God’s Crucible is a fluid 473-page panegyric of Islam and a visceral diatribe against the Christian West.  Significantly, in the Index, one finds under al-Andalus the inevitable entry on “Christian fanaticism” but searches in vain for a reference to “Islamic fanaticism” or anything remotely analogous to it.

Levering Lewis’s thesis is not new, having often been stated in many academic and popular venues, including purported documentaries: Islam has been a dynamic force in history.  From Islamic Spain (“Al-Andalus”) came the best things that ignorant Europe needed to emerge from its state of cultural stupor in the early (“Dark”) Middle Ages.  Moreover, it is a great pity that Islamic Spain, long a model of tolerance, multiculturalism, and intellectual and social progress, disappeared.

The last two claims are nonsense; the first, some scholars today would at least dispute.  The following passage represents the sort of insight Levering Lewis offers his reader:

Most of history is indisputably written by the winners, yet “winning” at Poitiers actually meant that the economic, scientific, and cultural levels that Europeans attained in the thirteenth century could almost certainly have been achieved more than three centuries earlier had they been included in the Muslim world empire.

Actually, “most of history” is not written by the winners.  The Germanic and Baltic nations that took over the Roman Empire were undoubtedly “winners.”  Yet the name given to them by Rome—barbarians—has stuck, even though the Romans were the losers.  Similarly, the classical Roman account of the barbarian nations sacking and destroying anything of cultural value that they found on their way and sinking Europe into those Dark Ages (out of which, Levering Lewis tells us, Muslim Arabs brought Europe) has persisted.  Never mind that archeological work has demonstrated that the “Dark Ages” were anything but dark, and the barbarians anything but barbaric.  (See Peter S. Wells’ readable Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered.)  Similarly, although the Christian West was the “winner” over Islam and expelled it from Europe, books in praise of Islam and diatribes against Europe written by historians (European and American) from this “winning” West are commonplace.

Indeed, Islamic Spain was never a paradise of tolerance and convivencia.  Muslims dominated the rest of the population politically, legally, socially, and religiously.  The most effective Muslim rulers were autocrats who ruthlessly quelled any unrest in the boiling multicultural cauldron that was Spain under Islam, where Berbers resented Arabs, descendants of native converts to Islam resented both Berbers and Arabs, clans within the Arab and Berber populations fought for dominance, and armies of slaves and mercenaries played decisive roles in the struggles for hegemony.  Levering Lewis seems unaware of the Umayyads’ brutal repression of the opposition; of their fondness for decapitation; of Abd-al-Rahman III’s sadism, inquisitions, crucifixions, and persecutions of former Christians; of al-Hakam’s mass executions; of al-Mansur’s (Almanzor’s) terrorizing, enslaving, and burning of Catholic towns; and other such niñerías.  Islamic law rejected the elevation of Jews and Christians to positions of authority over Muslims.  Whenever rulers disregarded Islamic law and employed Jews or Christians as government functionaries, these Jews or Christians remained servants of the Muslim rulers and were deeply resented by the Muslim population—just as Jews, who also served Christian monarchs in positions of authority, likewise remained servants of the Christian rulers and were similarly resented by the Christian population.

