This is an absolutely delightful book that is at about the high undergraduate level. It evokes and partially analyses the explosive expansion of Arabic (then Arabo-Berber) Islam in the wake of the collapse of the Roman and Sassinid Empires to its eventual decline as a new Europe emerges. At its best, the book is a first-rate intellectual adventure into a dynamic civilization at its apogee, beginning in Syria and continuing in Spain; developments in a backward Europe are also covered in parallel, where a people is struggling to define itself as it emerges from a series of mortal threats. However, it is sometimes difficult to follow the thread of the narrative, as if the writer is not quite certain of what he is looking to do. In the end, the story is there, but the book is not really about what the subtitle promises, that is, how Islam contributed to the making of Europe, except perhaps as mobilizing it militarily and transmitting a corpus of fundamental philosophical ideas. It is also not an academic historical work, but more a popularization, hence not for specialists. (As such, it was perfect for me.)
The book begins not in 570 with the teachings of Mohammed, but during the Roman Republic, when Crassus' forces are annihilated by the Parthians, the most significant defeat that the Romans experienced in the east up to that time. In the author's view, this defeat set in motion a deadly conflict that would last the next 650 years or so, until the Byzantines and Sassinids were so exhausted that the Moslem jihadists were able to defeat or disable both empires. In the meantime, he also describes the implosion of the Western Roman Empire under the semi-barbaric Visigoths and later from pagan Saxons and Vikings. While I knew this history, there is a wonderful clarity and succinctness to this treatment, and it is evoked brilliantly.
As I see it, the narrative gains great momentum at the core of the book, when the princely Umayyad refugee (Abd al-Rahman) establishes himself in Spain and at the same time the Franks are forging a pact with the beleaguered popes, i.e. uniting might with faith under Pippin and then Charlemagne. The result is two very separate configurations of power, one from an ascendent new civilization and the other a crude copy of a vanished Roman Empire.
Following his suppression of the internal Berber rebelliousness, Islamic Spain under al-Rahman became a gloriously tolerant and eclectic society, though relatively speaking of course, given the strict limits and hierarchies available in accordance with faith, ethnicity, and class. In their circumscribed roles, Jews, Christians, and Moslems thrived together in commerce, public works, security, and in pursuit of intellectual activities. Perhaps Lewis over-idolizes the al-Rahman regime, which survived him for more than 200 years I believe, but I think he gets it right. Though it never equalled the splendor of the rival Abbassid court in Bagdhad, it was a far more fecund atmosphere for philosophy and science, not to forget enlightened despotism.
The nascent Europe, under the Carolingians, was a less civilized place, even if at the end of the dark ages. This does not reflect bias on the part of the author as many reviewers charge, but is indisputable fact. Roman traditions of literacy and administration had virtually disappeared, preserved in only a few monasteries. A proliferation of kingdoms and dukedoms guaranteed the spread of petty despotisms, which undermined the martial labors of great consolidators like Charlemagne, sometimes in the next generation. While Charlemagne played a vital role in preserving Latin texts, cultural life as enjoyed by the elite had devolved to hunting and games of honor, replacing the Roman traditions of literature and art. It was also a crude barter economy, without currency to stimulate commerce and investment, in effect dooming most trade to local produce. Finally, Europe was under attack from all sides and appeared destined to shrink out of existence as might all of Christendom.
The last third of the book is about the decline of Islamic Spain, first as the Umayyad dynasty degenerated and later as fundamentalist forces gradually eliminated freedoms and diversity, fracturing into weak city states, most of which were rubbed out by 1000 CE. At the same time, Europe was beginning to emerge as a military and technological force with the industrial revolution of the Gothic era. THough increasingly intolerant of difference, particularly in the religious sphere, it was the start of the long ascent according to which the Christian world would expand during the next 1000 years. It is a truly remarkable transformation, a flipabout of the momentums of competing civilizations that occurred with astonishing rapidity.
Lewis offers a narrative of this evolution that is wonderfully dense and vivid. Arabic terms are peppered throughout the text, adding a unique sense of poetry to events. His prose is sometimes awkward, but overall it is polished and elegant. I enjoyed every single page of this and wanted to learn more about each development, a sure sign of success in my opinion.
Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.