This book sets out to show that Islam's relationship with Christianity and Judaism has not always been one of conflict and intolerance, but frequently of mutual intercourse - even at times when their armies were fighting each other. The wars between them, even when religion was invoked, could often be characterized as territorial rather than as religious, and when Harun al-Rashid was fighting Christian Byzantium, he was quite happy to have the Christian Charlemagne as an ally; and Muslims slaughtered fellow-Muslims at least as often as they warred against Christians. Religious passions undoubtedly played a part in the Crusades, but even then the Shi'ite Fatimids at times supported the Christians against the Seljuk Sunnis. The 126 years between the beginning of the First Crusade in 1096 and the end of the last one in 1272 saw only 25 years of actual fighting - and Karabell paints a perhaps excessively rosy picture of the rest of the time, when Muslims and Christians coexisted more or less peacefully in the Middle East and traded with each other, when the Franks began to acculturate, and the Muslims to accommodate themselves to their Christian rulers. Saladin was inspired by genuine religious zeal, but his capture of Jerusalem was not accompanied with a slaughter such as the Crusaders had perpetrated in 1199, and Christian pilgrimage to the city would be permitted when the crusaders sailed home. That Third Crusade, at least on Saladin's side, was still a gentlemanly affair, and has been remembered as such even in the lore of the West.
There is an account of the interest in non-Islamic scholarship during the classical age of Islam (8th to 11th century) and during the Golden Age in Arabic Spain of about the same time, reciprocated (for all too brief a period) in early Reconquista Spain where Alfonso the Wise in the 13th century continued the Muslim tradition of convivencia. (One thread running through the book is the interest that many people in the West have shown in Islam and its culture.)
Karabell underlines that for hundreds of years the Muslims made no attempts to impose Islam on the peoples they conquered, and respected their religious authorities; that in that respect they were far more tolerant than Christian societies, and that this was in fact one of the reasons why, during their early expansion, there was so little resistance by Monophysites in Syria, Copts in Egypt, Nestorians in Persia and Jews everywhere, who had been more persecuted by their previous Christian rulers than they ever were by the Muslims. Especially at times when the Muslim governments in Baghdad, Córdoba or Constantinople felt secure, they were open to debates with or influences from non-Muslims: the occasional persecution of non-Mulims usually coincided with periods when their governments became weak.
This weakness was in part due to the long-term effects of the repudiation of classical Islam's openness to the ideas of non-Islamic peoples by al-Ghazali and his followers. As these clamped their orthodoxy on Islam from the late 12th century onwards, they stifled the freedom of thought that had been the glory of al-Rashid's time; and this contributed from about the 18th century onwards to the Islamic world not being able to resist Western inroads, especially towards the end of the 19th century. The first response among Islamic intellectuals like al-Afghani and Abduh was to return to the willingness for Islam to learn from what the non-Islamic world could teach; but as this did not manage to arrest the incursions of the west, in the end it developed among militants into an Islam that was more intolerant and resentful of the West (represented by Christians and Jews) than Islam had ever been before.
It did not help that nationalist revolts against the Ottomans invoked religious as well as ethnic differences; and this in turn created nationalisms in the Islamic world (which, incidentally, would also turn Islamic Arabs against Islamic Turks). The most tragic victims - because they were the only group over whom the Turks were victorious - of a new Islamic intolerance were the Christian Armenians, though even here it was their nationalism rather than their religion which was the trigger. The Versailles Settlement, with much of the Islamic world ruled directly by the West, was a further humiliation, and the Balfour Declaration the worst of them all.
Soon after the end of the Second World War, most of the Muslim states achieved their national independence, as did Israel. The new Muslim governments were basically secular (as was Arafat's PLO). It was the failure of these secularists to destroy Israel in four wars that seemed to leave militant Islam as the only hope of success, both against Israel and against the continuing influence of the West over these secular governments: militant Islam and nationalism increasingly became one and the same thing.
But even today Karabell sees signs of hope: a moderate and tolerant Islam is seen in Jordan, Morocco, Turkey, and among the young in Iran.
Karabell's story is not as forgotten as the subtitle of the book suggests: almost all of his material can be found in the major respectable histories of Islam. But there is certainly a lot of maligning of Islamic history around, from politicians, journalists and the occasional academic; and this eloquent and sophisticated defence of an Islam that for most of its history was tolerant of other religions - much more so than Christianity was during those centuries - is welcome as a corrective to books such as Bat Ye'or's Dhimmitude (see my review) or Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. It has the advantage over these in that, despite its agenda, it is much less one-sided and does not shirk those episodes which run counter to its main theme.