John Milton (1608-1674 CE) was a great English thinker, writer and poet, as well as a civil servant for the Revolutionary Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell. He was a man of spirituality and deep religious convictions who earned an international reputation as a great writer, the writer of the great poem – Paradise Lost.
Whilst travelling through Europe he became a Republican (in Venice) and back in England he had taken part in the short lived Republic. When Monarchy returned in 1660 CE he had to go into hiding. Later returning after a general pardon, he was briefly held before retiring to ‘Milton’s Cottage’ in Chalfont St. Giles where he spent the last 14 years of his life.
It was in this era that, now blind, he wrote Paradise Lost and later Paradise Regained, through which he became a famous poet who was favoured by many of the great minds of the land. Paradise Lost is an epic poem about Adam and Eve’s creation and their loss of residence in the Garden of Eden. It is held as one of the greatest works of English poetry. It is interesting to note that some British Muslims have started to see him as a type of spiritual predecessor due to his thoughts and intellectual leanings.
Like Muslims Milton stressed the importance of good works as well as faith and advocated both allowing divorce and polygamy, the latter two things being highly controversial in the England of his era. Also like the Muslims he was also an anti-Trinitarian, being amongst those who assert that God is One not Three.
People who held such beliefs in his day were often accused of being secret Muslims, indeed some of them certainly were. Even those who were not often pointed out that Islamic and Jewish theology would hold the idea of Trinity as illogical and against instinct and reason. In the 1650’s Milton approved the publication of the Racovian Catechism which rejected the Trinity and denied the divinity of Jesus son of Mary. Critics implied that such were the views Muslims, one by labelling it the ‘Racovian Alcoran’ (Alcoran = Al-Qur’an).
In 1649 CE an English translation of the Qur’an had been made. It was very popular and was reprinted even in its first year of publication. Therefore it is almost certain that as a learned and important man he had read it.
One may wonder whether he simply saw it as an Arab Unitarian work as have many Western Unitarians or whether he gained a closer connection to the thoughts maintained therein than that. Although a polemical writer it is notable that Milton was completely silent on the subject of Islam and this has lead some people to wonder if he was one of those few intellectual English men of his era who was deeply attracted to the symmetry and theological simplicity of the religion.
Others included the writer Henry Stubbe and the historian Edward Gibbon. In this period there were indeed many rumours of Muslim Englishmen, but those who were discovered prior to and after the end of the Commonwealth could expect to face gaol, hanging and even possible impalement, therefore they kept their faith a secret to avoid the legally sanctioned persecution that would fall upon them if they openly professed their beliefs.
It is notable that during his time in Cromwell’s government Milton described the Algerian Muslims in highly glowing terms, he was also influential in the legalization of Judaism and Islam in England. Sadly such religious tolerance was undone with the end of Cromwellian rule and the return of religious partisanship.
Of course, such speculative questions about Milton’s relationship with Islam and Muslims shall never likely be answered in this life and Britain’s Christians, Jews and Muslims who read Milton may all take from his writings their own meanings, benefiting from the works of this inspirational writer