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God’s Crucible by David Levering Lewis

Posted By Ed Voves On April 23, 2008 @ 2:59 pm In History,Non-Fiction Reviews,Religion,Spain | 2 Comments

God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215
by David Levering Lewis
W.W. Norton, 473 pp.
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The Greatness of al-Andalus

David Levering Lewis’ provocative reappraisal of the conflict between Islam and Christendom takes readers back to the distant year of 711 CE., focusing upon a long-ago event to explore the roots of the contemporary world crisis.

Despite the skepticism of social historians, certain events in the past continue to have a resonance in the collective memory of humankind. For English-speaking peoples, 1066 and 1776 still evoke powerful recollections of liberty lost and freedom won. For most people in the West, however, 711 hardly strikes a note of any significance. But it should, for that was the year when a small force of Muslim Arabs and Berbers from Morocco crossed over from North Africa to Spain. Islam reached Europe in 711 and the world has never been the same.

At first glance, the theme of “God’s Crucible” seems a surprising choice for Lewis, award-winning biographer of the Civil Rights crusader, W.E.B. DuBois, and scholar of the Harlem Renaissance. One might assume that Lewis jumped on the post 9/11 “clash of cultures” bandwagon. Such an assumption is wide of the mark.

Before commencing on the long process of research for his two volume life of DuBois, Lewis had studied the clash of rival European imperialisms during the late 19th century’s “scramble for Africa.” In “The Race to Fashoda,” Lewis described how a resurgence of Islamic religious fervor temporarily halted the British advance in the Sudan. This story is familiar to most Westerners from the tragic death of the British general, Charles Gordon, at Khartoum in 1885. The spirited resistance of the Islamic armies against the British and French forces in Central Africa, however struck a deeper note of historical significance by reviving a concept that we have heard only too frequently since 9/11: Jihad. Holy War.

Like many great historians, Lewis has an acute perception of how the past informs the present. It is to his credit that he was in Morocco working on the initial stages of research for this book when the Terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred. If “God’s Crucible” was not published in time to help deal with the immediate fallout of 9/11, it certainly has many insights to offer U.S. policymakers attempting to establish harmonious relations with the Islamic world.

The events leading to the Arab invasion of Spain may be briefly stated. Inspired and unified by the religious teachings of Mohammed, the Arab tribes marched against the Eastern Roman Empire of Byzantium in the year 636. Following upon the decisive defeat of the Roman army at the Battle of the Yarmuk, the Arab forces carried the sword of Islam against the Persian Empire, completely overwhelming it. Continuing their march through Central Asia, the Arabs defeated the army of the Tang Empire of China at the Battle of Talas in 751. It was a moment of huge historical significance, for not only did the Arabs seize several provinces of western China, but they also gained the technology for making paper. For the “people of the Qur’an,” the ability to transmit their religious creed and the accumulated mass of scientific and cultural knowledge they now controlled via paper books was enormous.

In a little over a century, the Arabs had conquered most of the civilized world. Thanks to their ability to assimilate and spread knowledge, the Arabs were able to swiftly build a social/political infrastructure that would give Islam a degree of permanence that their Greek, Persian and Roman predecessors had failed to achieve.

When Tariq ibn-Ziyad and his small but highly disciplined force landed at Gibraltar in 711, the pattern of Islamic blitzkrieg seemed assured of a repeat performance in Western Europe. The arrogant Visigoth rulers of Spain were annihilated in a singe battle. By 756, all of the Iberian Peninsula, save for the remote northern region of Asturias, was part of the domain of al-Andalus, as Islamic Spain was called. Moreover, al-Andalus was governed by one of the most capable rulers of the Middle Ages, Abd al-Rahman I. Thousands of converts to Islam throughout Spain and frequent raids by the Muslim armies across the Pyrenees pointed to a future for Europe that was Islamic in religion and culture.

That Europe’s future took a very different path was due to the events of another momentous year which looms large in Lewis’ narrative: the Battle of Tours or Poitiers in 732. The defeat of the Arab invasion force in the central region of today’s France has long been regarded as one of the decisive battles of Western history. In the words of the Victorian historian, Sir Edward Creasy, ”The question whether the Koran or the Bible, the Crescent or the Cross, Mahomet or Christ, should rule Europe and the western world was decided forever upon the bloody field of Tours.”

Lewis begs to differ. Not only did Arab and Moorish armies periodically cross the Pyrenees after the initial repulse at Poitiers, but the Islamic culture of al-Andalus decisively shaped that of Western Europe, in Lewis’ opinion, definitely for the better.

What Lewis aims to achieve with “God’s Crucible” is to present an alternative history of Medieval Europe. In Lewis’ bold recasting of events, role-reversal is the dominant motif. Defenders of Christendom like Charles Martel, the victor of the battle of Poitiers, and Charlemagne are viewed as the founders of the oppressive class structure of feudalism, while Abd al-Rahman I is portrayed as the ruler of a tolerant, multi-ethnic realm which planted the seeds for Europe’s intellectual flowering in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The centuries following 711 would indeed see a cultural flowering in Spain that was remarkable by the standards of any era. Muslims, Christians and Jews cooperated in trade, scientific investigation and cultural dialogue. It was the age of the great Muslim scholars like Abu Ali ibn Sina, Avicenna to Western Europeans, who compiled a vast treatise of medical knowledge, and Moses Maimonides, the Jewish physician whose philosophical writings, particularly his Guide for the Perplexed, are still read today.

