Summary: This article discusses the Islamophobic views (radical anti-Islamic polemics) of Martin Luther. The views were formed against the backdrop of Luther’s confrontations with the Roman Catholic Church and his stance against the Turkish military advances in Europe. Luther’s contributions to Islamophobia were unique. They were subtle, too. They signified the emergence of a new style bent on proactive proselytization and missionary works. The style was a product of the confluence of Luther’s missionary, polemic and apologetic thought. The style furthermore was ahead of its time, making sure that the future of Islamophobia, especially in Europe, remained bright. The article uses the modern term “Islamophobia” with the purpose of bringing home the message that the same is merely a new expression for a centuries-old model and phenomenon.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a history maker in many ways. To some, he was a heretic and schismatic, and to others, a saint and reformer. In short, he was a maverick, dividing opinion like no other. After him, Christendom, and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, was set never to be the same again.
Luther rejected some of the fundamental teachings of the Church, but especially the matters of papal supremacy and indulgence (granting remission of the punishment of sin). His ideas and actions were seminal in the Reformation movement which, in turn, led to the creation of Protestantism as a secessionist branch of the Catholic Church.
The Reformation as a movement and a set of ideas was a contemporary of the Renaissance and its penchant for humanism. Although they benefited from each other’s dynamic presence, it was the latter that was more influential over the former. So much so that it is sometimes said that the Reformation would not have succeeded as much as it did if it were not for the Renaissance and its emphasis on the value of human beings as the central pivot of life.
As such, both the Reformation and Renaissance were instrumental in the emergence of the Enlightenment in the late 17th and 18th centuries. They shared the conviction that no monolithic authority should be trusted as the measure of the truth. They were unified by institutional nonconformity.
The Reformation despised the fact that the Church headed by the pope was imposing itself as such authority. Rather, it was Scripture alone – which should be interpreted by a combination of faith and reason - that ought to function as the sole authoritative source of Christian canons.
For the proponents of the Enlightenment, on the other hand, no worldly or otherworldly authority is to be entrusted with the tasks of finding and guarding the truth. Independent human reason only is qualified to do it. Hence, the age of Enlightenment is called the Age of Reason. “Dare to know!” (Sapere aude) or “Have the courage to use your own understanding” was therefore the motto of the Enlightenment.
The Reformation and the Enlightenment were in a way brethren, one following the secular and the other religious path. Their goals, in principle, were similar, and fervour unprecedented.
Besides, the Renaissance bolstered the Reformation, but undermined the Catholic Church. The Enlightenment further uplifted and fortified the Reformation, while at the same time mercilessly wrecking the Church (religion).
Thus, even though the Reformation subsequently split Christendom, causing a succession of bloody wars and rebellions, and even though the Church launched a counter-Reformation, which was coupled with a series of internal reforms, the Reformation could not be outdone. Apart from some successes of the Church in its counter-efforts, most of the territories dominated by the Reformation were not to be reconquered and its people were not to be reconverted. The Reformation and its effects were to stay. Some yet credit it with giving rise to secular democracy.
Luther and “bad popes”
Luther was an extremely religious person. However, he felt ever more dissatisfied with how the Church handled religious matters and what it had to offer in response to people’s spiritual cravings. He grew disillusioned by the day with institutions, personnel and services.
He was not alone, though. Luther personified an emergent trend that was increasingly attracting support and participation to its fold. Complaints against the Church, popes themselves, clergy and priests mounted. People were unhappy about the lack of education and worldliness (materialism) of clergy, moral and spiritual corruption, the sale of Church offices and services (simony), nepotism, fraud, abuse of position, greed and self-indulgence.
The Church leaders were accused of “being preoccupied with their own secular concerns and (worldly) Renaissance culture. Those who recognized a need to remedy these problems were unable to do enough until it was too late” (Richard Sullivan).
In his book “The Bad Popes” (1969), E.R. Chamberlin documented the lives of eight of the worst and most scandalous popes. Of them, three lived during Luther’s time: Pope Alexander VI (papal years: 1492-1503), Pope Leo X (1513-1521) and Pope Clement VII (1523-1534). That shows how bad and controversial Luther’s time was. Certainly, it was not a good time to be a Catholic – or a Christian all together. The Church was an epitome of indignity and disgrace.
Pope Alexander VI was corrupt, worldly and overly ambitious. He amassed enormous wealth and lived like a “Renaissance prince”. He was immoral. He fathered a number of children with his many mistresses. Only with a single noblewoman in Rome he had four children, which were later legitimized. He is said to have bought his way to the papacy by bribing voters (electors), and is even accused of murdering fellow cardinals due to his irrepressible avarice and greed.
Britannica concludes its account about him by saying that his neglect of “the spiritual inheritance of the Church contributed to the development of the Protestant Reformation.” As a result, he “holds a high place on the list of the so-called bad popes.”
Pope Leo X was a symbol of profligacy and nepotism. He was obsessed with the glitter of the material world, making Rome a centre of cultural activities and political power. He himself was, apart from the head of the Catholic Church, also the temporal or worldly ruler of the Papal States.
He brought the papal treasury to the verge of bankruptcy. In order to compensate for the mess, he intensified Church malpractices, including the sale of indulgences, thereby further alienating the people from the Church, religion and himself. The northern regions in particular were deemed a cash cow for the bottomless interests of the Church and Rome.
Accordingly, Luther famously exclaimed in the 86th thesis of his revolutionary “Ninety-five Theses”: “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one Basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers (from indulgences)?”
