Martin Luther and Islam: A Book Review

We live at a time when no aspect of Western societal life (media, economy, politics, etc.) has gone untouched by, or even to some degree, has not been shaped by the resurgence of interest in Christian-Muslim relations. Western academia, Reformation Studies included, has also contributed much to the dialogue. Thus, Adam Franciso’s Martin Luther and Islam: A Study in Sixteenth-Century polemics and Apologetics,[1] makes up volume eight in Brill’s History of Christian-Muslim Relation series.[2]

Writing with an academic readership in mind (made apparent by the un-translated German and Latin titles and footnotes[3] and the exorbitant price of the book!) the author’s intention throughout the work is to show that “Luther’s approach toward Islam was much more theological and apologetic than is generally acknowledged,”[4] and that Luther’s polemics against Islam ultimately served a pastoral agenda in light of threatening Ottoman imperialism in Eastern Europe. Francisco’s format is very intentional toward this goal in the face of detractors who suggest that he may be presupposing too many theological and apologetical intentions in Luther’s sharp critiques and highly charged writings dealing with the Muslim Turks.[5] Most historians examine Luther’s perspective of the Sixteenth Century Turks politically. For by Luther’s time, the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Sūleyman (1520-1566) had annexed much of Hungary, besieged Vienna (from September 27 to October 15, 1529), and had managed to cross the Alps into Bavaria and Bohemia sending Germany into a panic.[6]

Taking all these factors into consideration Martin Luther and Islam is divided into two parts. Part One, Islam and the West, 1095-1546 (chapters one through four) is dedicated to surveying the historical context of European Christian contact with, writings on, and perspectives of Islam and the Turks from Medieval times to the Sixteenth Century.

By far, what is most outstanding about Francisco’s study is his discussion on Luther’s assessment of Islam (as far as Luther understood it) in light of the theological grid through which he also perceived the Papacy, his times (eschatology), and the created order of the world. For example, in chapter Five Francisco begins with an analysis of Luther’s Die Dreistandelehre, or theology of the “three estates.” Luther mused, “What good can be in the government and…Turkish way of life since according to their Qur’an these three things reign freely among them: namely lies [13], murder [14], and disregard for marriage?”[15] Francisco points out that “It might be tempting to dismiss Luther’s allegation as hyperbole or Islamophobia, but despite his harsh caricature of the Turks as destroyers of religious truth, benevolent political rule, and virtuous domestic relationships between men and women in holy matrimony, there is a deep rationale behind his initial critique of Islam.” [16] He then expounds upon Luther’s three-fold theological understanding of the created order consisting of the Spiritual Estate, the Temporal or Political Estate, and the Marital or Economic Estate. For Luther, these three realms are the basic building blocks of God’s design for order and harmony in the world which the Devil is ever working to destroy. But because Islam, in Luther’s thought, undermines the Spiritual realm by spreading falsehoods about Christ who has all authority in Heaven and on earth, [17] violates strictly separate roles of civic and church responsibilities by waging jīhād in the name of religion (Luther also vehemently opposed the Crusades), and, according to his sources, encouraged polygamy and the liberality of divorce, Luther concluded that Islam was of demonic origin designed to destroy God’s created order. Of course, Francisco admits, Luther’s conclusions are not unique for his times, but the way he arrived at those conclusions was an entirely innovative theological contribution.

Francisco goes on to show that while Luther was no Islamicist, [18] his “understanding was as broad and perceptive as anyone’s knowledge was during his time and, according to contemporary research, surpassed most,” [19] despite the fact that Luther had never once met a Muslim in person.

Although Francisco argues that theology and apologetics are at the heart of Luther’s polemics, at every stage of his presentation of the material he is careful to remind his readers, first, that Luther’s apparently crass polemic against Islam does not even come close to the sharp words he reserved for the Papacy. For example, Luther once remarked, “Compared to the Pope, ‘Muhammad appears before the world as a pure saint.” [20] Secondly, Francisco repeatedly points out, especially in chapters six and eight, that Luther’s ultimate goal was pastoral. “An analysis of Luther’s advice... reveals his early thought on how a Christian should deal with the temptations one might experience under the Ottomans, and, especially, how one might respond to the Anfechtung [21] caused by the allure of Islam.” [22] Luther had heard accounts of many European Christians who had come under Turkish captivity. He also foresaw an imminent Ottoman take-over of Europe and feared clergy and lay-believers would not be prepared spiritually and mentally to stand against the many deep doubts and temptations which would oppress them from every side were the Turks to rule them. Therefore, Luther, through polemic attacks on Islam, and providing robustly theological apologetics, deeply desired to bolster the faith of his readers so that they might withstand the inevitable pressures they would face to convert. Franciso argues in chapter six that Luther

…wrote as a pastor to theologically ignorant laity, and his advice served a singular purpose: to ensure that Christians living in the Ottoman Empire would remain firm in the faith while, at the same time, living out their faith despite being faced with satanic or Islamic Anfechtung…[23]

Francisco’s careful and nuanced presentation shows that Luther’s discussions, although not systematic, were definitely thorough. But more importantly, he made it abundantly clear that Luther’s primary interest was to help individual Christians to endure the troubles of the Last Days and spiritually survive Turkish captivity by theologically and apologetically defending Christianity against Islam.

