Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited: The Epilogue

by Emmet Scott (April 2012)

We have seen that, irrespective of what happened in Europe, Graeco-Roman civilization was terminated very abruptly in the seventh century in its heartlands, in the Near and Middle East, and in North Africa. In these vast territories a new civilization, quite unlike that which had gone before, appeared with surprising rapidity. This new Islamic culture inherited the resources, wealth, and learning of the old one, and was, from the very beginning, at an enormous advantage over the remnant “Roman” lands which yet survived in Europe. The latter continent was still largely rural and, for the most part, “pagan” and tribal. Nonetheless, as we have demonstrated in great detail in the foregoing pages, it was home to a large and growing population, which, in the territories of the former Roman Empire, in Gaul, central Europe, and Spain, was still heavily under the influence of Rome and, more especially, of Byzantium. The loss of the Middle East and North Africa to Islam did, as Pirenne argued, terminate most of the commercial and cultural contacts which had previously existed between those territories and Europe. But it did not impoverish Europe. The latter continent was, by the late sixth century, largely self-sufficient economically. Trade in luxuries such as wines and spices certainly came to an end, as did the cultural and political influence of Byzantine. The great basilicas of the Visigoths and the Merovingians, with their marble columns and brightly-colored mosaics, were replaced – after a somewhat lengthy period of non-construction – by the more somber and smaller structures of the tenth-century Romanesque. Yet on the whole the loss of contact with the East had no terrible economic consequences for the majority of Europe’s peoples. On the contrary, Europe was thrown back on its own resources, and it may well be that the great western tradition of inventiveness and innovation was stimulated into life at this time. There was, however, one product whose loss could not be easily made good, and whose absence had a profound impact on the west – papyrus.

The termination of the papyrus supply to Europe, as a cultural event, cannot be overestimated. Indeed, it has hitherto been radically underestimated. Papyrus, a relatively cheap writing material, had a thousand uses in an urban and mercantile culture. And, as we saw in Chapter 15, it was the material upon which was preserved the vast majority of the learning and thinking of the ancients. The loss of papyrus led inexorably to the loss of the bulk of classical literature – irrespective of the efforts of churchmen to preserve it on parchment. Thus from the mid-seventh century Europe became a largely illiterate society, and the educated and articulate town-dwellers, so typical of classical antiquity, disappeared. From then on, few people other than churchmen (and not all of these) could read and write.

The impact of Islam then, on Europe, was primarily cultural rather than, as Pirenne thought, economic. And, having cut Europe off from the sources of classical learning, Islam now began to exert its on influence on the continent. Here again we need to emphasize something that has hitherto received insufficient attention: namely the fact that Islam’s influence upon medieval Europe was immense. In the years before the arrival of Islam, the predominant cultural influence had been from the East, from Byzantium and the Levant. In the years after, it continued to be from the East; but the East now meant Islam. And the ideas which then began to cross the Mediterranean, from the Middle East and North Africa, were anything but enlightened.

It is of course widely accepted that Islam had a significant cultural and ideological impact upon Europe in the early Middle Ages. Historians, as we saw, tend to focus on science and philosophy. It is well-known, for example, that Muslim scholars, beginning with the Persian Avicenna (Ibn Sina) in the late tenth and early eleventh century, had made extensive commentaries upon the works of Aristotle, which they attempted to integrate, with a very limited degree of success it must be noted, into Islamic thought. In the second half of the twelfth century Avicenna’s work was taken up by the Spanish Muslim Averroes (Ibn Rushd), who made his own commentaries and writings on the Greek philosopher. By that time European scholars were very much aware of Arab learning, and men like John of Salisbury even had agents in Spain procuring Arabic manuscripts, which were then translated into Latin. “Soon the commentaries of Averroes were so well known in Europe,” says one historian, “that he was called ‘the Commentator,’ as Aristotle was called ‘the Philosopher.’”[1] At a slightly earlier stage, Christian Europeans had found their way into Muslim-controlled regions such as Sicily, often in disguise, in order to avail themselves of the scientific and alchemical knowledge of the Saracens. No less a person than Gerbert of Aurillac, the genius of the tenth century, on whom the figure of Faust was based, journeyed into the Muslim territories for this very purpose.

The profound influence exerted by Islam upon the philosophical and theological thinking of Europeans was stressed by Briffault, who noted how, “The exact parallelism between Muslim and Christian theological controversy is too close to be accounted for by the similarity of situation, and the coincidences are too fundamental and numerous to be accepted as no more than coincidence. … The same questions, the same issues which occupied the theological schools of Damascus, were after an interval of a century repeated in identical terms in those of Paris.”[2] Again, “The whole logomacy [of Arab theological debate] passed bodily into Christendom. The catchwords, disputes, vexed questions, methods, systems, conceptions, heresies, apologetics and irenics, were transferred from the mosques to the Sorbonne”[3]

Europeans could not, of course, fail to be impressed by what they found in Islamic Spain and southern Italy. They themselves lived in a relatively backward environment. Crucial technologies began to creep into Europe at this time, often via Jewish traders and scholars, who were, for a while, the only class of people able to safely cross the Christian-Islamic frontiers. To these Jewish travelers, some of whom were physicians, alchemists and mathematicians, Europe almost certainly owes the acquisition of such things as the “Arabic” numeral system, knowledge of alcohol distillation, and probably algebra and a host of other information. “Muhammedan philosophy and theology had, we know, been carried to the Benedictine monasteries through the Jews, and the metropolitan house of Monte Cassino.”[4] The Spanish Jews in particular “supplied Arabic versions of Greek writers to Christendom.”[5] Indeed, so important was the influence of these Jewish traders and scholars that we might even say that, at a crucial moment, the Jews delivered to Europe the knowledge that helped her survive the Muslim onslaught. And we know how Europe later thanked them!

