Nabil Matar
Professor of English at the University of Minnesota. He is author of a trilogy on the history of Britain and the Islamic Mediterranean in the early modern period.

History of Muslims in Britain: from Queen Elizabeth I to George I

The extensive research of Imtiaz Habib into the English archives has revealed tantalizing information about the first possible Muslims in England. Although it is difficult to identify exactly the Muslim “Moors” and “Blackamores” in the lists of baptisms and burials, Habib’s findings demonstrate that from the Elizabethan period on, England began receiving peoples with different religions and skin colors.1 In 1585, a “Turk” arrived in England to convert to Christianity, but in 1591, a soldier offered his services to the Queen in her fight against Spain, vowing, as he emphasized in his petition “by the fayth of a turke, to do you most true and faythfull service.2 Three of the four chartered companies by Queen Elizabeth, the Levant, Barbary, and East India, sent her subjects to trade, barter, and negotiate with Muslim peoples, from Marrakesh to Agra – and brought Muslims back to England. In 1611, Thomas Coryate wrote about the numerous “Turks” (used interchangeably at the time with Muslims) in the metropolis who could be identified by the “rowle of fine linen wrapped together upon their heads” – their turbans.3 In 1657, two such Turks, Halil and Hamet, petitioned Oliver Cromwell for assistance to return home.4

Allusions to Muslims in England appear in different sources, ranging from the literary to the documentary. A Restoration play presented a Turkish coffee-shop keeper married to a henpecking English wife, and prospering in London.5 Just under twenty years later, in 1682, a Moroccan married a young English woman during the ambassadorial visit to London of Ahmad ibn Haddu. An observer wryly commented that English people were unlike other Europeans in that they were quite comfortable with such marriages.6 There were also Muslims in Britain’s first Atlantic outpost – Tangier – where a resident observed how “The English and Moors,” who were constantly trading with each other, “seem’ed to differ in nothing but Religion.”7 The idea of Muslims becoming subjects of the Crown became so important for John Locke that in 1689, he urged: “Neither pagan nor Mahometan nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.”8 Although there was no change in the status of aliens after that date – no naturalization without Christianization – English, and perhaps British, society as a whole, was becoming accustomed to Muslims. Simon Ockley, Professor of Arabic at Cambridge, went down regularly to the docks to talk to Muslim sailors in order to perfect his knowledge of Arabic;9 by 1725, John Windus exclaimed at the numbers of North Africans and other Muslims who were to be seen in the streets of London.

Meanwhile, knowledge of Islam was growing as translations of histories, chronicles, and other primary sources from Arabic and Turkish began to appear in print, both in English as in Latin. The first English Quran was published in 1649, and although it was prefaced by a hostile diatribe, the edition proved so popular that there was a quick re-issue, which worried the Interregnum authorities. As the collection of Islamic manuscripts grew at the Bodleian, having been started under the auspices of Archbishop William Laud in the 1620s and 30s, numerous scholars approached the study of Islam, for the first time in British history, through Islam’s own sources. The result was an impressive and detailed range of information about Islam that challenged traditional views. Writers like John Gregory, Henry Stubbe, John Fox, and Edward Pococke became deeply engaged with Quranic theology and Islamic history.  Meanwhile, Islamic civilization was beginning to have an impact on British social and cultural life. The introduction of coffee from Istanbul in the 1650s generated a vast literature about this “Mahometan berry”; while the Sufi journey of Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqdhan was translated three times in less than half a century (1670-1707).10 Striking too was the evidence that chess had reached England via a Muslim route – Indian, Iranian, and Arabic – a journey that included a chessboard as a present from William Edwards in Ajmere to Sir Thomas Smith, Governor of the East India Company,11 and the illustrated treatise by Thomas Hyde, written in Latin, with Arabic, Farsi, and Hindi units, about the history of chess in Islamic society and its adoption in England.12

Notwithstanding the fear of the Ottomans and the anxiety over the Quran’s post-Christian revelation, English men and women in the early modern period were able to meet Muslims in the streets of London, to travel widely in Islamic lands, and to read about the wealthy and multi-ethnic civilizations of the Islamic Empires.

1 Habib, I. (2008). Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677, Aldershot: Ashgate. ,”Chronological Index of Records of Black People, 1500-1677,” pp. 274-368.

2 TNA, State Papers 12/240/28.

3 Thomas Coryate, Coryats Crudities 1611, intro. William M. Schutte (London: Scolar Press, 1978), 231.

4 CSPD 1656-57, 10: 289.

5 Knavery in all Trades: or, The Coffee-House (London, 1664).

6 Vickers, B. (1974-1981). Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge Kegan and Paul, 2:29.

7 Crooke, W. (1681). The Moores Baffled: Being a Discourse Concerning Tanger, 18.

8 Locke, J (1689). A Letter Concerning Toleration. London pg56.

9 TNA, SP 102/2/179.

10 Matar, N. (1998). Islam in Britain, 1558-1685. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, ch. 3.

11 Foster, W. (1897). Letters received by the East India Company, 1613-1615. London, 246 (26 December 1614).

12 De Ludis Orientalibus, Libri Duo/Mandragorias, seu Historia Shahiludii (London, 1694). For chess in England and its Islamic history, see the discussion of material culture in Gerald MacLean and Nabil Matar, Britain and the Islamic World, 1558-1713(forthcoming, Oxford UP).