Jamie Rae Bluestone and William D. Phillips, Jr.
Religion occupied an important, even central position in the global history of the early modern period, with all of the major religions of the world in expansive phases from roughly 1350 to 1750. Islam was spreading throughout Asia and Africa south of the Sahara. Buddhism found new adherents in central and East Asia. Hinduism expanded and influenced indigenous cultures in southeast Asia. Christianity gained large numbers of converts in the Americas and the Philippines and smaller numbers of new followers in Africa and parts of Asia. In the process of expansion, these major religions interacted with one another through conflict and accommodation, the two primary themes of this book.
There also were conflicts and the need for accommodation within each of the world religions, as political and religious leaders sought to define and enforce conformity. In Europe, the Protestant Reformation split the ranks of western Christians, heightening religious fervor on both sides of the confessional divide. A similar but more long-standing division existed within Islam; Sunnis and Shi’ias continued the battle for ideological supremacy and control of the faithful they had begun in the late seventh century. Other religions experienced similar internal conflicts, though on a smaller scale.
To assert the significance of religion in the early modern world may seem self-evident, yet for most of the twentieth century the academic community largely neglected religion or downplayed its historical and contemporary importance. Many academic scholars were consciously or unconsciously children of the Enlightenment and shared the critiques of organized religion enunciated by Voltaire and the contributors to the Encyclopédie, among many others. Viewed from that perspective, religion not only was full of superstition but it also inspired internal religious strife and external wars. Therefore, these scholars reasoned it should be removed from its pedestal as the ultimate source of knowledge and morality and be made subject to human reason as one branch of philosophy.
It is easy to see how this could happen. The United States and France, as two examples, were and are secular republics, with legal barriers attempting to separate religion and politics. Constitutional monarchies such as Britain, even with official ties between the head of state and the established church, also experienced a drastic secularization of society that was common throughout the western world. Scholars in the western countries often took the view that the Enlightenment project of marginalizing religion and confining it in a corner from which it could cause no harm was useful and admirable. This was especially the case for Marxist scholars in those decades when Marxism was fashionable.
This outlook, of course, failed to take into consideration that religion remained strong and influential around the world, even within the increasingly secularized states of the West. Dramatic events involving religious leaders and their more zealous followers have intruded on the world’s stage in recent decades and brought renewed attention to religion as a significant player in modern society. Religion is no doubt still inspirational for large numbers of people, from peaceful believers to militants and terrorists, and so it has become increasingly difficult to ignore contemporary manifestations of belief and, by extension, to overlook historical precedents.
Hence the inspiration for this volume, derived from a lecture series and symposium organized by Marguerite Ragnow and William Phillips at the Center for Early Modern History, University of Minnesota, in 2003. The papers cover a variety of topics focusing on religious conflict and accommodation in various places around the world in the early modern period. The individual cases, though from an earlier time, adumbrate, sometimes explicitly, the challenges facing the early twenty-first-century world as religious belief and practice again inspire both conflict and accommodation.
The volume opens with a scene-setting article by James D. Tracy, who takes issue with common tendencies to project on earlier centuries modern attitudes of toleration and mutual religious respect and instead draws our attention to the reality of conflicts. Emphasizing the expanding early modern Islamic polities — from the Ottomans in the west to the Mughals in the east, with the Safavids of Persia in between — Tracy discusses the battle between Christianity and Islam in Eastern Europe and Mediterranean Basin, what he calls the background war of the early modern period. This “conflict of civilizations” was ongoing and involved commercial rivalry and a persistent cultural contest, along with repeated raids across religious frontiers and occasional outbreaks of major warfare. Although “only occasionally at the forefront of attention” because participants on both sides “were preoccupied by enemies or rivals of their own faith,” the struggle between Christendom and the Islamic world was nevertheless a continuing reality. Indeed, the two groups of believers were long-standing enemies, a fact of which Tracy does well to remind us. “How [else],” he asks, “can we understand contemporary Muslim fears about the dominance of the infidel West if we fail to appreciate how much a Christian West once feared the dominance of infidel Muslims?”1
Despite ongoing hostilities between Christians and Muslims, there were individual believers whose personal faith in and scriptural understanding of their religion led them to take a more accommodating position. One such Christian, Juan de Segovia (d. 1458), is the subject of the essay by Anne Marie Wolf. In fifteenth-century Christian Spain, Segovia, a prominent but not politically influential theologian, came up with an array of ideas for Christian interaction with Muslims that closely approached an appeal for true toleration three centuries before the Enlightenment. He lived at a time of heightened competition between Christianity and Islam in the Mediterranean world and achieved fame as a leading figure at the Council of Basel. His contemporary Christian theologians and Christian rulers and their courts were shocked and disheartened by the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and the final demise of the Byzantine Empire. Many advocated a return to the Crusades and a military offensive against the Turks. In a set of letters to his fellow theologian Jean Germain, Juan de Segovia argued that the correct attitude of Christians and Christian polities toward the Muslims should be dialogue, not militant confrontation; drawing heavily on scripture, he argued for increased Christian efforts to convert Muslims by peaceful means, abjuring confrontation and violence.
