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God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215by David Levering Lewis
Synopses & Reviews
In this panoramic history of Islamic culture in early Europe, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian reexamines what we once thought we knew.
At the beginning of the eighth century, the Arabs brought a momentous revolution in power, religion, and culture to Dark Ages Europe. David Levering Lewis's masterful history begins with the fall of the Persian and Roman empires, followed by the rise of the prophet Muhammad and the creation of Muslim Spain. Five centuries of engagement between the Muslim imperium and an emerging Europe followed, from the Muslim conquest of Visigoth Hispania in 711 to Latin Christendom's declaration of unconditional warfare on the Caliphate in 1215. Lewis's narrative, filled with accounts of some of the greatest battles in world history, reveals how cosmopolitan, Muslim al-Andalus flourished — a beacon of cooperation and tolerance between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity — while proto-Europe, defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of hereditary aristocracy, religious intolerance, perpetual war, and slavery. A cautionary tale, God's Crucible provides a new interpretation of world-altering events whose influence remains as current as today's headlines. 8 pages of color illustrations; 4 maps.
"This superb portrayal by NYU history professor Lewis of the fraught half-millennium during which Islam and Christianity uneasily coexisted on the continent just beginning to be known as Europe displays the formidable scholarship and magisterial ability to synthesize vast quantities of material that won him Pulitzer Prizes for both volumes of W.E.B. Du Bois.
In characteristically elegant prose, Lewis shows Islam arising in the power vacuum left by the death throes of the empires of newly Christianized Rome and Persian Iran, then sweeping out of the Middle East as a fighting religion, with jihad inspiring cultural pride in hitherto marginalized Arab tribes. After Charles Martel's victory at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 sent the Muslim invaders back south of the Pyrenees, the Umayyad dynasty consolidated its rule in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), forging a religiously tolerant, intellectually sophisticated, socially diverse and economically dynamic culture whose achievements would eventually seed the Renaissance. Meanwhile, the virtually powerless Roman popes joined forces with ambitious Frankish leaders, from Pippin the Short to Charlemagne, to create the template for feudal Europe: a 'religiously intolerant, intellectually impoverished, socially calcified, and economically primitive' society.' The collapse of the Umayyad dynasty and the rise of local leaders who embraced Muslim fundamentalism as a means to power destroyed the vitality of al-Andalus, paving the way for the Crusades and the Christian reconquista of Spain.
Lewis clear-sightedly lays out the strengths and weaknesses of both worlds, though his sympathies are clearly with cosmopolitan doctor/philosophers like Ibn Rushd and Musa ibn Maymun (better known in the West as Averros and Maimonides), who represented 'cultural eclecticism and creedal forbearance,' sadly out of place in the increasingly fanatical 12th century. 8 pages of color illus., 4 maps." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The title of David Levering Lewis' surprising new book, 'God's Crucible,' brings to mind another piece of ceramic phrasing, Colin Powell's warning to President Bush about invading Iraq: 'You break it. You own it.' The people and the land of Iraq that we now own as occupiers can be counted among the shards, but the invasion and occupation have also wreaked havoc on a culture, a country's history, and... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) its religion. For better or worse, every American needs to have a certain working knowledge of the traditions of the Middle East, not only for the momentous task of putting the pieces back together in Iraq, but also to avoid such nightmares in the future and to judge the overheated rhetoric of politicians in the forthcoming American election. 'For a historian,' Lewis writes in his preface, 'thinking about the present means thinking about the past in the present.' So it should be for the citizen as well. 'God's Crucible' begins with the rise of Islam in the 6th and 7th centuries from the ruins of the conflict between imperial Rome and imperial Persia. This rise, Lewis writes expansively, is nothing short of 'the greatest revolution in power, religion, culture, and wealth in history.' In the aftermath, the Fertile Crescent, the vast area of ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia, was forfeited to the Islamic upstarts in the Arabian peninsula. Lewis' treatment of Islam's explosive beginnings and its expansion across North Africa into Europe is lucid, and his command of detail is encyclopedic. His narrative is enriched by Arabic sources that are often ignored by European scholars. For today's Arabs and Muslims, these seminal events live intensely in the present: the life of Muhammad, the violent struggle for Mecca and Medina, the first four caliphs, the writing of the Koran and the split of the Shiites and Sunnis. If only for practical reasons, all Americans need to understand these things. In the second half of the book, Lewis turns to the European response to the Islamic invasion from the Iberian peninsula. The Muslims were defeated in 732 at Poitiers, in present-day France. This historic turning point led to the formation of an inchoate Europe in opposition to Islam. When Charlemagne became king of the Franks in the late 8th century, he developed the concept of holy war versus jihad. Folklore created iconic heroes like Roland — slaughtered with his men at Roncevaux in 778 and memorialized in the 'Song of Roland' — who embodied European chivalry, manly courage and Christian valor in the face of the infidel. 