From Crusades to Homeland Defense

"Ego usque ad mortem luctor adversus Turcas et Turcarum Deum,” Martin Luther wrote. “I will always struggle to the death against the Turks and the god of the Turks.”

Luther was not the only European of his era to fear a deadly battle with Islamic forces (i.e. Turks). During the reign of Sultan Sulaiman the Magnificent, 1520–1566, the Ottoman Empire reached its greatest geographical extent and the height of its military power. Throughout Europe pamphlets reported one Ottoman victory after another. As far away as England, the word “Turk” conjured images of surprise attack and invasion.

It is significant for the history of Christian-Islamic relations that the Ottoman Empire hit its peak as the Protestant Reformation got underway. Protestant reformers made many uncharitable statements about Islam, sometimes reflecting medieval prejudices more than sixteenth-century circumstances. Still, because of their theological orientation, reformers altered Christians’ interpretation of Islam in ways that have shaped attitudes into the Modern period.

To fight or not to fight

Early in his career, Luther identified God’s displeasure with the church as the real reason for the Ottomans’ successes. In 1518 he asserted that “to fight against the Turk is to fight against God who is punishing our sins through them.” When faced with Turkish aggression, Christians first must repent.

These statements produced unintended consequences. Some people erroneously interpreted Luther as advocating a position of non-resistance. Roman Catholics accused him of handing over Christians to the infidels. Pamphlets told stories of some who had, as a result, joined the Muslims, or “turned Turk.”

Luther abhorred this reputation. His friends encouraged him to write a clarification of his increasingly embarrassing comments.

As critics attacked Luther, Turkish forces stepped up their attacks on Europe. At the battle of Mohac in 1526, Turks destroyed the entire Hungarian force in less than two hours. Sulaiman occupied Budapest and claimed a large portion of Hungary. In 1529 the Ottoman armies moved against central Europe in a campaign that culminated in a siege of Vienna.

Although forced to withdraw, Sulaiman gave every indication that the Ottoman armies would be back. Given the severity of the Turkish threat, Luther reported that the news of the siege of Vienna made him physically ill.

In his pamphlets On War Against the Turks (1529) and Military Sermon Against the Turks (1530), Luther clarified his position on the Christian response to Islam. Most significantly, he emphasized his absolute rejection of the crusade as a blasphemous confusion of the spiritual and the secular. Christians as Christians were not to lead or even participate in battle.

Further, he argued that ecclesiastical attempts at military leadership angered God. Clergy should preach and pray, not bear arms and fight. According to Luther, soldiers had a right to protest a church-led military crusade through disobedience.

"If I were a soldier and saw in the battlefield a priest’s banner or cross, even if it were the very crucifix, I would run away as though the very devil were chasing me!” he wrote.

According to Luther, no religious cause justified military action against false Christians, heretics, or even Turks. Spiritual enemies must be fought with spiritual weapons alone. Crusade, or holy war, was never permissible.

This represents a significant departure from mainstream medieval theology. Since Pope Gregory the Great (died 604), theologians had argued that the coercion of those who held false beliefs was an appropriate cause of war.

Luther’s criticism of crusades did not mean Christians could never use violence against the Turks, however. He wrote his Military Sermon specifically to admonish the “fist” against the Ottomans. But the fist belonged to political authorities, not to the church. Though Christians as Christians should never wage war, Christians as rulers sometimes must.

For Luther, the war against the Turks was his generation’s example of a “good war.” Legitimate rulers had a duty to defend society against the Turks, just as they would oppose all disturbers of the peace.

By extension, if called upon to give material or physical support to the military effort against the Turks, Christian subjects should give willingly. In the Military Sermon, Luther warned:

If you hold back and refuse to pay or to ride [in battle], look out—the Turk will teach you. . . . [H]e won’t demand taxes or military service from you, but instead attack your house and home . . . stab you to death (if you are so lucky), shame or strangle your wife and daughter before your eyes, hack your children to death and impale them on the fenceposts. And, what is worst of all, you must suffer all this with a wicked, troubled conscience as a damned unchristian who has been disobedient to God and his government.

Limited respect


Luther viewed the Turks as terrifying but not purely evil. At times he praised them for their piety. He believed the discipline of the Turks would shame papists so much that none would remain in his faith if he were to spend just three days with the Turks.

In demonstrating the religious “superiority” of the Turks over the papists, though, Luther primarily wanted to highlight the emptiness of works—righteousness. In the end, Luther always used the same argument: no matter how spiritual a religion looks, all without Christ are lost.

Yet ambivalence in Lutheran comments about Muslim rule opened up new possibilities for the acceptance of the Ottoman Empire as a legitimate European state. Luther recognized that, despite fabled ruthlessness, the Turks were admirably efficient governors. Strictly enforced order was better, in his mind, than no order at all.

