Jesse's Reviews > Two Faiths, One Banner: When Muslims Marched with Christians Across Europe's Battlegrounds

Two Faiths, One Banner by Ian Almond
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Mar 05, 2010

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The idea of a Christian Europe is an exercise in historical amnesia, according to professor Ian Almond. His Two Faiths, One Banner, a semi-academic work on Christian-Muslim military alliances throughout nine centuries of European history, seeks to provide a counter-narrative to a modern culture that has decided to “airbrush Muslims and Jews out of our European heritage” (1). Almond does not pull any punches in his retelling (as the previous quote might imply), especially in his introduction and conclusion, where the Western media, adherents to a “clash of civilizations” theory (most clearly developed by Samuel P. Huntington), politicians, and corporate and business elites all play the role of villains. The latter, in particular, are the “real threat to our society” according to Almond, as they push news of terror plots and distort the religion of Islam to mislead public consciousness (222). Clearly, Two Faiths, One Banner is a book to be carefully considered in a post-September 11 world.

Two Faiths, One Banner is structured with an introduction, five chapters (each with endnotes and listed sources), conclusion, bibliography, and index. The chapter vignettes survey a vast sweep of history—8 centuries altogether—in just over 200 pages. Topics for these essays include: (1) Muslim-Christian co-operation in eleventh century Spain, centering on King Alfonso VI; (2) Frederick II and the Saracens of Southern Italy; (3) Alliances in fourteenth century Greece and Asia Minor; (4) Christian-Turk alliances in Ottoman Hungary; and (5) Muslim alignment with both sides during the Crimean War, 1853-1856. The pace is quick throughout, and Almond proves to be a gifted storyteller with a talent for high drama. The author hopes in telling these stories of Muslim-Christian military alliances to show that Muslims have always been involved in the history of Europe, a fact that needs to inform our modern political and cultural debates.

The downsides of Almond’s broad focus are apparent. The five essays largely read independent of each other, and Almond is inconsistent as he moves through the epochs. For example, Almond gives the customary caution that we cannot project modern views of nationalism onto the Middle Ages; however, this warning is not developed until page 50, near the beginning of the second chapter. Ideally, this and related methodological issues should have been developed early on in the book. Curiously, we find Almond playing rather loosely with medieval understandings of nationality and identity elsewhere in the book, notably in his discussion of fourteenth century Turks, Byzantines, and Latins as “nationalities and ethnic groups” (96).

The most obvious downside of the book’s format—and Almond’s argument—is that Almond runs the risk of being charged with the same selective exampling that he is reacting against. If the Western media’s “selective repetition” of images and use of a “Muslim bogeyman” discredits its narrative, then it follows that Almond’s own carefully constructed historical storyline is equally suspect. Regrettably, Almond does not acknowledge this tension and the hermeneutical problem it raises.

Another question regarding methodology also goes unanswered—to what extent can we assume a monolithic Islam (or Christianity) that can be “sampled” at various points over a period of 900 years and then picked up out of its immediate geographic, economic, and social context in order to inform our modern debates? Much of modern religious scholarship has helpfully used the language of “Islams” and “Christianities” in underscoring the difficulties in comparing religious practice and understanding across historical, geographic, economic, and social lines. This problem comes to the forefront to a greater extent in this book since it is a study fueled by contemporary concerns. One wonders why—given a supposed lack of awareness of Muslim-Christian alliances today—we need to go back to the medieval period at all? Could the author not have contributed to modern awareness by discussing the recent Muslim-Christian military cooperation in Iraqi Kurdistan and Eastern Europe? Of course, had Almond stayed in the modern period, there are so many examples of non-military alliances that could also be treated (the 1994 UN Conference in which Muslims and Roman Catholics came together, calls from the Archbishop of Canterbury for Christian-Muslim co-operation on the issue of global poverty, etc.).

In each chapter Almond builds his case using secondary sources for the most part and creates a flowing narrative; the author uses endnotes infrequently (less than 2 per page), which also helps readability for a non-technical audience. Numerous anecdotes and instances of Muslim-Christian military cooperation are woven into each chapter, and together give strong support to Almond’s pragmatic thesis that Muslims and Christians came together in peculiar ways to fight together. The evidence is weaker and somewhat speculative in instances where the author seeks to prove the existence of a shared culture between Muslims and Christians. Arguably, this instance of mutual understanding and cultural exchange is more important than military alliances in the author’s view (217-18).

At various points, Almond risks damaging his historical narrative by abrupt and needless comparisons to modern politics or religion. Examples in the discussion of 11th century Spain include the argument that Jews, Muslims, and Christians during this period lived more intimately than the average Berliner and German Turk today (31); the comparison of Abd Allah’s unpopularity in Granada to the unpopularity of Western-friendly governments such as those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia (37); and the counterfactual claim that Spanish Christianity today might resemble a theology closer to the Unitarians had the medieval papacy not pressed so hard for dropping the Mozarabic liturgy (38). The author can be forgiven for the occasional aside, but these frequent digressions, when coupled with his polemical introduction and conclusion, create the impression of a hidden agenda. Ironically, Almond warns against people with hidden agendas (221).

Despite the author’s bias and undefined methodology, the book is not without positives. Its strongest contribution lies in its accessibility for students, many of whom will be encountering new ideas. Arguably, Almond is partly correct: popular cultural suffers from a historical amnesia when it comes to Muslim and Christian interaction in the Middle Ages. Even basic points along the medieval story are often unknown; Almond creatively juxtaposes the few people that are aware of the Muslim army’s sack of Rome in 846 to the many people who know at least something about Rome being sacked by the Goths and Vandals. The book would benefit both instructors and students as a supplemental text that raises important issues in historiography, such as source criticism, meta-narratives, and revisionism.

To conclude, Two Faiths, One Banner is a study front-loaded with modern questions that often creep into the historical narrative as well. This fact, coupled with the notable absence of some important methodological discussions, creates a study that appears to be lacking objectivity and exists only for modern political and social interests. That aside, Two Faiths, One Banner might still make an important contribution to scholarship, but it will be one that awaits a full realization. Often, polemical histories such as Two Faiths, One Banner are vanguard projects that spur further studies. As it moves the pendulum of historical studies, it might influence future works to take a more synthetic treatment of the topic. In some ways, Two Faiths, One Banner could be likened to the popular American history work of Howard Zinn (specifically his A People’s History of the United States); both Zinn and Almond have sought to provide an engaging counter-narrative for their respective continents.

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March 5, 2010 – Shelved

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