Islamic-Ottoman Influence on the Development of Religious Toleration in Europe

Example of religious crossover in Hungary: apparently Christians were quite happy with this Ottoman mosque design in Pécs; it needed only minimal adjustments to transform into a church.

Godsdienstvrijheid bestond tot de 16e eeuw nergens behalve in de islamitische wereld. Het was intiem verbonden met de profetenleer van de Koran, een unieke leerstelling die verklaart dat God profeten stuurde naar elk ander volk op aarde en moslims voorschrijft deze alle te respecteren. In Europa was men in de veronderstelling dat verlossing enkel en alleen kon worden bereikt door Christus, en bovendien enkel en alleen door de ene, ware kerk. Al vanaf het Byzantijnse rijk gold dientengevolge de huiveringwekkende regel ‘één rijk, één godsdienst’, die hier voor zoveel ellende heeft gezorgd.

Het ligt op zich voor de hand: waar het idee godsdienstvrijheid verscheen in Europa, is het vanzelfsprekend te onderzoeken of dit gebeurde onder invloed van de Islam. Toch wordt tolerantie meestal beschouwd als een exclusief product van een secularistische Franse Revolutie. Deze vond echter pas plaats in 1792, ging gepaard met een massamoord op katholieken, en heeft sindsdien eerder gestaan voor een onderdrukking van religie dan voor godsdienstvrijheid, getuige de oproepen die nu nog klinken voor het verbieden van hoofddoekjes in naam van de Franselaïcité.

De Nederlandse en de islamitische godsdienstvrijheid zijn van een ander, vrijer karakter. Ik heb de vraag over islamitische invloed op Nederland uitvoerig onderzocht in het tijdschrift Al-Islaam: de Gouden Eeuw. Nederland ging in 1568 met Ottomaanse steun de strijd aan met het Spaanse Rijk, nota bene scanderend de leuzeLiever Turks dan Paaps. De Republiek der Nederlanden stelde in 1579 godsdienstvrijheid in met de Unie van Utrecht.

Susan Ritchie onderzocht deze kwestie voor Transsylvanië, waar in 1568 godsdienstvrijheid werd ingesteld middels het Edict van Torda. Enige relevante passages uit haar artikel ‘The Islamic Ottoman Influence on the Development of Religious Toleration in Reformation Transylvania’.

Susan Ritchie: The Islamic Ottoman Influence on the Development of Religious Toleration in Reformation Transylvania

Hungarian historians even reject what has long been accepted elsewhere: that the Reformation could never have developed and matured in Hungary and Transylvania to the extent that it did if it were not for the political protection of the Ottoman Empire, which, at the very least, protected the development of various Protestantisms by significantly delaying the arrival of the Counter Reformation to the region. Most moderate international historians accept not only that the political protection of the Ottomans allowed for the development of progressive Protestantisms but also that the infamous permissiveness of Ottoman administrative practice regarding local customs and religions must have had some influence with regards to the issue of toleration.

It has long been discussed, even in the most traditional of sources, that, according to the Islamic tradition of respect for all People of the Book, any monotheist who was willing to accept the political right of the Ottomans was given protection and legal right by and within the Empire (Sugar, 1983, 5). But those scholars who specialize in Ottoman culture go even further, defining toleration as the chief component of Ottoman identity. As one such scholar has put it,

The Ottomans are perhaps most unique for including and synthesizing the cultural elements of the land through which they passed. They are known for creating structures by which the people who lived there before could carry on their lives and their beliefs in the way that they chose. (Holbrook, 2003).

Toleration, then, was a matter of Ottoman policy and Ottoman bureaucratic structure and an expression of the Ottoman interpretation of Islam, which was in most instances stunningly liberal and cosmopolitan. (…)

The French historian Mathurin Veyssiére de la Croze, for example, speaks in “Rèflexions historique et critiques sur le mahométisme et sur le socinianisme” (part of Dissertations historiques et critiques sur divers sujets, 1707) of an explicit connection between Islamic theology, particularly the Qur’an, and the development of Unitarianism in Transylvania, claiming that the Transylvanian Unitarians themselves saw a complete correspondence between their non-Trinitarian theology and the unity of God as taught in the Qur’an. (…)

