Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 11 June 2009
Issue No. 950
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The Ally at the Gate

Reading recent books on the history of the encounter between Islam and the West, both Christian and post-Christian, Youssef Rakha posits a single civilisation adjusting its constituent elements through the centuries

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An 11th-century Mozarab (i.e. Arabic-speaking Spaniard) Antiphonary folio from Léon Cathedral

"My fellow Christians love to read the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the Arabs' theologians and philosophers, not to refute them, but to form a correct and elegant Arabic. Where is the layman who now reads the Latin commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, or who studies the Gospels, prophets, or apostles? Alas! All talented young Christians read and study with enthusiasm the Arab books; they gather immense libraries at great expense; they despise the Christian literature as unworthy of attention. They have forgotten their language. For everyone who can write a letter in Latin to a friend, there are a thousand who can express themselves in Arabic with elegance, and write better poems in their language than the Arabs themselves."

Thus Paul Alvarus of Córdoba, writing in Latin in the mid-ninth century: a Jewish convert, Alvarus was nonetheless a zealot whose approach to creed and identity is evocative of Bin Laden. After the monk Eulogius, Alvarus was the principal chronicler of the Martyrs Movement which, from 851 to 859, involved both clergy and laypeople individually declaring Islam evil and Muhammad a false prophet, thereby incurring capital punishment on themselves. Had such statements not legally required death unless recanted -- and the Martyrs delighted in refusing to recant them -- the Ummayyids under Abdur Rahman II and Muhammad I, it is often said, would have happily spared the utterers. It is something of a post-9/11 cliché to point to Muslim Iberia as a hodgepodge of identities where Christians and Jews enjoyed almost as much freedom as Muslims: a model for the kind of medieval multiculturalism Stephen O'Shea, author of Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World (St Martin's Press, 2006), calls convivencia. What is interesting in this quote -- one of the most popular on the period -- is the light it sheds on the Spanish Arabs' comparative modernity.

In bewailing the decline of grassroots Visigothic tradition, among other proto-European manifestations of Christian identity, Alvarus ironically says more about the rival culture: among other things, that it is more advanced, more interesting, more appealing to the young regardless of ethnicity. That this culture happens to be Muslim and therefore by definition unholy merely facilitates his tirade. Dogma is apparently a prerequisite for the existence of any institution of thought; limiting or negative as it can be, dogma nonetheless remains simple. Where it fits and how it is brought to bear on social and political change, however, is complicated. As dialogue- rather than clash-of-civilisations historians never tire of pointing out, since the emergence of Islam at the threshold of Europe in the mid-seventh century, there have been just as many wars (and alliances) between Muslims and non-Muslims as there have been between Muslims and Muslims, or non- Muslims and non-Muslims. Conflict was seldom over creed or culture, though creed and culture were often used as pretexts for starting a conflict.

Much like "fundamentalist" Muslims today -- to a far greater extent than defending the faith or even, necessarily, revolting against injustice -- Alvarus was horrified of difference and change. It was the Arabs' more sophisticated and decadent ways, not what they believed, that threatened him: magnificent architecture, effective medicine, and advanced philosophy-cum-science, not to mention powerful armies. He decried not the Quran's denial of the divinity of Christ, for example, but the influence of the Baghdadi musician and dandy Ziryab, who not long after arriving in Al Andalus (much like Western pop icons today) was already dictating taste across cultures, not only in music and dress but, even more frighteningly, in language and literature as well. Once again, this is not so different from the way present-day extremists on the Muslim side of the supposed divide regard Western tastes in art and attire, not to mention the fear, far more widespread in the Muslim world, of Western morality and science. Eulogius was one of the last Martyrs and Alvarus duly wrote him a hagiography, but he did not die for Jesus, justice, or even the glory of Rome -- Alvarus died for insularity.

In a seemingly unprecedented departure from so called Orientalist norms, non-academic history books written in English have for a decade now sought not simply to "understand", reconcile with or tolerate Islam. Instead, they are finally claiming it as part of their own heritage; one shudders to think what it actually took for Westerners to pay enough attention to Islam to rethink it: 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo... how many more Palestinians dead? Yet worked through backwards, Islam re-emerges not as a threat to Western civilisation but as a worthy contestant (rival or ally), necessary for the ongoing process of generating it. These historians' interest in Islam is in many ways diametrically opposed to the interest that "enlightened" Muslims have taken in Europe since the 19th century. Rationalists like Sheikh Mohammad Abduh or Ali Pasha Mubarak were driven by a linear view of progress and impressed by the technological and humane achievements of the West; they saw the Enlightenment as a universal legacy to be adopted and emulated. This involved the humbling admission that the West was now clearly at the forefront of modernity (to some minds, a concession to imperialism), but it also involved the assumption that Muslims and Westerners were made of the same substance, separated not so much by some essential or irrevocable breach as by variable political, economic and social circumstances, capable of being in harmony.

