Sunday, February 03, 2008

Muslim revisionism, continued

A Better Place: Books: The New Yorker

Here's another long, well written and enlightening New Yorker book review: this time about a book that seeks to cast the Islamic invasion of Europe in the best possible light. ("God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215" by David Levering Lewis.)

The reviewer (Joan Acocella) casts a somewhat cynical eye over Lewis' approach, noting that Lewis' view is as follows:
The Muslims came to Europe, he writes, as “the forward wave of civilization that was, by comparison with that of its enemies, an organic marvel of coordinated kingdoms, cultures, and technologies in service of a politico-cultural agenda incomparably superior” to that of the primitive people they encountered there. They did Europe a favor by invading. This is not a new idea, but Lewis takes it further: he clearly regrets that the Arabs did not go on to conquer the rest of Europe. The halting of their advance was instrumental, he writes, in creating “an economically retarded, balkanized, and fratricidal Europe that . . . made virtues out of hereditary aristocracy, persecutory religious intolerance, cultural particularism, and perpetual war.” It was “one of the most significant losses in world history and certainly the most consequential since the fall of the Roman Empire.” This is a bold hypothesis.
Don't you love Joan's wry understatement at the end?

It's a really good review, dealing with the general issue of the the motives of historians in a way that I generally agree with. Have a look at her last two paragraphs in particular. I'll extract the key points here:

If, as Edward Said wrote, the old history books were covertly ideological, the current ones tend to be overtly ideological, as each new generation of scholars rides in to rescue supposedly worthy peoples who were wronged by earlier scholarship and, in their time, by axe-wielding conquerors. But all these peoples, or all the ones in Lewis’s book, were conquerors. If the Christians took Spain from the Muslims, the Muslims had taken it from the Visigoths, who had appropriated it from the Romans, who had seized it from the Carthaginians, who had thrown out the Phoenicians. Lewis does not pretend that the Muslims were not conquerors; he simply justifies their conquest on the ground of their belief in convivencia, a pressing matter today.....

Each new problem in our history engenders a revision of past history. Many of today’s historians acknowledge this, and argue that their books, if politicized, are simply more honest about that than the politicized books of the past. This pessimism about the possibility of finding a stable truth may be realistic, but it seems to sanction, even encourage, special pleading—of which “God’s Crucible,” for all its virtues, is an example.

Now for the silly, human bits I learned from the review:
The Vikings did not care to have palace schools. “They are the filthiest race that God ever created,” a Muslim ambassador wrote. “They do not wipe themselves after going to stool, nor wash themselves . . . any more than if they were wild asses.”
I am not entirely sure how certain one could be of the toileting habits of all Vikings; and maybe it was so cold in their homeland you could never smell them anyway.

The Muslims, both then and now, have quite the "thing" about personal hygiene:
Prosperity had softened the Arab √©lite. They liked the good life; they had little taste for war, where you couldn’t get a decent meal or a bath. (The Iberian Muslims felt strongly about personal hygiene. They had toothpaste and underarm deodorant.)
Well, now I am curious as to what 8th century underarm deodorant was made of.

Lewis also notes that, during the conquest of Spain, the Arabs were quite the exporters:
He inventories the great sacks of gold and silver and precious stones that, together with vast numbers of slaves and young women (harem-bound), they sent back to their caliph in Damascus, the capital of the empire. Included in the shipments were the heads, pickled in brine, that they had removed from Visigoth grandees.
Customs and quarantine declarations at shipping ports those days must have made for interesting reading.

Anyway, it's a great read for a Sunday.


David J said...

Having just read the review, I'm not sure the book is as pernicious as you and the reviewer appear to think, despite the examples of special pleading for the Muslim regime in al-Andalus.

I think it is positive to be specific about why one thinks one civilisation is superior to another - as long as this does not devolve into self-hatred.

Without making such distinctions, it would be impossible to say that today's liberal bourgeios democracies are better places to live than the stagnant fascist dictatorships that blight much of the Arab world today.

I certainly don't see that criticising the civilisation of mediaeval Europe necessarily leads to the mistake of refusing to defend today's civilisation against Islamo-fascist terrorists today - I imagine that is one of the broad lines which causes you to have doubts about this book?

I also can't help wondering why a civilisation that was once so much more advanced that Frankland fell so far behind it.

"Well, now I am curious as to what 8th century underarm deodorant was made of."

Probably some sort of absorbent stone or powder, like the deodorant stones you can get in hippy shops today - talc perhaps?. Maybe mixed with some sort of essential oil - rosemary would be useful for that, I guess.

Steve said...


You make a reasonable point that at least Lewis couldn't be accused of being a cultural relativist.

But I don't think this blunts the reviewer's general point which is that Lewis and his ilk seek to correct a valid criticism of "old school" history (that it is not objective, and written by the victors with their assumption of cultural superiority) by engaging in their own over-promotion of the underdog. This doesn't so much "correct" history, but tends to compound the original problem of lack of objectivity.

I think Acocella makes this point in a very straight forward and elegant way.

Lewis's apparent view that Europe at that time would have been better off if it fell entirely to the Muslims is also just guesswork that belongs more to the world of science fiction alternative histories than to a work of history.

On deodorant, I wonder if this is actually a Muslim scientific advance that they can claim credit for? :)