Thomas More and Islam: Utopia (1516)

Sir Thomas More, by Hans Holbein

An odd case in early 16th century literature on tolerance is the work of Erasmus’s personal friend Thomas More. In his Utopia of 1516, More pictures an ideal society where different religions co-exist. He not only allows the diversity of Islamic society to enter the stage, but also the fact that the wise majority regards God as ‘above all our apprehensions’:

There are several sorts of religions, not only in different parts of the island, but even in every town; some worshipping the sun, others the moon, or one of the planets. Some worship such men as have been eminent in former times for virtue or glory, not only as ordinary deities, but as the Supreme God; yet the greater and wiser sort of them worship none of these, but adore one eternal invisible, infinite, and incomprehensible Deity, as a being that is far above all our apprehensions, that is spread over the whole universe, not by its bulk, but by its power and virtue; him they call the Father of all.

Utopus, the king of the Utopians, ‘made a law so that every man might be of what religion he pleased, and might endeavour to draw others to it by the force of argument’. Islam’s teaching on truth shared by different religions shows as Utopus ponders ‘whether those different forms of religion might not all come from God, who might inspire men differently, He being possibly pleased with a variety in it’. 

The stress on philosophy and argument suggests that More, rather than the Ottoman, had the Moorish Empire in mind; the Medieval center of philosophy and science which had been surrendered to Catholic rule only years before. This viewpoint may be substantiated by the story of the Utopian who converted to Christianity. He commenced preaching ‘with more zeal than discretion’, crying out against the Utopians ‘as impious and sacrilegious persons, that were to be damned to everlasting burnings’. Despite the fact that it was ‘one of [the Utopians] ancientest laws, that no man ought be punished for his religion’, the Christian is punished, ‘not for having disparaged their religion, but for his inflaming the people to sedition’. This reminds of the story of Eulogius and the martyrs of Cordoba, suggesting stories reached Thomas More from that quarter.

Illustrative the fact that early in the 16th century, the ideas imported from Islam were only appreciated as experiments, is that despite the apparent comprehensiveness of the teachings on tolerance in Utopia, Thomas More would only 15 years later forget about his own book and vehemently persecute heretics as Chancellor under king Henry.

This is an excerpt from the article ‘Let the Muslim be my Master in Outward Things’, on Islamic influences on European tolerance. Download the complete article from Al-Islam eGazette, January 2010.

Categories: Muslim Heritage

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