Theology & Spirituality

Lying in Christ’s Name: Part One

Lying or deceiving to advance a religious agenda in nothing new. It is something that has taken place throughout history by the adherents of virtually every major religious tradition. When the first Christians appeared on the scene, the Romans accused them of incest and ritualistic orgies (latching onto the fact that Christians called each other “brother” and “sister” and called their priests “father”) and cannibalism (due to the language of the Eucharist – “body and blood of Christ”). After Christianity rose to a position of prominence in the Roman Empire, many Christians reciprocated by hurling the same accusations against other groups including Christian sects deemed heretical. One of the most famous examples is found in what came to be known as “blood libel” – the accusation that Jews kidnapped and murdered Christian children for their blood which they claimed were used in rituals.


The same charges have appeared again and again, each time just as false as before. This is a major theme of Jonathan Kirsch’s The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual, in which he focuses on groups persecuted from the Inquisition to the present day. The group referred to variously as “Bogomils,” “Cathars,” or a number of other terms, was attacked using the same blood libel tradition frequently hurled at the Jewish people. This group was accused of performing ritualized sexual acts as well. As Kirsch states:


“The Bogomils did no such thing, of course, and their only real offense was their rejection of the official theology of the Orthodox Church. Ironically, the Bogomils rejected human sexuality and aspired toward the strictest spiritual purity, and yet they were defamed by their enemies as perverts and predators who indulged in every kind of sexual outrage.”1


It is this theme of propping up one’s own faith through propaganda and misrepresenting the beliefs of the “other” that I wish to take up in this two-part series. I will do so using the long tradition of anti-Islam polemics prevalent in Europe and North America from the early modern period to the present. Here, in Part One, I will focus on the example of early modern British narratives of Barbary captivity (written the from late sixteenth to early eighteenth century).


During the early modern period, the British began to interact with Muslims and learn about Islamic culture on a relatively widespread basis. According to historian and sociologist Maxime Rodinson, during this period many Europeans began to develop a more objective view of Islam and Muslims due to increased interactions in the diplomatic and economic spheres as well as a dramatic increase in travel to Muslim lands.2 This period in Europe also witnessed the establishment of Arabic chairs at universities while printing presses were translating Arabic works into European languages.3


This was no doubt troubling to the Protestant establishment of England, which helps to explain the popularity of Barbary captivity narratives in church circles. Many captivity narratives were written at this time as the increase in trade between England and North Africa created opportunity for pirates to capture English subjects for ransom or trade. No one knows exactly how many British captives were taken by these pirates, but the evidence suggests thousands.4


Due to a poor economy back home, many captives converted to Islam and integrated into Muslim culture where opportunities were plentiful.5 Literary scholar Daniel Vitkus notes that adult conversions to Islam were rarely forced upon the captives,6 so claims to that effect often found in the captivity narratives are most likely false. Many captives were even given a degree of freedom to move about cities and start businesses under certain circumstances.7


Church leaders in England played a crucial role in getting captives released and returned to England through fundraising campaigns which, according to historian Linda Colley, were instrumental in shaping public opinions about Muslims since audiences were exposed to sermons and speeches about encountering the other.8 Captivity narratives were most likely read at these events to draw sympathy for British prisoners held in “strange” lands by “strange” people. “Faced with the worrying reality that Islam strongly appealed to many Christians, English readers turned for comfort to a series of captivity narratives that testified against the allure of Islam and promised that the Protestant deity would deliver English slaves from bondage, if only they kept the faith” says Vitkus.9


There is strong evidence that the rhetoric of the Barbary captivity narratives worked. Matar argues that during this period Englishmen created a dominant negative image of Muslims primarily within the contexts of popular literature and Christian theology since government and commercial documents do not show the same level of anti-Muslim bigotry and stereotyping.10 Historian G.A. Starr argues that the captivity narratives helped to create an image of the Barbary republics as a “hell on earth.”11Historian Norman Daniel, in analyzing the way in which Islam was imagined in Europe, says that polemics were written primarily to uphold faith and were meant to scare those at a distance from Muslim lands, but also protect those Christians who found themselves in their domain from becoming infected by the culture.12 The captivity narratives of this period should be understood as an effort to dramatically alter the discourse about Islam and prevent Englishmen from being lured into their realm. These narratives themselves routinely portray non-Protestant groups, for example, Jews, Moors, Negroes, Turks, and Catholics, as the “other” in opposition to the “virtuous, pious, and freedom-loving” Protestant Englishmen. Many of these narratives contain strong anti-Muslim/anti-Turk sentiments. Sodomy is a frequent charge hurled against the Muslim people encountered by the British captives. These narratives represent an othering discourse in which the Protestant Englishmen are the “us” and everyone else, especially Muslims, are the “them.”


Here are a few examples from these narratives.


