The King who wanted Shariah?

The Times have an interesting and, given the debate over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments, somewhat topical piece on an earlier attempt to bring Islamic law to the Britain:

Was England ever on the verge of becoming an Islamic state? In 1215 King John was forced to accept the Magna Carta, that touchstone of English liberties. But according to one medieval chronicler, only two years previously he was toying with passing the country over to Sharia.


The claims appear in the Chronica Majora written some years after the event by a Benedictine monk by the name of Matthew Paris.

In 1207 Pope Innocent III placed England under an interdict that effectively closed down the country’s churches. He excommunicated John two years later. Facing war with France and rebellion at home, the monarch was in a tight spot.

If Matthew Paris is to be believed, this was the background to perhaps the most bizarre diplomatic initiative in English history. John dispatched Thomas of Erdington, Radulus, son of Nicholas Esquire, and a cleric, Robert of London, on a top secret mission to Morocco.

On arrival, they approached the powerful Almohad caliph, Muhammad an-Nâsir. Their task was to win his military assistance to help to see off John’s converging enemies. Paris claimed that they brought a letter from the King offering to place England at the caliph’s disposal and promising that John “would not merely relinquish the Christian faith, which he considered vain, but would adhere faithfully to the law of Muhammad”. Far from being impressed, the caliph sent John’s emissaries away, curtly assuring them that he had no intention of allying with someone so lacking in faith that he was intent on becoming an apostate for the sake of political expediency. Thus rebuffed, John ended up having to appease the Pope and the barons instead.

The Catholic Encylopedia has more on Matthew Paris.

3 comments ↓

#1 George Carty on 02.21.08 at 9:20 pm

Are any of you familiar with John Makdisi’s argument that several features of the common law systems found in the English-speaking world have their antecedents in Islamic law?

(They were introduced by King Henry II, and were inspired by Sicily, which the Normans had conquered from Muslims.)

#2 Amir on 02.21.08 at 9:44 pm

I read a paper on the subject some years ago. As I recall, he made some interesting points. If I can find it again, I’ll re-read it (it was from one of the law reviews) or if you know where it is online, please post a link.

#3 thabet on 02.24.08 at 3:15 pm

The paper can be found here.

Leave a Comment