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Islam: Civilization Clash in Shakespeare's Time - Part Two

This article by Adrian Morgan (Giraldus Cambrensis of Western Resistance) appeared today in Family Security Matters and is reproduced with their permission.

May 8, 2008

The Clash of Civilizations In the Time of Shakespeare: Part Two

All the Ottoman Sultans were descendants of Osman I (1258 - 1326). Around 1300, this ruler united certain of the disparate Turkish tribes (Seljuks) who had originally settled in Anatolia from the 11th century. Osman emerged as a ruthless leader, uniting some of these tribes with force where necessary and establishing a center of power at Bursa near Constantinople.

The heavily-fortified city of Constantinople was held by the Byzantines and in the 15th century the Ottomans became determined to conquer it. Murad II (1421 - 1451) tried unsuccessfully to invade the city in 1423. On May 29, 1453, the city finally fell to the Ottomans, who were led by Mehmet II (1432 - 1481). The conquest of Constantinople has been described as the event that ended the Medieval period.


The Genoese had a trading colony in Constantinople when the city was under Byzantine rule. In 1348, they built a tower which still stands. It is called the Galata tower, after this Genoese colony. In the 15h century it became the home of a detachment of Janissaries. In the 16th century the tower was used to hold prisoners of war. These would be sent to the naval arsenal at Kasimpasa, where they would become galley slaves.


The "new army" (yeni ceri) of Janissaries reflected Ottoman hostility to Christianity. Orhan I, the son of Osman I, who ruled from c. 1324 - 1360, founded the group around 1330. From its inception the main recruits were Christians - either adults who had been forced to convert to Islam, or children of Christians who were abducted as "tributes". After an edict of 1362 by Sultan Murad I (ruled 1360 - 1381), special privileges were offered to this new army, and Turks began to join. The Janissaries became the main standing army of the Ottomans, but Christians continued to be forcibly inducted to its ranks.

In the 15th century, hostage taking became a weapon of control. In 1442 Vlad II the ruler of Wallachia (which includes modern Romania) sent two of his sons, Vlad and Radu as hostages to Sultan Murad II. Vlad was 13 at the time, the elder of the two captives. The boys remained at Adrianople (Edirne). Though Radu chose to stay with his captors, Vlad was freed in 1448. He became Vlad III, ruler of Wallachia. He battled against the Turks, but used against them a method of punishment he had learned from the Ottomans. He was known as Vlad Tepes - Vlad the Impaler. As well as enacting mass-impalements, he was reputed to have once eaten bread soaked in a victim's blood. The legends of Vlad Tepes and his father gave rise to the Dracula myth.

Another young hostage of the Ottoman Turks was George Kastrioti (aka Skanderbeg, Albania's national hero). He and his three brothers had been sent as hostages to Turkey by their father, who was following the orders of Sultan Bayezid I (also called Yildirim, or "lightning"). Skanderbeg converted to Islam, and distinguished himself in the Ottoman army. In 1443, he rebelled against the Ottomans and - as a Christian - he led some three hundred Albanians to fight with the Hungarians against the Turks. For 25 years he fought against the Turks, preventing them from conquering his homeland.

The Janissaries were a well-trained and effective military force. They were generally feared by members of the Turkish citizenry. They would carry long staves. Fynes Moryson was an English traveler who was in Constantinople in 1597. He encountered contempt for being a non-Muslim.

Moryson wrote that once, while walking in the city, "a wild-headed Turke took my hat from my head (being of the fashion of Europe not used there) and having turned it, and long beheld it, he said (to use his rude words) Lend me this vessell to ease my belly therein; and so girning flung it on the dyrtie ground, which I with patience took up".

Moryson on several occasions was robbed by Janissaries, who took his provisions from him. He published his account, called "An Itinerary" in 1617. He noted that long after his return to England, he was still traumatized by the experience.

Thomas Dallam, the organ-maker described in Part One, visited Constantinople at the end of the 16th century. Along the way, he and some others from his ship happened to be stranded for a night in a village on the northern shore of the Sea of Marmora. A janissary had been assigned to act as a bodyguard. They stayed in a "darke uncomfortable house". They slept on bare floorboards, while the janissary slept over a trapdoor.

