A big idea trounces history

Times Staff Writer

Sometimes, when a fine historian ventures outside his specialty, prodigies of fresh insight ensue. More often -- and particularly when the scholar carries into one era the baggage of another -- the results are worse than disappointing.

These days, we so urgently require a better understanding of Islam and its origins that it would be edifying to report that the distinguished historian David Levering Lewis’ new book is an example of the former. Unfortunately, “God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215" falls into that second category with a nearly discernible thud.

Lewis, 71, is a distinguished social historian, particularly of the 20th century United States. Both volumes of his magisterial biography of W.E.B. Du Bois won the Pulitzer Prize for history. However, he is neither a medievalist nor a scholar of Islam origins, and some -- though not all -- of this book’s shortcomings originate there.

The more fundamental problem is that “God’s Crucible” is as much the product of an enthusiasm as it is an idea. Like many a writer and artist before him, Lewis is in thrall to an idealized Umayyad Spain, that island of comparative tolerance and intellectual freedom, undoubted prosperity and physical beauty that ornaments the medieval landscape. Even now, al-Andalus seems more poem than place, site of the Alhambra, the great Mosque of Cordova, the patio houses of Granada and home to Averroes and Maimonides. The problem is that Lewis is intent on making a general case with a society that stands as such an exception to other states of its era, whether Muslim or Christian. In fact, Umayyad Spain benefited from any number of unique factors: the extraordinary statecraft of its founder, Abd al-Rahman I, and some of his more able successors, the necessity of maintaining a balance of power in an unusually polyglot population and Spain’s physical distance from contemporary centers of Muslim and Christian power.


Lewis sets out to show that the failure of what he calls “the jihad east of the Pyrenees” is “one of the most significant losses in world history.” He argues that the Frankish defeat of the Islamic invaders at Poitiers in 732 and the subsequent poetic glorification of Roland’s sacrifice to cover Charlemagne’s retreat from his own incursion into Spain were “pivotal moments in the creation of an economically retarded, balkanized and fratricidal Europe that, by defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of hereditary aristocracy, persecutory religious intolerance, cultural particularism and perpetual war . . . ‘winning’ at Poitiers actually meant that the economic, scientific and cultural levels that Europeans attained in the 13th century could almost certainly have been achieved more than three centuries earlier had they been included in the Muslim world empire.”

In other words, the West would be better off if it had been incorporated into an all-conquering Islamic empire in the early Middle Ages.


Still, it’s fair to wonder why, if that’s true, the West ended up with the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Revolution and the Islamic world got chronic underdevelopment, a pervasive religious obscurantism, Al Qaeda and the trust fund states of the Arabian peninsula? It’s also fair to point out that both the Muslim philosopher Averroes and the Jewish philosopher-physician Maimonides were sent fleeing for their lives by Islamic fundamentalists and not the Christian Reconquista. Moreover, the Carolingian incursion into Spain -- over which Lewis frets so forcefully -- was undertaken in response to an invitation by Saracen grandees fearful of Abd al-Rahman’s expanding hegemony.

Moreover, Lewis isn’t the first “big picture” thinker to go down this road. As the formidable historian of fascism Stanley G. Payne pointed out in his recent study of wartime relations between Spain and Germany, Hitler mused that Europe would have been much better off if the Muslims had won at Poitiers because a German state possessed of a “warrior” ideology, like Islam, rather than a crippling Christianity would have conquered the world long before.

The only thing the Fuehrer and an impeccably democratic, humane scholar like Lewis have in common is an understanding of the origins and failures of European civilization that far surpasses their knowledge of Islam. Take, for example, the chronology with which Lewis begins his book. At the date 610, a reader finds: “Angel Gabriel visits Muhammad.”


At 650: “Definitive Qur’an produced.”

In fact, we know comparatively little about the origins of the Koran because Islamic hostility to the kind of source criticism to which the Hebraic and Christian scriptures have long been subjected has made scholarly research into the evolution of Muslim scriptures -- and they evolved as surely as the Bible did -- physically dangerous. Even today, efforts by German scholars to produce a critical edition of the Koran proceed almost in secret out of fear of reprisal.

Somehow, that ought to be factored into Lewis’ reckoning of what flowed from the Frankish victory at Poitiers.

Similar problems abound throughout this vigorously written narrative. Lewis, for example, insists on referring to the Saxons who resisted Charlemagne -- he, by the way, is a particular demon in the author’s imaginative cosmology -- as “freedom fighters” interested in “liberation.”

The problem with this sort of rhetorical sloppiness masquerading as vivid writing is that it adds up to bad history. We know little -- make that next to nothing -- of the interior lives of early medieval Saxons. Suffice to say, however, that the concept of “liberation” did not exist anywhere in their individual or collective psyches. Medieval people simply did not conceive of themselves or their relationship to temporal and spiritual authority in a way that made possible a concept like liberation. The Saxons may very well have resisted Frankish domination, but only because they wished to go on oppressing and exploiting each other according to the traditions of their ancestors -- not because they believed in an abstraction like “liberation.”

It is equally silly to impute to Charlemagne an “imperialist” mind-set while referring to the policies of the Spanish emirs as “nation-building” -- this despite (what Lewis rather cavalierly passes over) a tendency to dissect their opponents and ship the pickled parts back to the Middle East.

Then, what is a reader to make of a historian who does this sort of thing? As Charlemagne witnessed the execution of some 4,500 Saxon prisoners -- the author does not note the early medieval chroniclers’ habit of inflating numbers -- we’re told he “probably thought he was following the Old Testament examples of Joshua and David. It would have been impossible for him to reflect upon the fact that his version of justice most closely resembled the Prophet Muhammad’s appalling sanction of the Qurayza at Medina.”


History is hard; mind reading is impossible.