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How Muslims Made Europe

The conception of the Mediterranean as the meeting of three continents goes back to classical Greece. But it took a further intellectual leap to conceive of their inhabitants as a collectivity. You can have Europe, Africa, and Asia without thinking of Europeans, Africans, and Asians as particular kinds of people.

David Levering Lewis’s rich and engaging God’s Crucible shows that it took two things to make Europeans think of themselves as a people. One was the creation of a vast Holy Roman Empire by the six-foot-four, thick-necked, fair-haired Frankish warrior king we know as Charlemagne. The other was the development, in the Iberian peninsula on the southwestern borders of his dominion, of the Muslim culture of Spain, which the Arabs called al-Andalus. In the process that made the various tribes of Europe into a single people, what those tribes had in common and what distinguished them from their Muslim neighbors were both important. This is, by now, a familiar idea. But God’s Crucible offers a more startling proposal: in making the civilization that modern Europeans inherit, the cultural legacy of al-Andalus is at least as important as the legacy of the Catholic Franks. In borrowing from their great Other, they filled out the European Self.

Charlemagne’s rule included at its high point most of France, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands, the west of Germany, Italy as far south as Rome, a strip in the north of Spain, and parts of Hungary and the Balkans. At nearly three and a half million square miles, it was larger than the continental United States. Charlemagne imposed Catholic orthodoxy on the pagan Saxons in the east at the point of a very sharp sword, massacring thousands of those who resisted, and suppressed heresy within Frankland with equal vigor. He created monastic centers of learning, drawing scholars from across his empire and beyond; and after the centuries of ignorance that had followed the collapse of the Roman Empire in Gaul and Germania, the works of men like the Northumbrian Alcuin (poet, theologian, and restorer of the classical curriculum) created a Carolingian Renaissance.

These achievements perhaps entitled Charlemagne to his self-conception as Rome’s heir in the West, author of a Renovatio Romani Imperii, an imperial restoration. When he traveled to Rome in December 800, some thirty years into his reign, he went to defend the authority of Leo III as pope; and His Holiness returned the favor by crowning him Emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day 800 (much to the annoyance of the Byzantine regent Irene, who called herself Emperor, rather than Empress, and thought the title was hers).

Charlemagne was a great soldier, a devoted Catholic, an ambitious administrator, and a patron of learning. He had reason to take pride in what would prove a brilliant Carolingian legacy; we need think only of the magnificent carved ivory plaques in the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum or the elegance of manuscripts in Carolingian minuscule or Alcuin’s Latin verse history of York. But the empire he created was, as Lewis puts it trenchantly, “religiously intolerant, intellectually impoverished, socially calcified, and economically primitive,” ruled by a “warrior caste and its clerical enforcers.” Despite the new currency, the economy was dominated by barter; there were few cities of any size; and wealth was measured in land, peasants, and slaves.

Charlemagne had no national system of taxation. He lived off plunder and the product of his own estates. What his lords owed him was military service. They were obliged to show up annually in the late spring, armed for a military campaign, in case he thought it necessary. (Very often, he did.) The Franks had once been a relatively free agrarian people; now they were largely a nation of serfs, working alongside slaves—many of them Slavs from Bohemia and the southern shores of the Baltic.

Charlemagne’s royal hall, in his new capital at Aachen, was built on a fifty-acre complex of buildings, secular and religious, and was the largest stone structure north of the Alps. But it paled in comparison to the architectural majesty of Byzantium or Rome. The King endowed libraries with hundreds of manuscripts, impressive by comparison with anything that had been seen hitherto by the Franks, but pitiful (as Gibbon observed) beside the thousands of documents in the libraries of Italy or Spain. He created a new bureaucratic structure, sending royal officials to each of the 350 counties of his realm to deliver his commands, hear cases, and, when necessary, to summon his people to war. But as Lewis says,

much of this royal centralizing had scarcely more than a parchment reality in a world of near-universal illiteracy, deep suspicion and resentment on the part of the nobility, and a crippling disparity between resources and objectives.

The fact is that Charlemagne’s empire, impressive as it was, lacked many of the marks of what we think of as civilization: cities, commerce, great libraries, a literate elite. This is especially clear if we compare the world he made with the cultivated society of his new Muslim neighbors.

Like Charlemagne’s empire, al- Andalus was very much the product of a war machine. Islam burst out of Arabia in the seventh century, spreading with astonishing rapidity in every direction. After the Prophet’s death in 632, the Arabs managed in a mere thirty years to defeat the two great empires to their north, Rome’s Christian residue in Byzantium and the Zoroastrian Persian empire that reached through Central Asia as far as India. The dynasty of the Umayyad clan, which took control of Islam in 661, pushed on west into North Africa and east into Central Asia. In early 711, Tariq Ibn-Ziyad, acting for the sixth Umayyad caliph in Damascus, led a Berber army across the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain.1 There he attacked the Visigoths who had ruled much of the Roman province of Hispania for two centuries. A year later, a new army of 18,000 men, mostly Yemeni Arabs, joined in the assault. Within seven years, most of the Iberian peninsula was under Muslim rule; not until 1492, nearly eight hundred years later, was the whole peninsula under Christian sovereignty again.

