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Reviewed by:
  • Islamic Thought Through Protestant Eyes by Mehmet Karabela
  • Paul Strauss
Islamic Thought Through Protestant Eyes. By Mehmet Karabela. New York: Routledge, 2021. 369pp.

Mehmet Karabela expands our understanding of how seventeenth-and eighteenth-century European Protestant scholars understood Islam and learning in the Islamic world and often deployed this understanding for their own intra-Christian debates. This book contains seventeen academic dissertations published between 1655 and 1792 translated from Latin, with each translation preceded by a brief biography of the author followed by a summary and concise analysis. While most authors hailed from German-speaking lands and were Lutheran (one was Reformed), several represent Scandinavia, integrating this important region of Lutheranism into this study of Christian-Islamic relations. Karabela situates these dissertations into a global history of religion, and his work successfully demonstrates the myriad ways in which scholars engaged with Islam despite little direct experience with Muslims. Only a few of the extant dissertations are included, but they open a source base for future research into post-Reformation Protestantism, seventeenth and eighteenth-century thought, and European Christian relations with the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and Islam.

Karabela groups the translations into three sections, although considerable overlap exists between the sections. The first, “Religion and Theology,” includes six dissertations exploring how Protestants understood Islamic religious beliefs and practices. There was considerable continuity with medieval Christian depictions of Islam, such as Christian Michaelis’ argument that Islam’s popularity came from [End Page 444] its sensuality, yet the impact of Reformation confessional debates is also apparent. Friedrich Ulrich Calixt, prominent in the Syncretistic Controversy, emphasized basic Christian teachings as a strategy for converting Muslims and criticized Catholics and other Protestants for emphasizing obscure issues.

“Philosophy and the Liberal Arts” is the most extensive section, encompassing themes of education and philosophical study. Synthesizing religious and ethnic arguments, scholars emphasized that Islam and the Turks impeded the development of philosophy. For example, Johann Peter von Ludewig, whose 1699 dissertation was cited by others in this collection, claimed that pre-Islamic Arabs contributed to ancient philosophy until Muhammad appeared and that Islam was antithetical to philosophy. Furthermore, Turks, unlike Arabs, were incapable of understanding abstract philosophy. Johann Walch argued that Protestants were the true heirs of Greek philosophy; Jews, Muslims, and even Catholics had corrupted Aristotle’s teachings, making Lutheranism the most rational religion in the age of Enlightenment. Walch’s connection of Jews to Muslims reflects an underlying theme throughout the collection, namely, that Jews and Judaism influenced Islamic beliefs and practices and also shared with Muslims a failure to understand Greek philosophy.

The final section, “Muslim Sects: Sunni and Shi’a,” highlights differences between the Sunnis and Shi’a and between the Ottoman Turks and the Persians. Of particular note is the “Persian Discourse” by Sebastian Kirchmaier which was originally composed and delivered in Persian and printed in Latin in 1662. Kirchmaier’s clear sympathy for Persia and knowledge of Persian reveals the growing exposure of Europeans to other Muslim regions beyond the Ottoman Empire.

This collection allows past voices to speak for themselves, although the lack of more explanatory notes may frustrate non-specialists. It is most useful for researchers and well-informed readers with an interest in Islamic-Christian relations, and it will help those studying the development of Lutheran engagement with Islam. The dissertations demonstrate a much more extensive knowledge of Islam and Islamic thought by Christian Europeans than in previous centuries. This was often mediated through European sources, as indicated [End Page 445] by the extensive references to European translations of the Qur’an and works by Muslims. Despite the use of medieval and sixteenth- century sources, Reformation confessional debates and Enlightenment thought provided new lenses shaping how European scholars understood this knowledge. Further research will hopefully draw on these sources to better understand their impact upon other scholars and the broader population.

Paul Strauss
California State University, Stanislaus
Turlock, California