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Thursday, January 31, 2008

When Civilizations Clashed - Adam Kirsch

When Civilizations Clashed

Books | Review of: God's Crucible

January 30, 2008

The Granger Collection

A 15th-century manuscript illumination depicts the conquest of Antioch in present-day Turkey during the First Crusade.

How far back in history do you have to go before it stops making sense to take sides? Even today, it is impossible for an American to read about the Civil War or the American Revolution without engaging in silent partisanship. Hundreds of years after the fact we feel personally implicated in those struggles. In some sense that is not quite logical, but also far from discreditable, we root for the North to maintain the Union for the 13 Colonies to throw off the British yoke, as though our own fortunes were at stake. And of course they are: If those contests had gone the other way, we ourselves would not be the same people, and America would not be the country we know. To affirm our past is to affirm our present.

Likewise, to contest the past — to read history wishing that things had come out differently — is always a way of contesting the present. That is certainly the case in David Levering Lewis's new book, "God's Crucible" (WW Norton, 476 pages, $29.95). In telling the story of the rise of Islam and its conflict with Christianity between the sixth and 13th centuries CE, Mr. Lewis is driven by a 21st-century agenda. He means to strike a blow against what he perceives as Western arrogance and condescension towards the Islamic world. In fact, he argues, we should regard the Battle of Poitiers, where in 732 the Franks stopped the Muslim advance into Europe, not as a triumph but as a catastrophe. "The economic, scientific, and cultural levels that Europeans attained in the 13th century could almost certainly have been achieved more than three centuries earlier had they been included in the Muslim world empire," he writes in his preface.

Such a claim, with its simple value judgment on events that took place almost 1,300 years ago, raises the question of historical partisanship in an acute form. Mr. Lewis asks us to contemplate a past where the armies of Islam, which had already conquered the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain, went on to sweep through France and Italy, trapped Constantinople in a continental pincer movement, and turned the Mediterranean into an Islamic lake. Yet if this had come to pass, the world today would be so different from the one we know that it is actually impossible to say whether it would be better or worse — not just because all of history since the eighth century would be unknowable, but because we ourselves, living in an Islamic West, would judge our fates by unknowably different standards. Mr. Lewis drives home his point by quoting Edward Gibbon's famous verdict on the Battle of Poitiers. If the Arabs had won, he shuddered, "the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools at Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet." For Gibbon this was a horror show; for Mr. Lewis it is a missed opportunity. But Mr. Lewis's mischievous reversal of Gibbon only highlights how unhistorical the great historian was being when he conjured this upside-down world. For in his hypothetical Muslim England, of course, there would be no Oxford University, just as there would be no "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." The counterfactual is so counter to fact that it is simply incommensurable.


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