The Maliki school of Islamic law, which was second only to the Hanbali in its rigorous understanding of Islam, informed the application of sharia in Islamic Spain: Muslim free married women found to have committed adultery were stoned; thieves had their right hand cut off; unrepentant apostates were decapitated; blasphemers were crucified and then decapitated; unrepentant heretics were killed; witches were put to the sword; persons found to have drunk wine were lashed; and Catholics and Jews caught mocking Muhammad were killed, just as they are killed today in Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran, and even Europe.  Jihad was understood as a collective obligation of good Muslims to make war against the infidels until the latter submitted to the hegemony of Islam, either by converting or by paying a special tax explicitly intended to humiliate them.  In other words, jihad was understood by the legal authorities of Islamic Spain as holy war—not as some kind of New Age program of individual self-improvement, or as self-defense, as many of today’s Middle Eastern studies professors interpret this religious mandate.  There were many other details of sharia applied to the everyday life of Islamic Spain that Levering Lewis and most academics today probably would not find very appealing; to allege, as many Middle East experts now do, that such laws were not always enforced, or that they were often applied for political reasons, is no argument, as the same can be said of most any legal system, Islamic or otherwise.  Levering Lewis seems to have no idea of what Malikism was about or of the influence it held throughout most of the history of Islamic Spain: He mentions Malik ibn Anas and his school only once in the text.  For Levering Lewis, Islamic Spain, with the possible exception of the Almoravid (1086-1147) and Almohad (1147-1269) periods, to which he dedicates only a few pages, would have been a land of wine and roses, but for those aggressive and obscurantist Catholic kingdoms to the north.  He particularly admires the politically weak taifa kingdoms and their petty tyrants, sometimes descended from Christian slaves, who taxed their subjects mercilessly to subsidize their impious living and their courtly poets and artists, and who, therefore, were hated by the Maliki ulama and the popular masses.

Greek scientific, medical, and cultural knowledge had not disappeared from the world, to be graciously “recovered” (the author’s word) and transmitted by Islam: It had been preserved, and even developed in some fields, by the Greek (“Eastern”) Roman Empire.  Specialists tell us that we owe to the monastery libraries and the scholars of the empire, many of them monks, the majority of the texts and most of the knowledge of classical antiquity that we now possess.

This empire is generally known today as Byzantine, a term invented by a 16th-century German Lutheran historian, although the name did not stick until it was adopted in the 18th century by Enlightenment scholars.  But the citizens of the Greek Roman Empire did not call themselves Byzantines.  They called themselves Romans or Greeks.  Neither did Europeans of the Middle Ages refer to them as Byzantines, but as Romans and, after Charlemagne, Greeks.  The Koran refers to them as Rûm.  Indeed, some modern Greeks call themselves Ρωμιοι (Romioi, “Romans”), and the concept of Ρωμιοσυνη (Romiosune, “Romanness”) still exists in modern Greek culture.

Greek knowledge, then, had been preserved in the Greek Roman Empire.  It had not been lost.  However, with the Islamic conquests in the seventh and eighth centuries, most of the Mediterranean, which until then had been a Christian lake, became an Islamic lake, and therefore direct cultural communications between the Greek Roman Empire and Western Europe, where the Latin Roman Empire had ceased to exist, became difficult.  Commerce continued, especially with and through the Republic of Venice, but at a lesser pace than would have been the case if the Mediterranean had remained Christian.  So, as the great French historian Henri Pirenne pointed out long ago, Islam cut off the European West from direct contact with Greece and her heritage.  Since the Mediterranean was now largely controlled by Islam, the Islamic empire became the intermediary for much of the Greek knowledge and trade that passed to the West.  But this was a result of Islam itself having short-circuited direct cultural communications between the West and the Greeks, not the result of the enlightening properties of the Islamic empire.

Muslim scientific and cultural knowledge in the Middle Ages was basically Greek (as well as, to a certain extent, Persian and Indian) knowledge, assimilated and developed, as a result of Islam’s military conquests, by Muslims, many of whom were not Arabs but converts from the native populations—Greeks, Syrians, Persians, or inhabitants of Hispania (Spain).  In fact, many “Arab” rulers were anything but Arab.  As the great Cordoban polymath Ibn Hazm (himself part of a Christian Spanish family that had converted to Islam) reminds us, the Umayyads in the Middle East descended from white female sexual slaves, imported from the Caucasus, the Slavic nations of the Balkans, and North Africa for the vast harems of Muslim rulers.  After generations of descent from these slaves, the Umayyads were hardly Arab.  When the Umayyad dynasty resumed in Spain after most of the family had been assassinated in the Middle East by the rival Abbasid family, the process continued; young women captured in raids in Christian Spain or imported from Northern and Central Europe, the Mediterranean coasts, and the Balkans and other Slavic lands became mothers to the rulers of Islamic Spain.  One of these rulers, Abd-al-Rahman III, founder of the much admired Caliphate of Cordoba, is described by his Muslim biographer as having blond hair and blue eyes, and tinting his hair black to appear more “Arab.”  Levering Lewis seems to have no idea of the vastness and impact of white slavery—or, for that matter, black slavery—in the Islamic empire.

