London – From as far away as North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, Muslims from various walks of life found themselves in London, England in the 16th Century working as diplomats, merchants, translators, musicians, and servants, BBC reported.
The reason for the Muslim presence in England stemmed from Queen Elizabeth’s isolation from Catholic Europe. Her official excommunication by Pope Pius V in 1570 allowed her to act outside the papal edicts forbidding Christian trade with Muslims and create commercial and political alliances with various Islamic states, including the Moroccan Sa’adian dynasty, the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire.
She sent her diplomats and merchants into the Muslim world to exploit this theological loophole, and in return, Muslims began arriving in London, variously described as “Moors”, “Indians”, “Negroes” and “Turks”.
Before Elizabeth’s reign, England, like the rest of Christendom understood a garbled version of Islam mainly through the bloody and polarized experiences of wars.
No Christian even knew the words “Islam” or “Muslim”, which only entered the English language in the 17th Century.
Christians simply could not accept that Islam was a coherent religious belief.
Much Muslim theology discouraged travel into Christian lands, or the “House of War”, which was regarded as a perpetual adversary of the “House of Islam”.
But with Elizabeth’s accession this situation began to change. In 1562 Elizabeth’s merchants reached the Persian Shah Tahmasp’s court and when they returned to London they presented the queen with a young Muslim Tatar girl they named Aura Soltana.
She became the queen’s “dear and well beloved” servant who wore dresses made of Granada silk and introduced Elizabeth to the fashion of wearing Spanish leather shoes.
Hundreds of others arrived from Islamic lands and although no known memoirs survive, glimpses of their Elizabethan lives can still be gleaned from London’s parish registers. In 1586 Francis Drake returned to England from Colombia with a hundred Turks who had been captured by the Spanish in the Mediterranean.
In return, hundreds of Elizabethan men and women travelled into Muslim lands in search of their fortune, and many converted to Islam. They included the Norfolk merchant Samson Rowlie, who had been captured by Turkish pirates off Algiers in 1577, where he was imprisoned, and later converted to Islam.
He took the name Hassan and rose to become Treasurer of Algiers as well as one of the most trusted advisers to its Ottoman governor. He never returned to England or to Christianity.
Elizabeth’s alliances with the Ottoman, Persian and Moroccan empires also brought more elite Muslims to London. Records show that Turkish diplomats were sent over in the 1580s, though no trace of them survives.
More details remain of Moroccan embassies from later that decade. In 1589 the Moroccan ambassador Ahmed Bilqasim entered London in state, surrounded by Barbary Company merchants, proposing an Anglo-Moroccan military initiative against “the common enemy the King of Spain”.
Although the anti-Spanish proposal came to nothing, the Moroccan ambassador sailed in an English fleet later that year that attacked Lisbon with the support of the Moroccan ruler, Moulay Ahmed al-Mansur.
Just over 10 years later another Moroccan ambassador called Mohammad al-Annuri arrived in London, with a large retinue of merchants, translators, holy men and servants who stayed for six months living in a house on the Strand where Londoners watched them practicing their religious faith.
It shows that Muslims have been a part of Britain and its history much longer than many people have ever imagined.