In the night, one of the fifteen men went to the balcony to relieve himself. At dusk, the men had spoken of the snakes of the region. One of the man's garters was hanging loose and the wind blew it against his leg. He yelled that a snake was on him, and the others woke thinking they were being ambushed. The janissary who had been charged to protect them showed none of the courage normally associated with his trade. Hearing the noise, he opened the trapdoor and slipped into the cellar beneath. When the chaos had subsided the janissary was unable to climb out of the cellar and had to be pulled out.

The foreign embassies in Pera, Constantinople, would usually have a small retinue of Janissaries to guard their interests. Between 1555 and 1562, the Flemish ambassador at the Ottoman Sublime Porte (government) was Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq. This individual, who would introduce the tulip to Western Europe wrote of Janissaries: "The Turkish state has 12,000 of these troops when the corps is at its full strength. They are scattered through every part of the empire, either to garrison the forts against the enemy, or to protect the Christians and Jews from the violence of the mob. There is no district with any considerable amount of population, no borough or city, which has not a detachment of Janissaries to protect the Christians, Jews, and other helpless people from outrage and wrong."

The subjugated states were obliged to pay jizya tax to the Ottoman government at this time, and alsoto submit quotas of male children, aged 12 to 13, who would become Janissaries. Among some of those sent to Turkey to be trained in warfare, a select few were chosen for the diplomatic service. These individuals, called Ajem Oghlan ("rough lad") would be sent to Constantinople to work in the service of the Sublime Porte.

The Ajem-Oghlan would be chosen for "bodily perfection, muscular strength, and intellectual ability, so far as it could be judged without long testing." Busbecq noted: "The Turks rejoice greatly when they find an exceptional man, as though they had acquired a precious object, and they spare no labor or effort in cultivating him."

From the mid fifteenth century onwards, there were several Janissary revolts. Finally, when these infantry troops were seen as a potential threat to Ottoman rulership, the Janissaries were officially disbanded in 1826.

Galley Slaves And Piracy


During the Renaissance, the main vessels of war in the Mediterranean were galleys. The Venetians and Genoese employed such oared vessels, and the Ottomans used
similar vessels. These had sails, but a single tier of oarsmen maneuvered the boats in close combat.

The oarsmen on Christian and Ottoman boats were usually captives, forced to act as slaves. Few individuals who became such slaves would ever be free to write of their experiences.

One such individual was Edward Webb. He published an account of his adventures in 1590 in a book entitled "Ed: Webbe His Travailes: The rare and most wonderfull things which Edw. Webbe, an Englishman borne, hath seene and passed in his troublesome travailes.... Herein is set foorth his extreme slaverie sustained many yeres togither, in the Gallies and wars of the great Turk against the Landes of Persia.....".

Webb was a skilled gunner. His father Richard Webb, he states, was Master Gunner of England in 1554, the year of Edward's birth. Edward Webb was released with a ransom in May 1589 from captivity. His release in Constantinople is a matter of historical record. Webb reported that he had been serving on a ship as a gunner when it was captured. He and his companions were forced to act as a slave oarsman in Turkish galleys, stripped naked and abused.

He wrote that he spent six "yeares in this miserable state, wonderfully beaten and misused every day." He told his captors that he had "good skill in Gunners art" and was released from the galleys. He was still in bondage, and had to serve as a gunner, a conscript in the Turkish army. Webb claimed he had served in campaigns in Syria and Palestine, as well as Russia, Goa in India and even in the land of "Prester John".

This latter detail has led some to doubt the authenticity of parts of his report. Webb included myths of Prester John into his account of his travels. He describes cannibals, headless men and four-headed beasts in Prester John's kingdom. Worse, he recounts that he stroked unicorns in parks in this kingdom, an artistic license that (unless he speaks of rhinos) damages his credibility. Some of his details of Prester John's kingdom became reworked into Shakespeare's Othello (1.3, 128-45).