The greatest importance of this work lies in its advancement of a deeper understanding of what Protestants in the Reformation tradition have inherited in terms of historical Christian-Muslim relations, for better or for worse, from the leading thinker of the Reformation, and therefore, what they inevitably bring to the table of Christian-Muslim dialogue even today. What Francisco puts forth at the conclusion of his discussion of Luther’s Sermon on the fourth Sunday after Epiphany (1546) at St. Andrew’s Church would summarize well the significance of what this in-depth study of Luther’s thought on Islam has for modern readers:  

"Not only does [Luther’s theological apologetic] represent a new approach to responding to Islam, but by also exposing the profound theological differences between the two religions, it also set the stage for the most basic apologetic dilemma in Christian-Muslim dialogue, the reliability of the Scriptures, which would be taken up by the next generation of Christian apologists.” [26]

The implication is that with Martin Luther and Islam, Adam Francisco has filled in a heretofore wide historical gap of research in Sixteenth-Century Christian-Muslim relations. Any Protestant who desires to engage in serious Christian-Muslim dialogue would do well to examine this study closely in order to better understand historical differences, avoid previous pitfalls, and improve upon both dialogue and apologetics in the Twenty-first Century.

Bibliography

Apel, Dean M., Luther's Approach to Islam : Ingemar Öberg's Search for Mission Praxis in the Weimar Edition of Luther's Works, Currents in Theology and Mission, 26, no 6, D 1999, pp. 439-450

Bainton, Roland H., Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, New American Library, New York, 1950

Bainton, Roland H., The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, Beacon Press, Boston, 1952.

Henrich, Sarah S.; Boyce, James L., Martin Luther--Translations of Two Prefaces on Islam : Preface to the Libellus de ritu et moribus Turcorum (1530), and Preface to Bibliander's Edition of the Qur'ān (1543), Word & World, 16, no 2, Spr 1996, pp. 250-266.

Miller, Gregory J.,  Luther on the Turks and Islam, Lutheran Quarterly, ns 14, no 1, Spr 2000, pp. 79-97.

________________ Martin Luther and Islam: a study in sixteenth-century polemics and apologetics, A Review, Lutheran Quartly, Malone College, Canton Ohio, ns 22, no 3, Aut 2008, pp. 362-364

Naumann, Jonathan C., Luther, Lutherans, and Islam, Concordia Journal, 28, no 1, Ja 2002, pp. 54-63.

Rajashekar, J Paul and Wengert, Timothy J., Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and the publication of the Qur’an, Lutheran Quarterly, ns 16, no 2, Sum 2002, pp. 221-228.

Smith, Robert O., Luther, the Turks, and Islam, Currents in Theology and Mission, 34, no 5, O 2007, pp. 351-364

Tsakiridis, George, Martin Luther and Islam: a study in sixteenth-century polemics and apologetics, A Review, Currents in Theology and Mission, 35, no 6 D, 2008, pp. 451-452.

[1] Francisco, Adam S., Martin Luther and Islam: A Study in Sixteenth-Century polemics and Apologetics, Brill, Boston, 2007

[2] Tsakiridis, George, Martin Luther and Islam: a study in sixteenth-century polemics and apologetics (Review), Currents in Theology and Mission, 35, no 6 D, 2008, p 451-452.

[3] Along with the exorbitant price ($177.00 on Amazon)!

[4] Francisco, Martin Luther and Islam, pg. 3-4

[5] Ibid., pg. 108 (chapter 4)

[6] Ibid., pg. 36

[7] Of the War Against the Turks (special thanks to Florian Jackël for help translating the German titles).

[8] Military Sermon Against the Turks

[9] Admonition to Prayer Against the Turks

[10] Preface to the al-Qur’an

[11] Refutation of the al-Qur'an by Brother Richard of the Order of Preachers

[12] Concerning the Rites and Customs of the Turks

[13] about Muhammad’s prophethood, Jesus’ divinity, and the corruption of the Bible: Francisco, Martin Luther and Islam, pg. 142-3

[14] by advancing Islam by the sword (like the papacy): Francisco, Martin Luther and Islam, pg. 144-5

[15] through liberal exercise of divorce (whereas the papacy destroys marriage through the restriction of it): Francisco, Martin Luther and Islam, pg. 146-7

[16] Ibid., pg. 132

[17] Matthew 28:18

[18] Francisco, Martin Luther and Islam, pp. 3-4

[19] Ibid., pg. 127

[20] Ibid., pg. 84

[21] Literally: “temptation” but implies an assault of doubt and despair, i.e. “spiritual angst.” See Francisco, Martin Luther and Islam, pg. 151

[22] Ibid., pg. 151

[23] Ibid., pg. 174

[24] Miller, Gregory J., Martin Luther and Islam: a study in sixteenth-century polemics and apologetics, Lutheran Quartly, ns 22, no 3, Aut 2008, pp. 362-364 (quotation on pg. 363-4)

[25] Gregory Miller, Luther on the Turks and Islam, Lutheran Quarterly, ns 14, no 1, Spr 2000, p 79-97.( quote: pg.80)

[26] Francisco, Martin Luther and Islam, pg. 231