Martin Luther and Islam: A Study in Sixteenth-Century Polemics and Apologetics by Adam S. Francisco (The History of Christian-Muslim Relations: Brill) The Ottoman assault upon Vienna in 1529 sent shockwaves throughout Germany. Although the Habsburg army had successfully thwarted the attack, according to eyewitness accounts some 30,000 people in surrounding towns and villages had either been killed or taken back to Istanbul for sale in the slave market.' What was perhaps more unsettling, at least to those who were perceptive of the ideological motivation behind the siege, was the determination of Sultan Suleyman (15201566) 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 external appearances of their customs or displeased by the meagre display of our own faith or the deformity of our customs, they deny their Christ and follow Muhammad. Assessing the nature of Ottoman religion and culture, and the threat that it posed to Christians even further, he continued:
We see that the religion of the Turks or Muhammad is far more splendid in ceremonies and, one 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 many persons so easily depart from faith in Christ for Muhammadanism 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.
In fact, he impulsively added, 'if it should come to the point of arguing 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." In light of this startling evaluation, 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.'
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,' 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 and 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.' 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 incidentally as a scholar and polemicist.' Thus, he concludes that Luther was not really concerned with critiquing the Qur'an, attacking the prophethood of Muhammad, 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.
This study attempts to demonstrate that Luther's approach towards Islam was much more theological and apologetic than is generally acknowledged. 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."
This is confirmed, 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 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 Christians living amidst Muslims.
This study should prove beneficial for at least three reasons. To begin with, it contributes 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' History of Apologetics and Otto Zöckler's Geschichte der Apologie even mention his engagement with Islam and the Qur'an. It also should provide a perspective into Luther's thought on a non-Christian religion other than his notorious dealings with Judaism. And thirdly, it may prove to be helpful for understanding the intellectual turmoil that was established in this key period of Christian-Muslim relations, which, in turn, provides the backdrop for many of the tensions that remain in the modern era.
The impetus behind Martin Luther's interest in Islam and Ottoman culture was apologetical. The farther the Turks pushed into Hungary towards Germany the more he sensed a need to prepare Christians for contact with Muslims. Thus, he began from the earliest of his tracts on the Turkish war until one of his final sermons to instruct Christians in what to think about and how to approach Islam.
Vom kriege widder die Türcken analysed what Luther thought was basic Muslim ideology in relation to the three fundamental spheres of human existence the three estates. He argued that, by rejecting the final revelatory and redemptive act of God in the person and work of Christ, Islam destroyed the prospect for true religious life, for Muhammad severed the relationship human beings had with God through the gospel of Christ by imposing upon them a new legal religion. Islam also ruined the political estate by propelling nations under its sway against other nations in order to bring them within the domain of Mahomets reich. And finally, just as it disrupted peaceful relations between different nations, it also severely disfigured the most natural and basic unit of human relationships marriage by permitting divorce in accordance with the whims of men. The consequence of all this, as Luther saw it, was the supplanting of the divine order in creation for false religion, chaotic foreign relations, and the ruination of true marriage. All this was indicative of the work of the Devil, for he too sought to obliterate the work of God in creation. Luther therefore concluded that the Turks and their religion, politico-imperial policy, and domestic ethics were really masks behind which the Devil was attempting to destroy humankind.
Vom kriege's critical evaluation of Islam was more than a critique, though, for it also served to inform Christians of the malignant nature of the Turkish Islamic threat. Consequently, it was also meant to convince the hearts and minds of its readers of this fact so that they too, like Luther, would by no means be indifferent to it, for civilization built in part upon the foundation of Christianity was at stake.
Where western civilization was at its greatest peril during Luther's lifetime was at the siege on Vienna. News of the damage and lives lost during the battle coupled with reports of conversions to Islam amongst Christian slaves of the Turks compelled Luther, in his Eine Heerpredigt widder den Türcken, to begin offering specific advice for Christian prisoners of war living in the domain of Islam. The counsel that he gave sought to provide his readers with answers to questions raised and doubts caused by the alluring phenomena of Islam, which he thought were inevitable while living amongst the Turks. In short, Luther's counsel was informed by his teaching on the proper conception of how humans could stand before God (coram Deo), even in the midst of a Mahometisch reich, assured of their salvation. Only the crucified Christ and the righteousness one attained through faith in him, he argued, could provide such a firm foundation against the Anfechtung caused by Islam. Luther also provided instruction on how Christians should behave in a Muslim society. His advice was informed by his understanding of the necessity of the Christian pursuit of civil righteousness in and before the eyes of the world (coram mundo). Luther argued that Christians especially were duty bound to serve their authorities irrespective of their religion and nationality This, however, should never be construed as an obligation for one's salvation for that was already accomplished through Christ—but rather the basic responsibility of humans living in the secular realm.
Luther's advice in Eine Heerpredigt was, interestingly, not so much polemical. Instead, it was existential and apologetical. He offered it in order to provide Christians with the means to justify, at least in their own minds, the unique and superior claims of Christianity as well as to encourage them in their Christian life even though they were now meant to exist in a Muslim society.
After the shock of the siege on Vienna wore off, the threat of Christian captivity at the hands of the Turks subsided for nearly a decade. The pressures of Ottoman imperialism were felt again, however, in the early 1540s when Hungary was annexed and incorporated into the domain of Islam. Luther was nevertheless ready to respond once more. Only this time, having recently read a Latin translation of the Qur'an, he considered himself qualified to engage Islam much more polemically than he had previously done. He did so by embracing the methodology and tactics of Riccoldo da Monte di Croce's Confutatio Alcorani, translating the old polemical apologetic into German. Following Riccoldo he attacked the Qur'an as a legitimate source of revelation and religious authority. Confident that he had exposed it to be a product of Muhammad's fraudulent Satan-inspired ministry, he then, interestingly, began to explicate Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and deity of Christ from it. He even suggested that the passages he thought were open to a Christian interpretation were implanted by the Holy Spirit.
