What Islam did for Europe

The conflict between Islam and the west can be traced back to a myth that inaccurately painted Musli

Until very recently, suggestions that western civilisation owed much to Islam were rejected out of hand. "Europe", according to the orthodox model, was born out of a marriage of classical and Judaeo-Christian cultures. The missing element in this formula - the Islamic component - was ignored. During the first half of the 20th century a number of Arabists challenged this view, but their opinions made little popular headway. Today, however, thanks largely to the current friction between Islam and the west, new efforts are being made to understand and interpret the influence oriental culture has had, mostly via Spain, on its occidental cousin.

Following the important groundwork done by Salma Khadra Jayyusi's Legacy of Muslim Spain, the edifice of ignorance and prejudice is slowly beginning to crumble. "More than ever before, light needs to be shone on the long Andalusian aftermath that is pressingly with us now," David Levering Lewis concludes in God's Crucible. He is absolutely right.

Historians dealing with the impact of Islamic Spain have to address two important questions with deep contemporary resonance: the extent of Moorish influence over medieval Europe, and the nature of the society from which this sprang. Just how tolerant was it? Were Christians, Muslims and Jews in al-Andalus really able to live harmoniously together, in convivencia, as some claim? Or were the distinct communities continuously at war, with any cultural interchange between them being secondary or accidental?

Opinion is divided on this second point. Hardliners point not only to the endless battles of the Reconquest campaign to win Iberia back for Christendom, but also to the many pogroms and massacres of the time, and laws designed to separate and strictly limit any contact between the communities. Those more favourable to the idea of convivencia cite the numerous instances of cultural crossover and working together for the common good despite the obvious tensions. In 10th-century Umayyad Cordoba, for example, Jews and Christians were able to serve in high government office; they were officially viewed as ahl al-kitab, or "people of the book": those whose faith was based on a written document, such as the Bible or the Torah, and hence protected under Islamic law.

No one denies the underlying violence of the times: the question is whether the three faith groups ever worked consciously towards a more accepting society. Tolerance over the Moorish period was neither constant nor can it be viewed as having never existed at all. The first Moors arrived as warriors in 711, quickly finding wives among the native population as they settled down in their newly conquered territories. The last of them - the Moriscos, great-grandsons of this ethnically mixed people - were summarily expelled in 1609 from a Spain obsessed with racial purity and the threat from the Ottomans, farmworkers and artisans given just three days to leave after a presence in the country that had lasted nine centuries. During this period the whole spectrum of human interaction, from intimate contact and interchange to violent persecution, were in evidence. The mechanics of this shift are perhaps the most interesting question of all, and most relevant to today: the hows and whys of the ebb and flow of convivencia.

On the first question - Moorish Spain's impact on medieval Europe - the new-generation popular studies display a growing consensus. Finally the debt the west owes to the Muslim world is being recognised. Al-Andalus was in many ways the United States of its day: an ethnically diverse, political and cultural powerhouse that the rest of the western world looked to for new ideas and the latest trends, even while it sometimes resented, and even rejected, this influence. Everything from technology (the abacus, paper) to the latest fashions (dark clothes in winter, light ones in summer), foods (artichokes, sugar), pastimes (chess) and new ideas (higher mathematics, Averroës's innovative "rational" thinking) first reached Europe through Moorish Spain. The most celebrated point of entry for intellectual traffic was the school of translators based in Christian-controlled Toledo in the 12th and 13th centuries, from where Greek and Arabic learning rendered into Latin was able to penetrate Europe and lay the cornerstone of the Renaissance.

The picture is complex, as Europe was shaped through its acceptance and its rejection of what Moorish Spain had to offer. Although learning from al-Andalus eventually helped to fill "the occidental void", as Levering Lewis points out, paradoxically the "Europenses" first began to define themselves as a coherent group of peoples in direct opposition to the Muslim forces pushing over the Pyrenees during the course of the 8th century.

Charlemagne took up the challenge, and while most of his time was spent dealing with the obstinately pagan Saxons, the empire he built was forged in reaction to the Moorish threat even if, culturally, this held Europe back for centuries. "Abd al-Rahman's Muslim Iberia was at least four centuries more advanced than western Christendom in 800CE," the author writes. "An ironic in telligence from another planet might have observed that if Carolingian Europeans believed that Charles the Hammer's victory at Poitiers [in 732] made their world possible, then it was a fair question to ask whether or not defeat might have been preferable."

This self-definition of Europe in opposition to Islam then became entrenched by La Chanson de Roland, in Levering Lewis's words "the Ur-text for the west". Although the real Roland was killed by Basques in 778 as Charlemagne's army retreated into France across the Pyrenees, the culprits in popular Christian imagination became the Moors, thanks to the retelling of the story in the French 11th-century epic: "The Chanson possessed extraordinary psychic clout for the men and women of the west, a powerful mytho poeia engirdling their understanding of . . . the martial imperatives of the True Faith." Appearing some 50 years before Urban II summoned the first crusade, La Chanson de Roland embedded the "otherness" of Islam "deep within the memory banks".

Despite making up only half of one chapter, this is perhaps the most crucial section of God's Crucible: both western self-identity and the narrative of its relationship with Islam have grown out of a story that inaccurately paints Muslims as the killers of a Christian hero. This throws up many interesting and pertinent questions, not least about the need to revise the narrative if there is to be any substantive change in the present situation, and the role of stories - true or untrue - in the shaping of history. Unfortunately this is territory that Levering Lewis chooses not to explore, however briefly. It is to the book's detriment that the author sometimes appears to be on the point of reaching new and interesting conclusions on his central theme, only to leave the reader guessing.

Part of the problem is that the book has an identity issue of its own. The subtitle - Islam and the Making of Europe (570-1215) - is misleading: there is scant reference to the crusades, and none at all to Norman Sicily, both of which were crucially important centres of east-west contact during this period, if overshadowed by Iberia. Spain is the central theme, but we do not reach it until a third of the way in. What comes before is a series of lengthy and very useful summaries of the history of clashes between Rome and Persia up until the 6th century; the life of Muhammad and the rise of Islam; and the collapse of the Roman empire and Visigothic rule in Spain before the arrival of the Moors. The heart of the book then provides a detailed and well-told history of events in Umayyad Spain and in Charlemagne's Europe during the course of the 8th century, before passing more quickly through the 9th and rushing on to the 13th century and the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, shortly after which Moorish territories were in effect limited to the kingdom of Granada.

Again, prefacing the conflict between the west and Islam with the wars between Rome and Persia is fascinating in itself, and throws up some intriguing questions, yet little is made of this. Is the author hinting at much deeper origins to the divisions between east and west, origins predating Islam? Readers must draw their own conclusions. These are small points, however. The book would have been better served by tighter editing, but Levering Lewis is a consummate storyteller, and God's Crucible will help make this increasingly important period of history more popularly accessible. For that, it is to be applauded.

Jason Webster is the author of "¡Guerra! Living in the Shadows of the Spanish Civil War" (Black Swan)

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Food crisis