Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Derbyshire on the Spread of Islam

I approach a John Derbyshire article with caution. While I often find much with which to agree--and a good read is almost always guaranteed--Derbyshire's anti-Christian bias (anti-faith, actually) always seems to seep into the story. He is much like Christopher Hitchens in this regard, casually dismissive of the role of religion, though lacking in his mad-dog histrionics.

So, Derbyshire's review of two recent studies of the advance of Islam into Europe, "When Worlds Collide, a Review of The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In by Hugh Kennedy and God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215 by David Levering Lewis," found, here, is fraught with both peril and promise.

Derbyshire notes--rightly--that "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?" He observes that historians have always had "a bill of goods to sell," but that the stakes are raised when the subject is Islam. Derbyshire is outspoken in his belief that there exists no existential struggle between Islam and the West (no Huntington fan, he.) And perhaps because of this belief, Derbyshire pauses before reviewing the books at hand--in his best casually dismissive mode--to discredit the "Islamophobes." In particular, he identies Robert Spencer, Bat Ye-Or and Ibn Warraq. Derbyshire wonders "how seriously these Islamophobic writers should be taken," and observes that they are not cited in either of the books in review. This is not surprising in the least, as these three writers deal primarily with the Christian dhimmitude under Islam and/or the tenets of the faith itself. The 2 historians under review are focused, however, on the sweep of Islam into Europe, by way of Iberia before being halted at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. Derbyshire and Spencer have conducted a gentlemanly debate on the subject before (Spencer's rebuttal found, here).

Derbyshire begins with a review of God's Crucible, first noting that the author is held in low esteem by the "Islamophobes," much like Karen Armstrong. He attributes their dislike of Armstrong to her favorable biography of Mohammad. [I suspect, however, that disdain for Armstrong has much more to do with the general shallowness of her Jesus Seminar theology.] But Derbyshire is understanding, to a point, of their opposition to Lewis. He cites the following passage from Crucible regarding the Battle of Poitiers:

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.

Such an assertion is ripe for ridicule by Derbyshire. "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!"

It is hard to know where to begin with Lewis' sweeping assumptions. Anyone who would write such a paragraph and expect to be taken seriously is simply, well...a fool. Perhaps an Islamic Europe would have been "unobstructed by borders" and "devoid of a priestly caste." I'm afraid it would have been devoid of a number of things even Prof. Lewis might hold dear, as well.

Most irritating is Lewis' contention that Islam would have been "respectful of other religions." This is the constant refrain of apologists, but one which will not hold up to even the most cursory inspection of history or contemporary events. The "respect," if you want to call it that, was always an on-again, off-again thing, subject to the whims of the particular ruler in power. Certainly Christians worked out the best accommodation possible with their overlords, and yes, the urban Greeks and Armenians prospered--to a degree--under the long Ottoman decline, but there was never a century after Mohammad that Christians did not suffer significant persecution under his followers. Nor is it just ancient history: consider the massacre of Damascene Christians (1860), the Armenian Genocide (1915-1917), the massacre of the Smyrnian Christians (1923), the anti-Christian riots in Istanbul (1955), and the persecution of Iraqi Christians and Egyptian Copts today. To claim otherwise is either willful obsfuscation or ignorance.

Derbyshire identifies an important flaw in Lewis' argument. The author compares the Umayyad Muslims with the Frankish Carolingians, finding the latter "religiously intolerant, intellectually impoverished, socially calcified, and economically primitive." Derbyshire faults Lewis for using the 8th-century Franks as a representation of the Christian world. By even 800 A.D., the Franks were only just emerging from the crude barbarism that characterized post-Roman Gaul. The Umayyads, in contrast, emerged from the very cradle of civilization itself, drawing on cultural roots 3,000 years old. Derbyshire takes Lewis to task noting when one takes the entirety of "Christendom" in account--and by this he specifically references Constantinople, but should also include Alexandria and Antioch--then any civilizational comparisons between Islam and Christianity take on a new light indeed.

