West in fact had their origins in the East. As Malcolm notes, Sergius the disaffected priest was the product of an Eastern Christian tradition dating to the eighth century, while the radical idea of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad as the ‘three impostors’ derived from 11th-century Arabic writings. Ideas of more recent vintage – even if they were not grounded in reality – were often indebted to Ottoman notions of themselves. The misperception that the sultan’s subjects were his slaves might well have derived from Ottoman political rhetoric: Sultan Süleyman claimed in 1531 that all those living in his domains were his kul, a Turkish word that could mean both ‘slave’ and ‘servant’. The belief that there was no such thing as private property in the empire probably derived from Ottoman land law, according to which all the arable land in the empire was, at least in theory, owned by the sultan. Much of ‘Western’ political thought on the Ottomans resulted from a collaboration between European and Ottoman thinkers, however indirect or unwitting.

Even some of the most polarising intellectual paradigms of the period, such as millenarianism, were common to different confessions. As Malcolm shows, millenarianism was a strand in European thinking about the Ottomans well into the 17th century, largely inspired by the Book of Daniel. The Ottomans were seen as the last world conquerors; once defeated, their rule would give way to the peaceful, everlasting dominion of God. As it turns out, this apocalyptic vision was mirrored on the other side of the religious divide. As Cornell Fleischer has shown, the Ottomans, too, believed that after a final confrontation they would usher in a just age ruled by one true, purified religion, and they, too, believed this would be the outcome of a contest with that other Roman conqueror, the Habsburg emperor. This wasn’t a coincidence, but the result of shared texts and transmitted ideas: at the same time as the geomancer at the Ottoman court, Haydar, was employing Daniel’s prophecy to cast Sultan Süleyman as the last world emperor, Guillaume Postel was labouring to understand Ottoman prophecies he would later use to justify bestowing the same honour on the French king.

This isn’t to downplay the real tensions between Christians and Muslims, which persisted even as the two sides were looking at and learning from each other. As Malcolm points out, some of the most enthusiastic accounts of the virtues of the Ottomans were written by people ultimately concerned with defeating them. This is true of Campanella’s ‘city of the sun’. His failed rebellion in 1599 was inspired by prophetic accounts which held that the Ottomans would conquer Europe at the dawn of the new century. The Ottoman Empire would then split, with part of it converting to Christianity before defeating and ultimately converting the other, Muslim part. The outcome would be the thousand-year rule of the true religion under the guidance of a just monarch. Useful enemies indeed.

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