As a lapsed historian

As a lapsed historian, Talking Points’ own reading habits tend often toward the out-of-the-way and even obscure. For the last eighteen months or so that’s included a lot of reading on the history of Islam.

A solid general introduction is Bernard Lewis’ The Middle East. Also interesting is Lewis’ The Muslim Discovery of Europe, which examines Islamic knowledge of, and understanding of, Europe over the last thousand or so years. Lewis’ thesis, briefly, is that they didn’t know much. And he makes a pretty strong case. At first this was understandable and even benign, since the Islamic world was so far superior to the Christian West – technologically, civilizationally, etc. – particularly to what we now call Western Europe.

But over time this ignorance and indifference became a profound liability, leaving the heartlands of Islam woefully unprepared for West’s commercial, imperial and finally cultural onslaught. It’s an interesting book. And the central thesis is deeply illuminating. (In some ways more illuminating about Europe than about Islam.) But I thought it ran a bit low on steam toward the end and fell, perhaps, too much in love with its own central thesis for its own good.

This week’s selection for the TPM Book List, however, is Moorish Spain by the British historian Richard Fletcher. This is a small book, both in size and ambition. But I think it’s quite a good read. Books like this – histories of distant lands or periods – tend to be either overly academic, focusing on very specific times or questions or they are bland and unserious. This one is neither.

(By the way, if you’re interested in a couple picks in the former category consider The Succession to Muhammad by Madelung and The End of the Jihad State by Blankenship. Each is fascinating in its own way and lush with fact — but they’re detailed and terribly specific and they can be slow-going. One other book that really manages to avoid either of these pitfalls is Norman Itzkowitz’s beautiful and brief – 117 pages – thematic history of the Ottoman Empire Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition. This book is a masterpiece of synthesis, clarity and erudition.)

In any case, Moorish Spain provides an accessible overview of a fascinating episode in the history of Europe and Islam – when the two were united on their respective promontories for almost a thousand years.

At the high water mark of the first Muslim expansion, in the early 8th century, an army of North African Berbers under Arab generalship overran the Iberian peninsula and established a Muslim kingdom. Muslims dominated most of what’s today Spain and Portugal for more than five hundred years. By the thirteenth century the Christian kingdoms of the north had won back most of the peninsula. But the last Muslim kingdom in southern Spain, Granada, was only destroyed in 1492, not coincidentally the same year Columbus sailed to America.

Fletcher covers the whole period, with a nice focus on the arts, architecture and like – not just amirs, kings and politics and such.

This isn’t the sort of thought one is supposed to allow oneself in a book review – even a casual one. But what I find so captivating about this topic is how striking it is that this part of Europe – deeply Christian, speaking a Romance language, part of the western fringe of the Roman Empire – was Muslim for more than half a millenium. Mosques ruled over churches. The Christian population slowly converted to Islam. Arabic became the lingua franca – at least for the more refined and cultured portion of the population, and at least in the great cities. It’s all very alien and weird – an alternative possibility for how Europe might have developed – and thus fascinating.

A few points.

Muslim Spain is often held up as an idyll of tolerance where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived peaceably and productively amongst each other. But Fletcher makes clear that these interludes were seen by many orthodox Muslims as periods of decadence and decay. And they were punctuated by periods of fundamentalist rule resembling something between that of the Saudis and the Taliban.

Given our present concern with the military dimension of the relationship between Islam and the West, what’s also interesting about the book is its description of the furious punch and counter-punch of Crusade and Jihad that roiled the peninsula during the High Middle Ages. My one complaint is that the author gives us too little of a sense of the exclusivist, Crusader ideology the Spanish Christians developed in their long effort to drive Islam off the peninsula and win it back for Christ. That ideology cast a long shadow over the Spanish colonization of the Americas and over the future of Spain itself.

Again, not a smashing book. But a pleasant, engaging, edifying read about a fascinating subject. No mean feat