Many Americans may think that conflict between the West and Islam is a 20th or 21st-century phenomenon. Perhaps we associate its beginning with the Munich massacres in 1972, or the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, or the Pan-Am hostage crisis in 1973, or the 1993 WTC bombing, or 9-11. Maybe we can stretch it back all the way to the Suez Crisis of 1956, when western powers invaded Egypt when that country tried to take control of the critical waterway, or the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel successfully defended herself against a joint invasion by almost all of her Arab neighbors.
Well, how about 732? That’s the year Charles Martel and an army of Franks defeated an Umayyad army from al-Andalus (Spain) in what is now north-central France. The Umayyad were a Mohammedan dynasty originating from Syria, commanding an army composed mostly of north African Berbers, which had occupied Spain in the name of Allah since 718. In God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 (Norton, 2008), author David Levering Lewis details the rise of the Islamic world juxtaposed with the foundations of what became modern-day Europe, and asks us to ponder just how close the West has been to our monotheistic brethren across the pond.
Most of us learned about the Crusades at some point in grade school, but for Lewis the Crusades were largely a sideshow. He believes Europe (and, by extension, all of the western world) only took the shape it did because of its interaction with Islam. The Mohammedan empire was a military juggernaut in the two centuries following the Prophet’s return to Mecca in 628 AD. It swept through all of the modern-day Middle East and stretched to India on the east, and conquered all of North Africa, eventually crossing into Spain and establishing an Islamic kingdom. The Mohammedans made several attempts to conquer Constantinople, the only western polity to retain a measure of Roman civilization; massive armies often came right up to the city’s walls, only to be repeatedly repulsed at the eleventh hour (often miraculously).
The history Lewis narrates is interesting in and of itself–a bridge from the ancient world to the beginning of the modern one, told from two different perspectives. People may find his argument controversial. Some of the Republican presidential candidates may, if someone bothered to tell them about it, and if they bothered to think about the ramifications, possibly find it ‘treasonous.’ Lewis believes the Franks, Germans, and other proto-European peoples who eventually pushed the world into the modern industrial era were compelled by the threat of Islam to define themselves as a zealously Christian society, putting themselves under the yoke of dual powers which would reign supreme for a thousand years: the absolutism of hereditary monarchs, and the Catholic Church which gave those monarchs divine sanction. Lewis suggests that the strife and sorrow of the Middle Ages and the revolutions which eventually overthrew the old order might have been avoided, if the Muslims had defeated Charles Martel and the Franks at Tours in 732. The Mohammedans, after all, were light-years ahead of us in almost everything useful until the Renaissance—science, philosophy, math, etc.
Most western historians have held the exact opposite view, of course—one of Gibbons’ most opinionated moments in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was when he chronicled the Franks’ repulse of the Moors pouring out of Spain. He shudders to think of what would have happened had the Franks lost—nightmare visions of French schoolchildren reading from the Koran as their daily morning vespers.
My opinion? Who knows. I’m a second-generation Korean immigrant, raised as a Presbyterian in the Midwest during the 1980s. Just thinking of the ramifications on me personally is impossible. Maybe I’d be a Buddhist, or maybe the Muslims would have blazed a trail through the Indian subcontinent all the way to Korea. I have a hard time believing Islam had the momentum–or even the inclination, at a gut level–to have overthrown Christianity as the dominant religious force in Europe. Those Visigoth/Frank/Saxon/Danish people were pretty fierce, and the early Popes were pretty darn conniving. I think they would have found a way to preserve themselves.
The West is actually, if you think about it, closer to Islam in a historical context than any other civilization—almost all of Asia has remained isolated until very recently (you could argue that China, ancient as she is, has had almost nil effect on the West until the last three decades). Cultural exchange with Australia consists of Hugh Jackman and Crocodile Dundee—an exaggeration, but compared to Islam-West relations not much of one.
Consequences for our present circumstances? Well, maybe the next time we see a person wearing a burka in public, we can resist viewing them as aliens. They actually belong to a culture we have been wrapped in a close, sometimes dangerous, but just as often enlightening embrace with, for going on 1600 years.