When the Spirits Collided: Islam and Christianity in the Course of Western Civilization

Emmet Scott’s  Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: the History of a Controversy is a stimulating and important book joining other recent works that undertake a vindication and development of Belgian scholar Henri Pirenne’s thesis regarding Islam’s impact on the history of Europe.

In a posthumous work (Mahomet et Charlemagne: Byzance, Islam et Occident dans le haut Moyen Age, 1937), Pirenne argued that there had been a continuity between the civilization of the Roman Empire, in its surviving version (the Greek Roman Christian Empire, or “Byzantine”), with its capital in Constantinople, and the “barbarian” and eventually Christianized nations that took over the Latin or Western Roman Christian Empire.  After the end of the Latin Roman Empire, the Mediterranean remained a Christian lake, open to commercial and cultural exchange between the new kingdoms in the West and the Greek Roman Christian Empire.  It was Islam, not the “barbarian invaders,” which broke the unity of the Christian world, thereby interrupting commercial and cultural exchange between the Christian East and the Christian West, propitiating the rise of the Carolingian “Roman” Empire, turning the Mediterranean into a Muslim lake, and therefore moving the cultural axis of the Christian West from the Mediterranean to the North: “the cause of the break with the tradition of antiquity was the rapid and unexpected advance of Islam.”  

Pirenne came under attack by medievalists, Arabists, and Islamic Studies experts, who promulgated the idea that Islam had benefitted European civilization: Islam “recovered” the “lost” works of Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and “gave” them to Europe; served as a gracious intermediary to help Europe re-acquaint itself with Greek culture; bequeathed to Europe many wonderful things, such as “Arabic” numerals; and otherwise originated cultural features previously considered “European.”

Consequently, Pirenne’s thesis was until recently confined by most academics to the dustbin of history.  Now, this confinement looks puzzling because several facts should have kept Pirenne’s thesis very much on the table.

As Rémi Brague pointed out (Europe, La voie romaine, 1999, not mentioned by Scott), Cassiodorus, minister to king Theodoric, founded in A.D. 540 a monastery to protect the classical texts; Pope Gregory the Great instructed the monks of Monte Cassino to do the same; and the “Arabs” who presumably “found” the Greek texts were in fact Greek-speaking Christian Syrians who translated them into Syriac and then into Arabic.

As Sylvain Gouguenheim argued (Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: les racines grecques de l’Europe médièval, 2008, a book not mentioned by Scott and demonized by academic specialists), Europe had not forgotten Greek texts, or culture.  The Christian philosopher Boethius translated Aristotle into Latin in the sixth century.  Monks at the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel translated Aristotle before Arabic translations reached Europe from Spain.  Greek texts had not been “lost” to be graciously found by Islam, but had been kept and commented upon in the “Byzantine” Empire.  Of course, it had been Greek-speaking Christians who translated the texts of Aristotle, first into Syriac and then into Arabic, the language in which all learned Muslims read the Greek texts—that is, in twice-mediated translations.  Before Islam, there had continued to be communication between the Christian West and the Christian East.  Islam destroyed the civilizations with which it came into contact, such as those of Zoroastrian Persia, Hindu Sind (examined in V.S. Naipaul’s  Among the Believers and K. R. Malkani’s The Sindh Story), and the Greek Roman Christian Empire.  Many of the inventions, such as “Arabic numerals,” attributed to Arabs and Islam, had been developed by other civilizations, or by non-Arabs.  Islam raided European lands and captured or bought millions of Christians for slavery throughout the Middle Ages.  And–a point particularly offensive to academics–Greek culture was for Islam an alien universe because Islam could not handle Greek representational painting and sculpture, narrative, drama, and political theory, among other things.

Elsewhere I have pointed out what has been known for a long time, but is seldom mentioned today: that the Arabs who in the seventh century attacked the Persian (Iranian”) Empire and the territories of the Greek Roman Christian Empire in the Middle East and North Africa possessed a very low level of civilization compared to the nations they eventually conquered; that the Arab-led Berbers who conquered much of Spain in the early eighth century were similarly barbaric compared to the Christian Hispano-Visigoths; and that the subsequent growth of Islamic civilization in Spain resulted from the Islamization of the more cultured Hispano-Visigoths who did not flee the Muslim conquest, and from Islamic Spain’s partial assimilation (partial because of such limitations as pointed out by Gouguenheim) of the heritage of the highly Romanized Hispano-Visigoths and of the Greeks (via the Greek Roman Christian Empire).  How is it then that the idea of Islam as the savior of Europe from the presumed darkness of the Middle Ages prevails in academic teaching and publishing, to the point of having entered the popular imagination in films, “documentaries,” newspapers, magazines, and even the speeches of Western politicians?  Suffice to say here that disinterested academic research has not been the only reason (the best analysis of this curious phenomenon is Rosa María Rodríguez Magda, Inexistente al-Andalus: de cómo los intelectuales reinventan el Islam, 2008).

Along with the critical examination of the work of several medievalists, the main contribution of Emmet Scott’s courageous book is probably its dissection of R. Hodges and D. Whitehouse’s influential anti Pirenne polemic, Mohammed, Charlemagne and the Origins of Europe: the Pirenne Thesis in the Light of Archeology (1982).  Scott shows that their limited data, confined to North African Carthage, the Italian town of Luni and some excavations in Southern Etruria, do not justify their generalizations to the rest of the Mediterranean basin; and that even for Carthage, Luni, and Southern Etruria, their data does not justify their conclusions. Scott argues that the sudden drop in archaeological remains, beginning in the seventh century, suggests that the decline observed by Hodges and Whitehouse was a consequence of the destruction brought about by the Islamic conquests of the seventh century.