Luther also suggested in the commentary of his “Ninety-five Theses” - as part of the commentary of the 48th thesis - that for the pope to desire prayer form his subjects – in lieu of their money - is better than building a thousand basilicas. That however is incomprehensible to the pope in that he is besieged, rather than just surrounded, by “so many monstrosities of devil and godless men”. They make him err and so, cause great harm to the whole Church.
The pope’s thirst for power and extravagance consumed him. Some yet accused him after his death of being a homosexual. But certainly, religion was secondary and was entirely subjected to the interests of his whims. If Pope Alexander VI was guilty of fermenting the Protestant Reformation, this pope was guilty of its materialization and of the dissolution of the Western Church.
It was also Pope Leo X who demanded from Luther to renounce all his beliefs summarized in “Ninety-five Theses”. After refusing to do so, Luther was excommunicated in 1521 by the pope, and was convicted as an outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor. Luther’s literature was banned and an edict for his arrest issued. It is fair to say that were it not for the intervention of and protection by Frederick (the Wise) III, Elector of Saxony, Luther most probably would have been captured and killed as “a notorious heretic”.
Lastly, Pope Clement VII was a bad pope not as much because he wanted to be as he was forced to be. His time in office was most turbulent. His religious and political predicaments denoted the upshots of the misconducts of his predecessors, who were far more depraved and corrupt than him. He therefore was as much a casualty as a malefactor.
His mis-politicking and mis-alliances got Rome barbarically sacked and triggered off the English Reformation. The pope himself was imprisoned in the bedlam, but later escaped. So significant were those events that they symbolized the turning points in the history of Christianity, Church and Europe as a whole. There was no stopping the Reformation from getting into full swing thereafter.
Luther and the internal affairs of the Church
Luther was deeply distressed by the condition of the Church. He did not care as much about politics as he did about the spiritual degeneration. The latter was the root cause of people’s ruin in both worlds. Every other temporal goodness depended exclusively on it.
He went so far as to say that there was little of true Christianity left and there were very few Christians left. Popes and their clergy were as bad as ordinary people. In fact, they were the worst. They were the source of all evil, manipulating and misleading the rest. Hence, Christians were “perhaps worse people in the eyes of God than are the Turks (Muslims)”, Luther deduced.
To the question “Who are the Christians and where does one find them?”, Luther answered: “They are not many, but they are everywhere, though they are spread out thin and live far apart, under good and bad princes.” He also said that if the Christians fought the Turks under the name of Christ, there would be in such an army (crusade) “scarcely five Christians”.
About the pope and his bishops, Luther stressed that they have fallen away from the Gospel, led by the spirit of lies, and embraced their own human doctrine, and thus have practiced murder. The principal business of popes and bishops was to set emperors, kings, princes, lands and people against one another, even themselves to fight and help in the work of murder and bloodshed.
Popes and their followers were seen as warmongers, murderers and robbers, not merely against enemies, but also against the innocent, the pious and the orthodox whom they burn, condemn, excommunicate and persecute.
Luther calls especially Pope Leo X, who excommunicated him, Antichrist, adding that the prayer of Christendom was against him. He will go down to hell.
Luther wrote: “And if the emperor were to destroy the unbelievers and non-Christians, he would have to begin with the pope, bishops, and clergy and perhaps not spare us, or himself; for there is enough horrible idolatry in his own empire to make it unnecessary for him to fight the Turks for this cause.”
Despite all this, Luther lamented, the biggest problem to the Church and its ungodly elites was Luther himself and his rebelliousness. They could hear and see nothing else. As if there were no other issues in the whole of Christendom to handle. Clergy and priests were busy accusing and rejecting Luther and his views in their sermons. He was publicized as a seditious enemy, only because, as opposed to what they were doing, he never coveted the sword or urged men to take it, or because he taught peace and obedience, and was calling people to simple and pure faith in Christ.
As a segment of his fundamental creed, and also because he was desperate to put across his messages to the leaders of the Church, Luther even submitted that the ongoing Turkish (Muslim) conquests of European and Christian territories were a form of punishment from God for all the wrongdoings committed by people and their religious leaders.
The Turks were a scourge and an instrument of divine retribution. Hence, to fight against them would be tantamount to resisting God and His will. “None but a poor Christian would fail to recognize in these the lash and rod of God”, Luther wrote.
Of course, just like everything else uttered and done by Luther, this statement, too, was misconstrued by the Church. Luther was faulted for discouraging and dissuading people from going to war against the Turks on the grounds that doing so means resisting “God who punishes our iniquities through them”.
Those words resonated a traitorous spirit because the Church and Pope Leo X were in the middle of preparing elaborate plans for a crusade against the apparently unstoppable Turks. The substance of the charge comprised the 34th error of 41 errors attributed to Luther by the Church in response to his earlier “Ninety-five Theses”. The errors were listed in a papal bull (decree) called Exsurge Domine. The bull paved the way for the excommunication of Luther.
By and large, Luther’s and most Protestant denominations’ theological teachings revolve around the following: salvation by faith in Christ alone (not through good deeds, sacraments, rituals, etc.); Scripture only is the authoritative source of religious dogmas, not the verdicts and traditions of the Catholic Church; there must exist the direct relationship between people and God; the Church is a priesthood of all believers; no papal supremacy; by departing from the ways of the apostles and early Fathers, the Roman Catholic Church lost its credibility to continue as God’s appointed custodian of the Christian religion; no celibacy; no monasticism; no invocation of saints; no veneration of relics; no indulgences.
In brief, the teachings were four-pronged: the Bible alone, grace alone, faith alone and Christ alone.