The Mughal emperor Akbar, who ruled from 1556 to 1605, advocated a similar effort at accommodation, as Stephen Blake illustrates in his article. Blake examines Akbar’s attempt to forge some sort of mutual understanding among the multiple cultures of his realm in India, a project established by his Mughal predecessors to build an imperial system similar to the contemporary Ottoman and Safavid empires. Akbar created a House of Religious Assembly in his new capital city of Fathpur Sikri with the intention of appealing to Muslim and non-Muslim audiences by bringing together Hindus, Jains, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Jews to meet with the politically dominant Muslims. His attempt, while achieving a certain degree of success during his lifetime, had no lasting impact, perhaps because of the factionalism present among the followers of different interpreters of Islam.
Conflicting interpretations of Christianity, as reflected in the discord among Protestants and Catholics, was a frequent challenge for the sixteenth-century French monarchy. Denis Crouzet demonstrates how political imagery changed to reflect evolving political and religious configurations in sixteenth-century France. Early on, the monarchy’s self-representation was that of strong and warlike authority, intended to encourage obedience throughout the kingdom. Then, as the horrors of the Wars of Religion (1562-1598) became apparent and a need for reconciliation between the parties was deemed necessary, Henri IV rebranded the monarchy as a conciliatory accommodator with the ability to bring together the warring factions by non-violent means.
In eastern Europe in the same period, the principality of Transylvania had an even greater religious complexity, but it did not devolve into the civil war experienced in France. Graeme Murdock contends that violence is not the “inevitable result of the breakdown of religious uniformity,” as is so often argued for France and other places, and offers early modern Transylvania as the perfect counter-example.2 In the early sixteenth century, the traditional Catholic and Orthodox varieties of Christianity were joined by new persuasions — Lutheran, Reformed, and Anti-Trinitarian. Murdock shows how Transylvanian rulers were able to negotiate accommodations among the differing groups, which resulted in a high degree of successful interaction and civil peace that lasted as long as the political independence of the principality endured.
The relationship between religion and politics played out much differently in the Philippines. Timothy Brook examines a confrontation between Spanish and Chinese communities in seventeenth-century Manila that was not prompted by religious conflict, but instead took on religious overtones only “as the economic and political costs of the conflict rose.” In early 1640, following a series of violent episodes prompted by drought, a bad harvest, an epidemic, and over-taxation, the Spanish and Chinese were at a stalemate. Entrenched in their positions, each side drew upon its religious identity in the hope of securing victory. The Catholic Spaniards chose Christ, who was “a god of war, a god of state, and a god of empire,” while the polytheistic Chinese chose Emperor Guan, who “was a god of war too, but only in name.” As Brook describes, the once political-economic battle had now become “a battle of the gods,” a conflict that Christ eventually won, with not a little help from the Spaniards’ more advanced military technology.3
The ultimate domination of a Catholic Christ in the seventeenth-century Philippines was no guarantee of similar success during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the North Atlantic region, where members of the Catholic Church were not politically recognized and often legally discriminated against by Protestant political leaders. Catholic Christians were certainly not in the majority, but, as Luca Codignola argues, they also did not crumble in the face of external pressure and internal crises. Through his study of disparate Catholic communities found throughout the North Atlantic and their responses to multiple crises, Codignola identifies a common characteristic that not only helped Catholic Christians to endure, but also seems to have actually fortified the Church as a whole. “An overall conservatism, a deeply ingrained interest in maintaining the status quo concerning political power” is what held together three generations of Catholics.4
In the volume’s final essay, Frederick Asher shows how early modern religious conflicts still have twenty-first century reverberations. Throughout the world, there are geographical locales that have been seen as holy places, both because of their physical presence and because they were the sites of transforming religious events. There are several such holy places in India, including one where dramatic events took place in the last decade of the twentieth century, events that harkened back to the sixteenth century. In 1992, a mob inspired and backed by prominent Hindu groups destroyed the mosque of Bahri Masjid at Adohya. This was the second oldest mosque of the Mughal period, constructed in 1528-29. The focus of Hindu wrath was the belief that the mosque was built on the birthplace of the god Rama and that the Muslims in the sixteenth century had destroyed a Hindu temple to do so. Asher indicates that the events at Adohya fit within a context of efforts to exalt the Hindu presence in the Indian republic and to replace and supplant reminders of other religions, all in the name of righting perceived early-modern wrongs.
The essays in this volume examine aspects of the complexity of religious belief and practice that contributed to life in the early modern period. Defense of faith and religious privilege inspired a wide range of conflicts, from local disputes to wars. Yet accommodation was possible and often successful. September 11, 2001, inspired scholars of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Early Modern History to begin a dialogue about faith-inspired conflict. By seeking to understand religious conflict and accommodation in the past we hope to better understand the centuries-old tensions that continue to cause upheavals today.
James D. Tracy, “The Background War of the Early Modern Era: Christian and Muslim States in Contest for Dominion, Trade, and Cultural Preeminence,” chapter 1 of this volume.
Graeme Murdock, “Transylvanian Tolerance? Religious Accommodation on the Frontier of Christian Europe,” chapter 5 of this volume.
Timothy Brook, “The Battle of Christ and Lord Guan: A Sino-European Religious Conflict in the Philippines, 1640,” chapter 6 of this volume.
Luca Codignola, “Roman Catholic Conservatism in a New North Atlantic World, 1760-1829,” chapter 7 of this volume.