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god’s crucible February 2, 2008

Posted by KG in books, history, religion, reviews.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

joan acocella reviews david lewis’ god’s crucible: islam and the making of europe, 570-1215:

This book has to be understood in context, or, actually, two contexts. The first is post-colonialism, the effort on the part of scholars from the nineteen-seventies onward to correct the biases that accompanied and justified the colonization of eighty-five per cent of the earth by European powers between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries. In that period, according to Edward Said’s 1978 “Orientalism”—the founding document of post-colonial thought—history-writing about the Near East and the Middle East was an arm of empire. Its goal was to make non-Western peoples seem uncivilized, so that European control would appear a boon. Since Said, much writing on Europe’s former colonies has been an effort to redress that injustice.

The other context in which Lewis’s book must be read is, of course, the history of terrorism, since the late nineteen-seventies, on the part of people claiming to be instructed by the Koran. When this started, most Westerners had little idea of what the Muslim world was. Harems, hookahs, carpets—that was about it. Nor, after the terrorist attacks, was it easy to catch up in any proper way, for, while there has been an outpouring of books on Islam in the past two decades, many of them were for or against it. A number of prominent intellectuals have denounced Islam. Other people have protested that the vast majority of Muslims do not support terrorism. Some historians have condemned not just the demonization of Islam but the West’s ignorance of the Muslim world—a failure now seen as political folly, not to speak of arrogance. Scholars went to their desks to testify to the glories of Islamic cultures. Salma Khadra Jayyusi, in the foreword to her magnificent anthology “The Legacy of Muslim Spain” (1992)—a collection of forty-nine essays describing not just the politics and the religion of Muslim Iberia but its cities, architecture, music, poetry, calligraphy, and cooking—calls the omission of Islam from the West’s story of civilization a “historical crime.”

Rahman was the founder of Muslim Spain’s famous convivencia. Translated literally, the word means “living together,” in spite of differences, and this idea is the burning center of “God’s Crucible.” I think it is the reason that Lewis chose to write about Muslim Spain. He is not an Arabist. He is best known for a two-volume biography of W. E. B. Du Bois (1993 and 2000), which won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for each volume. But that book, if it is not about Arabs, is about racial justice, and it is for the furtherance of such justice that Lewis so admires Rahman. Nevertheless, as he points out, the convivencia had its limits. It was not just a humane policy—an act of obedience to the Koran (“There shall be no compulsion in religion”) and a way of being civilized—but also a matter of Realpolitik. Iberia was a ragbag of religious and ethnic groups. Tolerance, what we would now call multiculturalism, was more likely to hold them together than forced conversion. Furthermore, the convivencia never involved complete equality. In the early years, a number of restrictions were placed on Jews and Christians. They had to wear identification badges. They could not proselytize, and they were required to pray quietly. Their houses could not be taller than Muslims’ houses. Most important, they had to pay a heavy tax, called the jizya. In time, many of these rules (not including the tax) fell away. Jews, especially, were allowed to enter public service, as scribes, clerks, advisers. They taught the Muslims how to run a government, Lewis writes. The golden age of Al Andalus, he says, was also the golden age of Sefarad, the Sephardic Jews. But even those who did not have brilliant careers no doubt found badges and taxes preferable to forced conversion or death. Eventually, many Jews and Christians did convert—probably, in many cases, to avoid the tax. At the end of the eighth century, the vast majority of people in Iberia were Christians. Two hundred years later, the majority were Muslims.


If, as Edward Said wrote, the old history books were covertly ideological, the current ones tend to be overtly ideological, as each new generation of scholars rides in to rescue supposedly worthy peoples who were wronged by earlier scholarship and, in their time, by axe-wielding conquerors. But all these peoples, or all the ones in Lewis’s book, were conquerors. If the Christians took Spain from the Muslims, the Muslims had taken it from the Visigoths, who had appropriated it from the Romans, who had seized it from the Carthaginians, who had thrown out the Phoenicians. Lewis does not pretend that the Muslims were not conquerors; he simply justifies their conquest on the ground of their belief in convivencia, a pressing matter today. I can foresee a time when another matter important to us, the threat of ecological catastrophe, will prompt a historian to write a book in praise of the early Europeans whom Lewis finds so inferior to the Muslims. The Franks lived in uncleared forests, while the Muslims built fine cities, with palaces and aqueducts? All the better for the earth. The Franks were fond of incest? Endogamy keeps societies small, prevents the growth of rapacious nation-states. The same goes for the Franks’ largely barter economy. Trade such as the Muslims practiced—far-flung and transacted with money—leads to consolidation. That’s how we got global corporations.

Each new problem in our history engenders a revision of past history. Many of today’s historians acknowledge this, and argue that their books, if politicized, are simply more honest about that than the politicized books of the past. This pessimism about the possibility of finding a stable truth may be realistic, but it seems to sanction, even encourage, special pleading—of which “God’s Crucible,” for all its virtues, is an example.




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