The Turks as the rod of God’s wrath
Luther’s solitary concern at all times was Christianity and the disturbing spiritual state of its followers. He worried about other things only if they were related to and could improve the former. There was nothing more important than people being on the right path and living pious and honourable lives.
His views pertaining to the military advances of the Ottoman Turks in Europe should be seen through this prism. In fact, his relative trepidation about the Turks was inferior to his absolute trepidation about the consequences of people’s spiritual erosion. God was sending the Turks as a curse for the evils committed. They were the rod of His wrath, “a divine visitation upon the sins of rulers and people”.
Thus, when he spoke about the Turks, Luther still spoke about Christianity and its adherents. He used the “curse” as an opportunity to arouse spiritual sentiments in people and to awake them to the real dangers. The Turks were not the danger, but people themselves. The Turks were not the cause, but the effect. The “curse” was very much curable and the cure – corresponding to the causes - was in people’s hands. When the causes are dealt with appropriately, getting rid of the effects becomes a straightforward and painless assignment.
At first, Luther avoided speaking directly about the issue of the Turks. However, since his views were misunderstood by the inept and were exploited by the wicked, he had no choice. Hence, his small book titled “On the war against the Turks” was born.
In the book, Luther came out in favour of defence against the Turks, but under certain conditions which were dictated by his unyielding religious judgements. In the introduction, Luther said that he was begged for as many as five years to write such a book, but later when the Turkish peril actually approached and was becoming more threatening than ever, he was “compelled” to do his duty and write.
In passing, the book was written in 1528, while in 1529 – when the book was published - the Ottoman Turks laid the first siege of the city of Vienna, Austria, threatening to conquer most of Europe.
Luther composed the book firstly in order to stir people up to the task of defending their lands, and secondly to absolve himself of a great many attacks and accusations levelled against him. It was as though all wicked errors among people, all rebellions, and everything bad that happened anywhere in the world were laid on Luther and were the fruits of his Gospel.
He wrote: “Therefore it is necessary for me to write of these things for my own sake and the Gospel’s sake and to enter our defence…I must write in order that innocent consciences may not any longer be deceived by these slander-mongers, and made suspicious of me or my doctrine, and may not be deceived into believing that we must not fight against the Turks.”
The context of Luther’s Islamophobia (radical anti-Islamic polemics)
As part of the mentioned book (“On the war against the Turks”), Luther speaks about Islam, Muslims, the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). However, his expositions are patchy, fractional, exaggerated, misleading and outright wrong.
He does not seem to be sufficiently – and appropriately - knowledgeable about Islam. Nevertheless, he proceeds to reveal what he “knew” of “all the dissolute life and ways that the Turk practices”, so that people may better feel the need of prayer against the Turks “as against other enemies of our salvation and of all good. Nay, as we pray against the devil himself.”
To be fair to Luther, he acknowledges that his own and people’s knowledge about Islam was scanty. He was not happy about that, though. It disgusted him. He wondered why “neither our great lords nor our scholars have been at any pains to give us any certain knowledge about the life of the Turks in the two classes: spiritual and temporal; and yet he has come so near to us.”
Nor was Luther happy that some responsible people, instead of doing what was needed and right, went to great lengths to invent outrageous lies about the Turks with the aim of stirring up people against them. Luther was candid and believed that dishonesty and deceptions never paid off. “There is no need for lies; the truth is all too great.”
About his scant knowledge, Luther said that he owned – and had read – only some parts (pieces) of the Qur’an. Despite that, however, he still passed on a series of verdicts concerning the most fundamental issues in Islam. He behaved as though an authority on Islam, but was not the least bit. He later even launched a full frontal assault on the Qur’an, speaking about its purported internal inconsistencies.
Such a thing was untoward, frankly speaking. It defied Luther’s apparent sincerity and open-mindedness. He must have known that he was getting himself into uncharted waters, needing to be more careful and more disciplined. What he did was unsound and inconsistent with his intelligence and progressiveness. He was flirting with fabrications and lies at the expense of validity and the truth. His long-term integrity was on the line.
In any case, Islamophobia during Martin Luther’s time was common in the Christian Europe. It was a centuries-old phenomenon, oscillating between Christian polemics and apologetics, linking Islam and its rise with the Apocalypse, and providing inaccurate descriptive accounts of Islam, the Muslim world and its societies as well as cultures.
Islamophobia in the form of extremist anti-Islamic polemics peaked during the Crusades (1095-1291) and never subsided afterwards. Its protagonists, yet prophets, were many religious, intellectual and political figures. These persons stand out: Pope Urban II (d. 1099) as the initiator of the Crusades and the biggest villain; Peter the Venerable (d. 1156) as the author of many works on the “heresy of Saracens (Muslims)”; Robert of Ketton (d. 1187) who translated several Arabic works into Latin, including the first translation of the Qur’an which, however, was deemed by many critics imprecise, distorted, untrustworthy and misleading, and yet remained the “standard version” for European readers and refuters of the Qur’an and Islam up until the 18th century; Riccoldo da Monte di Croce (d. 1320) who was a leading missionary and Christian apologist whose writings against Islam were most influential, and the best known of which was “Against the laws of the Saracens (Muslims)”; Dante Alighieri (d. 1321) and his pre-eminent “Divine Comedy” as a narrative poem.
It must be admitted that Luther could not escape the effects of the prevalent culture and traditions. They got the better of him, compelling him to behave like most of his Islamophobic predecessors and contemporaries. He was at once a victim and a culprit. But if he wanted, it goes without saying, he still could have been more circumspect about that which he was not in full command of.
