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The Truth About Muslims

1.

Sometime in the early 1140s a scholar from northern Italy made an arduous crossing of the Alps and the Pyrenees and eventually arrived in the newly reconquered Spanish town of Toledo. There Gerard of Cremona was given the position of canon at the cathedral, formerly the Friday Mosque, which had recently been seized from the town’s Muslims.

Before the rise of Islam, Toledo had been the capital city of Visigothic Spain, and its capture by Alfonso VI of Castile was an important moment in the Christian reconquista of the land known to Islam as al-Andalus. Many of the Muslims of the city had, however, chosen to stay on under Castilian rule, and among them was a scholar named Ghalib the Mozarab. It is not known how Gerard and Ghalib met and became friends, but soon after Gerard’s arrival the two began to cooperate on a series of translations from Toledo’s Arabic library, which had survived the looting of the conquering Christians.

As Richard Fletcher points out in The Cross and the Crescent: Christianity and Islam from Muhammad to the Reformation, Gerard and Ghalib’s mode of translation was not one that would be regarded as ideal by modern scholars. Ghalib rendered the classical Arabic of the texts into Castilian Spanish, which Gerard then translated into Latin. Since many of the texts were Greek classics that had themselves arrived in Arabic via Syriac, there was much room for error. But the system seems to have worked. In the course of the next half-century, Ghalib and Gerard translated no fewer than eighty-eight Arabic works of astronomy, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, and logic, branches of learning that underpinned the great revival of scholarship in Europe sometimes referred to as the Twelfth-Century Renaissance.

Other translations from the Arabic during this period filled European libraries with a richness of learning impossible even to imagine a century before: they included editions of Aristotle, Euclid, Plato, and Ptolemy, commentaries by Avicenna (Ibn Sina), and astrological texts by al-Khwarizmi, encyclopedias of astronomy, illustrated accounts of chess, and guides to precious stones and their medicinal qualities.

It was a crucial but sometimes forgotten moment in the development of Western civilization: the revival of medieval European learning by a wholesale transfusion of scholarship from the Islamic world. It was probably through Islamic Spain that such basic facets of Western civilization as paper, ideas of courtly love, algebra, and the abacus passed into Europe. Meanwhile the pointed arch and Greco-Arab (or Unani, from the Arabic word for Greek/Ionian) medicine arrived in Christendom by way of Salerno and Sicily, where the Norman king Roger II—known as the “Baptized Sultan”—was commissioning the Tunisian scholar al-Idrisi to produce an encyclopedic work of geography.

Some scholars go further. Professor George Makdisi of Harvard has argued convincingly for a major Islamic contribution to the emergence of the first universities in the medieval West, showing how terms such as having “fellows” holding a “chair,” or students “reading” a subject and obtaining “degrees,” as well as practices such as inaugural lectures and academic robes, can all be traced back to Islamic concepts and practices. Indeed the idea of a university in the modern sense—a place of learning where students congregate to study a wide variety of subjects under a number of teachers—is generally regarded as an Arab innovation developed at the al-Azhar university in Cairo. As Makdisi has demonstrated, it was in cities bordering the Islamic world—Salerno, Naples, Bologna, Montpellier, and Paris—that first developed universities in Christendom, the idea spreading northward from there.1

The tortuous and complex relationship of Western Christendom and the world of Islam has provoked a wide variety of responses from historians. Some, such as the great medievalist Sir Steven Runciman, take the view (as he wrote at the end of his magisterial three-volume history of the Crusades) that “our civilization has grown” out of “the long sequence of interaction and fusion between Orient and Occident.”2 Runciman believed that the Crusades should be understood less as an attempt to reconquer the Christian heartlands lost to Islam than as the last of the barbarian invasions. The real heirs of Roman civilization were not the chain-mailed knights of the rural West, but the sophisticated Byzantines of Constantinople and the cultivated Arab caliphate of Damascus, both of whom had preserved the Hellenized urban civilization of the antique Mediterranean long after it was destroyed in Europe.

Others have seen relations between Islam and Christianity as being basically adversarial, a long-drawn-out conflict between the two rival civilizations of East and West. As Gibbon famously observed of the Frankish victory at the Battle of Tours in 732 AD, which halted the Arab advance into Europe,

A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the Rock of Gibraltar to the banks of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland: the Rhine is not more impassable than the Nile or the Euphrates, and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. 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.3

Of the books under review, Richard Fletcher’s The Cross and the Crescent broadly belongs to Runciman’s camp, and emphasizes the fact that Muslim– Christian relations, while plagued with ignorance, mutual misunderstandings, and long periods of outright aggression, have never just been a story of conflict. Instead he shows how medieval Western civilization was profoundly cross-fertilized by the learning and literature of Islam.

Bernard Lewis, by contrast, sees the relationship of Islam and Christianity in more confrontational terms. His latest work, From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, is a diverse collection of essays written over more than half a century. Underlying most of them, however, is the assumption that there are two fixed and opposed forces at work in the history of the Mediterranean world: on one hand Western civilization, which he envisages as a Judeo-Christian block; and on the other hand, quite distinct, an often hostile Islamic world hellbent on the conquest and conversion of the West. As he writes in one essay, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,”

The struggle between these rival systems has now lasted for some fourteen centuries. It began with the advent of Islam, in the seventh century, and has continued virtually to the present day. It has consisted of a long series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests.