John Fox was another gunner who became a galley slave. He successfully mounted a rebellion and escape. His tale is told in Richard Hakluyt's vast anthology of travelers' tales, "Voyages...". Fox had set out from Portsmouth, England in 1563. His ship, the Three Half Moons, held 38 men and munitions. It was bound for Spain to trade, but was attacked by "Turks" near Gibraltar and soon overrun.

"the Christians must needs to the galleys, to serve in new offices; and they were no sooner in them, but their garments were pulled over their ears, and torn from their backs, and they set to the oars.".

In winter, many Ottoman galleys were put to shore at Alexandria in Egypt for repairs and "trimming". Near this spot their slave oarsmen were kept in a prison. In 1577, Fox and two other Englishmen were housed among 238 Christian captives, who came from fifteen nations. Fox killed a prison guard and led a revolt that saw the captives escape. They boarded the only galley that had been "trimmed" and fled. Though they were fired upon with cannon, none of the other galleys had masts or sails, and there were no slaves ready to row. Fox and crew escaped to Gallipoli. 

From the latter half of the 15th century and into the first part of the 16th, the Ottomans had encouraged piracy. There were four Barbarossa brothers but two became notorious. Aruj (c. 1474 - 1518) was given a position in the Ottoman navy and was given several galleys to command. He began to attack the Italian coast, and also became engaged in conflicts with the Knights of St John.

Aruj gained control of Algiers in August 1516. He killed the Algerian ruler, Selim ben Tumi, either by strangulation with the ruler's turban, or suffocating him in his own steam bath. Aruj was killed by Spanish fighters in 1518, but in 1529, Algiers fell to the Ottomans.

Aruj's role was taken up by his younger brother Khair ad-Din. Algeria became a center for piracy. Last year, Family Security Matters dealt with the subject of the Barbary Corsairs, and their forcible abductions of both sailors and civilians.

In 1571, the Battle of Lepanto was a victory for combined Christian forces against the Ottomans. This was the last major battle involving galleys. The acts of piracy by the Ottomans would continue, and even increased after this. The galleys needed a large crew. A fleet of 200 ships required 20,000 oarsmen. Though galleys began to be phased out, Christian slaves would be used in construction work and other enterprises. The Barbary Corsairs, whose actions were never condemned by their Ottoman overlords, continue to hijack ships, raid village ports and traffic humans until 1815.

In Algeria, four English individuals who had "turned Turk" assisted their masters to build boats that were better suited to sail beyond the confines of the Mediterranean. These men, known as Ward, Bishop, Sakell and Jennings became notorious as traitors. In August 1609 these traitor-pirates' activities were discussed in the court of King James I.

The most feared of these pirates was Captain John Ward, born in Feversham in Kent. As a Muslim he was called Yusuf Reis. He came to piracy late. He was already a convicted pirate when in 1603, aged 50, he was forced into the navy. He deserted, hijacked ships and ended up on the North African (Barbary) coast. He made Tunis the center of his piracy. There Ward had allegedly vowed to "become a foe to all Christians, bee a persecutor of their wealt".

The Dey of Tunis was pleased with Ward's attacks, and gave him a plot of land and an abandoned castle. Ward had started piracy for profit, hoping to become wealthy from seized treasure, but gained greater wealth from kidnapping and trafficking human slaves. Andrew Barker, one of Ward's English captives said Ward's home was "a very stately house, farre more fit for a prince than a pirate." Barker said he had nor seen "any peere in England that beares up his post in more dignitie, nor hath attendants more obsequious."

When Scottish traveler William Lithgow met Ward in Tunis in 1615, he wrote that the pirate lived in a palace and had a retinue that included 15 Englishman. Lithgow related that Ward's home was "a fair palace beautified with rich marble and alabaster stones. With whom I found domestics, some fifteen circumcised English renegades, whose lives and countenances were both alike. Old Ward their master was placable and diverse times in my ten days staying there I dined and supped with him."

"Ward the Pirate" became the subject of a ballad written around 1690.