Without doubt, the term “Islamophobia” today is merely a new expression for a centuries-old paradigm.
Luther as an Islamophobe
Luther’s Islamophobic tendencies manifested themselves as follows.
His knowledge about Islam was derived from the problematic and Islamophobic medieval sources. He wrote, for instance: “Although I have eagerly desired for some time to learn about the religion and customs of the Muhammadans, nothing has been available to me except a certain Refutation of the Alcoran and the Critique of the Alcoran by Nicholas of Cusa. I have tried in vain to read the Qur’an itself.”
Luther revealed this in 1530, about two years after his composition of “On the war against the Turks”. The revelation came as part of his preface to the tract “On the religion and customs of the Turks”. The tract, or pamphlet, was composed by an anonymous Christian author in Constantinople after it had been captured by Muslims.
Just to recall that in “On the war against the Turks” he confessed that “I have (merely) some pieces of Mohammed’s Koran.” That means that Luther’s knowledge about Islam did not improve at all during those critical two years of writing about and criticizing Islam. Truly, it did not for quite some time, even though he grew in “wisdom” and stature as a polemicist against Islam and apologist for his Reformation. The lack of adequate sources was partly to be blamed.
It was not until twelve years later, in 1542, and about four years before his death, that Luther received a full copy of the Qur’an in Latin translation. The translation belonged to Robert of Ketton - who was mentioned earlier as one of the progenitors of Islamophobia. Luther then worked on securing support for the Qur’an’s publication. The task was fulfilled in 1543 by Theodore Bibliander (d. 1564), a Swiss reformer, Christian missionary, apologist and Islamophobe. For this first printed edition of the Qur’an in Latin, Luther wrote his famous preface.
In his viewpoints, Luther mixes religion and culture. The seeds of European nationalism could almost be sensed in his discourses. He observes exclusively through the lenses of his Christian – and reformatory – predilections. He calls Islam and Muslims by different names and expressions, attesting to his disposition and intentions. He most widely uses the words “Saracens”, “Turkish faith”, ‘Muhammadanism”, “religion of Muhammad”, “Muhammad’s sect” and “Muhammadans”. The Turks were Muslims for him and Islam “Turkish way of life” and “Turkish religion”. The whole Europe was gripped by fear of the Ottoman Turks and their potential conquest, so everything was weighed against the Turkish religious, cultural and national identities.
Based primarily on his book “On the war against the Turks” (1528), Luther believed that Muslims were servants of the devil; they were unjust and oppressive extremists and bigots; they conquered and ruined land and people with the sword alone; they converted people to Islam by force; they were enemies of salvation and all good (“How can one injure Christ more than with these two things; namely, force and wiles? With force, they prevent preaching and suppress the Word; with wiles, they daily put wicked and dangerous examples before men’s eyes and draw men to them”); Islamic beliefs and practices were dissolute and immoral; the Qur’an was a book of sermons or doctrines like “pope’s decretals” and was a foul and shameful book; there was much glorification of the sword in the Qur’an; Muhammad was commanded to bring the world to his faith and if the world is not willing he was to compel it or punish it with the sword; Muhammad was a destroyer of Lord Christ and His kingdom; in Islam, all abominations, all errors, and all devils are piled up in one heap; Islam is a plagiarized religion patched together out of the faith of Jews, Christians and heathen; Muslims are nothing but murderers and highway robbers who exalt destruction and bloodshed; Muslims are devils and the prayers of Christendom were against them; Muslims are hell-bound; the Qur’an is a compilation of lies; Muhammad was the false prophet of Antichrist; Muslims are followers of the beast of Apocalypse, which was Muhammad; the law of Muhammad is irrational and his Qur’an beastly and swinish; Muhammad was adulterous; the Qur’an lustfully describes paradise, etc.
When Luther speaks about women and marriage in Islam, as one of the three religious central thrusts, it is there that he displays most unequivocally how ignorant, misguided, naïve and Islamophobic he and his entire age were. It is here furthermore that his being an Islamophobic culprit supersedes his being an Islamophobic victim. His statements border on the ridiculous and embarrassing.
He said: “The third point is that Mohammed’s Koran thinks nothing of marriage, but permits everyone to take wives as he will. Therefore, it is customary among the Turks for one man to have ten or twenty wives and to desert or sell any of them that he will, when he will, so that in Turkey women are held immeasurably cheap and are despised; they are bought and sold like cattle. Although there may be some few who do not take advantage of this law, nevertheless this is the law and anyone can follow if he will. Such a way of living is not marriage and cannot be marriage, because none of them takes a wife or has a wife with the intention of staying with her forever… Thus the marriage of the Turks closely resembles the chaste life that the soldiers live with their harlots; for the Turks are soldiers and must act like soldiers; Mars and Venus, say the poets, must be together.”
Luther concluded his presentation about what Islam and Muslims were by abridging once more his opinions: “What good can there be in the government and the whole Turkish way of life, when according to their Koran these three things rule among them; namely, lying, murder, and disregard of marriage?”
Luther similarly wonders in his “Commentary on Genesis”: “Has the world ever seen anything more cruel than the Turks? And they adorn all their fierceness with the name of God and religion. Notwithstanding, what is their life and religion but incessant murder, robbery, rapine and other horrible outrages?”
Islamophobia as the order of the day
Luther’s disclosure at the beginning of the book “On the war against the Turks” that he heretofore had read only “some pieces” of the Qur’an was again confirmed at the end of his “explanation” of the main Islamic doctrines. He said: “I am sure of them from the Koran of the Turks. What I have heard beside I will not bring forward, because I cannot be sure about it.”