Scott cites recent archeological research (such as Peter Wells’ Barbarians to Angels) which refutes the idea that the “barbarians” destroyed classical civilization, and confirms that Central and Northern Europe were not only far less dark than they are supposed to have been during the so-called “dark ages,” but actually thrived for at least a century after the “fall” of the Latin Roman Empire, conventionally dated from the second half of the fifth century.

Scott argues that the paucity of archaeological remains between the seventh and tenth centuries in the Middle East and North Africa—all areas conquered by Islam in the seventh century—does indicate a cultural decline, as archaeologists agree, but one caused by Islam.  Following up on Pirenne’s thesis, Scott observes that the decline, beginning in the seventh century, of these formerly thriving and highly developed areas, caused by the destructive impact of the Muslim conquests, affected the commerce and culture of Europe during those centuries, a decline attested by the paucity of archaeological production in Europe between the seventh century and the relative revival that began during the second half of the tenth century. Moreover, citing the paucity of Islamic archeological remains after many centuries of Muslim domination in “al-Andalus,” which contrasts with the abundance of archeological data from the Visigoth and Roman periods, Scott questions the cultural greatness of Islamic Spain narrated in the literary sources.

Drawing a number of plausible corollaries from Pirenne’s thesis, Scott summarizes what might have happened to Europe without Islam’s impact:

Certainly…the Middle Ages would have been a lot less “medieval” and a lot more Roman.  It is likely that Byzantium would have continued the process, already well under way in the late sixth century, of raising the cultural level of the West.  The break between Rome and Byzantium might not have occurred, or been so acrimonious, and there seems little doubt that Western Europe would have experienced its “Renaissance”, or re-flowering of classical civilization, much earlier, perhaps half a millennium earlier.  Indeed it is likely that by the late seventh century the whole of Western Europe would have come to resemble contemporary Byzantium, with expanding cities and a thriving cultural and intellectual life.  The Viking raids would not have occurred, or at least would not have been as destructive as they were.  There would certainly have been no Crusades, there being no Islam to launch them against.  And the lack of Viking and Islamic influence would almost certainly have induced the development in Europe of a more pacific culture.

Scott provides an interesting thought experiment on the possible consequences of an Islamic conquest of Europe:

No less a person than Gibbon mused on the likely outcome of an Islamic conquest of France, when he noted that, had such an event transpired, then the whole of western Europe must inevitably have fallen, and the Dean of Oxford would likely then have been expounding the truths of the Koran to a circumcised congregation.  Against such “calamities,” noted Gibbon, was Christendom rescued by the victory of Charles Martel at Tours in 732.  But an Islamic conquest of Europe would have had far more serious consequences than that.  From what we have seen of Islam’s record elsewhere, it is likely that the continent would have entered a Dark Age…and these territories would have housed an impoverished and sorely oppressed remnant population of Christians.  In Rome the Pope would preside over a miserable and decaying Vatican, whose main monuments, such as the original Saint Peter’s founded by Constantine, would long ago have been transformed into mosques.  In such a Europe the entire heritage of classical civilization would have been forgotten.  Of Caesar and his conquests, of Greece with her warriors and philosophers, the modern world would know nothing. The very names would have been lost.  No child now would know of Troy or Mycenae, of Marathon or Thermopylae.  The history of Egypt, too, and all the great civilizations of the Near East, would be buried in the drifting sands of those lands, forever lost and forgotten.

Naturally, this book includes a seemingly inevitable historical sniping at Christianity and the equally now seemingly de rigueur mention of “the Spanish Inquisition”:

Small wonder that some of these territories [conquered and held by Islam], particularly Southern Italy, Sicily, Spain, Corsica, parts of Greece and Albania, would in time develop their own violent and relentless cultures and that it would be above all in Spain that the Inquisition would find its spiritual home.  Small wonder too that it would be from this same land that Holy Warriors would set out, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, to conquer the peoples of the New World for Christ….Christendom and the Christian Church [cannot] be entirely absolved of the guilt for what happened in the decades and centuries that followed the First Crusade….The narrow teaching which confined truth and salvation to the Christian community alone cannot have but produced a intolerant and irrational attitude to those of other faiths.

There are, of course, problems with such statements.  Under atheist Marxism and pagan National Socialism, Russia and Germany, never conquered by Islam, saw levels of government violence in the twentieth century that surpassed those seen in Spain and the other lands mentioned.  Contrary to what many academics teach, the Inquisition in Spain did not execute or torture people (torture in any event being then a customary judicial procedure in all of Europe) at a rate higher than its contemporary civilian courts in other nations (see Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision, 1997).  Many of the Inquisition’s “burnings” were in effigy, and burning was a form of execution used in other civilized lands as late as 1693.

The Spanish conquistadores never called themselves “Holy Warriors”: the facile and now fashionable analogies between the Spanish conquistadores and Islamic jihadists and between the Spanish conquest of the Americas and Jihad ignore the differences among Christianity, Islam, Crusade, Jihad, and the conquest of America–distinctions examined in Roberto de Mattei’s important Guerra santa, guerra giusta: Islam e Cristianesimo in guerra, 2002 (published in English as Holy War, Just War: Islam and Christendom at War, 2007).  Even more relevant: it was Christianity that pulled the European chestnuts from the fire by inspiring the actions of such men as Charles Martel (Tours, 10 October 732), Alfonso VIII, Sancho VII “El fuerte,” and Pedro II (Navas de Tolosa, 16 July 1212), Janos Hunyadi and John of Capistrano (Belgrade, July 22 1456), Don Juan de Austria and Miguel de Cervantes (Lepanto, 7 October 1571), and Jan Sobieski (Vienna, 11-12 September 1683).  Without this long-gone muscular Christianity, could Europe have resisted the spiritual and military power of Islam?