All of the above is well known and denied by no one. Yet, as we saw, Europeans were by no means devoid of their own Greek and Latin texts; and virtually all the classical literature that has survived into modern times did so through the good offices of Christian monks, not Arab philosophers. And, as I will now argue, the real ideological impression of Islam was not the enlightened thinking of Avicenna and Averroes, who were in any case rejected and expelled from the Muslim canon, but the darker thinking found in the Koran and the Haditha: the doctrines of perpetual war against non-believers; of holy deception (taqiyya

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The first Islamic (or Koranic) idea to find followers in Europe, and the one most obvious and recognized, was the impulse to iconoclasm, to the destruction of religious imagery and art. Iconoclasm began sometime between 726 and 730 when the Byzantine Emperor Leo III ordered the removal and destruction of all sacred statues and images throughout the Empire. His justification for doing so came from the Old Testament denunciation of idol-worship, yet it is evident that the real inspiration came from Islam.

The question of the Iconoclast episode is one of primary importance. Above all, it has been asked: What could have prompted Byzantine Emperors to go against one of the most fundamental tenets of their faith (the honoring of sacred images) and start destroying these in a manner reminiscent of Oliver Cromwell? Such action can only have been prompted by a crisis of the most profound kind. We have seen that in the early years the advance of Islam seemed unstoppable. The Empire suffered defeat after defeat. Within little more than a decade she had lost all her Middle Eastern possessions outside Anatolia. These included the most prosperous and populous provinces, Egypt and Syria; core areas of the Empire, and part of Imperial territory for seven hundred years. The Empire was experiencing its darkest days; and the fall of Constantinople must surely have seemed imminent. It is precisely crises of such type – those which threaten our very existence – that lead human beings to question fundamentals, to think the previously unthinkable. The Byzantines would have seen their reverses as a sign of divine anger, and a sure indication that they were doing something wrong – something perhaps that their Muslim foes were doing right! A central tenet of Islam is the rejection of images, which are regarded as idols and their honoring condemned as idolatry. No doubt some in Byzantium began to see this as the key.

If this was the psychology behind Byzantine Iconoclasm, then it is clear that Constantinople did not willingly and enthusiastically adopt Islamic thinking. Rather, the success of the new faith from Arabia was such that the Byzantines began to believe that it might enjoy God’s favor. Islamic ideas were therefore considered as a way of resolving a profound crisis. Yet, it is important to remember that, for whatever reason, Islamic ideas were copied. The whole of Christendom, East and West, was threatened by Islam; and, one way or another, ideas derived from Islam itself began to be considered by Christians as an answer to that very crisis.

Iconoclasm caused great divisions within the Empire, and was firmly rejected by the West – creating, it seems, some of the conditions leading to the final break between the Pope and Constantinople. Yet the very fact that a Roman Emperor could introduce a policy so obviously inspired by the beliefs of the Arabs tells us eloquently the extent to which the influence of Islamic ideology now began to make itself felt throughout Europe.   

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One of the most outstanding characteristics of the Middle Ages, and one that above all other perhaps differentiates it from classical antiquity, was its theocracy. The Middle Ages were, par excellence, the age of priestly power. In the West, the influence of the Church was immense, reaching much further than it ever had under the Christian Roman Emperors or the Germanic kings of the fifth and sixth centuries. The Papacy now stood in judgment of kings and Emperors, and had the power to choose and depose them. “By me kings reign” was the proud boast of the medieval papacy.[6]

How did this come about? The refounding of the Western Empire under Charlemagne, according to Pirenne, was intimately connected with the rise of Islam and the destruction of Byzantine power. It was also, very consciously, seen as a method of strengthening Western Christendom against the advance of Islam. In years to come, the new Western Empire would be renamed the Holy Roman Empire – a singularly appropriate title, for the Empire represented a symbiotic union, at the heart of Europe, of spiritual and temporal authority. The crowning of the Emperor – for which the inauguration of Charlemagne became the model – was an event loaded with religious significance. These men ruled Dei gratis, and made the Church the main instrument of royal government. The authority of the Western Emperor would henceforth not simply be derived from his own military and economic strength, as it had been under the Caesars and Germanic kings of the fifth and sixth centuries, but ultimately upon the sanction and approval of the Church.

There were several factors in this crucial development. Pirenne, as we saw, noted that, with the decline in literacy in the seventh century – following the closing of the Mediterranean – kings were forced to look to the Church to supply the educated functionaries needed to run the apparatus of the state. Again, the loss of tax revenue after the termination of the Mediterranean trade meant that the position of the monarch was weakened vis a vis the barons and minor aristocrats. These now gained in power and independence. The kings desperately needed a counterbalance to this, and the support of the Church carried great weight indeed. With the Church on their side the kings could – just about – keep the barons under control. But there was necessarily a trade-off. The Church might keep the king on his throne, but it gained in return an unheard-of influence and authority. Eventually the kings of Europe became, quite literally, subordinate to the Pope, who could even, in extreme cases, dethrone them. Everything a medieval ruler did, or proposed to do, he had to do with the sanction of the Church. Even powerful and independent warriors, such as William of Normandy, could only proceed with a project like the invasion of England after gaining papal approval.

