Luther, the Turks, and Islam

By Smith, Robert O. | Currents in Theology and Mission, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Luther, the Turks, and Islam


Smith, Robert O., Currents in Theology and Mission


Personally, the teachings of Muhammad don't move me, but the doctrines
of the Turks we must engage. One must consider dogma.--Martin Luther

It has been said that "war against the Turks formed the colorful background of the Reformation." (1) However, most studies of Martin Luther relegate his extensive writings and comments regarding the Turks and Islam to background matters, implying that these were peripheral concerns for the most central figure of the early continental Reformations. But ought this concern be so peripheral?

Wars and rumors of wars with Ottoman forces shaped the political arenas of Luther's time. His response to this topic is novel. Perhaps more important, however, is that Luther moved beyond constructions of the Turk as a mere military threat to a consideration of Islam itself, the religious banner under which the Ottoman armies marched. In his engagement with Islam, Luther's primary concern with right doctrine proves consistent with other facets of his public career, almost to the point that it outweighs political shrewdness.

Struggles between Turkish Muslims and European Christians in the late medieval period were often assumed to bear cosmic significance. "To a large degree," Gregory Miller observes, "the Turkish threat was so terrifying because many Germans understood the conflict between the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires to be a struggle not between two political powers but between the forces of Christendom and that of its archenemy, Islam." (2) This same fear is present among many today who (consciously or unconsciously) subscribe to a view of the tensions present between the Western and Islamic worlds as a "clash of civilizations." (3) As historian Bernard Lewis has asserted of the relationship, "With two world religions, sustained by the same convictions, driven by the same ambitions, living side by side in the same region, it was inevitable that, sooner or later, they would clash." (4)

By the time of Luther's rise to prominence, European Christians were accustomed to thinking of Muslims as military foes. For centuries, crusades had taken Christian armies to the Levant. In 1492, the fall of Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain brought the Reconquista to completion. Constantinople, however, had fallen to the Ottomans in 1453, allowing the Turkish forces to move into the Balkans and Hungary, consolidating their power up to the Danube River. Suleiman II took the reigns of the Ottoman army after the death of Selim I, leading some to hope that he would rest on the laurels of his predecessor. In 1521, Suleiman captured Belgrade, and in 1526 King Louis II of Hungary was killed as his army was overthrown in the Battle of Mohacs on the Danube. By 1529, the Ottoman army stood at the gates of Vienna. Again in 1532, the Ottoman threat would be turned back by European forces. It wasn't until 1683 and the last assault on Vienna that the Turkish threat abated. Nevertheless, the Ottoman forces were "feared as a dangerous enemy--a fear that long survived the danger." (5)

God's chastening rod

Given their place in the center of European consciousness, it is unsurprising to find references to the "Turks" in writings from almost all of the major Reformers. Among them, however, only Luther substantively engaged the matter, producing theological perspectives both on the possibility of Christian war against the Turk and on the religion of the Turk, Islam. By contrast, for instance, John Calvin "discussed the Turkish threat occasionally, but said very little about Islam itself." (6) Perhaps the contemporary who most evenly matched Luther's interest in the Turks and Islam was the humanist, Desiderius Erasmus.

The list of Luther's major writings on Islam is long: (7) On War Against the Turk (1529), intended to help Christians fight against the threat with good conscience (LW 46:157-205); Heerpredigt wider den Turken (Military Sermon Against the Turks, 1529), with an exposition of Daniel 7, Luther attempted to explain the Turkish threat in all its seriousness (WA 30/2:160-97); Vorwort zu dem Libellus de ritu et moribus Turcorum (Preface to Lihellus de ritu et moribus Turcorum, 1530), a preface to a small book written around 1481 to detail the religion and customs of the Turks; such information was in great demand given the Ottoman threat to Vienna (WA 30/2:205-8) (8); Admonition to Prayer against the Turks (1541), in which Luther's concern for Christian penitence and prayer to counteract foreign military threat finds fullest expression (LW 43:215-41); Verlegung des Alcoran Bruder Richardi, Prediger Ordens (Refutation of the Alcoran of Brother Richard, Preaching Order, 1542), Luther's German translation of a popular medieval polemical tract against Islam (WA 53:272-396); and the Vorrede zu Theodor Biblianders Koranausgabe (Preface to Theodor Bibliander's Edition of the Qur'an, 1543, WA 53:569-72).

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