In the traditional literature, we are also told of M. Péter Pérenyi: he was a 16th century Protestant Hungarian noble with a reputation for the advocacy of religious tolerance who “left” his son Ferenc “in Turkish hands as a hostage, only himself to endure detention some years later” after having been accused of treason (Péter, 1996, 360). Upon further investigation, this interesting man proved to be an unorthodox Christian, neither unfamiliar with nor distant from Islam, a minor noble who sought refuge with the Ottomans when his early advocacy of religious tolerance made him the target of his more orthodox neighbors. (…)

It would appear… that the history of Unitarian-Islamic mutual influence has been erased from at least several directions. It is my final assertion that the 1568 Edict of Torda would have been unthinkable were it not for the direct political influence of the Ottoman example and the indirect cultural influences that resulted from two cultures, enmeshed in more ways that any textual evidence alone will ever adequately reveal.

Here is an example of the direct influence of Ottoman rule on the edict: on August 24, 1548, the Sultan’s representative in Buda was requested by local authorities in Tolna to take action against the Hungarian Protestant pastor there, Imre Szigeti. Specifically, the Catholic authorities in Tolna, offended by Pastor Szigeti’s unapologetic and public advocacy of reformed ideas, asked that he either be killed or driven from the city for heresy.

The chief intendant of the Pasha of Buda not only communicated to the authorities in Tolna that the Pasha denied their request, he also issued an edict of toleration which states in part that…

… preachers of the faith invented by Luther should be allowed to preach the Gospel everywhere to everybody, whoever wants to hear, freely and without fear, and that all Hungarians and Slavs (who indeed wish to do so) should be able to listen to and receive the word of God without any danger. Because this is the true Christian faith and religion.

The Pasha’s edict is not mentioned in any of the Unitarian histories, yet it bears much in common, in terms both of imagery and intention, with the later edicts of toleration to come from John Sigismund’s court. We have been taught that the radicalness of the 1568 Edict of Torda over previous tolerations lies not merely in its extension of tolerance but in its unique assertion of freedom of individual conscience: …because faith is a gift of God; it springs from listening, which listening forwards the word of God; (Varkonyi, 1993, 106). Yet this 1548 edict by the Pasha of Buda establishes an even earlier connection between true faith and free listening. (…)

Moreover, the Pasha’s action corresponds with what might be anticipated on the basis of other more frequently recounted events. We know, for example, that in 1574, in Lower Hungary, two preachers championing the Unitarian cause were persecuted for heresy by local authorities under outdated, pre-toleration laws. Lukas Tolnai managed to escape, but George Alvinczi was put to death on order of a church court presided over by the Calvinist bishop. Influential Unitarians knew to turn to the Pasha at Buda for assistance. Eager to assist the Unitarians, the Pasha declared the execution of Alvinczi “inhumane” and ordered that the bishop and his two fellow judges be killed. Only when the Unitarian preacher at Pécs interceded, saying that Unitarians did not want such dramatic revenge, did the Pasha remit the sentence; in lieu of it, a heavy annual tribute was imposed on the entire locale.  (Wilbur, 1952, 84-85) (…)

The basis for the Edict of Torda was established not only in Francis David’s mind, not only in European humanist influence, not even only through the direct political and legal influence of the Ottoman Empire. The grounds for religious toleration were also prepared for in the everyday lives of actual persons, who experienced the negotiations of intermarriage before any legal proclamation of toleration, and who knew the attractions of Islam and the safety it accorded progressive Protestants before the publication of any theological treatise. (…)

Could it be that religious toleration, supposedly that most precious inheritance of the European Enlightenment, has always been a shared creation? It is especially ironic that we celebrate the progressive, diversity-promoting character of the earliest European statements of religious toleration, even as we describe them in ways that erase Islamic influences. It is past time for a more perfectly realized version of the paradigm of shared understanding that is now itself centuries old. (…)

Read the entire article as pdf on

Read more:

‘Let the Muslim be my Master in Outward Things’ (English pdf), a broad view on Islamic influences on European tolerance. Al-Islam eGazette, January 2010.
Liever Turks dan Paaps (Rather Turk than Pope), a peculiar slogan from the Dutch revolt against Spain, which came from the Dutch’ appreciation of the Ottman policy of religious tolerance. (Dutch)
Read the story of the Dutch-Ottoman alliance (Dutch)
Download the magazine Al-Islaam: the Golden Age about Islamic influences on the Netherlands (Dutch pdf):


Categories: Muslim Heritage

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