The Carolingian and Ottonian Emperors thus laid the foundations of the medieval theocracy; yet in their time (ninth/tenth century), the papacy was still relatively weak. It was to elicit the support of Otto I against his Italian opponents that Pope John XII revived the dignity of Emperor in the West, after it had lapsed again following the death of Charlemagne. Here we see that in the tenth century, supposedly at the end of a 300-year-long Dark Age, there existed conditions remarkably similar to those pertaining in the sixth and early seventh centuries: Germanic kingdoms that were essentially secular in character, where Popes and prelates were subordinate to the monarchs. Yet conditions were changing. Otto I and his successors staffed their administrations with churchmen, who by then clearly had a monopoly on learning and even literacy. The old, Roman world, was very definitely a thing of the past. From this point on, the power of the Church would grow and grow.

Yet even now the Church had to fight for supremacy, a struggle which commenced in the tenth century, with the aid of the Ottonians, and which ended in the eleventh, with papal victory. “They [Church reformers] fought to secure ultimate control of a self-contained, independent, dominant, monarchical Church. Such a contest was a frontal challenge to the old system of the Roman Empire. It was a frontal attack on the kings who presumed that they had inherited the rights of the Roman emperors. It was an indirect attack on the emperor of Constantinople who, in the East, continued to maintain the old system [of secular supremacy] and was now called schismatic for his pains.”[7]

The very peak of the medieval Church’s power came a century later in the age and in the person of Innocent III (1198 – 1216). This man judged between rival Emperors in Germany and had Otto IV deposed. He laid England under an interdict and excommunicated King John for refusing to recognize Stephen Langdon as Archbishop of Canterbury. His two most memorable actions however were the establishment of the Inquisition and the launching of the notorious Albigensian Crusade, which led to the elimination of the Cathar movement. Innocent III then, the most powerful of medieval theocrats, was a proponent of Holy War, and an enforcer of absolute doctrinal conformity. Apostasy under Innocent III became a capital offence. During his time too the other Crusades, against Islam in Spain and in the Middle East, continued to rage.

Ironically, Innocent’s attitude to apostasy and doctrinal conformity – as well as to “Holy War” – is completely in accord with Islamic notions, and we must consider to what extent these extreme positions of the European theocracy derived ultimately from the Islamic one.

Islam itself was, of course, from the very beginning, theocratic in nature. In it, there was no “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”. Right from the start, in the person of Muhammad, spiritual and temporal power was united. After Muhammad, under the Caliphs, the same situation pertained. Every Caliph was, first and foremost, a “commander of the faithful”. For all that, we cannot judge that the founding of theocracy in Europe was a result of deliberate imitation of Islamic notions, as was iconoclasm and Holy War. Islam’s contribution to the European theocracy was real enough, but rather more accidental, or rather, inferential As we saw, the impoverishment of Europe and her monarchs caused by Islam’s blockade of the Mediterranean, left them little option but to turn to the Church for support. Also, the fight for the defense of Europe, because of the very nature of the enemy, took on a religious dimension (all faiths gain in strength when faced with opposition), and this too would have increased the power and prestige of the Church.

So, whilst the medieval European theocracy was not the result of direct imitation of Islamic ideas, Islam was still instrumental in giving birth to it. Furthermore, the type of theocracy which took shape in Europe, and some of the underlying ideas associated with it, very definitely derived from Islam.

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From its inception, Islam regarded apostasy and heresy as capital offences,[8] and almost immediately after the death of Muhammad there erupted serious and extremely violent disputes over conflicting claims to the leadership of the movement. Assassination and murder was the order of the day. Even those with no leadership pretensions, but with heterodox views, were subject to violent suppression. The most notorious early example is found in the fate of Mansur Al-Hallaj (858 – 922), the Persian mystic, whose death mimicked that of Christ – though before being crucified Al-Hallaj was first, it is said, blinded and otherwise tortured. And the killing of political and religious opponents, or those who deviated in any way from orthodox Islam, occurred at the very start and was continuous throughout Muslim history. So it was with infidels such as Christians and Jews who, though theoretically dhimmi, or “protected,” were in fact always the subject of violent attack. We know, for example, that in 704 or 705 the caliph Walid (705-715) “assembled the nobles of Armenia in the church of St Gregory in Naxcawan and the church of Xrain on the Araxis, and burned them to death. Others were crucified and decapitated and their wives and children taken into captivity. A violent persecution of Christians in Armenia is recorded from 852 to 855.”[9] There even existed, in Spain and North Africa, at least from the time of the Almohads (early twelfth century), a commission of enquiry, a veritable “inquisition”, for rooting out apostates. We are told that the Jews, who had at this time been forced to accept Islam, formed a mass of “new converts” who nevertheless continued to practice their own religion in secret. But the “Almohad inquisitors, doubting their sincerity, took away their children and raised them as Muslims.”[10]

