Europe · history of science · Islam

Book Notes
I just finished Daniel L. Lewis’s exasperating God’s Crucible. Clearly a must-read for anyone interested in the history of Europe’s origins and Islam’s role in it, but it is a trial. What starts out as a fascinating narrative soon devolves into a hard slog thanks to the author’s annoying habit of infusing his own anachronistic presuppositions into the history.

The central argument of the book, and a valid one I think, is that Europe might have advanced more rapidly in its development had the Franks not checked the advance of Muslim armies into Europe at the Pyrenees. Lewis’ hero, Abd al-Rahman, the first self-styled Amir of Andalusian Spain, was the sole survivor of the Syrian Umayyads, once proud rulers of Islam in the East, overthrown at last by the Abbasids. The boy made one narrow escape from assassination after another until he reached Spain where he rapidly rose to become the sophisticated ruler of al-Andalus, the parts of the Iberian Peninsula and Septimania under Muslim rule.

Lewis is at his best here. His love for the culture of Andalusian Spain and his appreciation for the sophistication of Arab culture is contagious and I found his overview of the rise of Islam thoroughly engrossing. But it’s fairly plain that Muhammad brought the new faith of Islam into a civilization that was already ancient, prosperous and sophisticated. And this certainly is a factor in the speed with which it spread.

The same simply cannot be assumed about Europe, the very idea of which simply did not exist, even as the young Charlemagne earned his spurs fighting back the armies of pagan Saxons, Slavs and the many petty dukes ruling in the regions that would become France. The land mass that would become Europe was a cauldron of barbarous fights for survival as isolated pockets of learning desperately fought to keep what little learning existed afloat. There was no economy to speak of, no single currency, and no established rule of law apart from that enforced at the end of a sword.

But Lewis cannot restrain repeatedly expressing his sneering contempt for this proto-society as he highlights the stark differences between Dark Age Europe and al-Andalus.

For all of his vaunted academic credentials, Lewis’ writing style often leaves much to be desired.

In his New York Times review of the book, Eric Ormsby rightfully points out:

Lewis has a penchant for awkward turns of phrase. In discussing the translation of ancient texts into Arabic, for instance, he refers often to the “Toledo conveyor belt,” making the slow, meticulous translation of Greek treatises into Arabic sound like something carried out at an Ohio auto plant. Occasionally he goes even farther astray; in discussing the Prophet’s views on women, he writes, “Muhammad’s comparatively enlightened ideas (as explained by Allah) about gender roles positively distinguished the Koran from its misogynistic Mosaic and Pauline analogues.” It’s hard to know what disturbs more here, the factual inaccuracies or the personal opinions inserted under cover of jargon.

Lewis is not a historian of Islam. This gives him the freedom to pursue big questions with impunity — and he does this quite well. But it also leads him into many surprising errors. For example, no Shiite Muslim would call the first three caliphs rashidun, or “rightly guided.” In fact, Shiites consider them usurpers and to this day curse them in their mosques. Lewis cites the acerbic Spanish Muslim theologian Ibn Hazm as an advocate of “love Platonic, exquisite but unrequited,” although in Ibn Hazm’s delightful book “The Ring of the Dove,” his descriptions of the pleasures of sexual intercourse are quite unrestrained. Since Lewis wishes to show that medieval Muslim culture was overwhelmingly superior to its contemporary European counterpart — and certainly it was — a more scrupulous attention to the details of that culture would have strengthened his case.

It gets worse. On page 165 for example, Lewis ludicrously refers to the English monk and historian, the Venerable Bede, as ‘the Einstein of the Dark Ages’, an analogy so clueless this reader could only put the book down for a moment and shake his head. What exactly Einstein and Bede have in common is never made plain, but I soldiered onward.

Almost two hundred pages later Lewis describes the rise of the monk Gerbert, who we are told learned a great deal during his sojourn in Barcelona, particularly, so the author tells us, in mathematics and astronomy. He writes of this future Pope Sylvester II: “In 980, the priest published his revolutionary four-page textbook on the new mathematics. It was a pivotal moment in the intellectual history of the West, reminiscent of the four physics papers published by Albert Einstein in 1909.”


For all his merits as an historian of al-Andalus, clearly the author is as unfamiliar with the life and work of Einstein (whose ‘miracle year’ was 1905) as he is with the ‘mumbo jumbo’ of church Latin which he repeatedly condemns.

