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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.

Unfortunately for Abbasid claims to control of the empire, the bloodletting was not completed. ‘Abd al-Rahman, nineteen-year-old grandson of the Umayyad caliph Hisham I, evaded capture, and managed to get to Morocco. Across the narrow straits between Morocco and al-Andalus, ‘Abd al-Rahman planned to conquer a Muslim society whose rulers owed their place to the patronage of his ancestors. In 755 he landed in Granada with over a thousand Berber cavalry. He was twenty-five years old. Within a year, he had installed himself in Córdoba, as emir of al-Andalus. But his hold on power was tenuous. He lost his foothold north of the Pyrenees in 759 to Pippin the Short, Charlemagne’s father, in part because he was facing a revolt in the west of his own empire. And he spent most of his time in the saddle, fighting resistance to his claims as emir.

When ‘Abd al-Rahman defeated the Abbasid emir in 763, he commanded that all prisoners of war be executed, and himself presided as the emir’s hands and feet and then head were cut off. “Labeled and pickled in brine, the leaders’ heads were dispatched to Mecca,” Lewis writes. “When Caliph al-Mansur received the gory details, he is said to have expostulated, ‘God be praised for placing a sea between us!’”

Despite, or perhaps because of, these sanguinary beginnings, the reign of ‘Abd al-Rahman and his descendants in al-Andalus introduced a period of relative stability. An emir had to be ready at any moment to defend his territory from without and his authority within. But alongside the disciplines of war, he could practice the arts of peace.

The original core of the Great Mosque at Córdoba, which stands to this day, was built for ‘Abd al-Rahman in an astonishing burst of architectural fervor, apparently between 785 and 786. With 152 columns, arranged in eleven aisles, it consisted of two parts: a large prayer hall, some two thirds of an acre in area, and an adjoining piazza of the same size, filled with rows of orange trees, which together made up a square whose sides measured about 240 feet. The results, added onto over the centuries, still amaze. Lewis writes:

Its builders devised the art and science of transmuting matter into light and form that medieval Christendom was the poorer for its general inability to comprehend…. The unprecedented innovation of the Great Mosque’s master builder was to loft the coffered ceiling to a height of forty feet by means of an upper tier of semicircular arches that appeared to be clamped to the bottom tier of horseshoe arches supported by columns…. Structurally ingenious, the visual effect of the double arches has been from the moment of completion one of the world’s distinctively edifying aesthetic experiences.

If the Great Mosque was the most evident material embodiment of the civilization of the Arabs in Spain, their intellectual achievements were even more astonishing. Starting in ‘Abd al-Rahman’s time, the Umayyads sought to compete with their Abbasid rivals in Baghdad for cultural bravura. Over the next few centuries, Córdoba alone acquired hundreds of mosques, thousands of palaces, scores of libraries. By the tenth century, those libraries had hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, dwarfing the largest libraries of Christian Europe. The university of Córdoba predated Bologna, the first European university, by more than a century. And al-Andalus was a world of cities, not, like Europe, a world of country estates and small towns. By the end of the millennium, Córdoba’s population was 90,000, more than three times the size of any town in the territory once occupied by Charlemagne. In those cities, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Arabs, Berbers, Visigoths, Slavs, and countless others created the kind of cultural goulash—a spicy mixture of a variety of distinct components—that would generate a genuine cosmopolitanism.

There were no recognized rabbis or Muslim scholars at the court of Charlemagne; in the cities of al-Andalus there were bishops and synagogues. Racemondo, Catholic bishop of Elvira, was Córdoba’s ambassador to Constantinople and Aachen. Hasdai ibn Shaprut, leader of Córdoba’s Jewish community in the middle of the tenth century, was not only a great medical scholar but was also the chairman of the caliph’s medical council; and when the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII sent the caliph a copy of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, the caliph sent for a Greek monk to help translate it into Arabic. The knowledge that the caliph’s doctors acquired made Córdoba one of the great centers of medical expertise in Europe. By the time of ‘Abd al-Rahman’s successor and namesake, ‘Abd al-Rahman III, in the tenth century, the emir of al-Andalus had the confidence to declare himself caliph, successor or representative of the Prophet and, implicitly, leader of the Muslim world.

Like Charlemagne’s, the emir’s position was partly religious; he was supposed to be (and often was) pious. But piety for the emirs did not mean—as it did for the Holy Roman Emperor—imposing one’s religion on others. From the earliest times, the emirs of al-Andalus accepted conversion but did not demand it. There were, naturally, some pressures to convert: non-Muslim subjects—the so-called dhimmi—were required to pay special taxes; and non-Muslims could be enslaved while, at least in theory, Muslims could not. Still, it probably took about two centuries after ‘Abd al-Rahman’s death in 788 for Muslims to become a majority in al-Andalus.4 In the cities of al-Andalus, scholars of all three faiths, with access to the learning of the classical world that the Arabs had inherited and brought to the West, gathered and transmitted the learning whose recovery in Europe created the Renaissance.

