4.0 out of 5 stars Quite readable but with some serious flaws
This is an interesting book about the spread of Islam and the interaction between Islam and Europe. As a history it is well written with far more detail than for instance Tom Holland's "In the Shadow of the Sword". Professor Lewis has a detailed knowledge of the subject and it is quite clear that he is also impressed with some aspects of Islam during these centuries...
Published 12 days ago by Strv 74
17 of 27 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not the work of a historian
What a disappointment! The general thesis is right and important: classical Islam was an open and tolerant civilization and the cradle of the scientific revolution, and the Christian refusal to share the West with Muslims was and is the world's great loss. But Lewis has simply not done his homework. He has not studied primary sources at all, but has uncritically picked...
Published on 18 Jun 2009 by Pipistrel
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4.0 out of 5 stars Quite readable but with some serious flaws,
This is an interesting book about the spread of Islam and the interaction between Islam and Europe. As a history it is well written with far more detail than for instance Tom Holland's "In the Shadow of the Sword". Professor Lewis has a detailed knowledge of the subject and it is quite clear that he is also impressed with some aspects of Islam during these centuries.
The Focus is on Islam in Spain and the various Christian kingdoms in France. There is nothing at all about Islam in Eastern Europe apart from some lines about various failed attacks against Constantinople. Considering that Europe ends at the Urals one has to wonder if Islam had no connection at all with Christians in the area of todays Caucasus and Ukraine.
Initially the book describes the life of Muhammad and Arab conquest of what came to be one of the largest empires we have seen. An odd thing in this is that there is absolutely nothing about the great plague the hit the Christian world (but not the Arab) in AD 542 and created some of the preconditions for the Arab advance.
After the introduction to how Islam conquered Spain the rest of the book takes place almost exclusively there. One would think that a thing like the crusades would be a very important factor in the interaction between Europe and the Islamic Empire but there is hardly anything on that.
We get a detailed description about Islamic Spain and also about western Europe. The very large differences between these two civilizations are described and it is quite clear that Professor Lewis is very much biased towards the Islamic one. He goes to great lengths to point out the superior cultural and scientific advanced made in Islamic Spain compared to what he describes as the almost barbaric Christian world. There is of course no discussion that sience were more advanced in Islamic Spain than in Christian Europe but as is well known that were a temporary situation and Islamic Spain fell apart after a few hundred years.
His bias gets the reader into some problems. A few examples.
- Christian soldiers serving under Charles Martel are labeled "killers" by Professor Lewis. Islamic soldiers that on numerous occasions killed all men and boys in conquered towns and areas and took away all women and children into slavery are never labeled as "killers". But of course they were!
- Both Islamic Spain and Christian Europe took slaves. But in Islam it was forbidden to take Muslim slaves, one could "only" take slaves of a different religion. Christians could take slaves of any religion. For some reason professor Lewis thinks that makes the Islamic slavers somewhat superior to the Christian ones, as if the slaves were really concerned about what religion there masters had!
He also has problems with differing between imperialism and religion. When Frankish forces invaded Islamic Spain they came to fulfill imperialistic ambitions from the pope. But when Islamic forces invaded Christian territories they were just performing Jihad. Of course both combatants were driven by imperialism. The Problem with professor Lewis presentation is that he obviously thinks that the spreading of Islam and creation of the Arab-Islamic empire was something good and the opposite if the Christians did it.
On page 276 we find this line: "Although Muslims did not care to force their faith upon others". No? What then drove their conquest of large parts of the world? Did they want to spread Islam or were they just like any other power at the time just after the loot?
One of the things that surpised me is that the Catholic church during the eight century did a lot to improve the situation for women. The Book details this. None of that happened in the Islamic world and for some reason I think that mayby improving the living conditions for half of the population in Europe must be considered as a far more important fact than what is presented here. Or does not conditions for women have anything to do with the superior culture of Islam?
Professor Lewis view of the supriority of Islam is very clear when he claims (or rather he quites sources who claims) on page 174 that if only the jihad into France had succeeded, Europe would have been lifted 267 years into the future! There is no explanation why the specific figure of 267 is used and he probably forgot it since on page 286 he has increased the figure to 400 years! Well, I for one and I would guess most of Europe are very glad that we were not lifted from AD 732 to AD 999 because today it is 2014 in Europe but in some parts of the Islamic world they have not left 999!
But, if you can accept his bias for what it is and put it aside the book is well worth reading and it will lift your knowledge of a very interesting part of our history.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars civilizations in parallel, alternating ascents and declines,
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.
17 of 27 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not the work of a historian,
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What a disappointment! The general thesis is right and important: classical Islam was an open and tolerant civilization and the cradle of the scientific revolution, and the Christian refusal to share the West with Muslims was and is the world's great loss. But Lewis has simply not done his homework. He has not studied primary sources at all, but has uncritically picked bits out of dozens of secondary sources. He is not a true historian but a populariser of other people's historical writing.
10 of 18 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Avoid!,
This book was real disappointment because there is a re-hash of old orientalists rubbish in the first few chapters. There wasn't enough sourcing and the information was unclear and muddled.
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God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 (MP3-CD) by David Levering Lewis (MP3 CD - 21 Jan 2008)
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