Luther certainly wanted to underline that his especially initial knowledge (understanding) depended on his own “pieces” of the Qur’an. He ruled out the possibility of heavily relying on secondary sources. He definitely enjoyed access to some, but did not like them very much for their inaccuracies and outright fallacies. The situation subsequently changed somewhat due to the dogged lack of sources and better options, and perhaps due to some changes inside Luther himself.
That then leaves one to wonder how Luther could arrive at such sweeping and defective inferences about Islam and Muslims, and why he did not harbor even slight reservations about certain evidently overblown statements of his. Recognizing how little he knew at that point of time, how come he never raised suspicions of potential exaggerations, misinformation and malicious campaigns, even after he later in life had learned more about Islam? Didn’t he initially frown upon the fact that political and religious authorities in Christendom deliberately kept people in the dark with regard to the spiritual and secular realms of “the Turks”, and that they knowingly lied about them?
Moreover, couldn’t Luther sense that the unthinkable wickedness of Church leaders and their political allies in Papal States were responsible for all the major misunderstandings between Islam and Christianity and its peoples? They did that in order to conceal their own faults and so, save their skin. Luther knew more than anybody else how those people could not be trusted in anything they said and did. He experienced it first-hand. There indeed existed, above all, religious conspiracies of the highest order.
By and large, there is only one answer to these questions; namely, Luther, in essence, was no less Islamophobic than any of his Islamophobic predecessors as well as contemporaries. Differences were in nuances and methods, rather than magnitudes and goals. Islamophobia was the order of the day. It signified a European ethos.
All this in addition explains why not only the Turks, but as well other bearers of the Islamic torch in history – with some unfortunate exceptions of course – fought. The primary objective of wars was to physically remove the otherwise un-removable unjust and oppressive impediments that stood between Islam as the final revelation of God to mankind and its free presentation to the world.
That is to say, Muslims were commanded but to generate environments where people will be able to freely see Islam in its proper light and will be able to freely accept or reject it. Then everyone will be duly responsible for his own decisions and actions. Conquests for conquests’ sake were not the goal in Islamic civilization. They were necessities and means, considering the range of the prevalent evil and oppression in the world. The situation in Christendom was a microcosm.
The Qur’an proclaims: “And say: ‘The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills - let him believe; and whoever wills - let him disbelieve” (Al-Kahf, 29).
A promise to learn and do more
As a matter of fact, Luther was never well-informed about Islam. He repeatedly admits that he, just like everybody else in Christendom, was kept ignorant about it as part of a bigger agenda. He came into contact with a full copy of the Qur’an only about four years before his death, after most of his thoughts had already been formulated and disseminated. Needless to say that the Qur’an he had acquired was held by many as erroneous and untrustworthy. Whether it caused more harm or benefit is anybody’s guess. Without a doubt, consistent with the standards of genuine scholarship, the way Luther spoke required a PhD with distinction in Islamic studies.
In his preface to the published version of the same Qur’an, Luther makes some interesting statements, which nonetheless only corroborate the above skepticism. He discloses that he has just begun refuting the evil beliefs of Muhammad, and will continue to do so at more length. “But in order to do this, it is also useful to study closely the writings of Muhammad themselves. Accordingly, I have wanted to get a look at a complete text of the Qur’an.”
Luther then launches, as it were, a total project of learning more about Islam, Muslims and Muhammad for the sake of both defence and offence: “Let us now prepare ourselves against Muhammad. But what can we say about matters that are still outside our knowledge? Therefore, it is of value for the learned to read the writings of the enemy in order to refute them more keenly, to cut them to pieces and to overturn them.”
That - parenthetically – was the only reason that moved Luther to embark on the task of supporting the publishing of the said Qur’an and to write a comprehensive preamble for it.
However, there was little new and remarkable that Luther wrote after 1542, the year he penned the above text and made some profound promises. In the book “Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings”, edited by Timothy F. Lull, there are 31 of Luther’s works presented, all of which however had been composed before 1542. Only “Preface to the New Testament” and “Preface to the Old Testament”, which had been originally written in 1522 and 1523 respectively, were revised in 1546 and 1545 each. The book aims to include the most important of Luther’s shorter writings and to display the range of his theological interests.
In Bryce Wandrey’s exhaustive chronological list of Luther’s works, furthermore, there are only eight works produced after 1542. None of them however is directly related to Islam, Muslims or Muhammad. The somewhat abated Turkish threat to Europe in the mid-1540s might have been responsible for a somewhat weakened Islamophobia during the same period, affecting Luther as well.
Luther is nevertheless reported to have explained again and defended his general position against Islam in a sermon that he delivered less than three weeks before his death.
In any case, this demonstrates that Luther was by no means well-versed in the matters of Islam and its civilization. How much – or how little - his certainly inadequate knowledge extended is a subject of debate. But such poses more questions than answers in relation to his Islamophobic permutations.
It is noteworthy, moreover, that in 1542 Luther translated into German Riccoldo da Monte di Croce’s “Against the laws of the Saracens (Muslims)”. The book was among the most Islamophobic polemical medieval references. It aimed to publicize how empty, worthless and lacking in substance Islam (Mohammedan sect) is. “It (Islam) has nothing of importance to say for our present day”, the book’s author concluded.
The sect’s (Islam’s) instigator - the author continued - was Mohammed: a deceiver, a liar, a devil, a heretic, and a man inclined to sexual desire and given to deceitful devices. “All the dirt of times gone by which the devil has scattered in other places here and there, he also spewed out in its entirety onto Mohammed.”
