David Levering Lewis: Ouch! Bad review in the LAT

Historians in the News

Sometimes, when a fine historian ventures outside his specialty, prodigies of fresh insight ensue. More often -- and particularly when the scholar carries into one era the baggage of another -- the results are worse than disappointing.

These days, we so urgently require a better understanding of Islam and its origins that it would be edifying to report that the distinguished historian David Levering Lewis' new book is an example of the former. Unfortunately, "God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215" falls into that second category with a nearly discernible thud.

Lewis, 71, is a distinguished social historian, particularly of the 20th century United States. Both volumes of his magisterial biography of W.E.B. Du Bois won the Pulitzer Prize for history. However, he is neither a medievalist nor a scholar of Islam origins, and some -- though not all -- of this book's shortcomings originate there.

The more fundamental problem is that "God's Crucible" is as much the product of an enthusiasm as it is an idea. Like many a writer and artist before him, Lewis is in thrall to an idealized Umayyad Spain, that island of comparative tolerance and intellectual freedom, undoubted prosperity and physical beauty that ornaments the medieval landscape. Even now, al-Andalus seems more poem than place, site of the Alhambra, the great Mosque of Cordova, the patio houses of Granada and home to Averros and Maimonides. The problem is that Lewis is intent on making a general case with a society that stands as such an exception to other states of its era, whether Muslim or Christian. In fact, Umayyad Spain benefited from any number of unique factors: the extraordinary statecraft of its founder, Abd al-Rahman I, and some of his more able successors, the necessity of maintaining a balance of power in an unusually polyglot population and Spain's physical distance from contemporary centers of Muslim and Christian power.

Lewis sets out to show that the failure of what he calls "the jihad east of the Pyrenees" is "one of the most significant losses in world history." He argues that the Frankish defeat of the Islamic invaders at Poitiers in 732 and the subsequent poetic glorification of Roland's sacrifice to cover Charlemagne's retreat from his own incursion into Spain were "pivotal moments in the creation of an economically retarded, balkanized and fratricidal Europe that, by defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of hereditary aristocracy, persecutory religious intolerance, cultural particularism and perpetual war . . . 'winning' at Poitiers actually meant that the economic, scientific and cultural levels that Europeans attained in the 13th century could almost certainly have been achieved more than three centuries earlier had they been included in the Muslim world empire."

In other words, the West would be better off if it had been incorporated into an all-conquering Islamic empire in the early Middle Ages.


Still, it's fair to wonder why, if that's true, the West ended up with the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Revolution and the Islamic world got chronic underdevelopment, a pervasive religious obscurantism, Al Qaeda and the trust fund states of the Arabian peninsula?...

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