Medieval Christianity, beginning in the late twelfth/early thirteenth century, adopted the same attitude. Christians now had their own Inquisition for exposing heretics, and the death penalty was now prescribed for such miscreants. The judicial use of torture too, “a novelty in Europe” at the time, became accepted practice.[11] All of these practices were in fact novel in Europe of the eleventh or twelfth century: The barbarous treatment of criminals and dissidents which had been customary in Imperial Rome was phased out during the early Christian centuries. Constantine abolished crucifixion as a form of execution, and attempted to do away with gladiatorial displays. These were finally abolished in the time of Honorius (early fifth century). The condition of slaves was dramatically improved by the Christianization of the Empire, and the Church worked to end the institution entirely – a goal finally accomplished by the eighth or perhaps ninth century. Torture of prisoners, routine in Imperial Rome, was gradually done away with around the same time. Nor is there any evidence, in the early Christian centuries, of the lethal intolerance which characterized the Inquisition. It is true that in the early centuries, the Church was involved in a series of prolonged and bitter disputes over the correct interpretation of Christ’s life and mission. Those who disagreed with the mainstream dogmas, as laid down by various Councils, were decreed to be heretics, and fairly severe condemnation of these people and groups was common: indeed, it was almost endemic. Yet, intemperate as was the language used in these disputes, they rarely turned violent; and even when they did, the violence was on a very small scale and invariably perpetrated by those with no official sanction or approval. And the use of force to enforce orthodoxy was condemned by all the Church Fathers. Thus Lactantius declared that “religion cannot be imposed by force; the matter must be carried on by words rather than by blows, that the will may be affected.” He wrote,

Oh with what an honorable inclination the wretched men go astray! For they are aware that there is nothing among men more excellent than religion, and that this ought to be defended with the whole of our power; but as they are deceived in the matter of religion itself, so also are they in the manner of its defense. For religion is to be defended, not by putting to death, but by dying; not by cruelty, but by patient endurance; not by guilt, but by good faith. … For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by guilt, it will no longer be defended, but will be polluted and profaned. For nothing is so much a matter of free will as religion; in which, if the mind of the worshipper is disinclined to it, religion is at once taken away, and ceases to exist.[12]

Later, St. John Chrysostom wrote that “it is not right to put a heretic to death, since an implacable war would be brought into the world.”[13] Likewise, St. Augustine was to write of heretics that “it is not their death, but their deliverance from error, that we seek.”[14] In spite of these and many other such admonitions, incidents of violence against heretics did occur; but they were isolated and never approved by Church authorities. Such, for example, was the case with the suppression of the so-called Priscillian Heresy in Spain in the latter years of the fourth and early years of the fifth century. Several followers of Priscillian were put to death, and the sect was persecuted in other ways. Yet the killing of Priscillian and his immediate associates (seven in all) was thoroughly condemned by the ecclesiastical authorities.

The same was true of another, and more famous, case – the murder of Hypatia. This incident, in the early fifth century, has achieved, in some quarters, almost legendary status, and is seen as the example par excellence of Christian bigotry and obscurantism. But from what little we know of it, it is clear that the murder was carried out by a group of lawless fanatics and not by the Church. We should note too that the murder occurred in Egypt, a land with a long tradition of religious fanaticism. During the time of Julius Caesar an Egyptian mob lynched a Roman centurion (an act which could have brought upon them a terrible retribution) for having the temerity to kill a cat. Such isolated acts of fanaticism have occurred in all faiths at all periods of history. Even that most pacifist and tolerant of religious ideologies, Buddhism, is not entirely free of it. So, in itself, the murder of Hypatia cannot tell us much. The Christian writer Socrates Scholasticus, in the fifth century, regarded it as a deplorable act of bigotry, whilst just three centuries later his fellow-countryman John of Nikiu fully approved of the killing. He described Hypatia as “a pagan” who was “devoted to magic” and who had “beguiled many people through Satanic wiles.” What could have produced such a change?

The world we call “medieval” was one in which the reason and humanism of the classical world had to some degree disappeared. Dark fantasies and superstitions became more prominent. Belief in the power of magicians and sorcerers, a belief associated with the most primitive type of mind-set, made a comeback. In the most backward of modern societies we still find perfectly innocent people accused of “witchcraft” and brutally put to death for a crime which they never committed and which does not even exist. By the end of the Middle Ages this mentality had returned to Europe; and in 1487 a papal Bull named malleus maleficarum (“hammer of the witches”) pronounced the death of witches and Satanists. Even in Innocent III’s time the “heretics” of the age, the Cathars and Waldensians, were believed to be under the inspiration of Satan.

Yet Europe, as she emerged from the so-called Dark Age in the tenth century, still bathed in the light of reason and humanitarianism. Thus a tenth century canon of Church Law criticized and condemned the belief among country folk that “certain women” were in the habit of riding out on beasts in the dead of night and crossing great distances before daybreak. According to the canon, anyone who believed this was “beyond doubt an infidel and a pagan.” Somewhat earlier, Saint Agobard, Bishop of Lyons, declared it was not true that witches could call up storms and destroy harvests. Nor could they devour people from within nor kill them with the “evil eye”.[15] “Only a few generations later,” note Colin Wilson and Christopher Evans, “any person who did not believe in night flying and witches as the Church defined them was in danger of being burned as a heretic.”[16] What, ask these two authors, had happened in the intervening years to change the Church’s attitude?  

