How Collision of Christianity, Islam Shaped Middle Ages

Article excerpt


When the tribes of Arabia united under the banner of Islam in the seventh century, they were able to cut through the rotted shreds of the Byzantine and Persian empires to forge a new and dynamic power.

They saw their duty as bringing the true faith of Islam to the infidels surrounding them, and felt that military conquest was the best, the most rapid, and the surest way of doing this. If they managed to enrich themselves in the process, surely it was but a just reward for accomplishing what was divinely ordered.

Not surprisingly, those being subdued - and impoverished - resented the process and resisted. Battles were fought, emnity and hatred were fostered. Andrew Wheatcroft, who teaches in the department of English Studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland, attempts to chronicle this fraught relationship in his new book "Infidels."

Mr. Wheatcroft is a skilled writer and obviously a man of erudition, who knows a number of foreign languages. But his book is oddly disjointed. For example, he begins with an account of the battle of Lepanto in 1571, the largest naval battle since antiquity, occuring at the apogee of Turkish military supremacy.

He describes the battle and the ultimate Christian victory well, but does not give the reader an idea as to why this tremendous conflict ever took place. In truth, the Turks had turned the Mediterranean into a virtual Turkish lake. Their ships raided European coasts regularly for slaves and loot, so much so that the pope felt his papal lands were in danger.

Venice and Genoa saw their naval power being eroded, and everyone looked to Spain, the one Mediterranean power with sufficient strength, to help stop the Turkish advance.

Lepanto was a great battle. It broke the myth of Turkish omnipotence, and was widely celebrated throughout Europe.

The author's account of this event is interesting; however, just what he is attempting to tell the reader by recalling it in his opening pages is unclear.

Mr. Wheatcroft then turns to Spain, a country he knows well. He describes its conquest in the early eighth century, which went so rapidly that the Muslim advance continued into France where it was finally halted at Poitiers by Charles Martel. In the Iberian peninsula itself, only in the far north and west did a few small Christian principalities cotinue to exist.

Islam reigned supreme in the rest of the country. Conversion to Islam was not compulsory, but clearly advantageous in the matters of taxation, commerce, and administration. As the Muslim kingdoms of Spain prospered they grew increasingly tolerant. …