By 777, ‘Abd al-Rahman, now in his mid-forties, and still a vigorous warrior, had established control over some two thirds of the peninsula. Not all his co-religionists were pleased. Evidently hoping to contain him, the emir of Barcelona and the Muslim governors of Saragossa and Huesca rode the nearly one thousand miles to Saxony to conspire with Charlemagne. It was at a time when the King had gathered his nobles and his leading clergy for the Diet of Paderborn to receive the submission of the Saxon tribes and witness the baptism of many of their leaders. The coincidence seemed providential. Here were three Muslim princes offering fealty to the king of the Franks and the Lombards, who had recently become ruler of the Saxons as well. “To Charlemagne’s vaulting ambitions,” Lewis writes, “the symmetry of a Frankland flanked by two conquered peninsulas proved irresistible—rex Hispanicum added to the title rex Francorum et Langobardum.” In 778, Charlemagne assembled an army of Franks, Bavarians, Burgundians, Lombards, Septimanians, and others—perhaps as many as 25,000 men at arms—to begin his assault on Hispania. For the first time in history, a Christian army set out to conquer the world of Islam; but it did so at the invitation of and in alliance with Muslims.

Abd al-Rahman prepared his own army but he did not have to use it. Accounts of Charlemagne’s great muster gave the governor of Saragossa second thoughts, and so when the Frankish armies arrived there, expecting to be welcomed, its gates remained barred. Worse news came from the far north; the Saxons whose defeat he had celebrated at Paderborn had risen in revolt. When Charlemagne sought refuge in the old Basque city of Pamplona, his fellow Catholics spurned him. Infuriated, he destroyed Pamplona. In the end, a Christian city was the major victim of his planned assault on the Muslim emirate.

As Charlemagne retreated through the Pyrenees, he was harried by Basques, who had no love for the Frankish king who had devastated their city; and in a mountain pass at Roncesvalles the Frankish rear guard was destroyed. Einhard, Charlemagne’s first biographer, lists among the dead “Roland, Lord of the Breton Marches.” This appalling Christian loss to fellow Christians—Catholic Franks slaughtered by Catholic Basques—was transmuted three centuries later in the Chanson de Roland into a fatal conflict between Christianity and Islam.

In the epic, Charlemagne sees the carnage of the flower of Frankish chivalry, and destroys an army sent from the other end of the Muslim world. In reality, Charlemagne now turned his wrath on the Saxon apostates. By the summer of 779, he had amassed a great army aimed at the final conversion of the Saxons from paganism. At Verden in 782, according to Einhard, Charlemagne supervised the slaughter of 4,500 Saxon prisoners. The armies of the Saxons were defeated in 785. Charlemagne threatened those who refused baptism with capital punishment. As late as 804, Charlemagne uprooted 10,000 recalcitrant Saxons, settling them in the west of his kingdom.

After four and half decades in power, Charlemagne died in 814. His rule overlapped the last twenty years of ‘Abd al-Rahman’s emirate, encompassed the twelve-year reign of al-Rahman’s son, Hisham I, and also part of the twenty-eight-year reign of the grandson who consolidated Umayyad rule. The limitations of Charlemagne’s state-building were evident at his death. He had made plans, following Frankish tradition, to divide the kingdom among his three legitimate sons, but only Louis the Pious was still alive by the time he died. Louis’s attempts to divide the empire among his own sons led to a series of civil wars, out of which emerged a partition of Charlemagne’s empire, laid out at the Treaty of Verdun of 843. The Frankish empire was split into East, Middle, and West Francia. The eastern kingdom became the (new) Holy Roman Empire, including much of present-day Germany; the western one is the core of modern France; and the middle kingdom included Burgundy, Italy, and the Low Countries. Verdun effectively ended the Frankish empire that had united Western Europe for the first time since the Romans.

Abd al-Rahman’s heirs as emirs of Córdoba held al-Andalus together with a little more success. But by the 880s, under his ineffective great-great-grandson, the emirate was so weakened by rebellion and demands for regional autonomy that his writ barely ran beyond Córdoba. It took that emir’s son, ‘Abd al-Rahman III, to consolidate Umayyad authority in the peninsula and extend it into North Africa. For nearly half a century, from 912 to 961, he built Córdoba into a center of power, creating a palace complex, the Madinat al-Zahra, that awed all who visited it, from the governors of the towns of the Marches to the ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire.

After the debacle at Roncesvalles, Charlemagne never returned to Spain. In 798, the governor of Barcelona sought Frankish help in achieving independence from ‘Abd al-Rahman’s grandson, and Charlemagne authorized a campaign led by his son Louis. Barcelona was reconquered in 801 after a two-year siege. By 812, after a series of Frankish campaigns, the emir in Córdoba had accepted that his border was at the river Ebro, which runs through Saragossa in the northeastern part of the peninsula.