After the early Muslim triumphs, the Christians of northern Iberia fought back, consolidating the Kingdom of Asturias in the 720s, and recovering Galicia from Muslim rule by the end of the next decade. In the mountainous northwest of the peninsula, on the storm-buffeted southern coast of the Bay of Biscay, the Christian tribes were largely able to resist Muslim encroachment. Nor was Muslim rule ever secure in the Basque region on the southern side of the Pyrenees. The Upper, Middle, and Lower Marches (or borderlands) lay between the core of al-Andalus, the region around Córdoba, and these Christian kingdoms in the northwest, on the one hand, and the Franks over the mountains to the northeast, on the other. As borderlands—whether with the Asturians or with the Franks—the Marches were always at risk of attack.

The Umayyads did not, however, intend to stop at the Pyrenees. Their first attempt to take Aquitaine, the southern Frankish duchy, was frustrated in 721, when Duke Odo charged his heavy horses through a Muslim army encamped outside his capital at Toulouse. But a little more than a decade later, ‘Abd al-Rahman, the new emir of al-Andalus, returned to take up the task, with a vast, disciplined, experienced Moorish army. He sent Odo scuttling off from a defeat near Bordeaux and marched on northward toward Poitiers, almost halfway from the Pyrenees to Paris.

Near Poitiers, however, the Muslims met their match. In October 732, Charles Martel, Charlemagne’s grandfather, who had force-marched his troops from the faraway Danube, joined Duke Odo in decimating the emir’s troops. A Christian scribe in a Latin chronicle written in 754 calls the victors at Poitiers Europenses : it is the first recorded use of a Latin word for the people of Europe. And it was written in al-Andalus.

Later Christian historians assigned to the Battle of Poitiers an epochal significance. Gibbon remarked that if the Moors had covered again the distance they had traveled from Gibraltar, they could have reached Poland or the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps, he thought, if ‘Abd al-Rahman had won, “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.” For him, the fate of Christian Europe hung in the balance. After a week of battle, he wrote, “the Orientals were oppressed by the strength and stature of the Germans, who…asserted the civil and religious freedom of their posterity.”2

At the time, though, it would have been odd to regard Charles Martel’s victory as guaranteeing religious freedom. The small but influential Jewish community in Iberia had been tolerated in Spain when their Visigothic overlords were still Arian heretics ruling Catholic and Jewish subjects; but Jews began to be persecuted in 589, when the Visigoths converted to Catholicism. For the Jews, then, the Muslim Conquest, bringing rulers who practiced toleration toward them as well as toward Christians and Zoroastrians, was not unwelcome. During the first period of Muslim domination, Christians, too, discovered that they would have religious freedom, so long as they (like the Jews) did not seek to convert Muslims or criticize Islam. The contrast with Frankish rule could hardly have been more striking. The obsession of Catholic rulers with religious orthodoxy was one of the things that made the Dark Ages—as Petrarch was to dub the period from the fifth to the tenth centuries—so dark.

Nor was it evident at the time that the Battle of Poitiers had put an end to the dreams of a Muslim conquest in the land of the Franks. For nearly thirty years the Arabs maintained control of Septimania—modern-day Languedoc in southern France—ruling from their capital at Narbonne. In the ensuing decade there were constant sallies and retreats as a succession of emirs sought to go deeper into Frankish territory. In all this back-and-forth, it makes little sense (as Lewis shows) to pick Poitiers as the turning point.

Indeed, the greatest obstacle to Muslim expansion proved to be the divisions among the Muslims, which led to almost constant conflict in al-Andalus. Discord in the world of Islam began in the tribal society that was the religion’s first home. The Prophet came from the Meccan Quraysh tribe, whose members were regarded with special favor by the faithful. Among the Quraysh, Muhammad’s clan was particularly exalted. The first caliphs were all Qurayshi, but the first dynasty came not from Muhammad’s kinsmen but from the Umayya clan. When the fourth caliph, Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, was assassinated and succeeded by an Umayyad caliph, a long rivalry between the clans was launched.3 In 750, revolts in the new Muslim empire unraveled the Umayyad dynasty; and the new caliph of the Abbasid clan set out to massacre anyone who could resurrect the Umayyad line. Not for nothing was he called as-Saffah, the Shedder of Blood.

  1. 1

    Which is where Gibraltar gets its name: Jabal Tariq in Arabic is Tariq’s Mountain.

  2. 2

    Edmund Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (P.F. Collier & Son, 1899), p. 288.

  3. 3

    The division between Sunni and Shia Islam originates here. The Shia are the followers of Ali, believing that the household of the Prophet should provide the leaders of Islam.

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