Sunday, May 3, 2009

God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215, David Levering Lewis

$29.95, hardcover 476 pages, W.W. Norton.

In God's Crucible, Professor David Lewis demonstrates the close relationship between Europe and the Islamic world. Europe in particular defines itself to an important degree through its feelings about Muslims and their cultures and beliefs.

Europeans, especially the emperors and popes, learned to work together in reference to the Muslim threat. The crowning of Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800 exemplifies this. Popes and emperors also collaborated against wandering, violent Germanic tribes such as the Lombards. The papacy's continued relevance, if not its continued existence, was by no means always assured.

In outlining the details of countless battles between empires or civil wars, God's Crucible takes us on a Lord of the Rings view of history -- men playing the game of power where, as Lewis writes, “peace is war by other means.” Rarely did a year go by without major conflagration, and when peace did break out, it only assured that, with the stockpiling of weapons and food for the next one, that next one would be more terrifying than ever.

As is so often the case nowadays, Lewis adopts a Friedrich Nietzsche view of religion, characterizing it, like war, as simply a power game. He regards councils, popes, preachers, and other holy people as simply players in the grand game rather than speakers of the truth. Lewis is a man spellbound by the Enlightenment and its unending cynicism, with a non-believer's skepticism in everything religious or truthful.

Having said that, his skepticism and materialism push him to do us the service of correcting the historical record, such as regards the belief that Arab Muslims spread their religion with the sword and their overwhelming numbers: “Long the conventional explanation, the human tidal-wave theory was abandoned in the early years of the last century, however, as new scholarship revealed the first Arab armies to have been dismayingly small – a few thousand at most to conquer Graeco-Roman Syria and fewer than twelve thousand, probably, to occupy Iran.”

Lewis' next words give a warning to current inhabitants of Western civilization: We have been fighting unending culture wars just as the early medieval Christian majority in the soon-to-be Muslim world had engaged in exhausting, demoralizing theological infighting for centuries. They often squabbled over the understanding of the nature of Christ's divine and human natures. The upshot of that early medieval squabbling? “Muslims also won because their enemies had exhausted themselves.”

Lewis does a particularly good job at showing how Europe became, in reaction to Islamic jihad, united through a common mythology. The Song of Roland, an eleventh-century French poem about a Christian military tragedy in Muslim Spain, was used by medieval Christendom as a template for thinking about the heroic valor of Christian knights – and Christian Europe – in their “epic struggle” against Muslims.

Though Catholic readers should be wary of Lewis' coldness towards his own Western heritage and towards Christianity, which he all-too-often assumes to be uniformly violent and degrading, the author's powerful, succinct, and poetic writing powerfully sums up his discussions, as in the following:

“Arab knowledge in politics, economics, and technology sharpened by the close of the seventh century to an edge as fine as tempered steel.”

The author replaces religion as the bottom line of history with economics, emphasizing the commerce and cultural wealth that empires and open trade routes generated for multiple nations existing together across thousands of miles of steppes or mountain ranges and vast seas:

“If the road to conversion had been well-trafficked from the beginning of the jihad, by the first decade of the eighth century the road to Islam had become a conveyor belt [of trade] at full throttle.”

Lewis' wide-ranging, intuitive understanding of Western and Islamic history make God's Crucible a great adventure for the patient reader. It is well worth the few annoyances of his academic ideology and his sometimes overly descriptive style.

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