The Arab-Muslim contribution to the earliest pangs of Enlightenment, notably through the transmission back into Europe of ancient Greek learning from Baghdad via Al Andalus, is widely acknowledged anyway. By reassessing the past directly and specifically in light of a seemingly more troubled present, this new genre of retroactive history has only served to emphasise it. Books like The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation by Jonathan Lyons (Bloomsbury, 2008), Aladdin's Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World by John Freely (Knopf, 2009), or The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In by Hugh Kennedy (Da Capo Press, 2007) all detail aspects of how Arabs, Arabised Persians, Berbers and later Turks frequently had the scientific or humane edge over eastern and/or Catholic Christendom. But only David Levering Lewis, author of God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 (W W Norton & Co, 2008), clearly argues that, if not for the existence of Muslim Spain, the many disparate proto- European cultural elements then in existence would never have merged into the West as a cultural entity or a seemingly whole civilisation -- an astounding admission.

Sea of Faith beautifully portrays many of the major the interactions that took place between Islam and the West in the last 1,500 years starting with the Companion Khalid Ibnul Walid's triumph over the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in 636. But its author, in common with almost all the others, falls short of Levering's lucidity -- or the promise God's Crucible seems to hold. O'Shea clearly has no wish to emphasise conflict or difference, in the end, but Sea of Faith presents the Mediterranean not as the alchemical crucible in which the substance of the modern world was brewing over the centuries, consuming offerings from Muslims, Christians, and Jews, but as a sort of arena pitting two sets of players against each other -- which periodically metamorphoses from stadium to battlefront and back again. As Zachary Karabell writes in People of the Book: The Forgotten History of Islam and the West (John Murray, 2007), war in the middle Ages was a far more physical, acceptable, everyday presence -- and holy war aka Jihad was regarded as the best kind. That is why almost every armed conflict was touted as holy war, even when it pitted Sunnis against Sunnis or Catholics against Catholics.

But O'Shea does not sufficiently separate these two facts from what he terms "confessional competition" -- the them-against-us assumption of some essential difference, however understated, subtly conveyed or cloaked in erudition and high morals -- a quality that tends to confine his perspective to the religious dimension of the interchange and thereby limit it largely to conflict: Ideas, practises, even people like Leo Africanus (also known as Hassan Al Wazzan) could move fluidly between faiths; but however much they agreed or indeed coalesced culturally or politically, neither Muslims nor Christians could accept one faith without giving up the other. O'Shea's outline of the conflict is extremely useful in itself, but it does not significantly undermine the perennial notion (espoused in very different contexts and in very different ways by Sayyid Qutb, Samuel Huntington and, well, Paul Alvarus) that there exists, eternally or fundamentally separated on the opposite shores of some Mediterranean of the mind, a Them and an Us; and that the one must seek to eliminate the other if it is to thrive or prosper.

Likewise Andrew Wheatcroft: his two books -- Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam (Random House, 2004) and The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe (Basic Books, 2009) -- are constructed around the respective themes of enmity and fear. Each demonstrates everything the author would need to establish that all three religions belong to the same universe of thought, however dogmatic or racial a form they take, and that their adherents -- whether debating the finer points of their respective theologies, engaging each other in profitable commerce, or roaring a blood-spattered "Infidel" -- have on the whole had more in common than not. Yet in both cases -- once again, with the best of intentions, no doubt -- Wheatcroft sustains the age-old mental construction that places Muslims and Christians on the opposite sides of some impenetrable rampart. Sad but perhaps inevitable that, in such potentially explosive times, the emphasis should be on the mental space where a large-scale, media-oriented, appropriately globalised explosion can still occur, not on the possibility of transcending the baser human drive to be at the other's throat.

Of all Alvarus's possible heirs, Karabell is perhaps the most renegade -- in the sense that he is the least like that fundamentalist Christian ancestor of the retrograde historians' -- though Karabell too fails to conceive of Islam and the West as a single civilisation adjusting its constituent elements through the centuries. But somehow, in his unique formulation of a Muslim-Western comity, this shortcoming does not seem to matter. Karabell is also the author of Peace Be Upon You: Fourteen Centuries of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Conflict and Cooperation (Vintage, 2008) as well as the compelling book Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal (Knopf, 2003); but it is in People of the Book that he combines universal compassion with the down-to-earth urgency required by the times: "In a world where technology will make it easier for the angry few to do great harm, the perpetuation of a model of conflict is dangerous. Remembering that each of the three traditions carries the seeds of peace will not by itself heal the world... But if these stories" of conflict and alliance, especially of alliance "are integrated into our sense of the past and the present, it will be more difficult to treat religion as destiny."

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