So, expanding on Derbyshire's observation, the point--it seems to me--is not that the Umayyads were Muslim that made them more advanced. Rather, it was the fact that they were from the very center of civilization--the East. Any number of eastern cities--Coptic Alexandra, Greek Orthodox Constantinople, Thessaloniki and Antioch, Umayyad Damascus, Abbasid Baghdad, Sassanid Ctesiphon and Armenian Ani--would have amazed a Frankish visitor.

Derbyshire also speculates that cultural considerations would have eventually trumped an Islamified Europe: "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." Here again, Derbyshire refuses to even come close to the idea of an existential struggle, concluding that the natural instincts of the Franks would have changed Islam, not the other way around. I'm not so sure about that. He finds these factors more important that faith, for as he muses "when has religion really changed anything?" Again, this perverse denial of the sweep of history itself is an irritating aspect whenever one is reading Derbyshire.

But there is another point that I want to consider. Conventional wisdom these days--to which Prof. Lewis would certainly ascribe--has it that Moorish Spain was the height of European civilization during its era. We've all heard the narrative: Muslim, Christian and Jew living in perfect harmony under the enlightened rulers in Cordoba, as their sophistication and learning informed a backward and crude Christian Europe. That this is a sanitized view of Al-Andulus is not the point--much of the history we think we know has been scrubbed just as clean. And this is not to take away from the very legitimate accomplishments and culture of Cordoban Spain.

But Prof. Lewis and others attribute this to the supposed superiority of Islam. The truth is that Islamic culture is one of the most derivative in history. This is not a slam, necessarily. But the idea of a pristine Islamic culture arising whole out of the deserts of Araby is just a sham. Islam is, in itself, a mishmash of Judaism, heterodox Christianity and Zoroastrianism. The Arabic preservation of classical learning--and its transmission to western Europe--could not have happened if the Syriac Christians of Mesopotamia had not first translated these works into Aramaic, and then into Arabic. Traveling through the Near East, one is struck by the derivative nature of Muslim architecture, as well. Though they later put their own spin on things, parallels with Christian architecture is obvious. The central portion of the grand Umayyad mosque in Damascus looks like an early Christian basilica. The Haghia Sophia rises in splendor on the east side of Sultanhamet Square in Istanbul. On the west side, is its Islamic copy, the Blue Mosque--duplicated time and again across Anatolia, albeit in smaller versions. [I now put my soapbox aside and return to Derbyshire's reivew.]

Derbyshire treats Kennedy's book as real history, noting that he "is a professional Arabist and medievalist who has written a shelf of books on early Islam" and his work "inspires far more confidence that one is learning about things that actually happened." Derbyshire gives credit to Kennedy for emphasizing the 7th-century plagues that allowed the Muslim conquest in the first place.

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 that began with the Plague of Justinian in the 540s....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.

Derbyshire's conclusions are the same as mine, I suspect.

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.


James the Thickheaded said...

Is this Lewis at all related to the reputedly great Arab/Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis?

John said...

Apparently not. Bernard Lewis was born in London in 1916 and is Jewish. This Lewis was born in 1936 in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Steve Hayes said...

Derbyshire is outspoken in his belief that there exists no existential struggle between Islam and the West (no Huntington fan, he.)

But isn't Huntington concerned primarily with the post-Cold War world, rather than a period 1200 years earlier?

John said...


You are right in that Huntington addresses the post-Cold War world, not the 8th century struggle between Islam and Christendom. Huntington finds cultures to be the main determinate, and believes that tensions occur when these cultures bump-up against one another. In fact--and not to put too fine a point on it--Huntington notes that there will be conflicts when Islam bumps up against any culture. Derbyshire denies that there is anything inherent in Islam that poses a danger to Western culture, and in so doing, discounts Huntington's thesis on the importance of culture. IMO, Huntington has been much misunderstood and misapplied in recent years, particularly by the out-going US administration.

Steve Hayes said...

I see Huntington died recently. I think his analysis is pretty astute, and it's not confined to Islam. It applies to all civilization.

John said...

Absolutely correct. His theories apply to all the core civilizations. Some have used it as an excuse to "go after" Islam, which is not what he was saying at all.