Luther's intentions behind the Verlegung des Alcoran were twofold. First, by attacking the legitimacy of the Qur'an he thought that he had exposed its errors, and thus it would prove beneficial to its readers by strengthening their resolve against the Muslim religion. Second, he thought his attack and especially his demonstration of key Christian doctrines and exhortations to consider the claims of the Christian Scriptures concerning Christ could be used by Christians to approach Muslims should the opportunity present itself.
For Luther, the apologetic enterprise always served practical ends. Thus, he urged learned Christians to familiarise themselves with the Qur'an so that they too could contribute to the task of 'refuting the faith of Muhammad' and 'defending the Christian faith.' His letter to the Council of Basel in support of the publication of the Qur'an as well as the preface that he contributed to the project contained strong appeals in behalf of this endeavour. Luther himself made one more contribution to the cause in a sermon less than a month before he died. First, he argued for the superiority of Christianity on the basis of the revelation given not just in word that is, in Scripture but also in the person of Jesus Christ. While Islam too claimed to have the word of God in the Qur'an, Luther argued that it was wholly deficient, for although Muslims claimed that it was a revelatory word it lacked any substantive information concerning God's nature and disposition towards humanity The Bible interpreted through the even more distinct and full disclosure of God in His Son Christ was, according to Luther, by far superior to the alleged revelation given to Muhammad. It provided further details concerning the nature of God and, most importantly, his disposition towards humankind. Second, against the Qur'an's call for a return to the universal and ancient faith of Islam-- the religion of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Christ, and all the other prophets he argued that Christianity and not Islam was really the religion of the prophets. Tracing the doctrine of original sin and the promise of Christ as the redeemer of humankind all the way back to Adam and Eve, he 'proved' (beweisen) to his German Christian audience that (evangelical) Christianity, that is, mere faith in Christ for redemption from sin, was in fact the historic revealed religion.
In addition to the particular theological undercurrents of his apologetics, Luther's multi-faceted approach to Islam was unique in many respects. While he could be just as vituperative and polemical as Riccoldo da Monte di Croce and, to some extent, Nicholas of Cusa, he never went so far as Alfonso de Espina and even Dionysius the Carthusian in using polemics as propaganda for a crusade (for the crusade was anathema to Luther). But whereas the medieval writers were focused on refuting Islam in order to bring about the conversion of Muslims, Luther's intentions were primarily directed at strengthening the faith of Christians, for he feared their propensity towards infidelity as much as if not more than he feared the Muslim infidel. He wanted to ensure, first, that Christians were convinced of the malignancy of the Turkish-Islamic threat. Secondly, for those upset by various forms of temptation and doubt caused by the monolithic appearances of the Ottomans and their religion he sought to convince them of the superiority of Christ over Muhammad and Christianity over Islam. Only after Christians were assured of this did he envision his arguments being directed at Turkish Muslims. And even then he was convinced that a silent witness to the gospel through righteous behaviour was more effective than polemical argumentation, particularly in a Muslim context.
Luther's assessment of the nature of the Ottoman Empire and perceptions of Islam were similar to the medieval apocalyptic perceptions displayed in the biblical prognostications of Joachim of Fiore, Johann Hilten, and others, but even though he thought that the Turks were completely repugnant servants of the Devil he still, like Georgius de Hungaria, sought to accurately relate information on Muslim religion and culture. Quite unlike Georgius and probably the overwhelming majority of medieval and early modern thinkers, however, Luther was convinced that, because of his two-kingdom doctrine, Christians could and should, if God led them to, live alongside Muslims in the domain of the Ottomans. Not only were they to live with them, according to Luther. They were also obliged to submit to the Muslim authorities and to work diligently for them, for even they, so long as they did not infringe upon the rights of the conscience, held a divinely appointed position of authority.
Luther's ruminations over the plight of Christians enslaved in Turkey or other Muslim territories led him to an even more unique opinion on Christian missions. Whereas Christian apologists from Riccoldo to Raymond Llull to Theodor Bibliander thought that missionaries should be sent from the outside into the Muslim world (with Llull, Alfonso, and Dionysius convinced that the crusade could help facilitate the endeavour), Luther thought that missionary work amongst Muslims should take place from within, through Christians living amongst Muslim populations.
Luther's various engagements with Islam demonstrate that his approach was primarily theological rather than philosophical and rationalistic like Llull and the Reformer's contemporary Guillame Postel. His three-estate analysis and existential apologetic drawn from the principles of his doctrine of the two kingdoms and teaching on the two kinds of righteousness were distinctively 'Lutheran.' Even though he ventured away from his own somewhat idiosyncratic approach when he assimilated the methodology of the Dominican scholastic apologetic tradition he still, particularly with his additions and amendments to the text, gave it a (German) Lutheran flavour. His final approach, the apology for the historical veracity and continuity of the Christian church from the earliest revelation of God to humankind, while not entirely new (for the second century Christian apologists used the same approach as they argued against the Jews) was still uniquely adopted by Luther for the context of debate with Islam.While Luther reached many of the same conclusions drawn by the medieval thinkers and his own contemporaries, the way he arrived at his conclusions and approached Islam was quite different. As such, and especially considering his profound influence upon the history of Christian thought since the sixteenth century, he warrants inclusion in the rich western tradition of responding to Islam.
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