BOOKS: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
GOD'S CRUCIBLE: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 570-1215, by David Levering Lewis
, June 7, 2008
Misunderstanding historyGOD'S CRUCIBLE:
Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 570-1215
by David Levering Lewis
(New York: W.W. Norton)
Hardcover: 384 pages
Rec. price: AUD$59.90If history is written by the victors, then the liberal Left in America is well in control of the history-producing machine, judging by this latest New York Times best seller.
The United States is a society of remarkable diversity, however, and for every David Levering Lewis, there is a Thomas Sowell — both black Americans who have prospered mightily from the American love of a good intellectual read and the challenge of new ideas.
The central thesis of this book by New York University professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Levering Lewis is that, when Charles Martell — "The Hammer" — and his alliance of Franks and Aquitainians defeated the rampant Saracen armies of Islamic Spain at Poitiers in 732 on the soil of what is now southern France some 60 miles east of the Pyrenees, the West in fact lost.Opposition to Islam
"The victory of Charles the Hammer must be seen as greatly contributing to the creation of an economically retarded, balkanised, fratricidal Europe that, in defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy," writes Lewis.
Lewis does not claim this insight as his own, rather attributing it to two French historians, Jean-Henri Roy and Jean Deviosse, writing 40 years ago.
"Had 'Abd al-Rahman's men prevailed that October day, the post-Roman Occident would probably have been incorporated into a cosmopolitan, Muslim regnum
unobstructed by borders, as they hypothesise — one devoid of priestly caste, animated by the dogma of equality of the faithful, and respectful of all religious faiths."
As Lewis makes clear, the armies of Islam were on the march, the final aim of which was to press their advantage in Europe, conquer the European heartland and turn the Mediterranean into a Muslim lake.
What stopped them was the obdurate survival against all odds of Constantinople, capital of the shrunken Eastern Roman Empire, and the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain. The Muslims never finally defeated these fractious outposts, which provided the springboard for the Reconquista.
Asturias, the final Spanish holdout against the armies of Islam, is one of the truest bulwarks of Christian Europe.
Following some 40 years after the epic victory of Poitiers, Charlemagne's campaign against Muslim Andalusia ended in a rearguard battle high in the Pyrenees, the encounter at Roncevaux, immortalised in the French literary epic La Chanson de Roland
(The Song of Roland
saga presses on beyond the martyrdom of the rearguard to frame the contact of Christianity and Islam as an epic struggle that can never end until Muhammad's legions will have been run to ground, defeated, and converted to the True Faith," writes Lewis.
"From the earliest versions in song, the Chanson
possessed extraordinary psychic clout for the men and women of the West, a powerful mythopoeia engirdling their understanding of class, marriage, and gender, of order and obligation, and above all else the martial imperatives of the True Faith."
What do we have here? — All the ideological enemies of the politically correct: faith, order, obligation, marriage, heroism and valour. Is it any surprise that the heritage of Christian Europe is the common enemy of the secular liberal Left?
In the words of English historian Edward Gibbon, contemplating the victory at Poitiers, "Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet", an evaluation Lewis quotes only to scorn.
Lewis attributes the development of a continent united in a Christian faith to a response to a Muslim challenge. "Europe the continent — ereb
, meaning 'land of sunset or darkness' in ancient Semitic — becomes home to a new people in history: Europeans."
This appears to be a gross oversimplification. Although Muslim Spain was occasionally in advance of Dark Ages Europe, for example in mathematics and the study of ancient Greek texts, it was torn apart by civil war.
Indeed, it was the collapse of government and Muslim intra confessional ethnic and religious disputes that prepared the way for the reconquest of Spain. And how does this thesis account for the flowering of commerce and learning in Europe and the decline of the Muslim world into obscurantism and economic decay?Reconquista
Lewis is correct in his assertion that the Reconquista
, completed in the 15th century by Spain's Ferdinand and Isabella but largely over by 1215, was of comparable historical magnitude to the fall of Rome and Constantinople. But does Muslim Spain offer support for a "modernising" Islam?
Conversion to Christianity in most Muslim countries is punishable by death — not a portent of pluralism. Indeed, modernising Muslim nations such as Egypt and Turkey are seeing a further intrusion of religious fundamentalism into civil society, evidenced by the fact that women are increasingly turning to the veil and headscarf.
In all, Lewis's book is a good read, but in the end its main thesis is unconvincing.