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Friday, January 15th, 2010
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God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215

by David Levering Lewis

God's Crucible

A review by John Leonard

There is no doubt that David Levering Lewis, with God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe; 570-1215 (Norton, $17.95), will ruffle the feathers of some scholar-birds, especially those right-wing one-notes who can be counted on to sing The Song of Roland at pep rallies for Holy War and regime change. You will remember from La Chanson that Roland, surrounded in the Pyrenees by swarthy Saracens, refused to blow his ivory horn for help. Never mind that any real Roland at Roncevaux in 788 wouldn't have been killed by Muslins, either Arab or Berber, but by Basques annoyed that Charlemagne had trashed Pamplona. From poetry, writes Lewis, we got "an eighth-century prototype of the American cowboy" (and Hemingway hero). As immortalized in the eleventh-century gasbag epic, this imaginary Roland gave the inchoate West "an iconic hero how embodied caste supremacy and unrestrained martial valor," just in time for the First Crusade.

Is that any way to talk about the fellow who practically invented heroic individualism? It's the way Lewis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of W.E.B. Du Bois, talks about everybody in his abundant and savory account of Islamic culture in early Europe, from the Prophet Muhammad to Pippin the Short. Lewis, an anti-Gibbon, believes that "large historical outcomes are far more often contingent then inevitable." So as much as he revels in war and religion, gossip and betrayal, "dates, spices, perfume, and slaves" -- in Greek fire, satanic verses, and bubonic plague; Sassanids, Umayyads, and Langobards; the True Cross, the Holy Sponge, and the Syrian fetish -- so he resists "the eschatologies of the cultural and political simplifiers." History could have been different, and almost was. Suppose that Abd al-Rahman, "the Falcon of the Quraysh," whose brilliant Moorish culture made Dark-Age Europe look all the more opaque, whose Great Mezquita in Cordoba beat Chartes to the awesome punch by three hundred years, had conquered "Frankland"? Besides an earlier acquaintance with astronomy , trigonometry, Arabic numerals, and Greek philosophy, the West might have avoided its wars of religion. Surely Abd al-Rahman would not have sought an "ethnic cleansing" of the Saxons with anything like Charlemagne's zeal.

Nevertheless, says Lewis, Muslim tolerance of other religions in Hispania "was based more on condescension than on generosity." Jews and Christians were looked down upon for "a failure of theological understanding." Moreover, infidels could be taxed to death; converts were privileged." God's Crucible is witty, wayward, and contentious history, not some sappy valentine; it notes that the al-Andalus convivencia was killed off by holy warriors on both sides. But what Islam really did to the West seems to have gone unnoticed by the chanteurs: Starting at about the time of Charles "the Hammer" Martel, "an economically retarded, balkanized, and fratricidal Europe…by defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of hereditary aristocracy, persecutory religious intolerance, cultural particularism, and perpetual war." Maimonides checked out and Ferdinand and Isabella marched in.

John Leonard was the New Books columnist for Harper's Magazine and a media critic for New York Magazine, The Nation, and CBS News Sunday Morning. His books include Lonesome Rangers, When The Kissing Had To Stop, and The Last Innocent White Man In America.

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