»  Claremont Review of Books

Fall 2008

  When Worlds Collide

The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In
        by Hugh Kennedy
God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215
        by David Levering Lewis


Here are two very different history books covering some of the same territory: the early conquests of Islam. Hugh Kennedy's book is the more comprehensive and scholarly, with detailed accounts of all the Arab advances into Africa, Asia, and Europe up to the fall of the Umayyad dynasty in A.D. 750. David Levering Lewis writes mainly of Europe, though the Arab conquest of the Roman possessions in Africa and the Middle East is adequately covered. His subtitle notwithstanding, Lewis spends little time — only the last three of his 16 chapters — on events later than the 8th century, so that the chronological overlap between the two books is greater than their titles indicate.

It is a sad reflection on the current state of popular historical writing that one approaches any book about Islamic history with the question: what's the angle? Historians with a bill of goods to sell are of course nothing new. Gibbon's pro-classical, anti-Christian bias; Macaulay's Whiggism; Carlyle's heroes; the Marxists' modes of production; Spengler's declinism; Churchill's Anglo-Saxon triumphalism; it sometimes seems to the general reader that "dispassionate historian" is an oxymoron.

In the matter of Islam, though, matters have become more serious lately. Some part of this has been a reaction to the anti-Western tone of "post-colonial" propagandists like Edward Said. Much more has been driven by the notion, widely held since September 2001, that the West is engaged in a critical civilizational conflict with the Muslim world. Whether or not we truly are in such a conflict is a large question all by itself. (My opinion: no.) If you believe we are, though, you ought to take sides, and many scholars have done so.

Most notable has been the rise of the Islamophobes: writers like Robert Spencer, Bat Ye'or, and Ibn Warraq, keen to tell us about the fundamental, irreducible wickedness of Islam and its founder. It is not clear to a non-specialist how seriously these Islamophobic writers should be taken. I note that the indexes and bibliographies appended to these two books show only one of these names, once: Ibn Warraq as author of The Quest for the Historical Muhammed (2000). The Islamophobes have gathered a huge following, though, and put at least one Arabic word, dhimmi, into fairly general circulation.

David Levering Lewis's God's Crucible has not been well received by the Islamophobes. In fact, Lewis, a professor of history at New York University, seems to have been placed in their Hall of Shame, along with historian of religion Karen Armstrong. (Ms. Armstrong, who does appear in Lewis's index, though not in Kennedy's, committed the unpardonable crime of writing a sympathetic and very readable biography of the prophet Muhammed.) The reason for Islamophobic hostility to Lewis is not hard to figure out. Take, for example, this passage. The subject is the Battle of Poitiers, which English schoolboys of my generation were presented with as the Battle of Tours. This was the occasion in A.D. 732 when the Frankish ruler Charles "the Hammer" Martel defeated an Islamic army that had crossed the Pyrenees into France.

Had [Muslim general] 'Abd al-Rahman's men prevailed that October day, the post-Roman Occident would probably have been incorporated into a cosmopolitan, Muslim regnum unobstructed by borders … one devoid of a priestly caste, animated by the dogma of equality of the faithful, and respectful of all religious faiths … [T]he victory of Charles the Hammer must be seen as greatly contributing to the creation of an economically retarded, balkanized, fratricidal Europe that, in defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy.

Cosmopolitan! Unobstructed by borders! There is a job waiting for David Levering Lewis on the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, should New York University decide to dispense with his services.

We learn from Lewis's NYU website that: "His work reflects the mutual dependence of African and African-American history, as well as the utility of biography in the exploration of American race, class, and politics … [H]is two volumes on the life of W.E.B. DuBois [sic] won the Pulitzer Prize …" Du Bois was an early 20th-century black American intellectual and activist. Lewis has also written a book about the Dreyfus case. What's his angle? Celebrating diversity.

To be fair, Lewis tells us in his book's preface what he's about:

Although the arc of my professional interests have [sic — the book is poorly edited; or perhaps, as often seems to be the case nowadays, not edited at all] been eclectic … the central concern was the critical yet sympathetic exploration of lives exemplifying … courage or integrity, intellect or calculation in the face of injustice, religious exclusion, and organized plunder.

"Can't we all get along?" asked Rodney King. "Yes!" replies Lewis in effect, "and once upon a time we did — in the convivencia, the spirit of tolerant coexistence that prevailed in Muslim Spain. And the rest of Europe could have had convivencia too, but for that darn Charles Martel and those fool Popes!"

The new Carolingian order [of the later eighth century] … was religiously intolerant, intellectually impoverished, socially calcified, and economically primitive. Measured by these same vectors of religion, culture, class, and prosperity, 'Abd al-Rahman's Muslim Iberia was at least four centuries more advanced than Western Christendom in 800 CE. An ironic intelligence from another planet might have observed that if Carolingian Europeans believed that Charles the Hammer's victory at Poitiers made their world possible, then it was a fair question to ask whether or not defeat might have been preferable.

What can one say about this sort of thing? Is there any truth in it? Well, yes, there is some. It is often the case, in history's great churnings, that one nation strides ahead of another, only to fall back into decadence or barbarism a century or few later. And as Michael Hart notes in his recent book Understanding Human History: "Although at times the Moslem world was more advanced culturally than the Byzantines, it was never much more advanced." Notice Lewis's comparison, though: Western Christendom, Carolingean Europeans. His is a much narrower scope than a thorough comparison of Islam and Christendom would require.