Translating such a book in 1542 for the German readership as Luther’s stronghold is an extra evidence that Luther neither changed, nor mitigated, his Islamophobic insights. They in fact ripened. For him - and everybody else - options were limited in connection with obtaining any sort of authentic enlightenment and wisdom. That “Against the laws of the Saracens (Muslims)” was one of Luther’s very few “Islamic” sources, says everything. The other “chief” sources fared no better. They were as Islamophobic and as unreliable.
Luther’s main enemies were papists and Muslims
Luther’s main enemies were two: the Catholic Church (papists) and the Turks (Muslims or Muhammadans). He calls the pope “the spirit of Antichrist”, who extinguishes righteousness with doctrine and spirit; and the Turks he calls “the flesh of Antichrist”, who destroy all that is good with body and sword.
Sometimes other minor adversaries are added to the blend, such as “the idolatrous Jews” (his views about the Jews were anti-Semitic) and “the multifarious monstrosities of the Anabaptists and Servetus”. Once in the same breath he yet mentioned the inadequacies of Plato and Muhammad, censuring them for their ignorance of the nature of God: “Neither Plato nor Mohammed knew whether God heard and received the unworthy; nor how, nor why, he received them.”
In one of his best known hymns, “Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word”, Luther said: “Curb those who by deceit or sword; Would wrest the kingdom from your Son.”
The word “deceit” stands for the Church and “sword” for the Turks (Muslims). When the hymn was published in 1542, it appeared with the subtitle “A children’s hymn, to be sung against the two archenemies of Christ and his holy Church, the pope and Turk”. The line “Curb those who by deceit or sword” originally read “Restrain the murderous Pope and Turk”, but was later changed to the present mode (Mark Birkholz).
However, on the whole, Luther’s biggest bona fide arch-rival was the Church. His obsession was confronting it and the spiritual decay of the people. The Church establishment caused and was sustaining the latter. It was mercilessly choking the unsuspecting masses.
As regards the Turks, they admittedly were an undeniable military threat. Other problems, such as those concerning religion, society and culture, would have followed only if they managed to conquer the heart and best part of Christendom in Europe – which they never did.
To Luther, therefore, the Turks were a latent and relative peril. The one of the Church was absolute and all-encompassing. It involved the complete beings and welfare of the people.
The situation made Luther an opportunist. He decided to use the lesser and embryonic problem for the furtherance of overcoming the major and unbridled one. Pitting one, which jeopardized the physical wellbeing, against the other, which jeopardized the spiritual wellbeing, could only produce one outcome: a win for Martin Luther and his Gospel of change, regardless of what later happened on the battlefields of bodies as well as spirits.
Luther also sensed that subjecting national sentiments to the interests of religious ones could only enhance the quality of both. Capitalizing on the people’s gripping fear of the Turks – and Islam – was an excellent opportunity for alerting people to the actual causes of the predicament.
Those causes subsisted internally and all the blame was to be laid at the doors of the Church and its clergy. The bane of the Turks was invited, or drawn, so to speak. “The Turks were for Europe what the Babylonians were for Israel - a ‘schoolmaster’ to discipline and to teach fear of God and prayer. The real culprits were not then the Turks, but the ‘papists and false Christians’” (Sarah Henrich & James L. Boyce).
This way, Luther was a populist, too, operating on a religion-and-people-come-first platform. He was so much engrossed in the vicissitudes of his theological-cum-intellectual battles with the Church and the spiritual decadence that he initially somewhat overlooked the hazard – and opportunity – posed by the Turks.
That is why his early views concerning the subject matter were purely religious and could not be separated from his sheer pastoral moulds. In the face of the pressing reality military- and security-wise, he was reluctant to be drawn into “mundane” and secular matters. Such debates, he feared, could divert the focus away from real issues.
Only after being implored for five years by “certain persons” to write and officially declare his position on the subject of fighting the Turks, however, did Luther yield. He must have meticulously weighed each and every aspect of the conundrum, prioritizing concerns and regularly resorting to the procedure of choosing the lesser of two evils. Thus, the book “On the war against the Turks” needed a preface to honestly explain the background of the topic and his connection with it.
Accordingly, some researchers concluded that while Luther was “informed of Muslim beliefs, his argumentation with Islam was only a matter of coincidence.” He “was interested in the Turks primarily as a pastor and only secondarily as a theologian and incidentally as a scholar and polemicist” (Adam S. Francisco).
Luther as an Islamophobe-cum-reformer
Unlike others - in reality - Luther did not fear the Turks excessively. So religious - and so ignorant about the truth concerning the Turks and their Islam - was he to do so. He endorsed defensive wars because the Turk “has no right or command to begin war and to attack lands that are not his”, stipulating as conditions that such wars are to be led by competent secular, rather than religious, authorities, and cannot be conducted for “the winning of great honor, glory, and wealth, the increasing of lands, or wrath and revenge fullness and other things of the kind”.
He was anti-crusades, yet against any sort of religious wars, “for the Church ought not strive or fight with the sword; it has other enemies than flesh and blood, their name is the wicked devils in the air; therefore it has other weapons and swords and other wars, so that it has enough to do, and cannot mix in the wars of the emperor or princes, for the Scriptures say that there shall be no good fortune where men are disobedient to God.”
Luther was resigned to the fact that, win or lose, the Turks were still the instruments of God’s will. They were to be confronted, and defeated, only in that capacity of theirs. Fighting them as no more than a worldly foe and for some plain worldly gains was at once un-Christian and un-godly. Through them the relationship with God – and self – had to be corrected. People needed to amend their ways and live like true Christians, first and foremost.