In answer to that question, let us recall how, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries inquisitive young men from northern Europe flocked to Islamic Spain to study the knowledge and learning to be found there. But, as Louis Bertrand remarked, it was not so much the “science” of the Moors that attracted them as the pseudo-science: the alchemy, the astrology and the sorcery.[17] What the Moors taught was a far cry from the learning now so widely praised in the politically-correct textbooks that fill our libraries and bookshops.

Sorcery and alchemy were not the only things learned by the Europeans from the Muslims: they took also ideas directly from the Koran and the Haditha; ideas about how heretics, apostates and sorcerers should be treated. And it is scarcely to be doubted that in establishing his own Inquisition Innocent III was directly imitating the example of the Almohads in Spain, who had set up their own commission for investigating heretics and apostates fifty years earlier.

Innocent III is viewed by the enemies of Christianity as the bête noir, the living embodiment of everything that was and is wrong with Christianity. Yet the fact that his attitudes had Islamic – but not Christian – precedents is never mentioned. And there is another point to consider: Whilst we do not seek to minimize the enormity of Innocent’s actions, we must never forget that in the 12th and 13th centuries the Muslim threat had by no means receded: it remained as potent and dangerous as ever. In such circumstances – indeed, in any war situation – internal dissent (such as the Cathars represented) is liable to be viewed as representing a fifth column working for the enemy. And it is well-known that all wartime dissent is suppressed with a thoroughness and ruthlessness much more severe than would normally be the case. The later Spanish Inquisition, which implemented draconian measures against dissenters in the Iberian Peninsula, must be seen in the same light. The threat of Islam was ever present, and we can be reasonably certain that the severe repression of Muslims at this time was directly attributable to the fear of a renewed Muslim invasion of the Peninsula (by the Ottomans) and the possibility that the native Muslims would form a fifth column in support of the invaders.   


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We have found that in the years after 600 classical civilization, which was by then synonymous with Christendom, came into contact with a new force, one that extolled war as a sacred duty, sanctioned the enslavement and killing of non-believers as a religious obligation, sanctioned the judicial use of torture, and provided for the execution of apostates and heretics. All of these attitudes, which, taken together, are surely unique in the religious traditions of mankind, can be traced to the very beginnings of that faith. Far from being manifestations of a degenerate phase of Islam, all of them go back to the founder of the faith himself. Yet, astonishingly enough, this is a religion and an ideology which is still extolled by academics and artists as enlightened and tolerant. Indeed, to this day, there exists a large body of opinion, throughout the Western World, which sees Islam as in every way superior to, and more enlightened than, Christianity.

By around 650 almost half the Christian world was lost to this new and “enlightened” faith; and by 715 the remainder was in serious danger. These events had an enormous impact. The closure of the Mediterranean meant the impoverishment of Western Europe, which was then compelled to improvise as best it could. The lack of papyrus forced the use of the immensely expensive parchment, leading naturally to a serious decline in literacy. The Viking Wars, which the Islamic Invasions elicited, brought enormous disruption also to the northern part of the continent. Desperate for a unifying force that could bring together all the Germanic kingdoms of the West for the defense of Christendom, the Western Empire was re-established, and Constantinople, fighting for her very survival, could do little about it.

Western culture changed radically. For the first time, Christians began to think in terms of Holy War, and the whole theology of the faith went into a sate of flux. This great transformation began in the years after 650, and the phenomenon we call “Crusading” began, properly speaking, in southern Italy and more especially Spain, during the seventh and eighth centuries, as Christians fought a desperate rearguard action to save what they could from the advancing Saracens. This action was to develop into a protracted struggle that was to last for centuries, and was to have a profound and devastating effect upon European civilization. Above all, it meant, by sheer impact of force and time, the gradual adoption by the Christians of many of the characteristics of their Muslim foes. Thus by the eleventh and twelfth centuries Christian kings in Spain and southern Italy reigned over arabized courts and had adopted typically Muslim (and utterly non-Christian) customs, such as polygamy. The most famous, or infamous, example of this was the Emperor Frederick II, “the baptized sultan of Sicily,” who kept an expensive harem guarded by eunuchs.[18]

As well as this direct influence, there was the barbarizing effect of the continual war into which the whole Mediterranean littoral was now plunged. The arrival of Islam brought to a definitive end the peace of the Mediterranean, the pax Romana that had even survived the fall of Rome. With the appearance of Islam, the Mediterranean was no longer a highway, but a frontier, and a frontier of the most dangerous kind. Piracy, rapine, and slaughter became the norm – for a thousand years! And this is something that has been almost completely overlooked by historians, especially those of northern European extraction.  For the latter in particular, the Mediterranean is viewed in the light of classical history. So bewitched have educated Europeans been by the civilizations of Greece and Rome, that they have treated the more recent part of Mediterranean history – over a thousand years of it – as if it never existed. The visitor to Mediterranean lands, perhaps on the Grand Tour, was shown the monuments of the classical world; here Caesar fought a battle, there Anthony brought his fleet, etc.