Slave Raids

In 1551, Suleiman the "Magnificent" ordered Dragut Reis to attack Malta. Malta was under the guardianship of the Knights of St John. The attack upon Malta failed, so Dragut reis turned his attention to the neighboring island of Gozo. A total of 5,000 citizens of Gozo, including women, were taken into slavery.

It is easy to blame the Ottomans for their slave-raids - especially when they were officially trading with the kinsmen of those they kidnapped. Between 1609 and 1616, a total of 466 English vessels were captured and their crews made into slaves. Many were worked to death. These slaves were, if lucky, ransomed. Kidnapped Christians were kept prisoner in Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. In 1640, 3,000 English slaves who were held in Algiers petitioned their government for help. Through the 17th century it was traditional for English churches to hold services for the purposes of fundraising for the ransom of the hostages.

The Christians in the 16th century had also copied the activities of the Ottoman slave-dealers. In Bodrum (formerly Halicarnassus) in southwest Turkey, the Knights of St John (Knights Hospitaller) had a castle. These knights fought against the Turks at Lepanto and earlier at Malta. They had imprisoned Aruj Barbarossa at this castle.

In 1993 excavations at Bodrum castle found the skeletons of 13 galley slaves, still in fetters. These had been Muslims, probably war captives, who had served as galley slaves for the Christians. Their bodies had been unceremoniously thrown in a garbage heap.

The Genoese who captured Muslim prisoners also made them work as slaves on their galleys. According to Michelangelo Dolcino, the Muslim galley slaves would be chained to their benches night and day.

The times were harsh and savage. In June 1565 in a battle at fort St Elmo on the island between Jean de la Valette and Ottoman forces, both sides were uncompromising. The Turkish general Mustapha ordered the wounded Knights of St John to have their hearts torn out. Valette ordered that all Turkish prisoners should be decapitated, and that no more live prisoners should be taken.

The Ottoman Caliphs did nothing to condemn slavery, and grew wealthy through hijackings, kidnap and slavery. In today's climate of moral relativism, people are quick to condemn Western culture and history, yet hypocritically excuse the atrocities of others.

Thomas Dallam noticed that on the Greek island of Chios and others which were under Ottoman rule, how poverty-stricken the inhabitants were, due to their having to pay massive taxes to their overlords. This taxing of non-Muslims is all part of Islamic law. Called jizya, it is described in the Hadith of Bukhari (Book 19, number 4294) thus: "If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah's help and fight them."

Many Muslims who currently complain that the West is "Islamophobic" should seriously re-examine their own history. In 1159, all the Christians in Tunis were given a simple option - "convert or die". They were not offered the opportunity of paying a special jizya tax to keep their faith.

From the time of Suleiman the Magnificent, the jizya tax was enforced in Christian communities under Ottoman rule. Samuel Purchas, who continued to publish the papers in Richard Haklut's possession after the latter's death, published an interesting document.

The document is authored by Edward Brerewood (c.1565-1613) who was the head of Astronomy at Gresham College from 1596 until his death. He states: "But, in all the Turkes Dominion that hee hath in Europe, inclosed after a peninsular figure, betweene Danubius and the Sea, and containing in circuit about 2300 miles (for Moldavia, Walachia, and Transilvania, I reckon not for the parts of his Dominion) namely, from above Buda, on Danubius side, and from Ragusa on the Sea Eastward, to the utmost bounds of Europe, as also in the Iles of the Aegean Sea, Christians are mingled with Mahometans...."

"And in his Dominion of the Turks in Europe, such is notwithstanding the mixture of Mahumetans with Christians, so that the Christians make two third parts at least of the inhabitants: for the Turke, so that the Christians pay him his yeerely tribute (which is one fourth part of their increase, and a Saltanie for every poll) and speake nothing against the Religion and Sect of Mahumet, permitteth them the liberty of their religion."

The Ottoman Caliphate had its faults, as did the earlier civilizations of the West. However, Western culture has not clung to the barbarisms and oppressions of its past. The Islamists who today tell us that the world would be a better place under a Caliphate should really examine that past critically. Do they really want to bring back slavery and to force non-Muslims to convert or be killed unless they pay a tax? As philosopher George Santanya stated: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Adrian Morgan

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