Neither win nor loss will mean anything if people did not use the occasion for shaking off their lethargy and for waking up from their spiritual slumber. People were in need of spiritual victories by means of repentance, the Word of God, penance, prayer, fasting and caring for the poor. Without them, all other battles were destined to be lost. “Verily, this fight must be begun with repentance, and we must reform our lives, or we shall fight in vain”, Luther harangued.
Luther might yet have reluctantly reasoned that the win for the Turks, as disastrous as it was imagined would be, could have a silver lining. It could have served in Christendom as a purifier, separating the wheat from the chuff, and a metal from its ore. With the Turks in control, the freedom of ordinary people would have been reasonably maintained, whereas the powers of corrupt Church and secular authorities would have been significantly diminished. People thereby could become more vigilant and more receptive of the authentic Christian truth.
The Church leaders used the prospect of wars against the Turks as a conjurer’s hat, betraying and misleading people thereby. Tearing off that conjurer’s hat and exposing the truth was an utmost priority.
Thus, Luther openly supported the war only after some time and after he had been pressurized. Moreover, he did so not vainly and recklessly. He also did it with certain hard and almost unworkable conditions.
Luther employed the possibility of fighting the Turks for the interests of his mission of reforming Christianity and making people better Christians. Regardless of the outcomes of imminent wars, those pure and competent followers of Christ were in a position to take on any enemy, internally and externally. Such persons were not bound by artificial contexts and restrictions. What they lived for transcended those. There was no need for artificialities for “the truth is all too great.”
Luther as an Islamophobe-cum-polemicist and apologist
Luther was preparing the ground for an all-out missionary work, too. He targeted both Christians and the Turks (Muslims). Regarding the latter, he was getting ready, and was readying others, to perform such a duty under the Turks – if they win - or without them. He also targeted those Christians who had already lived under Turkish rule.
A missionary offensive into the Turkish lands appears to have been on the agenda as well. Christian captives in the Turkish lands were likewise able to perform the same duty. “God perhaps will call some of the Turks from their darkness through their Christian captives who have been instructed.” “Indeed, I hope that our gospel, radiant with such great light, will make an assault now before the Day of Judgment on that abominable prophet Muhammad. May our Lord Jesus Christ do so quickly.”
It was under these circumstances that Luther, as a polemicist who obnoxiously attacked the teachings and civilization of Islam, and as an apologist who avidly defended the teachings and civilization of Christianity against the distorted backdrop of the former – emerged. He wanted to provide resources, together with guidance, for ministers and preachers to intensify their apologetic and polemical responses to the malicious and so, vulnerable Islam. He indeed was a big influence of attitudes and behavioral patterns.
Luther believed that the more Islam was known, the more manifest its errors will become; and the more people learned about it, the more easily they will be able to repudiate it. He was for transparency, honesty, “knowledge”, debates and unhindered interactions - unlike the deceitful practices of the Church and its elites.
Whatever evil there is in Islam, people will recognize and hasten to reject it; and whatever good there is in it, it is relative and devious; whereas Christianity has much more and much better to offer. A good Christian is a fortress and is undefeatable.
Luther posited that Islam is about base and absurd things concealed under a beautiful, effective and robust show of ceremonies, good works and false miracles. It is about a false glitter and deceptive splendor. Christianity, on the other hand, is more sublime than that. It is about the substance and love of the truth. Its quintessence - and at the same time best defense - is “the articles about Christ, namely, that Christ is the son of God, that he died for our sins, that he was raised for our life, that justified by faith in him our sins are forgiven and we are saved, etc. These are the thunder that destroys not only Muhammad but even the gates of hell. For Muhammad denies (all that).”
Luther was not happy at all that the Church and its community adopted such methods vis-à-vis the Turks and Islam as were not only ineffective, but also counterproductive. He trusted that the Christians should not be submissively frightened away from Islam and be falsely kept secure in their faith in Christ.
He also rejected the shallow technique of excerpting from the Qur’an all the most sordid and bizarre things with the sole intention of arousing hatred and moving people to ill-will, without contrasting those things with the Christian values and teachings and then rebutting them based exclusively on the latter. “The result is that they (the Church and its clergy) have achieved too little credibility or authority, as it were cheapening their work either because of hatred of the Turks or because of their own lack of powers of refutation.”
Obviously, Luther was not against the prevalent methods per se. After all, he too employed most of them, partly or completely. What he was against, however, was the lack and manipulation of “knowledge”, passivism, monopolizing opportunities, and the lack of offensive. He was against the one-dimensionality of those methods. He was against their ineffectiveness and hopelessness.
He did not subscribe to the notion of “ideological safety first”, nor did he want people to remain locked forever in their ideological “comfort zone”. The duty of preaching the Gospel to the world was beckoning. People’s selves – led by religious leaders - and then the Turks (Muslims) were chief priorities.
The methods, rather, should be inspired by combinations of fear and hope, defence and offence, assaults with lion hearts and discretion, debates and counsels, theory and practice, and religious zeal and forbearance. Christians are meant to prevail and lead by example. The current methods were thus proposed to be either significantly improved or replaced altogether. Luther, it seems, was determined not just to reform Christianity, but also Christianise (reform) Islam as well.
Here too the spiritual, moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Church was the target. The approaches, whereby the Turks and Islam were dealt with, exposed the fundamental failings of the religious establishment. Some of its hidden agendas were likewise uncovered.