This distorted and romanticized view of the Mediterranean and its past, which ignored the savagery and fear of the past millennium, was particularly characteristic of those of Anglo-Saxon origin, with whom there was the added problem of religious antagonism. With the reign of Elizabeth I, England became the mortal enemy of Catholic Europe; and the Catholic power of the time was of course Spain. From this point on, English-speaking historians tended to be heavily biased against Catholic Spain and, unsurprisingly, extremely favorable towards Spain’s Muslim enemies, who were romanticized and portrayed as cultured and urbane. It was then that the myth of the “golden age” of the Spanish Caliphate was born – a myth which, as we have seen, still has a very wide circulation.

Yet the reality was quite different: With the Muslim conquest of North Africa and Spain, a reign of terror was to commence that was to last for centuries. The war in Spain dragged on until the fifteenth century. By then, a new front was opened in Italy, as the rising power of the Ottoman Turks, having already engulfed Greece and the Balkans, threatened to penetrate Italy. This danger remained active and alive for the next three centuries, until the Turks were finally beaten back at the gates of Vienna in 1683. In the interim, the Pope was ready to flee from Rome on more than one occasion, as Ottoman fleets scoured the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, it seemed that all of central Europe, including Hungary and Austria, was about to be overwhelmed; and though the imminent danger was averted by the victory of John Hunyadi at Belgrade (1456), it was renewed again in the sixteenth century, when an enormous Turkish invasion force was stopped by the Holy League at the naval battle of Lepanto (1571). And it is worth noting here that the Turkish losses at Lepanto, comprising 30,000 men and 200 out of 230 warships, did not prevent them returning the following year with another enormous fleet: Which speaks volumes for their persistence and the perennial nature of the threat they posed. A short time before this, in the 1530s, the Turks had extended their rule westwards along the North African coast as far as Morocco, where they encouraged an intensification of slaving raids against Christian communities in southern Europe. Fleets of Muslim pirates brought devastation to the coastal regions of Italy, Spain, southern France, and Greece. The Christians of the islands, in particular, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearics, had to get used to savage pirate raids, bent on rape and pillage.

Hugh Trevor-Roper was at pains to emphasize that the epoch we now call the Renaissance, which we view as an age of artistic and intellectual achievement, as well as exuberant optimism, seemed very different to the inhabitants of Europe at the time. Even as Cortes and Pizarro conquered the vastly wealthy lands of Mexico and Peru in his name, the Emperor Charles V gloomily awaited the dissolution of Christendom. “We set out to conquer worthless new empires beyond the seas,” lamented Busbequius, the Belgian whom the King of the Romans sent as ambassador to the Sultan of Turkey, “and we are losing the heart of Europe.”[19] Christendom, he wrote, subsided precariously by the good will of the king of Persia, whose ambitions in the east continually called the Sultan of Turkey back from his European conquests.[20]

These events had a profound effect on the character of the Christian peoples of the Balkans and of the Mediterranean, a fact which has never been fully appreciated by northern Europeans. From the vantage-point of London or Paris, the Ottomans and the Barbary Pirates do not loom large. From Rome however things looked quite different. Rome, the very seat of the Catholic faith, was on the front line of this never-ending war. Viewed from central Italy, the paranoia of medieval Popes about heresies and internal enemies becomes somewhat more understandable.

And the people of Spain, who held the front line of the bloody boundary for centuries, were transformed. The war against Islam became the raison d’être for many, even most, Spanish kings. It was a perennial project; not an obsession, more like a normal part of life. It was taken for granted that there could never be peace with the Islamic world. How could it be otherwise, when making war against the infidel was a religious duty for every Muslim? Christians had understood this centuries earlier, and it was reiterated in the fourteenth century by the Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun:

In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the [Muslim] mission and [the obligation to] convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. Therefore, caliphate and royal authority are united [in Islam], so that the person in charge can devote the available strength to both of them [religion and politics] at the same time.

The other groups did not have a universal mission, and the holy war was not a religious duty to them, save only for purposes of defense. It has thus come about that the person in charge of religious affairs [in other religious groups] is not concerned with power politics at all. [Among them] royal authority comes to those who have it, by accident and in some way that has nothing to do with religion. It comes to them as a necessary result of group feeling, which by its very nature seeks to obtain royal authority, as we have mentioned before, and not because they are under obligation to gain power over other nations, as is the case with Islam. They are merely required to establish their religion among their own [people].

This is why the Israelites after Moses and Joshua remained unconcerned with royal authority for about four hundred years. Their only concern was to establish their religion (1: 473).

Thereafter, there was dissensions among the Christians with regard to their religion and to Christology. They split into groups and sects, which secured the support of various Christian rulers against each other. At different times there appeared different sects. Finally, these sects crystallized into three groups, which constitute the [Christian] sects. Others have no significance. These are the Melchites, the Jacobites, and the Nestorians. We do not think that we should blacken the pages of this book with discussion of their dogmas of unbelief. In general, they are well known. All of them are unbelief. This is clearly stated in the noble Qur’an. [To] discuss or argue those things with them is not up to us. It is [for them to choose between] conversion to Islam, payment of the poll tax, or death.[21]

