How Muslims, Christians met in a clash of worlds

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

God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, by David Levering Lewis W.W. Norton 436 pp., $27.95.

From its 6th-century beginnings in Arabia, Islam spread rapidly. Within decades of the death of its founder, the prophet Muhammad, Believers – as they called themselves – had conquered most of the region along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean and across North Africa.

By AD 711, they had taken their faith and empire into the Iberian Peninsula, where Jews and Christians then lived in relative harmony with their Muslim rulers. Here, the conquerors used the non-Muslim population's trading wealth as a tax-base to establish an efficient government administration.

Here also, under Ummayed rule (AD 756-852) the domestic stability supported a flowering of art and architecture, mathematics, and philosophy. God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe is David Levering Lewis's chronicle of the wildfire spread of this new religion with its proselytizing imperative to convert or conquer its enemies.

Determined to extend their influence, the Muslims attempted to annex territories under Frankish rule. Over the years along this Spanish-French border, Christians and Muslims repeatedly clashed in what became an identity-forming conflict for the Franks.

Hitherto, the Franks, like other groups living in Europe, had little sense of national identity, nor was there any concept of a single European identity. Now, through these martial encounters, they and others loyal to Christianity and the pope, began to define themselves as "Christendom."

This period of peace and war is Lewis's primary focus. He examines military clashes such as the AD 732 battle in which the Christians repelled the Muslims at Poitiers and the fatal rear-guard action in 788 AD in which Christian warriors were lost. (The latter was enshrined in the 11th-century French epic, "The Song of Roland.")

Such conflicts, Lewis argues, were hugely detrimental to Christian society. They must be seen, he writes, "as greatly contributing to the creation of an economically retarded, balkanized, fratricidal Europe that, in defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy."

Unflattering view of Christendom

Lewis is careful to edit the facts to suit his theory. His vision of early Islam is sanitized and utopian, a religion of compassionate solidarity, without reference to race, status, or sex. His version of the Islamic conquest of North Africa and Spain is almost wholly lacking in bloodshed and barely mentions the slaughter and enslavement of the vanquished – although he does reassure readers that Muslims were not permitted to enslave fellow Muslims.

Throughout, Lewis loses no opportunity to disparage the Christians. The Franks he describes as "large-boned, long-bearded killing machines ... religiously intolerant and intellectually impoverished, socially calcified and economically primitive." It's hard not to wonder whether his evidence is being chosen more for its relevance or for its ability to provoke disgust.

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.)

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.

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