'Poitiers and Roncevaux nurtured an ideology of Holy War and in time,' Lewis writes, 'of national arrogance to counter the advance of Islam.' Through mythology, history was framed as a titanic struggle between Christianity and Islam, a struggle for a Christian warrior caste that could only end when Muslims everywhere were defeated and converted to the true faith. In his later chapters, there are other important insights. Islam did not stop dead in its tracks in 732, as many believe; Muslim attacks on central Europe not only continued but intensified. If the Islamic forces had prevailed over Charles Martel — known as 'The Hammer' — at Poitiers, scholars at Oxford and the Sorbonne might have been teaching interpretations of the Koran instead of the Bible afterwards. If Charlemagne had been successful in his invasion of Islamic Spain in 778, the confrontation between Christianity and Islam there might have been accelerated by four centuries. In Lewis' construction, Europe as a cohesive Christian dominion came into existence with Charlemagne. His coronation in Rome as the first Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800 certified the consolidation he had achieved during his 45-year reign. His palatine complex in Aachen stood in opposition to — and in the shadow of — Cordoba in Spain, the 'brilliant ornament of the world,' with its Great Mosque, its dazzling caliphal residence at Madinat al-Zahra, and its fabulous library. At this point, these two dominions, Christian and Islamic, stood in a fragile equipose militarily, but Muslim Iberia was far superior culturally and economically. In 'God's Crucible,' answers to many urgent questions, currently in the public discourse, can be deduced. Is Islam essentially a violent religion? Why do Sunnis and Shiites kill one another over a genealogical disagreement? Must we worry about the dream of a world-wide caliphate today, or a terrorist fantasy about restoring the glory of al-Andalus in southern Spain? Is Europe really a Christian continent? Lewis has made an important contribution to the growing body of literature on Muslim-Christian relations that has emerged after 9/11. But his book also shows how daunting the task of understanding the history of the Middle East is for the average American. He makes no concession here to the general reader. While the book is erudite, it is marred by stilted academic prose and an overemphasis, especially in the first half, on the minutiae of tribal and sectarian conflict. Because of this density, it can be difficult to concentrate on the larger narrative, and many of his insights are inaccessible to the people who most need them. James Reston, Jr.'s last work of medieval history was 'Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors.'" Reviewed by James Reston, Jr., Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"This thoughtful overview sheds welcome light on an increasingly relevant period of history....A work of clear-eyed scholarship." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] fruitful and frequently overlooked period of cultural interaction." Booklist
"Lewis is not a historian of Islam. This gives him the freedom to pursue big questions with impunity — and he does this quite well. But it also leads him into many surprising errors....In the end, these errors do not seriously mar the powerful thrust of his narrative. His darting juxtapositions of dynasties and of cultures give a vivid sense of the furious complexities of the age." New York Times
"[D]espite an exceedingly thick plot line that presumes significant historical knowledge, Lewis succeeds in creating what scholars like to call a 'relational history' of two great civilizations." Boston Globe
Book News Annotation:
The early confrontations between Western culture and the newly-born Islamic movement have been studied by medievalists for some time. It is a complex subject, and conclusions vary according to the time and place studied; but Lewis, who is known for his fine work on African-American history, has ignored these subtleties in this book, ostensibly a corrective to recent polemics attacking Islam. The book is riddled with inaccuracies and unsubstantiated assumptions. Long discarded by scholars, the views he presents of Europe in the sixth and seventh centuries are of backwardness and barbarism, while Muslim Spain basked in a Golden Age of religious toleration and enlightenment. The few primary sources consulted are in translation, and secondary sources are a mish-mash of popular histories and out-of-date material, along with a few recent works. The result is a non-historically-based polemic. Scholars will know the difference; the general reading public might not. Annotation ©2008 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
"A furiously complex age; a powerful narrative."--New York Times Book Review, Editor's Choice
Hailed by critics as an essential book, God's Crucible is a bold, new interpretation of Islamic Spain and the birth of Europe from one of our greatest historians. David Levering Lewis's narrative, filled with accounts of some of the greatest battles in world history, reveals how cosmopolitan, Muslim al-Andalus flourished--a beacon of cooperation and tolerance--while proto-Europe floundered in opposition. At the beginning of the eighth century, the Arabs brought a momentous revolution in power, religion, and culture to Dark Ages Europe. David Levering Lewis's masterful history begins with the fall of the Persian and Roman empires, followed by the rise of the prophet Muhammad and the creation of Muslim Spain. Five centuries of engagement between the Muslim imperium and an emerging Europe followed, from the Muslim conquest of Visigoth Hispania in 711 to Latin Christendom's declaration of unconditional warfare on the Caliphate in 1215. Lewis's narrative, filled with accounts of some of the greatest battles in world history, reveals how cosmopolitan, Muslim al-Andalus flourished--a beacon of cooperation and tolerance between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity--while proto-Europe, defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of hereditary aristocracy, religious intolerance, perpetual war, and slavery. A cautionary tale, God's Crucible provides a new interpretation of world-altering events whose influence remains as current as today's headlines.
About the Author
David Levering Lewis is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the two-volume biography of W. E. B. Du Bois. He has been awarded numerous prizes and fellowships, including a MacArthur Fellowship. Twice a finalist for the National Book Award, Lewis lives in Manhattan and Stanfordville, New York, with his wife.
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