Sunday, November 9, 2008

What I'm reading, Chapter 4

This time, it's God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215, by Pulitzer Prize winning author David Devering Lewis.

This is, as the title suggests, an early history of post-Classical Europe and the rise of Islam, exploring the trajectory of European civilization as it hurtled into the Dark Ages, and the unlikely triumph of Islamic Arab nomads over the great empires of the east, and eventually, the violent collision of these two cultures.

Lewis begins by reminding us that the clash between East and West had its beginnings with the ancient Greeks and Romans, and their wars against successive Persian Empires, with each side generally holding their own, but unable to make lasting advances against their rival.

In the pages of this book, we feel the full tragic force of the barbarian invasions and their aftermath, of a hapless Roman papacy being forced to beg warlords to spare them from destruction, and of an Eastern Empire that became increasingly distant from the West, first by geography, and eventually by religion. We see the rise of a new religion in the East, that took the eastern Mediterranean and Persia by storm, and conquered empires weakened by ceaseless conflict.

Against this seemingly unstoppable force of divinely inspired Arab warriors, the primitive petty kings and tribal leaders of Europe seemed most vulnerable. And indeed, Muslim armies did sweep across much of Visigothic Hispania (landa-hlauts, as it was called in gutteral Gothic, from which the Arabic name al Andalus was derived), the start of an Islamic presence in that country that would last some seven centuries. But Tariq Ibn Ziyad's smashing of the Visigoths on behalf of the Umayyad Caliphate was a venture undertaken without much official support from the Caliph in Damascus, thinking Hispania was too far away to administer effectively. And his successors were generally more worried about civil wars and internal strife to contemplate the subjugation of all of Europe.

So while the Pyrenees were always a war-torn border between Muslims and Franks, Umayyad al Andalus was by necessity a pragmatic society, never heavily populated by the Arab/Berber invaders, often administered by Sephardic Jews, and eventually isolated politically by the Eastern Caliphates that succeeded the Umayyads. There was no forced conversion, and little enforcement of repressive Quranic laws regarding unbelievers. In this climate of peaceful co-existence, the Umayyad capital of Cordoba became one of the most dynamic cities in the world, with its thriving economy and beautiful Friday Mosque, an architectural wonder unmatched in the rest of Europe. Scholarship also flourished, and Ancient Greek writings were translated and preserved for future generations.

Meanwhile, Europe floundered in poverty and superstition. The great king of the Franks, Charlemagne, was able to politically unite much of the former Western Empire, and became closely allied with the papacy, defending Catholicism by the sword whenever necessary, setting the stage for the enforced orthodoxy to come in later centuries. He protected Rome from the uncouth and impious Lombards, and brutally suppressed the pagan Saxons.

The contrast between the two societies could not have been more stark. While town life, trade, and academics flourished in al Andalus, the Frankish superstate was overwhelmingly rural with the poor increasingly tied to the land (the building blocks for feudalism were in place), there was little economic activity besides farming (and no tax collection; armies were raised through blackmail, and there was no concept of public works), while the learning of the Classical World was long since forgotten, replaced with an intolerant and superstitious brand of Christianity. To his credit, Charlemagne valued learning (though he himself was illiterate), and established schools throughout his kingdom. This Carolingian Renaissance was not to last, however, as Europe was engulfed by new pagan invasions, this time from Scandinavia.

Lewis allows the reader to wonder whether Europe might not have been better off if Islam had continued its northern march. Certainly, academic progression might have been swifter. The cruel economic system of feudal Europe might have been bypassed entirely. But this optimistic outlook is tempered by the narrative of al Andalus after the Umayyads, replaced by more fanatical and intolerant sects who had less use for the pragmatism of the past.

After absorbing this 700 year whirlwind of history, Lewis clearly intends the reader to develop a new found appreciation of the intertwined fates of European and Islamic civilization as they came into contact with each other. Though often bloody, these contacts also included peaceful co-existence and great advances, and that snapshot from the past is a good template for the future.

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