Ibn Khaldun was a native of Andalusia, but what he wrote about jihad would have been understood by every monarch of Spain, Christian and Moor. Thus for the kings of Castile the survival in the Iberian Peninsula of any region from which Islam could launch attacks was seen as a real and ever present threat, and the reduction of Islamic Spain to the southern strongholds of Andalusia did not make Christians feel any more secure. Now the threat was not from North Africa but from Turkey. The existence of Granada threatened the existence of Christian Spain, for the Ottomans could at any moment use it as a beach-head for a second conquest of the Peninsula. Thus Granada had to be reduced, no matter what the cost. And even after that, the Spaniards did not feel secure. The war against Islam would continue, as it always had. The Ottomans were now threatening Italy and the entire western Mediterranean, Spain herself could be next. Even the voyages of discovery were undertaken with the struggle against Islam in mind. Columbus’ first voyage, for example, had as its object the discovery of a direct route to the East Indies, bypassing Muslim territory, “so as to take Islam in the rear,” says Louis Bertrand, “and to effect an alliance with the Great Khan – a mythical personage who was believed to be the sovereign of all that region, and favourable to the Christian religion …”[22] Bertrand was very insistent on this point, which he emphasized in half a dozen pages. The voyage of discovery was to begin a new phase, he says, in “the Crusade against the Moors which was to be continued by a new and surer route. It was by way of the Indies that Islam was to be dealt a mortal blow.”[23]

So certain was Bertrand of the connection between the exploits of the Conquistadores in the Americas and the war against Islam that he actually describes the conquest of America as the “last Crusade.”

The record of the Conquistadores in the New World needs no repetition here: It is one of cruelty and greed on a truly monumental scale. Yet the habits of the Spaniards here, habits which gave rise to the “Black Legend,” were learned at the school of the Caliphs. In Bertrand’s words: “Lust for gold, bloodthirsty rapacity, the feverish pursuit of hidden treasure, application of torture to the vanquished to wrest the secret of their hiding-places from them – all these barbarous proceedings and all these vices, which the conquistadores were to take to America, they learnt at the school of the caliphs, the emirs, and the Moorish kings.”[24]

Indeed all of the traits associated with the Spaniards, for which they have been roundly criticized by English-speaking historians, can be traced to the contact with Islam.

“The worst characteristic which the Spaniards acquired was the parasitism of the Arabs and the nomad Africans: the custom of living off one’s neighbour’s territory, the raid raised to the level of an institution, marauding and brigandage recognized as the sole means of existence for the man-at-arms. In the same way they went to win their bread in Moorish territory, so the Spaniards later went to win gold and territory in Mexico and Peru.

“They were to introduce there, too, the barbarous, summary practices of the Arabs: putting everything to fire and sword, cutting down fruit-trees, razing crops, devastating whole districts to starve out the enemy and bring them to terms; making slaves everywhere, condemning the population of the conquered countries to forced labour. All these detestable ways the conquistadores learnt from the Arabs.

“For several centuries slavery maintained itself in Christian Spain, as in the Islamic lands. Very certainly, also, it was to the Arabs that the Spaniards owed the intransigence of their fanaticism, the pretension to be, if not the chosen of God, at least the most Catholic nation of Christendom. Philip II, like Abd er Rahman or El Mansour, was Defender of the Faith.

“Finally, it was not without contagion that the Spaniards lived for centuries in contact with a race of men who crucified their enemies and gloried in piling up thousands of severed heads by way of trophies. The cruelty of the Arabs and the Berbers also founded a school in the Peninsula. The ferocity of the emirs and the caliphs who killed their brothers or their sons with their own hands was to be handed on to Pedro the Cruel and Henry of Trastamare, those stranglers under canvas, no better than common assassins.”[25]

One of the most deplored characteristics of medieval Europe was its virulent and frequently violent anti-Semitism. Yet the extreme form of anti-Semitism encountered in Europe during the Middle Ages did not predate the eleventh century. Indeed, the first massacres of Jews in Europe were carried out in Spain by Muslim mobs early in the eleventh century; in 1011 (in Cordoba) and 1066 (in Granada). It is true of course that Christians had a long history of antagonism towards the Jews, one that preceded the appearance of Islam. The antagonism was mutual, and Jewish leaders were in the early centuries as vociferous in their condemnation of Christianity as Christians were of Judaism. Serious violence between the two groups was however uncommon; and the first real pogrom launched by Christians against the Jews in Europe did not happen until the beginning of the First Crusade, in 1096, that is, thirty years after the massacre in Granada. And it seems a virtual certainty that the German mobs who carried out the 1096 massacres learned their hatred in Spain.

From Roman and perhaps even pre-Roman times Spain was home to a very large Jewish community. Following the Islamic conquest of that land in 711, the Jews came under the domination of a faith that was from its inception virulently and violently anti-Jewish. For Muslims the lead was given by none other than their founder, the Prophet Muhammad. It would be superfluous to enumerate the anti-Jewish pronouncements in the Koran and the Haditha, where the Hebrews are portrayed as the craftiest, most persistent and most implacable enemies of Allah. In the Koran (2: 63-66) Allah transforms some Jews who profaned the Sabbath into apes: “Be as apes despicable!” In Koran 5: 59-60, He directs Muhammad to remind the “People of the Book” about “those who incurred the curse of Allah and His wrath, those whom some He transformed into apes and swine, those who worshipped evil.” Again, in 7: 166, we hear of the Sabbath-breaking Jews that “when in their insolence they transgressed (all) prohibitions,” Allah said to them, “Be ye apes, despised and rejected.”

