Published — Wednesday 17 July 2013
Last update 17 July 2013 3:38 am
This detailed history of Europe and the Islamic world is the latest of a series of attempts to understand the complex relations between Muslim countries and Europe. Co-authored by a trio of French historians, this book not only highlights the common roots between Islamic and Western cultures but it also maintains an impartial profile until the very end.
This history of Europe and the Islamic world is divided in three distinct parts. In the first five chapters, John Tolan tackles, “Saracens and Ifranj: Rivalries, Emulation, and Convergences.” In the second part, Gilles Veinstein introduces us to “The Great Turk and Europe” and Henry Laurens in the last part focuses on “Europe and the Muslim World in the Contemporary Period.”
John Esposito sets the tone of this scholarly work in his excellent foreword. Known for his objective and unbiased thinking, the American scholar presents a remarkable and clear summary of the book’s main points.
He is quick to underline the common political and religious struggle for power, waged by both, the West and Islam. The Muslims claim to have the final revelation threatened directly the role of Christianity to be: the only means to salvation. Moreover, Christendom also saw the rapid expansion of Islam as a “political and civilizational challenge to its religious and political hegemony.”
From the ninth to the 12th centuries, Islam propagated a rich, multi-faceted civilization from Cordova in Spain right up to India. In this respect, John Esposito highlights a fact largely ignored in the West, namely that Islam was more tolerant than imperial Christianity, providing greater religious freedom for Jews and indigenous Christians.
This truth was often occulted in Europe for obvious reasons. However, Muslims in their majority still regard these religious wars as a symbol of militant Christianity and a premonition of Western imperialism and colonialism. By the 19th century, the French occupied North, West, and Equatorial Africa, Lebanon and Syria; The British established colonies in Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq, the Arabian Gulf, the Indian subcontinent and in Southeast Asia while the Dutch were in Indonesia.
John Tolan reminds us that religious coexistence has been implemented in Europe since the Middle Ages and it is not the result of t20th-century immigration as many are inclined to believe. During the Middle Ages, the model for a Muslim city also took shape.
“At a time when Europe was composed primarily of rural societies, Islam became the urban civilization par excellence. The sites of power in Latin Europe were usually castles; in Islam, they were cities.” And the famous French Arabist, Andre Miquel, also wrote: “The most beautiful jewels of the Muslim Middle Ages were its cities”.
As a result of demographic growth and trade, cities in Europe developed first in Italy during the eleventh century, then in the rest of Europe.
Trade, indeed, has always been a positive driving force in the relations between the Arab world and Europe. The Arab world benefits from a key geo-strategic position because it is connected to the Sub continent, China, Byzantium, Africa, and Europe. These commercial exchanges transformed the lifestyle of the inhabitants of Europe and the Arab world. Europeans discovered oranges, bananas, rice, sugar, spices and silk, to name but a few. On the other hand, Muslim traders brought back, iron, wood and woolen clothes. The flourishing trade spearheaded changes affecting the social fabric, such as the creation of urban classes of artisans and merchants.
However, there were not only people and goods traveling back and forth across the Mediterranean but also a fruitful exchange of ideas and technologies in the fields of agriculture, architecture, medicine, pharmacology, arts, music, literature, philosophy and science.
In the second part of the book, “Continuity and Change in Geopolitics,” Gilles Veinstein reminds us that during the 16th century, three empires were created: The Moghul Empire in the Sub continent, the Saffavid Empire in Iran and the Ottoman Empire in Turkey. The latter not only lasted the longest, until 1923, but it remained the closest to Europe since it was in Europe itself. As long as these mighty empires remained strong and united remarks, Veinstein, they “were a rampart against any potential European penetration.”
The great division happened during the second half of the eighteenth century. The European nations’ military and naval forces outshone the armed forces in other Muslim nations. This especially concerned the Ottoman Empire. It waged a losing battle against Russia to stop the division of Poland, which ended with the annexation of Crimea by Russian in 1784.
The fate of the Ottoman Empire became the greatest geopolitical preoccupation of the late eighteenth century. Similarly, the growing presence of a unified Arab nationalism led eventually to a policy of decolonization, which “restored the collective dignity of the dominated peoples,” writes Henry Laurens in the book’s third and final section, “Europe and the Muslim World in the Contemporary Period.”
John Esposito warns us against the adoption of “a reductionist approach that sees the religion of Islam as the primary driver in Muslim-West relations and as a necessary source of conflict and a clash of civilizations is a dead end and dangerous.
“Europe and the Islamic World: A History” is a major antidote of this dangerous myopic worldview, offering a critical and balanced assessment of a historic encounter marked not only by religious competition and conflict but also by coexistence and cooperation in domestic politics and foreign relations, trade and commerce, science and culture. In today’s world as well, we face a world in which religion remains strong globally and as in the past a source of guidance and morality, a source of conflict and violence but also of peace and conflict resolution and interreligious and inter-civilizational dialogue.”