The Umayyad caliphate collapsed in the eleventh century and Muslim Spain descended into a chaos of little kingdoms, the Ta’ifa, some ruled by Arabs, some by Berbers, some by Slavs. In 1085, Alfonso VI, Christian king of Leon and Castile, captured Toledo; unlike the Franks, he knew better than to impose Catholicism on the people at the point of a sword. He called himself “king of the two religions”—meaning Islam and Christianity—but tolerated Jews as well: his doctor, Joseph Nasi Ferruziel, was Jewish. The spirit of cohabitation that the Arabs had created survived their departure. It took nearly four more centuries to get from the king of the two religions to the rigorous intolerance of the Spanish Inquisition.

The Berber dynasts—Almoravids and Almohads—who eventually took control of Córdoba and Seville, re- establishing a single Muslim state in the southern third of the peninsula from the eleventh to the thirteenth century, were very different from their Arab predecessors; they were driven by an intolerant orthodoxy that made it impossible to sustain the centuries-old intellectual openness that had made Umayyad Spain a place of scientific and philosophical learning. True, the philosopher Ibn Rushd—known to the Christian world as Averroës—had the first Almohad emir as his patron; but three years before his death, he was exiled to a village near Córdoba in 1195, his philosophical speculations condemned by the conservative Muslim scholars who now dominated the society.

As for Maimonides, the greatest of the Jewish scholars of al-Andalus, his family had to leave Córdoba around 1148, escaping Spain for Alexandria, by way of Morocco and Palestine. Without Ibn Rushd, whom Aquinas called simply the Commentator (on Aristotle, it was understood), as without Maimonides, there is no doubt, as Lewis insists, that the intellectual history of Europe would have been radically different. And without the Umayyad centuries, both Maimonides and Ibn Rushd would have been inconceivable.

The conquest of Spain by an alliance of Catholic princes was now proceeding apace. They called it a reconquest, because they saw it as the return to power of Catholicism in the peninsula, long centuries after the Visigoths had lost control. In the thirteenth century, the Almohads abandoned Granada to the last Muslim dynasty in Spain. Within a decade it was a tributary state of Catholic Castile. The end of al- Andalus came with the submission, in 1492, of the last emir to los Reyes Católicos, Ferdinand, King of Aragon, and Isabella, Queen of Castile. By then the crusades had for nearly three centuries been redefining the contrast between Christians and Muslims, shifting the focus of the conflict to the east. The toleration that Alfonso VI, Isabella’s ancestor, had shown to the two religions that had shared Spain with the Catholics for so many centuries was formally ended: expulsion or conversion was required of all the Muslims and Jews of Iberia. The pattern that Charlemagne had set in Saxony was carried forward, once more with a pope’s blessing, in Spain.

There were Europeans before there were Frenchmen or Germans or Italians or Spaniards because there was a world of kingdoms in the western residue of the Roman Empire bound by Catholicism to Rome. The histories that made France, Germany, Italy, and Spain—not to mention Portugal, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, or the Netherlands—all pass through one or both of the empires Charlemagne and ‘Abd al-Rahman made. God’s Crucible reveals how much the world we have inherited is the product of identities created long ages ago in rivers of blood, proceeding from a slaughter that was as often within Christendom or Islam as it was at their frontiers.

But there is also a more uplifting message here. Though Christians and Jews were clearly subordinated to Muslims in al-Andalus, they were nevertheless able to share in its manifold intellectual and material treasures. Had the three religions not worked together, borrowing from the pagan traditions of Greece and Rome, what we call the West would have been utterly different. In an age where some claim a struggle between the heirs of Christendom and of the Caliphate is the defining conflict, it is good to be reminded of this history of fruitful cohabitation.

Earlier this year, I visited the Center for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona, housed in an old seminary. In the entrance archway, a group of people dressed informally in North African clothes, the men in long djellabas, the women with their heads covered in silk scarves, chatted cheerfully. Their presence was a reminder that the project of Charlemagne and los Reyes Católicos—the creation of a totally Catholic Europe—has failed; a failure that began, of course, from within, in the Reformation and took hold in the Enlightenment, both of which, though they have many other ancestors, are heirs to the philosophical traditions transmitted through al-Andalus. As the Muslim children ran around their parents on a warm, spring evening, it occurred to me that in a different history, without the Reconquest, I might still have seen people much like them in that archway—or, at any rate, one much like it; and, since I had read God’s Crucible, I decided that in that other history the Christian Catalans who wandered by would also not have seemed out of place.

  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.

  4. 4

    Richard W. Bulliet, Conversion To Islam In The Medieval Period: An Essay In Quantitative History (Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 124.

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