Luther, without mincing his words, said: “For now I understand the reason why the Turkish religion is so concealed by the papists, why only base things are told of them. It is because they sense what in fact is true, that, if it should come to the point of arguing about religion, the whole papistry with all its trappings would fall. Nor would they be able to defend their own faith and at the same time refute the faith of Muhammad, since then they would have to refute those things that they themselves most approve and for which they most strive, and defend those things that the followers of Muhammad most approve and for which they most strive.”
In his preface to the first published Qur’an in Latin, Luther recapped the core of his philosophy of polemics and apologetics against Islam: “I do not doubt that the more other pious and learned persons read these writings, the more the errors and the name of Muhammad will be refuted. For just as the folly, or rather madness, of the Jews is more easily observed once their hidden secrets have been brought out into the open, so once the book of Muhammad has been made public and thoroughly examined in all its parts, all pious persons will more easily comprehend the insanity and wiles of the devil and will be more easily able to refute them.”
As part of his rallying cry against Islam and Muhammad, Luther further said: “Therefore, it is of value for the learned to read the writings of the enemy in order to refute them more keenly, to cut them to pieces and to overturn them, in order that they might be able to bring some to safety, or certainly to fortify our people with more sturdy arguments.”
It follows that the first Qur’an was printed and made available for a wider audience principally for the task of polemics and apologetics. Luther affirmed: “It is our opinion that pastors should have this reliable witness (that is, the Qur’an) to preach to the people the abomination of Muhammad.” He then prophesied that “people would become more hostile against Muhammad and Islam. Their Christian faith would be strengthened. And they would become ‘lionhearts’ in their witness to the pure gospel and more resolved in the struggle ‘against the abominable lies of the Devil’ propagated in the Qur’an” (Adam S. Francisco).
Luther’s method can be synopsized as follows: “Expose and destroy error first before arguing for the truth”. He said, as reported by Adam S. Francisco in his article “Luther, Lutheranism, and the Challenge of Islam”: “One must not deal with them (Muslims) at first by asserting and defending the high articles of our faith… but adopt this way and manner: take and diligently work with their Quran, demonstrating their law to be false and unsubstantiated.” Once this was accomplished, then the Christian could begin to offer evidence for the truth of the Christian religion (Adam S. Francisco).
Finally, Luther’s rather restrained open-mindedness and honesty notwithstanding, he still fashioned a unique and lethal style of Islamophobia, which – when all is said and done - was not by accident but by design. The style was reflective of his reformatory and assertive outlook. It however was just another form of hatred, fear of, and prejudice against everything relatable to Islam and Muslims.
Luther appeared to be calling for extensive knowledge, objectivity, honesty and truth, but was himself trapped in ignorance (about the true Islam and its civilization), bias, fabrication and the lack of truth. How much in all that he might have been a victim, and how much a deliberate offender, is contentious.
His style was more proselytization- and missionary work-oriented. It was more dynamic, more diverse and more action-centred. It was a standard setter for the future.
Christian (European)-Muslim polemics was destined never to be the same again. Islamophobia was thus systematised and institutionalised in some unprecedented ways and degrees - i.e., it was immortalized – albeit on the basis of a legacy that was anything but accurate and trustworthy.
It is no wonder, therefore, that Islamophobia remained associated with obstinate prejudice, irrationality and immoderation. The truth and integrity remained its main antitheses. It easily evolved and yet penetrated the modern corridors of power, occupying and dominating the pulpits of “democratic” systems not just in Europe (the West), but also in many other parts of the world. To be Islamophobic became almost fashionable.
From the perspective of modern Islamophobes, Luther’s version of Islamophobia is as desirable and applicable as ever. Its free spirit, admittedly, is all around us, alive and kicking. It feeds on the global anti-religious (agnostic, secular, materialistic and liberal), in general, and anti-Islamic, in particular, sentiments.
For example, Pastor Jin O Jeong (Korean congregation at Zion Lutheran Church, Belleville, IL) argues that today’s challenges confronting Christianity are similar to those during Luther’s time. “Christianity feels threatened by the great expansion of Islam, and is extremely concerned with the mission of the Muslim religion.” How does Christianity respond to this rapid Islamic expansion? His answer is to adopt Luther’s enduring way; to stress that “Islam is not a religion but rather a philosophy”, and “to maintain that our faith be secularized and to know exactly the false teachings of the Islamic faith.”
Along similar lines, Adam S. Francisco (from Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana) in his article “Luther, Lutheranism, and the Challenge of Islam” elaborates: “What is clear, however, is that Islam as a religious ideology is on the rise and will continue to grow as it is proliferated on the Internet and propagated by Muslim apologists, activists, and academics. The question is: Are we ready for the (theological, political and demographical) challenge of Islam? And, do we have the means to respond to this seemingly new challenge? Now, more than ever, we need to prepare ourselves to respond…”
Also: “We must not underestimate or misunderstand what we now face. Make no mistake, Islam is expanding, even into the West.” The author then explains that the best way to respond is Luther’s way, “by, one, exposing the errors of Islam and, two, rigorously defending the veracity of Christianity.”
According to Adam S. Francisco, furthermore, numerous Muslims are found nowadays in the West, “among us”, many escaping “Middle Eastern despotism and violence”. He then divides Muslims into two groups: some who have revolutionary and evil designs (i.e., terrorists), and the rest who are generally nice neighbours, colleagues and friends.
As regards the former, he suggests that they be “dealt with even as the violent and rebellious peasants had to be dealt with during Luther’s day.” The latter, conversely, should be proselytized (evangelized) with all gentleness, sympathy and wisdom, as they “desperately need to hear God’s word of law and gospel.”
This way, Luther’s wish that one day the gospel will come to all Muslims will finally come true.