For three centuries after 1500, Britain was brought face to face with Islam through the activities of the Barbary corsairs. Muslim ships based in North African ports terrorized European shipping, enslaving hundreds of thousands of Christians. Encountering Islam is the fascinating story of one Englishman’s experience of life within a Muslim society, as both Christian slave and Muslim soldier.
Born in Exeter around 1662, Joseph Pitts was captured by Algerian pirates on his first voyage in 1678. Sold as a slave in Algiers, he underwent forced conversion to Islam. Sold again, he accompanied his kindly third master on pilgrimage to Mecca, so becoming the first Englishman known to have visited the Muslim holy places. Granted his freedom, he became a soldier, before venturing on a daring escape. Crossing much of Italy and Germany on foot, he finally reached Exeter seventeen years after he had left.
Pitts’s book, first published in 1704, is a unique combination of captivity narrative, travel account and description of Islam. It describes his life in Algiers, his conversion, his pilgrimage to Mecca (the first such detailed description in English), Muslim ritual and practice, and his escape. A Christian for most of his life, Pitts also had the advantage of living as a Muslim within a Muslim society. Encountering Islam contains a faithful rendering of the definitive 1731 edition of Pitts’s book. The introduction tells what is known of Pitts’s life, and places his work against its historical background of captivity narratives and Anglo-Muslim relations of the period.