The defining characteristic of Islamic rule in Spain is the term convivencia, a Spanish word that Lewis defines as the “cultural and civic collaboration among Muslims, Jews and Christians in al-Andalus.” In marked contrast to many of the political regimes of Christendom, religious toleration was an essential feature of the governance of Moorish Spain. There were of course, several important criteria underpinning this benevolence: payment of a special tax by non-Muslims, exclusion from military careers and the cultivation of a modest, self-effacing form of religious observance. Christians who quietly worshiped the Trinity rather than Allah could expect to keep their heads on their shoulders. Those who challenged Islam or tried to gain converts for Christianity swiftly lost theirs.

The tax on non-Muslims, the jizya, was an unintended inducement for conversion to Islam. Converts were able to enhance their wealth, to the detriment of the solvency of the political regimes of al-Andalus. This was indeed a major stumbling block for rulers throughout the Dar al-Islam, the “House of Peace” as the Muslim world was styled. Once the huge mountain of loot from conquered territories dwindled and tax revenues followed suit as more converts embraced Islam, cash flow became a problem.

For astute rulers like Abd al-Rahman, a balanced policy of economic development and diplomacy, tempered by a judicious use of military might, ensured that the convivencia would continue to flourish. But for military strongmen like the bellicose Muhammad ibn Abi Amir, known to history as al- Mansur or “the Victorious,” resorting to war became a temptation that could not be resisted. Acting as a loyal court chamberlain or hajib, al-Mansur seized control of al-Andalus. Covering his rise to supremacy behind a teenage puppet named Caliph Hisham II, al-Mansur crushed all of his Muslim opponents and then marched against the Christian states struggling to regain the north of Spain for Christendom. Victory followed victory, climaxed in 997 by the Muslim sack of the holy city of Santiago de Compostela.

The profits of al-Mansur’s triumphs, treasure, livestock and slaves, were immense, more than enough to counterbalance lost taxes from conversion to Islam. But al-Mansur’s ceaseless campaigning and political wire-pulling fatally compromised the legitimacy of the Umayyad dynasty founded by Abd al-Rahman. Civil war throughout al-Andalus followed in the wake of al-Mansur’s death in 1002. During these years of Muslim strife, the Christians in the north regained the strategic initiative that would enable them to drive the Moors from Spain.

Abd al-Rahman’s rise to power in Spain insured over a century of prosperity and toleration during which Islam came close to becoming the dominant religion of the Iberian Peninsula. The bloodletting under al-Mansur had precisely the opposite effect, curtailing the golden age of al-Andalus. It was a pattern that would recur with depressing regularity in Muslim history. Warlords in the mode of al-Mansur, like Baibars, the fearsome 13th century Mameluk commander who celebrated his defeat of the Mongols in 1266 by murdering the Sultan of Egypt and seizing the throne for himself, left behind them a trail of bloody footsteps throughout the Dar al-Islam.

Lewis comments on the consequences of the scimitar-rattling career of al-Mansur. Yet, in his effort to view the Middle Ages from a non-Eurocentric viewpoint, Lewis focuses far more negatively on the warrior elite of Christian Europe than upon the similar legacy of militarism in the Islamic world. In response to the Moorish invasions, as well as to the resistance of non-Christian tribes like the Saxons in Central Europe, Charlemagne created a military aristocracy to expand the borders of his Frankish realm which was sanctified by his papal coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800.

Lewis admires Charlemagne, who tempered his war making with the cultivation of education and culture, much as did Abd al-Rahman I. Yet, Charlemagne’s sword-wielding paladins like Roland were anything but knights in shining armor, according to Lewis, and the long-term effect of this new European order, feudalism, was woeful.

“The new Carolingian order,” Lewis writes, “was religiously intolerant, intellectually impoverished, socially calcified, and economically primitive. Measured by these same vectors of religion, culture, class and prosperity, Abd al-Raman’s Muslim Iberia was at least four centuries more advanced than Western Christendom in 800 CE.”

Lewis raises the question whether Europe’s fate might have been a better one had the Moors triumphed at Poitiers in 732. The actual outcome was in his opinion a dismal one, whereby “the peoples of the West were obliged to accept the governance, protection, exploitation, and militant creed of a warrior class and clerical enforcers, an overlordship sustained by a powerful military machine and an omnipresent ecclesiastical apparatus. The European shape of things to come was set for dismal centuries following one upon the other until the Commercial Revolution and the Enlightenment molded new contours.”

Lewis overstates his case on several counts. Feudalism was a world-wide phenomenon tracing its roots in Europe as far back as the social engineering of the Roman emperor Diocletian over 400 years before. Western Europe was a far more dynamic society and the Christian Church a vastly more positive force for good than his gloomy assessment of the “Dark Ages” acknowledges. Islamic society in Spain in the golden age of al-Andalus was certainly more religiously tolerant than Christendom. But, as the ceaseless round of political coups and “jihad” counter-attacks against the resurgent Christian kingdoms of Leon and Castile progressed, so too did the “socially calcified” grip of Muslim militancy dim the beacons of enlightenment in al-Andalus.

For all their virtues, Islam and Christendom both shared a besetting sin: militarism. Lewis comments wisely on the effect of the astonishing spread of Islam and his insightful account goes far to correct the wide-spread ignorance of the contributions of Muslim culture to Western civilization. Yet his account would have greatly enhanced our understanding of the tragedy and futility of war had he devoted more of his abundant talents to a detailed examination of the baneful scourge of militarism on both sides of the Pyrenees.

Lewis would have been well-advised to quote the epigram by the Spanish Jewish scholar and statesman who appears in the latter chapters of his book, Samuel ibn Naghrela. Watching the Umayyad dynasty that had been founded by Abd al-Rahman disintegrate through civil war, Samuel ibn Naghrela had no illusions about the folly of armed conflict.

War at the start is like a beautiful girl,
any live man’s delight.
And by the end? A disaster, a hag,
regret, repulsion – and flight.


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