In 1823, a Latin theological treatise called De Doctrina Christiana was discovered in London’s Old State Paper Office, written in manuscript form. It was eventually attributed to the poet and political pamphleteer John Milton and brought further evidence to an uncomfortable truth- that England’s quintessential Christian writer was a far more controversial figure than many would have liked to believe. John Milton is one of the most important poets in the English literary canon and perhaps the most famous English literary figure after William Shakespeare. In 1667 he published Paradise Lost, an epic poem describing Adam and Eve’s creation and subsequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It is one of the most important works in literature and regarded by many today as the pinnacle of creative writing in the English language.
Critics for centuries have tried to separate the sublime poet of Paradise Lost with Milton’s unsavoury alter ego as a regicide and political activist. But even religiously Milton was stained with unorthodoxy. He wrote pamphlets advocating divorce on the grounds of incompatibility. He approved of polygamy. He refused to label the marginal religious sects of his day as heretical. But this manuscript contributed to the controversy with a further revelation: Milton was an antitrinitarian and rejected a co- equal, co- eternal trinity- a cornerstone of orthodox Christian belief.
Antitrinitarianism was just one facet of a religious debate which raged in the seventeenth century, and one which also involved discussion of that scourge of Christendom and the other great religion of the time- Islam. Antitrinitarians- people who rejected the concept of the Christian Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit on the grounds that such a belief was not to be found in the Bible- were frequently accused of being secret Muslims by their enemies, and antitrinitarians themselves drew on Islamic theology to highlight the widespread prevalence of their own beliefs. As government licenser in the 1650’s, Milton himself became embroiled in the debate by approving the publication of the Racovian Catechism, a seminal antitrinitarian text which alongside rejecting the Trinity, also denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. Critics were quick to note the similarity between these views and Islam, one dubbing the book the ‘Racovian Alcoran’. Did Milton approve of the content of this book? Regardless of whether he did or not, he evidently saw the opinions expressed therein as worthy of public perusal and debate to have allowed its publication.
In De Doctrina Christiana, Milton also further developed his beliefs in Arminianism. This was a belief opposed to the majority Calvinist faction in England, who believed that God’s grace was only available to an elect few, and none could choose whether or not they were saved. Arminians, on the other hand, believed that God’s grace was available to all, and every individual was free to choose whether or not to accept it. Arminianism, it was argued by Calvinists, placed the importance of good works over faith. This was also a common criticism thrown at Catholicism- and Islam. Milton’s religious views were courting some unusual and dangerous associations.
But was Milton actually familiar with Islam? He would certainly have known about the first English publication of the Qur’an in 1649, as it was incredibly popular and ran into two print runs that year. As the Secretary of Foreign Tongues in Cromwell’s government, Milton wrote a letter to the ruler of Algiers and referred to his people as ‘men loving righteousness, hating wrong, & observing faithfulnesse in covenant’. The use of this phrase suggests a familiarity with the Qur’an. However, Milton’s writings are notable for the almost entire absence of Islam and Muslims, which for a polemical writer in the mid- seventeenth century, was highly unusual.
Despite Milton’s own silence on Islam, his views necessarily placed him as part of the debate surrounding the religion, on account of the affinity between Islamic theology and his own. And Muslims themselves have encountered a strangely familiar voice when reading Paradise Lost. Luwis ‘Awad, professor of English Literature at the University of Cairo, asserted this when he said that, ‘when we read Paradise Lost, we feel that Milton is a devout Muslim’. This sense of familiarity highlights the similarities of religious experience in both Christianity and Islam, and that traditionally, Christian texts such as Paradise Lost are spiritually important for Christians and Muslims alike. The sensation of recognising one’s own kind when reading Milton, also emphasises the fact that Britain’s past is not a closed door to today’s British Muslims, on account of being so profoundly ‘Christian’; it is a past through which British Muslims can relate their own faith, and similarly, enjoy the richness of its history and literature. Milton is a perfect example of how close Christians and Muslims can be in faith, and Paradise Lost is the perfect example of how English Christian literature, written hundreds of years ago, can still be meaningful to the present- day Muslim reader. And it goes both ways- I’m sure Milton would have been pleasantly surprised to discover how much he and Muslims had in common.
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