William's Reviews > God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215

God's Crucible by David Levering Lewis
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Jan 12, 10

really liked it

What could have been did not happen. What did happen should not have been.

There is a keen sense of historical disappointment that David Levering Lewis weaves through "God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215." If only the barbaric French Christians lost the Battle of Poitiers (Tours) to those advanced Arab invaders!

OK, this probably got your attention. Many narratives that look at "the sweep of history" are unabashedly "pro-Western." No matter how barbaric Medieval Europe was, a case is made that this "conflict of many smaller states" was the competitive incubator of technological and cultural advancement while Islam could only offer stasis and eventual backwardness. Lewis doesn't buy it. He contends that cultural, commercial and scientific advancement, as well as tolerance of religious minorities, were the advantages Islam had to offer. His lab for this proof: Medieval Spain. His basis for comparison: Merovingian/Carolingian France.

Rather than succumb to "linear history," Lewis likes to dwell at its "hinge points," when things could have turned out differently if a factor was present instead of absent. Had a more assertive Ethiopian power maintained its grip on the Red Sea coastline of Arabia, perhaps islam never would have gained its first, fragile foothold when Mohammed experienced his revelation. But no greater power was there to enforce a religious orthodoxy, so in the barren desert a seed with portentous consequence was planted and took root.

The explosive rise of Islam had less to do with Arab ferocity and more to do with power filling a vacuum. Byzantium and Sassanid Persia were exhausted after a century of constant warfare, providing no force to contain the Moslem sweep coming out of the worthless wastes of Arabia--a land both "superpowers" ignored. Here Lewis lays down several chapters on Mohammed's life and the early history of Islam, the Ummayid Caliphate and the schism between Shiite and Sunni. The fact that Islam could not build a "second Roman empire" ringing the Mediterranean had more to do with political conflicts within the Caliphate and less to do with any valiant defense by a fragmented and barbaric "Christendom."

With the presence of this foreign "other" pushing into southern France, the birth of European identity came at an unpromising time. The more able strongmen who really ruled Merovingian France were able to hold their own against Islam's waning tide, but Lewis grants them little credit. The Arab failure to conquer leaves France and Church enough breathing space to make common cause, and in the simple act of building a polity turn a speed bump into a low wall.

Might makes right as Charlemagne spreads Christianity at swordpoint through Germany. (It was easier than trying to do the same in Islamic Spain.) But the peaceful pursuit of knowledge becomes a barren sprout in Charlemagne's court, while across the Pyrenees it reaches full flower under a kinder, tolerant, more multi-cultural Islamic caliphate.

Nothing lasts forever. Eventually orthodoxy and intolerance will hobble the strength of Islamic Spain, just as surely as it strengthens the petty Christian kings in the Iberian north country. The rest of the story goes downhill from there.

Lewis writes his book with a rich prose style deeply laced with well-chosen metaphors that describe much in a phrase or a sentence. Just the quality of his writing is enough to tempt a reader out of his complacent field of favorite books to try something new or different.

But Lewis will challenge the reader to reconsider the "Cross vs. Crescent" argument. Taken from the Western view, Christianity's survival against the Islamic tide is a cultural as well as a religious victory, seemingly inevitable. But history is a long and twisted path with many branches where the tale could have turned left instead of right if something different happened at the right moment. Maybe Europe would have been better off under a caliph instead of a king. Lewis raises this question with a skeptic's courage. Sadly, readers may answer this question with an understanding of today's headlines rather than yesterday's facts, making Lewis' book a hard sell indeed.

2 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read God's Crucible.
Sign In »

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Aseff (new) - added it

Aseff Aseff Thanks, that is an excellent review! I had been gifted the book by my wife today and was looking for an intellectual stimulus to read it, your review provides the appeal and lays the outline of what to expect in a generous manner.

message 2: by RDG (new)

RDG The "vacuum" you cited one of the major takeaways I got from the book.

back to top