Luther’s strong emphasis on obedience to authority also influenced his advice to Christians taken captive by Turks. He admonished them to obey their captors at all points—unless called upon to kill fellow believers. He even suggested that this approach might save Muslims as well as Christians. Citing the biblical examples of Joseph and Daniel, Luther wrote that obedient Christian captives stood a better chance of converting Muslims than did professional missionaries, Scripture, or preaching.

A foul, useful book

As early as 1529, Luther lamented that he had no accurate Latin translation of the Qur'an. About this time the Zürich reformer Theodor Bibliander initiated his study of Arabic with the intention of publishing the first-ever typeset Qur'an.

By 1542 Bibliander had completed his edition, but public fear that the Qur'an might threaten the Christian community jeopardized the entire project. All printed copies were seized, and the printer was jailed. Several Protestant leaders across confessional lines (including Luther, who added an introduction to the text) intervened, and the printing was allowed to continue. Luther supported the publication of the Qur'an in Latin because he considered the public knowledge of the Qur'an to be the greatest weapon against Islam.

Access to the Qur'an encouraged new interpretations. Luther’s understanding is typical of much early Protestant thought. He viewed the Qur'an to be fundamentally a law book, not on a par with the Bible, but similar to the papal collections of canon (church) law. Yet whatever disagreements Luther had with canon law, he had much worse to say about the Qur'an, which he called a “foul, shameful book.”

Luther judged the Qur'an to contain human wisdom without God’s inspiration: “For [Muhammad’s] law teaches nothing other than what human reason can easily bear. What he found in the Gospel that was too difficult or lofty to believe, he left out, particularly that Christ is God and that he has saved us through his death.”

Yet behind these pronouncements on the shamefulness of the Qur'an is an important re-engagement with the Muslim holy book and with Arabic. The Renaissance battle cryad fontes ("back to the source") echoes here, in the impulse to examine texts in their original languages.

This interest in Arabic eventually resulted in the first chairs in Arabic at European universities. These scholars gradually accomplished what no one had managed during the Middle Ages: a stripping away of fantastic legends about Muhammad and Islam.

The role that the sola scriptura principle played in Protestant interpretations of Islam led to a view of Islam as fundamentally a religion of works—righteousness. For Luther, Islam is so strongly stamped by “works” that every works—righteousness system could be called “Turkish.”

In sharp contrast to most medieval critics of Islam, Luther demonstrated a complete lack of interest in the life of Muhammad. Lurid, pseudo-biographies on Muhammad were available for anti-Muslim polemic, but Luther chose instead to focus on the Qur'an and its laws and doctrines.

Islam and the End Times

Comparing their world to Scripture, Lutherans believed that they were living in the last days. The Turks played an important role in this interpretation.

Because the end of the world is near, Lutherans argued, the devil rages with his two weapons: the antichrist (the papacy) and the Turks. “The Turks are certainly the last and most furious raging of the devil against Christ . . . after the Turk comes the judgment,” Luther wrote.

Lutherans interpreted both Daniel and Revelation as prophecies that the Turks would be allowed dominion for a time, but then would be destroyed from on high.

The Turks entered the interpretation of Daniel in chapter 7. Muhammad and his faith rose as the little horn amid the ten horns on the fourth beast. The eyes of the horn are Muhammad’s Qur'an, “In whose law there is no divine eye, but mere human reason without God’s word and spirit.” The mouth that speaks blasphemous things is Muhammad, exalting himself over Christ.

The book of Revelation also offered insights on the contemporary situation. Luther understood Gog and Magog, in chapter 20, as the biblical designation for the Turks. This was such an important point for him that he published his translation of Ezekiel 38 and 39 as a separate pamphlet with an introduction underscoring the connection.

From Luther to today

An important long-term consequence of Luther’s view of Islam was that an eschatological interpretation of Islam was built into the very foundation of Protestantism. A close identification of Christian-Islamic conflict with an End Times confrontation between God and the devil has remained very influential (though various Protestants have nominated many other antichrists over the centuries as well).

Luther also changed the politics of Christian-Islamic relations. First, he recast the military response to Islam from a crusade to a defensive war to protect the homeland. This distinction still shapes Western thought.

Further, Luther’s writings contain the seeds of an admission that the Turks were a God-permitted authority who deserved the obedience of their subjects, even the Christian ones. This would lead European countries to accept the Ottoman Empire and later influence Western attitudes toward Islamic successor states. CH

By Gregory Miller

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #74 in 2002]

Gregory Miller, an associate professor of history at Malone College in Canton, Ohio, specializes in Reformation studies and Christian—Islamic relations.
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