God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215

In the hundred years between the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 and Charles the Hammer’s victory over Muslim invaders at Poitiers in central France in 732, Islam conquered a huge swathe of the known world, erupting from what had been the historically irrelevant wastes of Arabia as far as central Asia in one direction and western Europe in the other.

This epic event, and especially its consequences in Spain and beyond, is David Levering Lewis’s subject. His account puts it into the setting of its sources, its early course, and especially its results. All of these he sees as contributing to the making of a not very attractive Europe — a Europe of feudalism, hereditary aristocracy, religious strife, recurrent war, crusades and slavery — defined by the necessity of opposing the Muslim threat from Andalusia while being shaped by the Muslims’ preservation and transmission of classical antiquity through that same geographical region.

Unlike most accounts of the rise and spread of Islam, including those that deal specifically with Muslim Spain, Lewis’s book has the virtue of including an authoritative, wide-spectrum view of the circumstances that allowed Islam to spread in the first place, and an equally wide view of the later events in Western Christendom, especially in the Frankish realms and Papal Italy, that Lewis sees as key to the birth of Europe.

He accordingly describes the titanic, long-running clash between the Roman and Persian empires that eventually weakened the first and destroyed the second, opening a large hole for Arab armies to race through, impelled to conquest by their new and energizing faith and the temptations of booty. The Muslim warriors found populations exhausted by war and divided by sectarian strife, and overran them easily. Riches and slaves poured into their hands, and with surprising rapidity they assimilated the lessons of the civilization they found in their vastly more developed new possessions.

For Lewis, though, it is Spain and the effect of Muslim incursions into France that he finds most telling for his thesis that Europe was fashioned by reaction to Islam. He argues convincingly that it was not the battle of Poitiers in 732 that was most significant in stemming the advance of Islam into Europe, but the battle of Toulouse 11 years earlier. In that year, 721, Duke Odo of Aquitaine repelled the Muslim invaders under Amir al-Samh, and Lewis argues that if victory had gone the other way its momentum would have carried Islam northward and eastward to conquest of all the “Great Land,” as Muslims called Europe, eventually reaching far enough eastward to complete the desired pincer movement upon Constantinople, which was every Caliph’s dream.

Lewis’s thesis about an “economically retarded, balkanized, fratricidal” Europe as the product of reaction to the threat of Islamic invasion requires a contrast, in a picture of what Europe might have been if its resistance to Islam had not been successful. He provides it by arguing that if Islam had expanded beyond the Pyrenees, the scientific and cultural advances made by Europe from the 13th century onward could have been achieved three centuries earlier, and without the attendant feudal oppression and incessant strife, because it would have enjoyed the same tolerant, cultured, and advanced golden age that was ushered in by the Umayyad emirs and caliphs of C?rdoba.

That is an interesting but debatable judgment. Lewis’s own account of the ferocious civil strife that broke out among Muslims a mere 25 years after their Prophet’s death, followed by permanent rifts and sectarianism, casts doubt upon the belief that the vaunted stability and religious tolerance of C?rdoba in its best period would have survived amid cooler climes and hotter heads.

Moreover, his claim requires us to accept the rosy picture of a tolerant, interreligious, learned, and civilized Islam offering an example of a different possibility for Europe, as well as saving and embellishing the knowledge inherited from ancient Greece and Rome that actually helped Europe survive itself. The rosy view has become standard not just for C?rdoban Spain but for the best years of Islamic civilization in general, and there is no gainsaying much of it; the beauty of the art and architecture, the genius of poets and of the scholars who not only saved much ancient learning from oblivion but added to it, speaks for itself.

But suppose we ask about other and different possibilities: for example, the survival and maturation of the Roman polity, the continued growth of classical civilization without irruption into it of either of those Oriental syncretisms of Christianity and Islam, and even the victory of Persia. Different Europes might have evolved from these roots. Or it might be — as one is mainly disposed to think — that the power of Europe’s classical foundations survived both Christianity and the pressure of Islam on its borders, and is what really underwrites Europe and the world it conquered.

Equally, we can compare the subsequent histories of European and Islamic civilization and ask what lay in the roots of each that made them turn out so differently. Islam’s later history is one of decline and ossification, with numerous tendencies in it of reaction, fundamentalism, and oppression. Europe’s history, including its expansion to other parts of the world, is by no means unalloyed with horrors of many kinds, but it is also a history of increasing economic and technological power. These facts deserve explanation, and it is only by stopping at the end of Muslim Spain’s most glorious epoch that Lewis makes it seem surprising that the following years favored Europe rather than that Islamic glory.

I hope Lewis might be moved to address this matter in a later book, because he writes with highly agreeable flair and narrative thrust, making important history into fascinating history, as the best should always be. More important, he has the breadth of vision for it, and perhaps the obligation too, having left us with a tantalizingly incomplete story.