Counterfactual speculations of the kind that Lewis is trading in are in any case airy and insubstantial because we lack the knowledge required to evaluate them. Is there, for instance, something in the collective character of a people that predisposes it to these historical outcomes rather than those? The Franks and other German-speaking peoples of northeast Europe, even before they emerged from their forests, seem to have been quite unusually fond of moots and councils, of liberty and disputation, of electing their leaders and honoring their women. If Poitiers had gone the other way and Islam had swept across Europe, would it have changed the Franks, or they it? Does religion actually make anything happen? Are the upstream variables mostly just biological, as Michael Hart argues? (He thinks the Muslim world never got anywhere much because its base Mideast and North African populations didn't contain enough smart people.) Your guess is as good as mine, or Hart's, or Lewis's.

If you can put the counterfactual stuff out of mind and close your ears to the sound of ax-grinding, God's Crucible is not without redeeming features. It has in fact something of a Carlylean cast to it, with history being made by charismatic heroes, whom Lewis draws very well. Those years of toiling away at biography have left him with sharp perceptions of personal character. The two outstanding figures here are Charlemagne and 'Abd al-Rahman I. The former was the grandson of Charles Martel, and founder of the Frankish (later, the Holy Roman) Empire. The latter was not the losing general at Poitiers, but an Umayyad prince of the same name who escaped the Abbasid revolt of A.D. 750 and made his way to Spain, where he established an Umayyad rump state that lasted another 300 years.

The reigns of Charlemagne and the older (by 16 years) al-Rahman overlapped for two decades, from A.D. 768 to 788, giving Lewis the opportunity for a joint pen-portrait. Al-Rahman, "the exquisitely educated Umayyad prince whose rule over al-Andalus had already run a dozen years when Pippin's oldest son inherited the Austrasian kingdom" naturally comes out ahead of Charlemagne, though Lewis allows that the latter was "a barbarian more deeply impatient with the intellectual poverty of his fellow barbarians than perhaps any other well-positioned German since the collapse of the Roman Empire."

(I note in passing the pleasure a reader gets from Dark Age sobriquets: Charlemagne's father was Pippin the Short; his mother was Bertha Bigfoot. We also encounter Wilfrid the Hairy, Sancho the Fat, 'Amr the One-Eyed, and, most pitiable of all, al-Walid the Inadequate.)

Hugh Kennedy's book, while also aimed at a general readership, is of a very different kind. Kennedy is a professional Arabist and medievalist who has written a shelf of books on early Islam. His aim in The Great Arab Conquests is strictly narrative: to tell a curious nonspecialist what the Arabs did between the death of Muhammed in A.D. 632 and the fall of the Umayyads 118 years later. There are no counterfactual speculations here; and if there is an ax being ground, the noise is below my threshold of hearing. Kennedy's book is less fun to read than Lewis's, but it is also less irritating, and it inspires far more confidence that one is learning about things that actually happened.

Both authors, in laying the groundwork for their stories, emphasize the exhaustion of the world in the early 7th century as a consequence of the long destructive wars between Rome (and Rome's successor at Constantinople) and Persia. The foremost reason for those early Arab successes is that they were kicking in a rotten door, worn away by rampaging armies and the great 6th-century cycles of pestilence than began with the Plague of Justinian in the 540s. No doubt the Arabs were afflicted by these plagues as well, but their simpler way of life and their lower population density meant they suffered comparatively less. (This was a situation mirrored in Britain, where burial sites suggest lower mortality among the incoming Germanic peoples than among the more civilized Romano-British.)

Lewis does not mention the plagues, but Kennedy gives them full coverage:

When the Muslim conquerors entered the cities of Syria and Palestine in the 630s and 640s they may have walked through streets where the grass and thorns grew high between the ancient columns and where the remaining inhabitants clustered in little groups, squatting in the ruins of the great palatial houses their ancestors had enjoyed.

Note the conscientious historian's "may have." Kennedy is at pains all through his book to emphasize the scarcity and unreliability of sources for the period. This was, after all, the Dark Ages. Kennedy tells us what is known. When he has to choose between conflicting accounts, or fill a void with speculation, he does so with utmost caution and many warnings. He is a real historian, doing what a historian ought to do.

This is not to imply that The Great Arab Conquests is unrelievedly dry — Kennedy has a good eye for a colorful story. The death of Yazdgard III, an episode in the Arab conquest of Persia, is well told, and quite Shakespearean in its interplay of fate and human emotion (Kennedy actually calls the later regrets of the regicide "Macbeth-like"). Our author is not above literary diversion, either. He breaks off from his narrative of the advance into Transoxania to remind us of some of the loveliest lines in English verse, the ones that close Matthew Arnold's poem "Sohrab and Rustum," where the poet follows the course of the mighty Oxus until:

The longed for dash of waves is heard, and wide
His luminous home of waters opens, bright
And tranquil, from whose floor the new bathed stars
Emerge, and shine upon the Aral Sea.

Any writer who loves those lines is a friend of mine. These are both interesting books, each in its own way; but it is Kennedy's that I shall be taking down from the shelf many times, I am sure, while Lewis's gets culled in the next trip to the second-hand book dealer.