This is a review of God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215, by David Levering Lewis. W.W. Norton. 2008
Islamic presence in Spain between the 7th and 14th centuries has long been considered a controversial topic. The ex-Spanish Prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, for example, added fire to the already intense discussions two years ago. He argued Muslims have never apologized for “conquering Spain and staying for eight centuries”.
Modern Conservative scholars such as Victor Davis Hanson, Bat Ye’or and Robert Spencer suggested that Muslim rule in Spain were despots who subjected people of other faiths to heavy taxation and religious persecution. David Levering Lewis thinks otherwise. This New York University professor places the relationship between Muslim nations and and Europe at the center of his latest book. His book inspires one to re-think the Islamic contribution to Europe.
The biggest accomplishment of Lewis’s book lies in its attempt to challenge conventional thinking regarding the victory of Charles Martel, the leader of the Franks. He rebukes historians such as Edward Gibbons and Victor Davis Hanson for their simplistic views on the Battle of Poitiers:
“Today, Charles Martel’s defeat of ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Ghafiqi is buried deep in the collective memory of the West, a marker of an important happening seldom recalled with the hyperbole typical of an earlier, more cultural self-aggrandizing age…However, it probably occurs to few, if any of the contemporary descendants of the “Europenses” to credit the existence of the European Union to the Battle of Poitiers.”
Lewis does an excellent job of asking the question as to what served to create Europe as we know it. He believes that years of Western-dominated thinking on the war have made us blind to the idea that Martel’s victory may have actually hurt Europe of those days by paving the way for an intolerant feudal age. At present times, the re-education Lewis offers us is of vital importance.
For me, the most surprising discovery in Lewis’s book concerns how the struggle between two civilizations actually improved welfare of women. It’s an intriguing premise, since conflict usually means setbacks wherein women’s rights are concerned.
Lewis blames Pope Innocent III and Pope Urban II for ending the long history of co-existence between Arabs, Jews and Christians. He beautifully summarizes the impact of the Pope’s Fourth Lateran Council’s call for wars against unbelievers and heresy:
“Difference, immemorially accommodated for better and worse by Western Europe’s peoples as the way of the world, was institutionalized henceforth as unassailable “otherness”
Lewis’s condemnation of Catholic Church is practically confrontational. He made me wonder whether even the present-day Vatican has the credibility to initiate dialogue with different faiths. In his book, Lewis gives a glimpse of the world of Christendom whose defeat of the Islamic faith slowed down the development of technology, culture, and science. It’s a grim picture, to say the least.
This book makes one consider the possibility that bad luck is likely to befall Europe if it decides to turn away from its Muslim neighbors in Turkey and Morocco. These neighbors may just offer some solutions to the aging crisis of the Great Continent.
The book suffers from a dearth of Spanish and Arabic source materials and a surplus of academic language. Having said that, Lewis still stands well above many colleagues who have tackled similar subjects.
Above all else, God’s Crucible is full of useful information for advocates of inter-faith dialogue; it’s main message is that freedom of exchange of ideas, tolerance of dissidents, and respect for diversity are will make a society prosperous.