In the 16th Century, Martin Luther came across a short book detailing the religious rituals and customs of the Ottoman Turks. He was so impressed with the tract that he decided to reprint it with a new preface that he authored himself. This is not surprising as, given the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, Luther had much to say regarding the Turks, Islam, Muhammad, and the Qur’an. While the majority of Luther’s works on Islam and Muslims are polemical in tone, this particular writing takes a different approach.

The short book is titled The Tract on the Religious Customs of the Turks. The initial tract was in Latin and published in 1481. While there is some discrepancy concerning the authorship, it is most likely written by Georgius of Hungaria. Georgius was captured by the Turks as a 16 year old and spent 20 years in prison. During his captivity, he became well acquainted with the religious rituals and customs of his captors which he writes about in a positive light. Writing favorably about Islam during the period of Ottoman expansion is rare, however, it is Georgius’ favorable approach to Islamic rituals that piques Luther’s interest.

The preface (a translation of the preface can be found here) served a dual purpose for Luther. It is both an apologetic (defense) of Muslim religious rituals and customs and at the same time a polemic (attack) against the religious rituals and customs of Roman Catholics. In comparing Muslims and Catholics, Luther uses the religious fervor and discipline of the Turks as a means of discrediting what he perceived to be dead legalistic traditions of Catholicism. A cursory reading of Luther’s preface may lead one to conclude that he had softened his views on Islam from some of his previous writings. However, it seems that his appeal to this particular tract had more to do with his disdain for Catholicism than a change of heart towards Muslims.

Luther begins his writing by accusing Catholic authors of misrepresenting Islam by only presenting the worst parts of the religion in order to invoke fear among Christians and keep them from converting. “While they eagerly take pains to excerpt from the Qur’an all the most base and absurd things that arouse hatred and can move people to ill-will, at the same time they either pass over without rebuttal or cover over the good things it contains.” Luther suggests that the critics of Islam intentionally bypass the “good things” in the Qur’an “because of hatred of the Turks or because of their own lack of powers of refutation.” It is the latter reason that Luther focuses on throughout his writing. In his view, Catholic authors had no power to refute the religion of Islam because Catholicism and Islam were both religions of works.

Luther argued that if Christians believed in works-based righteousness, then they would be compelled to leave Christianity for Islam because Muslim devotion was far superior to that of the Christians. Here is an excerpt where Luther explains his position:

We see that the religion of the Turks or Muhammad is far more splendid in ceremonies—and, I might almost say, in customs—than ours, even including that of the religious or all the clerics. The modesty and simplicity of their food, clothing, dwellings, and everything else, as well as the fasts, prayers, and common gatherings of the people that this book reveals are nowhere seen among us—or rather it is impossible for our people to be persuaded to them. Furthermore, which of our monks, be it a Carthusian (they who wish to appear the best) or a Benedictine, is not put to shame by the miraculous and wondrous abstinence and discipline among their religious? Our religious are mere shadows when compared to them, and our people clearly profane when compared to theirs. Not even true Christians, not Christ himself, not the apostles or prophets ever exhibited so great a display. This is the reason why many persons so easily depart from faith in Christ for Muhammadanism and adhere to it so tenaciously. I sincerely believe that no papist, monk, cleric, or their equal in faith would be able to remain in their faith if they should spend three days among the Turks. Here I mean those who seriously desire the faith of the pope and who are the best among them.

Luther used the religious commitment of Muslims to further his theological position on Sola Fide (faith alone). This becomes clear in his statement concerning the motive behind reprinting the book:

We are publishing this book and thrusting it in the face of the opponents of the gospel, so that, confused as they are in their own foolish opinions, they might actually experience and feel with their own hands that what the gospel teaches is true. For the gospel teaches that the Christian religion is by far something other and more sublime than showy ceremonies, tonsures, hoods, pale countenances, fasts, feasts, canonical hours, and that entire show of the Roman church throughout the world. Indeed, in all these things the Turks are by far superior. Nevertheless, they continue to deny and ardently persecute Christ, no less than our papists deny and persecute him. May they finally then grasp this truth, namely, that the Christian religion is by far something other than good customs or good works. For this book shows that the Turks are far superior to our Christians in these things as well.

In other words, if Christianity is a religion of works then, according to Luther, Muslims have a better religion. Luther was deeply concerned that the lack of Christian doctrine in Europe would eventually lead to mass conversions to Islam. It appears as though Luther felt that Christianity was being threatened on two fronts, by the Pope in the West and by Islam in the East. These threats, however, do not appear to be equal in Luther’s mind. When comparing Muhammad and the Pope he says, “Muhammad appears before the world as a pure saint.” Although, he is also known to have referred to both the Pope and the Turks as the antichrist with the former representing his spirit and the latter representing his flesh.

For Luther, the Turks were the rod of God’s anger towards the lukewarm Christianity propagated by Rome. He argued that fighting against the Turks would be the same as fighting against God’s judgment for their sins. Rather than fight with swords, Luther called for spiritual transformation through repentance and prayer. He even accuses the Pope of perpetuating the problem with the Turks by choosing to crusade against them when he should have been sending missionaries to reach them with the Gospel instead. However, there is little evidence that Luther made much effort to initiate Christian missions among the Turks either. In addition, Luther’s views concerning fighting against the Turks shifted to being a just war and eventually a Christian obligation once they reached Vienna.

While Luther is by no means a model for reaching Muslims with the Gospel, it is curious that some Christians reference him as an example of Muslim-Christian relations in the 21st Century. Luther’s writings on opposing forms of faiths including Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, are largely negative. Why then is Luther being summoned on occasions for modern-day interfaith engagement with Muslims while his writings on Catholics and Jews are largely ignored? This is not to suggest that the latter should be invoked but rather to question why some Christians think Luther got it right when it comes to Islam but wrong when it comes to Catholics and Jews, especially when he categorized them together as all guilty of the same sin of idolatry.

One might argue that Catholicism has reformed some of the practices that Luther found detestable and that the recent memory of the holocaust demands the condemnation of all forms of anti-Semitism whereas Islam is still a perceived threat to Christianity. One cannot deny that there are some Muslims who desire to reconstitute the Ottoman Empire. However, they are a small minority of the vast Muslim world. It is unfortunate that Luther did not have a more nuanced view of the Muslim world beyond the context of the Ottoman Empire. Viewing Islam through the lens of imperial expansion and conflict is hardly a complete picture of the diverse practices and beliefs held by Muslims. What is more unfortunate is that some Christians are still viewing Islam through this lens as a means to justify their approach to the entire Muslim world today. A more helpful approach may be to look at Luther as a “man of his times” rather than a model for today.

For more on this topic, see “10 Principles for Muslim-Christian Relations” by Dr. Trevor Castor.

Also, see “Three Principles for Studying Islam” by Dr. Martin Accad.