History reheated in God’s crucible

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History reheated in God’s crucible

What have we learned from history? Not much. Religion tears communities apart as it has for at least 2,000 years, dictators brutalize entire nations as they have before history was ever written down and we consume more than we need, which is why empires fall and entire civilizations go bust.

And do we study history? No. History as a subject at school is in decline. As reported in the local media two weeks ago, less than half the students in a poll didn’t know when the Korean War started.

It’s the same in the United Kingdom. This exchange between a quiz master and contestant on a Channel 4 quiz suggests the dumbing down of Britain is no myth.

QM: Who did Britain go to war with over the Falklands ?

Contestant: Er...

QM: It’s a South American country.

Contestant: Iran?

What do we learn if we study history? Ideally, not to make the same mistakes. But in “God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe 570-1215” by David Levering Lewis, it’s all too clear just how far we are from looking into the past and thinking, “Of course, so that’s what went wrong. Look, let’s try doing things differently next time.”

Lewis begins with a note on how this book got started. In 1982 he was carrying out research in the Sudan, reading British army intelligence files on the Muslim fundamentalists who had kept British imperial progress at bay. “To Victorian England’s astonishment and continental Europe’s unconcealed relish, the ragged dervishes of the ‘Messenger of Allah’ (al-Mahdi) and ‘the Successor’ (al-Khalifah) held the world’s mightiest empire at bay.”

One hundred years later, Sunni extremists led by the ideological descendants of the Mahdists ? fundamentalist who fight the so-called enemies of Islam ? came to power in the Sudan, Lewis writes. He notes that the “cautionary experience” of reading those British army files in Khartoum made him reasonably certain that “the supreme modernizing empire of the twentieth century, the United States, was sleepwalking on a collision course with Islam similar to Great Britain’s at the end of the nineteenth century.”

As Shirley Bassey sang, “It’s all just a little bit of history repeating.”

What is forgotten, argues Lewis, is that Islam dominated Europe for 400 years, and during the period that Europeans often call the Dark Ages, Muslim society flourished. In fact, “much of the Muslim world stands in relationship to Europe and the United States today as much of a ramshackle Christian world once stood in relationship to a highly advanced Islamic one,” Lewis writes.

Lewis takes us back to the Roman clashes with Persia and the birth of Muhammad and explains how a relatively small number of nomadic Arabs grew to become a world power and spread Islam throughout the Middle East and northern Africa. He describes how the legendary Roland ? an eighth century prototype of the American cowboy ? fought back against Islam, how Islamic Spain prospered and how early in the 13th century it began to lose its potency.

To be honest, this tome is not an easy read, unless you are a dedicated historian in this period. I found Lewis’s sentences overly complex and my eyes glazed over when I was reading some of the more torturous sentences. I had to read p.18 several times before I knew what was going on. I’ve no background in this period of history so names reading about the Hephthalites and Mazdak I Bamdad in Ctesiphon left me reeling.

But that’s Lewis’s point: Understanding the birth of Islam in Europe offers some insight into the troubled history between the United States, Europe and the Middle East. But comprehending these issues is certainly not easy reading.

Author: David Levering Lewis

Genre: History

Publisher: W. W. Norton

By Michael Gibb Deputy Editor [michael@joongang.co.kr]
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