It was this essay that contained the phrase “the clash of civilizations,” later borrowed by Samuel Huntington for his controversial Foreign Affairs article and book.4

Lewis’s trenchant views have made him a number of enemies, notably the late Edward Said, who wrote in Orientalism that Lewis’s work “purports to be liberal objective scholarship but is in reality very close to being propaganda against his subject.”5 In the aftermath of the Islamist attacks on America, Lewis’s reputation has, however, undergone something of a revival. Not only have two of his books—What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam—been major US best sellers, Lewis’s ideas have largely formed the intellectual foundations for the neoconservative view of the Muslim world. Lewis has addressed the White House, and Dick Cheney and Richard Perle have both been named as disciples.

A series of prominent polemical pieces in The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, reprinted in this collection, gives an idea of the sort of advice Lewis would have offered his fans in the White House. For Lewis used the attack on the World Trade Center to encourage the US to attack Saddam Hussein, implicitly making a link between the al-Qaeda operation and the secular Iraqi Baathist regime, while assuring the administration that they would be feted by the populace who “look to us for help and liberation” and thanked by other Muslim governments whose secret “dearest wish” was an American invasion to remove and replace Saddam.

Lewis has had such a profound influence that according to the The Wall Street Journal, “the Lewis doctrine, in effect, had become US policy.” If that policy has now been shown to be fundamentally flawed and based on a set of wholly erroneous assumptions, it follows that for all his scholarship, Lewis’s understanding of the subtleties of the contemporary Islamic world is, in some respects at least, dangerously defective.

2.

Richard Fletcher is a historian of early medieval Europe. He is particularly interested in relations between Christians and Muslims in Moorish Spain, about which he has written two books, one of which, The Quest for El Cid, won both the Los Angeles Times History Prize and Britain’s Wolfson Prize. The Cross and the Crescent is, if anything, even better than his Cid book: a work of judicious compression and effortless erudition. Beautifully written, often witty, and eminently readable, it is as good an introduction as I have read to the history of medieval Islam and its relations with the Christian world.

Throughout, Fletcher highlights points of contact between the two worlds. He emphasizes how the Prophet Muhammad did not think he was “founding a new religion,” so much as bringing “the fullness of divine revelation, partially granted to earlier prophets such as Abraham, Moses or Jesus, to the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula.” After all, Islam accepts much of the Old and New Testaments and obeys the Mosaic laws about circumcision and ablutions, while the Koran calls Christians the “nearest in love” to Muslims, whom it instructs in Surah 29 to

dispute not with the People of the Book [that is, Jews and Christians] save in the most courteous manner…and say, “We believe in what has been sent down to us and what has been sent down to you; our God and your God is one, and to him we have surrendered.”

Fletcher also stresses the degree to which the Muslim armies were welcomed as liberators by the Syriac and Coptic Christians, who had suffered discrimination under the strictly Orthodox Byzantines:

To the persecuted Monophysite Christians of Syria and Egypt, Muslims could be presented as deliverers. The same could be said of the persecuted Jews…. Released from the bondage of Constantinopolitan persecution they flourished as never before, generating in the process a rich spiritual literature in hymns, prayers, sermons and devotional work.

Recent excavations by the Jerusalem-based archaeologist Michele Piccirillo have dramatically underlined this point. They have shown that the conquest of Byzantine Palestine and Transjordan by the Arabs resulted in an almost unparalleled burst of church-building and the construction of some remarkable Hellenistic mosaics, implying that under the rule of the Umayyad caliphs of Damascus religious practice was freer and the economy flourishing.6

Early Byzantine writers, including the most subtle theologian of the early church, Saint John Damascene, assumed that Islam was merely a heterodox form of Christianity. This perception is particularly fascinating since Saint John had grown up in the Umayyad court of Damascus—the hub of the young Islamic world—where his father was chancellor, and he was an intimate friend of the future Caliph al-Yazid. In his old age, John took the habit at the desert monastery of Mar Saba, where he began work on his great masterpiece, a refutation of heresies entitled The Fount of Knowledge. The book contains a precise critique of Islam, the first written by a Christian, which John regarded as closely related to the heterodox Christian doctrine of Nestorianism. This was a kinship that both the Muslims and the Nestorians were aware of. In 649 a Nestorian bishop wrote: “These Arabs fight not against our Christian religion; nay, rather they defend our faith, they revere our priests and saints, and they make gifts to our churches.”7

  1. 1

    George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh University Press, 1981) and The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West (Edinburgh University Press, 1990). See also Hugh Goddard, A History of Christian-Muslim Relations (Edinburgh University Press, 2000).

  2. 2

    Sir Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, Volume 3: The Kingdom of Acre (Cambridge University Press, 1955), p. 480.

  3. 3

    Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, edited by J.B. Bury (Wildside, 2004), Vol. 6, Chapter 52:16.

  4. 4

    Lewis in fact first coined the phrase in an article about Suez published in 1957, and has reused it intermittently ever since.

  5. 5

    Edward Said, Orientalism (Pantheon, 1978), p. 316. These pages played host to a celebrated exchange between Lewis and Said in 1982.

  6. 6

    See Michele Piccirillo, “The Christians in Palestine During a Time of Transition: 7th–9th Centuries,” in The Christian Heritage in the Holy Land, edited by Anthony O’Mahony (Scorpion Cavendish, 1995). See also Piccirillo’s The Mosaics of Jordan (Amman: American Center of Oriental Research, 1993), which illustrates some of the remarkable “Byzantine” floor mosaics he excavated. Those constructed during the Umayyad period show, surprisingly, such Hellenistic subjects as satyrs with flutes leading Christianized Bacchic processions while angelic cupids swoop above orange trees. Similar tendencies can be found in the mosaics of the Umayyad winter palace in Jericho built by Caliph Hisham el Malik. There is an interview with Piccirillo in my book From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East (Holt, 1997).

  7. 7

    Margaret Smith, Studies in Early Mysticism in the Near and Middle East (Oneworld, 1995), p. 120.

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