God's Crucible

by David Levering Lewis

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Publisher: W.W. Norton
Copyright: 2008
Printing: 2009
ISBN: 0-393-33356-6
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 384

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Subtitled Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215, God's Crucible is a vast historical survey of the growth of Islam, starting with a history of the conflict between the Byzantine and Persian empires and ending with the breaking of Islamic dominance of Spain (although full expulsion is still a couple centuries away at the end of the book). Lewis covers the origins of Islam and its early expansion in detail, but then focuses primarily on Islam in Spain, interleaving chapters with discussion of the Christian European kingdoms up to and through Charlemagne.

Lewis is a professor of history and twice the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for biography for his two-volume biography of W.E.B. Du Bois (both volumes independently won the Pulitzer the year they were published). As one might expect from that, despite being a survey for a popular audience, this is a serious historical treatment. It's readable and clear, but dense, written in a style that asks for closer attention and careful reading.

The reward for that attention is an excellent survey of parts of history that are covered poorly in at least the US educational system. The first chapter is almost worth the book by itself, offering a concise history of the war between the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire and the Persian (Iranian) Empire that exhausted both and left the path open for Islam to surge out of the Arabian peninsula. This section includes some fascinating discussion of Zoroastrianism, the former major world religion with the dubious distinction of being the most unknown to the typical US citizen. From there, Lewis tells the early history of Islam with special attention to its political evolution, including the conquest of the Arabian peninsula and the split between Sunni and Shi'a, follows Islam up the western end of the Mediterranean and across North Africa, and then takes the narrative of the book into Spain.

The latter half of the book mostly leaves aside the history of eastern Islam to focus on western Europe and specifically on Spain. Lewis provides some historical background for the Visigoths, Lombards, and particularly the Franks, painting a picture of early medieval Europe and the religious struggles between Arianism, Catholic Christianity, and pagan belief that concluded in Charlemagne becoming an explicitly Catholic king. This happens in parallel with a thriving Islamic caliphate in Spain, which broke from the eastern Islamic world and became its own separate power. Lewis follows the parallel and occasionally clashing societies until the collapse of the Cordoba caliphate and the retreat of the Muslims to Granada.

This is a lot of material, enough that it could easily have been two books: the rise of Islam, and the European experience with Islam in Spain. It took me a solid week to finish, and I both read quickly and read this during a vacation where I could read for hours a day. Expect to take some time to absorb. I found it particularly useful to recount the highlights to someone else each night after reading, to help fix some of the details in my mind. This is exactly the sort of thing that I would have liked to have from history and usually didn't get.

There's too much here to comment on in detail, but there were two broad themes that ran through the book that I found particularly interesting. The first is the depth and complexity of the relationship between Islam and Judaism, both the people and the religion. The better-informed already know that Mohammed was substantially influenced by local Judaism while Islam was being founded because he took refuge in Medina, which was home to several Jewish tribes. But I hadn't known that for a brief time during the beginning of Islam Muslims prayed to Jerusalem instead of to Mecca. There was, later, a serious falling out (still during Mohammed's lifetime) and apparently reasons for both sides to claim very bad treatment by the other.

But the story doesn't end there. The Islamic expansion happened mostly at the expense of Christian (or arguably Christian, such as the Arian tribes of Europe) kingdoms, and to say that the average Christian kingdom of the time mistreated the Jews is a vast understatement. When the Muslims took Jerusalem, they were actively aided by the local Jewish population, something that seems unsurprising when one learns that the Christian population had been using the Temple Mount as a garbage dump. Jews were similarly strong allies of the Muslims in Spain, where just before the Muslim conquest the Christian rulers were requiring all Jews to convert or be sold as slaves, with their children redistributed among Christian households. In contrast, the Muslims were happy to let the Jews (and the Christians) practice whatever religion they chose and just taxed them heavily. (In fact, conversion to Islam was not particularly encouraged, since it meant freedom from religion-based taxes that provided much of the funding of the Islamic expansion.) The modern conflict between Judaism and Islam, while it has some deep roots, is very different than the relationship during most of the time period covered by this book.

The other broad theme, and one that often strikes me when studying history, is related: there are really no "good" cultures (and few "bad" cultures, at least by comparison with the alternatives). There are some remarkable individual people, and there are cultures that are better or worse along various metrics or for certain limited periods of time, but every culture and society does at least one or two things that are horrific or evil. In the middle of a war, both sides usually look vile, and if one side or another gets a temporary advantage, they usually press it home with brutality. I think it's a useful sobering lesson to look back in history and see how much of what later becomes foundational and heroic myth was driven by, or at least heavily influenced by, greed, preservation of personal power, and attempts to gain more power. This is basically universal regardless of culture, religion, or origin.

The main drawback of this book for me was that it's dense, somewhat compounded in this case by being packed with names with which I'm not already familiar and therefore have a hard time keeping straight. I would get drawn into the story and want to devour it page after page, but the text is just too dense to permit that. It rewards study, but it's not a book that reads quickly. Apart from that, my only dislikes are more niggles or surprising stylistic decisions, such as Lewis's habit of presenting all religious beliefs unrelated to historic detail as if they're true (both Islamic, particularly around Mohammed such as Gabriel's dictation or his spiritual trip to Jerusalem, and some Christian beliefs in relics that played a prominent role in history). It makes sense to me why he chose to do that, but it's a bit jarring at first if one is used to reading scholarly texts written in the standard mode of general skepticism or detached reporting.

This is an excellent book on a span of history and a set of cultures that were woefully neglected in at least my education. I'm not a scholar nor have I pursued any of Lewis's (very extensive) endnotes and reference material, so I'm not qualified to comment on the accuracy of the details, but the "feel" of the book is very solid. I recommend it strongly to anyone who wants to understand the origins of Islamic culture and some of the cultural history that Muslims are rightfully proud of, or even for debunking, along the way, of absurd lies about Muslim history (such as the origins of the Cordoba mosque). It's a bit denser than is typical for historical treatments, though, so be prepared.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-01-31

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21