Neither classical culture, in general, nor Greek knowledge, in particular, had disappeared from the West, to be “recovered” by Islam after Islam itself had cut them off from the Western nations.  Any Spanish medievalist knows that, in the second half of the seventh century, highly Romanized Visigoth Spain was culturally more advanced than were the Muslim Bedouins of Arabia at the time, and that even half a century after having entered Spain in 711, Muslim Berbers were still living their customary nomadic life, moving around Spain with their tents, wives, and children, until they were forced to settle in cities by Abd- al-Rahman I.  As in the rest of the Islamic empire, it took several generations of conversions to Islam by the more cultured conquered population of Hispanoromans and Visigoths, and the influx of knowledge from the Greek Roman Empire, for Islamic Spain to approach the level of civilization of the contemporary Greeks and Persians.

Much of classical culture had been preserved, in fact, in the Catholic monasteries of Europe.  As early as the fourth to sixth centuries, there existed in Europe translations of Aristotle into Latin by Gaius Marius Victorinus and the Christian philosopher Boethius.  Sylvain Gouguenheim has shown that, at the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel, the monks had been translating Aristotle directly into Latin before translations into Arabic (made by Christian scholars) from Syrian translations (also made by Christian scholars) from Greek originals were eventually translated into Latin in Christian Spain to be read in the rest of Europe.  Gouguenheim also pointed out what should have been evident to scholars before—namely, that Islam was inimical to such fundamentals of Greek culture as representative art, narrative, drama, lyric, and political theory.  In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas commissioned translations of Aristotle into Latin from the Greek by William of Moerbecke, Catholic bishop in the Greek city of Corinth.  Hence the Greek philosophical texts that Aquinas used were direct translations from the original, not the mediated translations from Syrian used by the likes of the 12th-century Ibn Rushd (Averroes).

Levering Lewis has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his two-volume biography of W.E.B. Du Bois (a black intellectual who considered Joseph Stalin “a great man,” defended Marxist-Leninist Russia’s invasion of Hungary in 1956, received the Lenin Prize in 1959, and became a member of the Communist Party USA in 1961).  Levering Lewis is the author and editor of eight other books, among them The Race to Fashoda, an account of the evils of 19th-century white colonialism in black Africa.  He is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and many other awards, and has been a trustee of the National Humanities Center.  President Barack Obama awarded him the National Humanities Medal.  Recently, Levering Lewis received an honorary doctorate from Northwestern University.  The academic profession regards Levering Lewis very highly: He has been president of the Society of American Historians, and at New York University he holds an endowed chair.  God’s Crucible has been praised as “a major contribution to a still understudied and much misunderstood period of history” by Paul M. Kennedy, J. Richardson Dilworth Professor of History at Yale; as “consistently judicious” and “profoundly instructive” by MacArthur Foundation fellow and Stanford University professor Arnold Rampersad; as “magisterial” by Kwame Anthony Appiah, Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University; and as “genuine, rather than dogmatic, history” by Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate in Economic Sciences and Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, who added, “The role of the Arab culture and of Muslim leaders and intellectuals in the making of Europe a thousand years ago remains profoundly relevant to a world undermined by uninformed reasoning today.”  All of this despite the fact that Levering Lewis’s bibliography reveals a woeful lack of familiarity with the main primary sources in his field, relying instead on a large number of secondary ones, the vast majority of which are in English or translated into English, a few in French, and none in Spanish.  These secondary sources include a number of English-language Arabists and Middle East experts, most of them professionally biased in favor of Islam and against Europe and Christianity.


[God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215, by David Levering Lewis (New York & London: W.W. Norton) 473 pp., $29.95]