The usual ignorance of medieval scholarship is also on display throughout the book. Thomas Aquinas is once again dismissed as an over cautious scholar only interested in accepting what was ‘theologically safe’ from the works of Maimonides and Ibn Rushd. Lewis fails to point out that, far from being acceptable to the Christian theologians of the time, Aquinas’ careful synthesis was condemned as harshly as Maimonides and Ibn Rushd were by their own communities. His detestation of Christianity’s role in Europe simply blinds him to the possibility that these intellectuals were three peas in a pod, not two.

At the close of the book Lewis repeats the standard cliches about the authoritarian Pope Innocent III and his stipulations, that Jews and Muslims dwelling in Christendom should be set apart with distinctive garb. This was a hideous practice…earlier instituted in al-Andalus by Abd al-Rahman. Europe certainly benefited from the mores it learned from al-Andalus, the enlightened and the not-so-enlightened.

As I said, worth reading, but with caution over the author’s political correctness.

7 thoughts on “

  1. The muslims inherited a Greek culture that was “a thousand years thick” on the ground of the Middle East. Unlike the agrarian West, the East did not experience a collapse of civic order. To compare the brief glory of al-Andalus with a world overrun by Saracens, Vikings, and Magyars is to compare apples and oranges. Or, more accurately, an apple to an apple-seed. The brief Andalusian spring collapsed with the coming of the fundamentalist al-Murabitim after 1030.

    Had Europe been Islamicized, it is unlikely that we would have universities, science, or parliaments.(*) Remember, ibn Rushd was marginal (as were all the faylasuf) in a way that Aquinas never was. He was deprived of all offices and had to flee Andalusia.

    And to suppose that Islam treated women more liberally than Western Europe is madness.

    (*) shari’a did not recognize the possibility of self-governing corporate bodies. No universities … or medical societies, guilds, freetowns, etc. Islam did not recognize the concept of secondary causation. Per al-Ghazali, fire does not burn cloth. It’s just a habit of God to make the cloth blacken at the same time he makes the fire. No science. And Holy Qur’an is not only correct, it is complete. All rules for all situations are contained in it, requiring only reasoning by analogy (qiyas) to tease them out. Any man-made rules are either wrong [if they are not in Qur’an] or superfluous [if they are]. No parliaments.

  2. And to suppose that Islam treated women more liberally than Western Europe is madness.To his credit, albeit grudgingly in my opinion, Lewis does admit this.

    By the way, did you know that poor Charlemagne didn’t even have the benefit of a decent abacus at hand? For shame…


  3. Mind you, I think, even granting Lewis’ speculation and a deeper Muslim conquest of most of Europe in the 8th century, it’s by no means a foregone conclusion that it would have survived, especially given what the author himself describes in lurid detail about the ongoing internecine feuds between the various factions that already existed.

  4. I can sort of see the argument that Europe would have advanced more rapidly if the Muslims had not been turned back, but I think it immediately raises two (related) questions: (1) Would the development have been homegrown or merely imported? (2) How sustainable would it have been for the long term?

    One of the big differences between Christianity and Islam was the Christian monastery, which seeded new cities, served as testing grounds for new technologies, and opened schools that eventually contributed to the development of universities. And this infrastructure for development was local, long-term, and sustainable. (Monasteries are really quite remarkable; while not as profit-maximizing as corporations, they are stable and long-lasting, and over decades both create massive amounts of wealth and form the foundation for widespread intellectual networks.) Had the Muslims advanced farther into Europe, there is every reason to think that, even on the most optimistic assessment, the gains would have been short-term and limited rather than, as they really were, long-term and massive. Europe prior to the eleventh century may not have always been pleasant, but in monasteries and other Christian institutions it was slowly building a massive infrastructure for much greater things.

  5. Toby Huff's book, The Rise of Early Modern Science: China, Islam, and the West is instructive. Although the focus is on science, it brings in the differences in the law, in guilds and other corporate bodies, in education, and so on.

  6. Thanks for the recommendation; I hadn't heard of it, and it looks very interesting in the Google Book preview.

  7. Owen Gingerich tells me that Huff's new book, Why the West, is going to print soon. Not sure whether it is a more popular audience rendition of what he's covered in Rise of Science, but I'm sure it will be good.

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