How Elizabeth I engaged with the Muslim world

The Sultan and the Queenby Jerry Brotton

Viking. 357p $15.00

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many Americans wondered, “Why do they hate us?” Answers suggesting that perhaps U.S. policies in the region had generated the plotters’ hostility only increased the befuddlement, which soon morphed into fear and anger. Politicians turned those simmering resentments into policy proposals of exclusion and cultural conflict, drawing on well-worn stereotypes about Islam and Arabs. The call by the Republican presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump, to ban Muslims from the United States for security reasons is only the most recent example of these efforts.


Mixing religion and politics is nothing new, particularly in how the West relates to the Islamic world. A new book by Jerry Brotton, a professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary University in London, describes the attempts by Queen Elizabeth I of England to open up relations with the sultan of Morocco in order to increase trade links and block the Portuguese, whose trading empire was monopolizing both North African and South Asian routes.

Religion, though not central, was always part of this process. When challenged about her efforts to trade with the heathens, Elizabeth innocently replied that “the more Christian people that shall resort to the Gentiles and Saracens, the more faith shall increase.” Though it is unlikely that Elizabeth was driven by a desire to convert Muslims to Christianity, it is true that religion played an important part in her engagement with the Muslim world. Having been excommunicated by Pope Pius V in 1570 and threatened by the Spanish King Philip II, Elizabeth turned to those in the Mediterranean who were similarly threatened.

Those initial efforts soon expanded toward other parts of the Islamic world. In 1571, the Holy League, created by Pope Pius V and including naval forces from various Catholic states in Europe, defeated the Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto. This victory emboldened those Catholics in England who sought to topple, and indeed assassinate, Elizabeth. She soon realized that she needed more help than the Moroccan sultan could provide. She worked hard to cultivate an alliance with Murad III, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire and formally the caliph of all Muslims. The English exported material for guns and ammunition, and Murad believed that Protestant iconoclasm mirrored the Muslim refusal to represent the human form. Once more, religious beliefs underpinned strategic interactions.

The combination of religion and politics then, just as today, was reinforced in cultural practices. While Brotton provides an insightful study of the politics and diplomacy between Elizabeth and various Islamic rulers, it is when he turns to the stage that the book becomes something more interesting. William Shakespeare created characters who reflected many of the English fears of the heathens. In “Titus Andronicus” Shakespeare introduces us to one of the most violent characters in one of his most violent plays, Aaron the Moor. Though the play is set in ancient Rome, before the advent of Islam, and Aaron is actually a Jew, he embodies stereotypes about both Jews and Muslims. But as with the more famous Moor, Othello, Shakespeare creates a character that “audiences should despise; and they are also drawn irresistibly to him.” Brotton describes an Elizabethan England where goods from the Ottoman Empire circulated, where plays had heroes and villains from the Muslim world and where Islam was simultaneously a source of desire, wonder and threat. From Aladdin to “American Sniper,” popular culture today similarly vacillates between attraction and repulsion to the Islamic world.

What Brotton does so well, though, is explore this complex history through narratives of individuals and how their often self-interested motives drove forward state policies. Sir Anthony Sherley was an English knight, explorer and sometime diplomat who appears briefly in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” in a reference to a “fencer with the Sophy.” Sir Anthony was indeed a confidant of the “Sophy”—a bastardized designation for the Shah of Persia—about whom he wrote in his celebrated memoir of his time in the region. Many in London knew of Sherley, who used whatever means possible to ingratiate himself to Shah Abbas, who had been fighting the Ottomans and so looked to the English for aid. Yet Sherley never really represented English interests, being out more for himself than anyone else.

Indeed, Sherley’s story provides yet another parallel with today. President Ronald Reagan’s efforts to reach out to Iran during the 1980s relied on a rogues’ gallery of individuals who sold arms and used the money to enrich themselves. Just as Reagan gave himself plausible deniability, so Elizabeth distanced herself from Sherley. And, in the same way that the faltering efforts of Oliver North and others created more problems and misunderstandings, so Sherley’s efforts were no less helpful, especially as he turned to Spain and the papacy after feeling under-appreciated by Elizabeth.

Brotton’s book is well worth the read. It reminds us that when high politics and religion come together, they are often in the hands of adventurers and playwrights or rogue colonels and Hollywood producers. Neither gives us an accurate understanding of religious belief or international affairs—yet we must remember that it is often these players who shape the world in which we live.

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