The Muslim Discovery of Europe by Bernard Lewis


When I read a review in the Post by James Reston, Jr. of the book God’s Crucible; Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 by David Levering Lewis, I was moved to pick up this book Jim bought 10 years ago.   

For the first century and a half after Muhammad died, the Moslems assumed they would complete the dictum of the imposing sharia, God’s law as revealed to Muhammad, on the world.  Their world view was that the world was divided into the House of Islam and the House of War.  In due course, that view was moderated so that mutual tolerance was established.  They were not successful in jihad in Europe beyond Spain and lost interest in the infidels of medieval Europe who had little to offer.  Asia and Africa, with their spices, silk, slaves and gold were of much greater interest.  The ferocious intolerance of the Europeans to non-Christians (Moslems and Jews alike) was another factor.  For their part, the Muslims were contemptuous of the infidels and believed that learning a foreign language was against God’s wishes for them.

A 12th century Syrian Muslim named Usama ib Munquidh was a friendly neighbor of a Frankish knight.  The knight kindly volunteered to take Usama’s 14 year old son to Europe to learn chivalry and wisdom.  Usama found this monstrously absurd; he could not imagine a greater misfortune for his son.  He managed to courteously head off the invitation.  I recall hearing this story from Evelyn Edson at a PVCC series on Islam sometime in the 1990s.

Eventually, the Moslems realized the Europeans had made huge strides, most importantly to them, in military matters.  The Ottomans eventually came to realize the importance of learning about the technology, but it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that language acquisition lost its negative connotations.  Lewis recounts numberless accounts by Moslem historians, geographers, and diplomats to make his impressive and very readable case.   

This subject of this book does does not include the wonder that was the Moslem civilization, its recognition of the importance of Greek knowledge, and why it became hidebound and lost its willingness to move beyond traditional knowledge.  That obviously changed to some extent, but I can’t see an explanation for the enmity of today.  The little reading I’ve done of Bernard Lewis’ post-9/11 commentary, including his mentorship of the neocons does not convince me that his explanation is complete enough to be useful for our world.

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