In John Rawlins’ The Famous and Wonderful Recovery of a Ship of Bristol, Called the Exchange, from the Turkish Pirates of Algiers (1622), whenever the author describes the Turks doing something positive, they are described as “Christian-like.”13 But more often than not, they are described as cruel and barbaric. The writer also says that the reader should not be surprised by the “inhumanity” of the Turks and Moors since they “hate all Christians and Christianity.”14


William Okeley’s Ebenezer; or, A Small Monument of Great Mercy, Appearing in the Miraculous Deliverance of William Okeley (1675) contains a great deal of biblical references and portrays Muhammad as a cobbler who simply threw together different elements from various religions to create his own faith. When the author attributes positive traits to Muslims, he does so in a way that reverses the positive back to negative. For instance, in describing mosques the text says that “their temples are also very magnificent and much too good for their religion, whose practice and conversation speaks them to say, there is no God.”15 Here the author plays on the shahada, or statement of faith, said by Muslims. The author conveniently leaves out the rest of the phrase which in full says “there is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger.” In describing their method of picking slaves to buy from the market, he refers to his captors as “rational creatures,” an odd mix of terminology that combines a positive trait with a word suggesting them to be animals.16


In Joseph Pitts’ A True and Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mohammetans, with an Account of the Author’s Being Taken Captive (1704), the author charges Muslims with sodomy claiming that they are not pleased with the “natural” use of women.17 The author also describes the Moors as lazy, belligerent, uncivilized, and dirty. Pitts writes that he converted to Islam and performed the hajj, giving him access to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. His conversion to Islam gives him credibility as an insider. Near the end of his account he attributes his conversion to the devil working inside him and says that it was God’s providence that brought him back into the Christian fold.


The account titled The Adventures of (Mr. T.S.) An English Merchant, Taken Prisoner by the Turks of Algiers (1670), “offers a narrative pattern remarkably suited to the nationalist fantasies of its historical moment,” according to Gerald MacLean.18 In this narrative, the charge of sodomy is once again leveled against the Moors.19 The protagonist reflects on his past freedom that was robbed from him by the Muslims of North Africa and continually presents them as a sexually promiscuous people, even going so far as to claim that he became a sex slave of one of the king’s wives, a claim that must be considered sensational.20


There are, indeed, numerous examples from which to choose; however, this brief sampling will suffice for our purpose here. The majority of captivity narratives from this period contain clear religious rhetoric designed to elevate Protestant Christianity and warn readers about the “evils” of Islam and the “barbaric” nature of Muslims. The religious rhetoric and sensationalization is readily apparent because so many other travel accounts from this period take a vastly different tone.21 The captivity narratives were powerful tools for religious leaders seeking to undermine the appeal of Islam found in other literature and for those Britons seeking better opportunities abroad.


The rhetoric from these captivity narratives played an instrumental role in creating an image of Islam and Muslims as the “other” for American Christians even during the colonial period. According to Thomas Kidd, a leading scholar on American religious history, Barbary captivity narratives were a main source of information on Islam for the early Americans and these stories were “so common that alms-seekers among the urban poor in colonial America occasionally used them to curry favor.”22 In his book American Christians and Islam, Kidd posits that Islam is especially threatening to evangelical Christians since Islam is also “aggressively evangelistic” and the only other major competitor on the world stage, thus leading many to believe that if Muslims cannot be converted, they must be defeated during the end times.23 As Kidd’s book demonstrates, the failure of Christian missionary efforts in the Middle East, combined with a dramatic rise in the popularity of dispensationalism, has led many to believe the latter.


Unfortunately, the vast majority of books and articles written today by Christians on Islam and Muslim society contain the same mixture of truth and distortion. Some writers will give just enough objective analysis to establish their credibility before bringing in broad, sweeping generalizations and oversimplifications. Worse yet, many Christian commentators on Islam will attempt to interpret Islamic sources for Muslims or pick the most extreme interpretations and present them as normative. If we believe that Christ is Truth and that the gospel is the greatest story ever told, then do we really need to distort to sell our story? Do we not weaken our faith by bearing false witness? As Christians, we cannot let ourselves become used car salesman. We are not selling “lemons.”


In Part Two, I will focus on a trend that has emerged since 9/11 – Christians claiming to be “ex-Muslim extremists” who were later exposed as frauds.

View Sources

Chris Smith

Chris Smith

Chris is currently employed as a library specialist for Middle Eastern language materials at Duke University. Prior to that he spent two years as a teaching assistant and Ph.D. student in Islamic Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He holds a M.A. in Religion from Wake Forest and a B.A. in Global Studies and Religious Studies from UNC-Chapel Hill. Chris has two daughters and currently resides in Chapel Hill, NC.

Previous post

Sin’s Secret Service

Next post

When the Cards All Fold