The Feb. 4th 2008 New Yorker has an interesting review article of David Levering Lewis’s “God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215” by Joan Acocella. Here are some highlights that suggest this might be a good read.
Acocella starts out by reminding us that Edward Said’s “Orientalism” set out to show that Western historians have by and large tried to show the “inferiority” of non-Western peoples to justify the era of colonialism. Since Said an effort has been made to rectify this behavior and “God’s Crucible” is an example of this trend.
Lewis says the Islamic invasion of Spain in the 8th century was “the forward wave of civilization that was, by comparison with that of its enemies, an organic marvel of coordinated kingdoms, cultures, and technologies in service of a politico—cultural agenda incomparably superior” to what the Europeans had going for themselves.
The Muslim invasion was stopped at the Pyrenees in 714 and they ended with most of Spain (they wanted most of West Europe) which was renamed Al Andalus. Lewis thinks it was too bad they did not conquer “the rest of Europe” according to Acocella. Because they failed, the Europeans did not benefit from their superior culture [this sounds to me just like the European arguments of the colonial period] and, he writes, this resulted in “an economically retarded, Balkanized, and fratricidal Europe that … made virtues out of hereditary aristocracy, persecutory religious intolerance, cultural particularism, and perpetual war.”
We are told that Lewis makes Abd al-Rahman I (ruled 756-788) the primary hero of his book because he created the policy of “convivencia” whereby people of different ethnic groups and religions could all live together without killing each other. This made Abd al-Rahman very advanced and progressive for his day (and ours as well). Jews and Christians were not persecuted (“There shall be no compulsion in religion”-The Koran). Convivencia was the forerunner, Acocella says, to tolerance and multiculturalism.
Hero number two is Charlemagne who tried to educate and uplift the Franks and other peoples he ruled by establishing schools and centers of higher education. He planned to reconquer Spain but had to give it up because of rebellions in his own empire. This allowed Al Andalus to live and develop in peace. For several hundred years its culture was the highest in all of Western Europe but eventually civil war, Berber invasions, etc., broke it up into squabbling petty kingdoms and it fell victim to the Reconquista—from the fall of Toledo (1085) and ending with the fall of Granada 1492. The Christians did not believe in convivencia and persecuted Muslims and Jews without mercy wherever they could.
The leading city of al-Andalus in its glory days was Cordoba. Curiously the review says that both Averroes and Maimonides were Cordoban philosophers and that disappointed in the decline of freedom Maimonides “died in exile, bitterly reproaching his homeland for its abandonment of liberal ideas.” But Maimonides left Spain as a child of 10 or so and lived the rest of his life in the East, mostly in Egypt. Another misleading view is that St.Thomas Aquinas “relied heavily on Averroes’s reading of Aristotle” and that “Insofar as Western culture grew out of Greek culture, and became ‘classical,’ it did so because the scholars of Al Andalus transmitted Greek thought to western Europe.”
Aquinas actually opposed most of the interpretations of Averroes and did not rely on the Latin translations of the Arabic versions of Aristotle from Al Andalus but on Latin translations made directly from the Greek by scholars in Constantinople. Al Andalus was one of three centers for the transmission of Greek thought. The other were two were the Eastern Roman Empire (which fell to the Turks in 1453) and in the 8th Century, Ireland which had preserved a knowledge of Greek in its monasteries.
Lewis ends his book in 1215 “the year in which Pope Innocent III launched the Abigensian Crusade, an especially vicious example of the religious fanaticism that, in Lewis’s view, Europe developed in reaction to the Muslims, and inflicted on a bleeding world for many centuries thereafter."
Acocella says the book has its virtues but that it is also an example of “special pleading.” But if reading and writing history with both the intention to inform and to plead for tolerance and the reduction of human violence is “special pleading” it is nothing like the special pleading Said objected to in “Orientalism.”