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How Muslims, Christians met in a clash of worlds

Pulitzer Prize winner David Levering Lewis traces the impact of Islam on medieval Europe.

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He pores over Emperor Charlemagne's possible moral lapses and those of other Christian leaders who contracted political marriages with Muslims for their daughters, belaboring their hypocrisy and the misery such marriages must have caused. (No mention, however, is made of the hundreds of thousands of Christian women torn from their homes, raped, and sold into harem-slavery.)

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When writing of Muslims, Lewis is generous with his praise. He calls one "quick-witted" and notes that another "combined tactical intelligence with the command flair of a natural leader." Still others are "smart and driven." Yet only in reference to the outstanding Ummayed emirs of Hispania does he qualify such claims with any evidence.

Lewis's discussion of the Song of Roland reveals a wholesale misunderstanding of the epic genre and its elements. Certainly it acted powerfully upon the European mind, and was used as propaganda for the Christian cause against the Muslims.

Epic, rather than xenophobic

However, the Song of Roland is not the work of a Eurocentric xenophobe as Lewis avers. Rather, like its Homeric models, the Iliad and Odyssey, the poem is an idealized celebration of the heroic qualities of loyalty, fidelity, honor, sacrifice and valor in battle.

Another stumbling block is Lewis's prose which frequently can be abstruse and leaden. He relies too often on arcane vocabulary, invariably choosing the obscure over the lucid.

He also has a fondness for inaccurate and anachronistic "poli-sci" jargon, calling marauding tribesmen "freedom fighters," early empires "superpowers," and hyperbolically comparing conflicts between Rome and Iran as "the explosive interface of matter and antimatter," the "systole-diastole of a seventh-century competition." And occasionally he comes out with a statement that would shame an undergrad: "Charlemagne planned a monster campaign...."

Although much space is devoted to the brutal campaign of conversion Charlemagne waged against the Saxons, this adds nothing to our understanding of Christian-Muslim relations.

Lewis finally winds toward the book's conclusion with a lengthy recitation of the minor military campaigns and shifting local alliances of the petty warlords of Spain and France – a series of conflicts that for the most part are instantly forgettable.

Indubitably, this is a period that merits great attention given the volatility of current Muslim-Christian relations. We should learn from the errors of our collective past in order to map out a better future.

But sadly, "God's Crucible" offers neither a creditable understanding of the past nor an aid to future peace.

M.M. Bennetts is a freelance writer in Hampshire, England.