Today’s Hindu nationalists argue that Hinduism should be the official religion of the Indian state and society, on the grounds that Indian civilization was Hindu
before the arrival of Islam. Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has pointed out the fallacy of this return-to-the-past approach by reminding them that India was not always a Hindu country even before the arrival of Islam. Buddhism was the dominant religion in India for nearly a millennium.
In the same way, the ferocity of the asymmetric war waged on the West by terrorists claiming to speak and act in the name of Islam has generated much talk about the idea of a clash of civilizations, about Islam as inherently and irredeemably backward, censorious and insular. At its most alarmist, this line of thought asserts that the growing numbers of Muslim immigrants in Western societies will one day turn Europe into “Eurabia”.
Commentators who assert this forget the fact that Islam’s history in Europe goes back more than a thousand years. In fact, the rule over a part of Spain for nearly four centuries by an enlightened Muslim dynasty, the Umayyids, was a kind of golden age of religious tolerance, cosmopolitan values, and science and learning in medieval Europe. The story of “Islam’s long sojourn in Europe” is superbly told by historian David Levering Lewis in his new book God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe 570-1215 (which comes with an enthusiastic recommendation by Sen on the back cover).
Readers of Lewis’ book will not only enjoy the pace and drama of his storytelling, but the vastness of his canvas. Knowing that most of his readers will have little awareness of the period he is describing, he takes pains to sketch in the larger geopolitical scene in Europe and West Asia before the birth of Islam in Mecca in the seventh century.
His story begins with an account of “two high civilizations everlastingly at war”, that of Graeco-Latin Rome and Persian Iran. In conflict for hundreds of years, these two great empires finally succeeded only in wasting each other’s energies. Into the space left by the exhaustion of these Christian and Zoroastrian adversaries sailed the forces of the newly birthed Islam, with its intensely monotheistic ardour and attractive vision of social equality (as the former prime minister of Pakistan, the late Benazir Bhutto, pointed out in her book Reconciliation, the Quran’s vision of gender rights was well in advance of its time).
Lost gateway: Lewis describes in detail the Great Mosque of Cordoba.
Although Lewis’ book makes many stops on its 700-year journey across European history, its focus is the reign of Emperor Abd al-Rahman I in Andalucia in the eighth century. The policies of Abd al-Rahman, also known as “The Falcon”, may remind Indian readers of the ideas of Akbar. His regime allowed freedom of worship to the Christians and Jews of the kingdom, although this was as much for practical reasons as idealistic ones, as Muslims were in a minority. Lewis praises Abd al-Rahman’s “pragmatic understanding of limitations and possibilities, his balancing of autocracy and laissez-faire”.
One of the most beautiful passages of Lewis’ book is devoted to one of Abd al-Rahman’s crowning achievements, the Great Mosque of his capital Cordoba, now a prominent tourist attraction in Spain. Although the origin of its design is still unconfirmed, this beautiful and awe-inspiring monument, partly built from scavenged Roman ruins, “overnight became one of the wonders of the world”. Lewis argues the mosque could be seen as “the physical embodiment of the spiritual and cultural energies of Andalucia”. Noting that verses from the Quran were inscribed by calligraphers all over the walls of the Great Mosque, Lewis points out how Islam at this point stressed literacy among its believers. In contrast, Christianity at the same stage in world history was in the control of a priestly class which used Latin to mystify and intimidate the faithful.
Unfortunately, the high noon of the Umayyid dynasty, like that of the Mughals, passed in a few hundred years. But it was Arabic translations of, and commentaries on, Greek texts commissioned during the Umayyid reign that, some centuries later, would serve as the foundation of the European Renaissance, which led the West to where it is today. Today, argues Lewis, “much of the Muslim world stands in relationship to Europe and the United States as much of a ramshackle Christian world once stood in relationship to a highly advanced Islamic one”. His demanding but rewarding book casts a spotlight on a set of connections that deserve to be better-known and more closely studied and cited in our uncertain and polarized times.
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