From the same sources we know that Muhammad’s first violent action against the Jews involved the Qaynuqa tribe, who dwelt at Medina, under the protection of the city. Muhammad “seized the occasion of an accidental tumult,” and ordered the Qaynuqa (or Kainoka) to embrace his religion or fight. In the words of Gibbon, “The unequal conflict was terminated in fifteen days; and it was with extreme reluctance that Mahomet yielded to the importunity of his allies and consented to spare the lives of the captives.” (Decline and Fall, Chapter 50) In later attacks on the Jews, the Hebrew captives were not so fortunate.

The most notorious of all Muhammad’s attacks against the Jews was directed at the Banu Quraiza tribe. This community, which dwelt near Medina, was attacked without warning by the Prophet and his men, and, after its defeat, all the males over the age of puberty were beheaded. Some Islamic authorities claim that Muhammad personally participated in the executions. The doomed men and boys, whose numbers are estimated at anything between 500 and 900, were ordered to dig the trench which was to be their communal grave. All of the women and children were enslaved. These deeds are mentioned in the Koran as acts carried out by Allah himself and fully sanctioned by divine approval.

The Massacre of Banu Quraiza was followed soon after by the attack on the Khaybar tribe. On this occasion, the Prophet ordered the torture of a Jewish chieftain to extract information about where he had hidden his treasures. When the treasure was uncovered, the chieftain was beheaded.

What caused Muhammad’s seemingly implacable animosity towards the Jews? According to Gibbon, it was their refusal to recognize him as their long-awaited Messiah that “converted his friendship into an implacable hatred, with which he pursued that unfortunate people to the last moment of his life; and, in the double character of apostle and conqueror, his persecution was extended into both worlds.” (Decline and Fall, Ch. 50)

It is a widely-held fiction that, aside from the Prophet’s persecution of the Jews of Arabia, Muslims in general and Islam as a rule was historically tolerant to this People of the Book, who were generally granted dhimmi (“protected”) status in the Islamic Umma, or community. But dhimmi status, also accorded to Christians, did not, as Bat Ye’or has demonstrated at great length, imply equal rights with Muslims. On the contrary, dhimmis were subject, even at the best of times, to a whole series of discriminatory and humiliating laws and to relentless exploitation. At the worst of times, they could be murdered in the streets without any hope of legal redress. One of the most noxious measures directed against them was the requirement to wear an item or color of clothing by which they could be easily identified: identified for easy exploitation and abuse. Bat Ye’or has shown that this law was enforced in Islam right from the beginning. The violence was not continuous, but the exploitation was, and the pattern of abuse initiated by Muhammad in Arabia in the seventh century was to be repeated throughout history. The first massacres of Jews in Europe, carried out by Muslim mobs in Spain, were preceded by other massacres carried out in North Africa, and clearly formed a continuum with Muhammad’s massacres of that people in Arabia.

There was, however, at times, a semblance of tolerance for both Jews and Christians. It could not have been otherwise. When the Arabs conquered the vast territories of Mesopotamia, Syria, and North Africa during the seventh century, they found themselves a small minority ruling over enormous populations comprising mainly Christians and, to a lesser degree, Jews. As such, they needed to proceed with caution. Like all conquerors, the Arabs were quick to exploit any internal conflicts; and it was in their interests, above all, to divide the Christians from the Jews. This was particularly the case in Spain, where the Jewish population was very large. A united Jewish and Christian front could have proved extremely dangerous, and it was entirely in the interest of the conquerors to sow mistrust and suspicion between these communities. In the words of Bat Ye’or, “The [Arab] invaders knew how to take advantage of the dissensions between local groups in order to impose their own authority, favoring first one and then another, with the intention of weakening and ruining them all through a policy of ‘divide and rule.’”[26]

Jewish communities, both in Spain and elsewhere, tended to be both educated and prosperous. Jewish doctors, scientists and merchants could be usefully employed by any ruling group. And employed they were by the Arabs. Some, such as Ibn Naghrela, rose to positions of great prominence. The international connections of the Jews and their mastery of languages proved invaluable to the new rulers. The Jews frequently found themselves in the role of intermediaries between Muslims and Christians. Yet such favors as they enjoyed was transitory and uncertain. There was never any real security, as the massacres of 1011 and 1066 illustrate only too well. On the other hand, it was entirely in the interests of the Muslims that the Christians believed the Jews were favored. And part of that myth was the notion that “the Jews” had actually assisted the Muslims in their conquest of the country.

The likelihood that this story was true is vanishingly small, especially when we consider the massacres of Jews carried out in Arabia by Muhammad himself just a few decades earlier. No people had better international links than the Jews, a nation of merchants par excellence, and those of Spain would have been very much aware of Muhammad’s behavior long before the first Muslim armies landed on Spanish soil. Nonetheless, the story got out that the Jews had helped the Muslims, and there can be little doubt that this story was fostered by the Muslim invaders themselves, as part of the policy of divide and conquer.

All during the tenth and eleventh centuries, the war for possession of the Iberian Peninsula raged between Christians and Muslims. This conflict was to grow into a real clash of civilizations, as both groups called in the assistance of co-religionists from far and wide. The Shrine of Santiago de Compostela became a rallying symbol for the Christians of the north and for those of France and Germany, who crossed the Pyrenees to join the struggle against Islam. Their Christian allies in Spain already had the conviction that the Jews were secret allies of the Muslims. They were convinced that the Jews had assisted the Muslims in their conquest of the country; and they came into contact with Muslim anti-Semitic attitudes – attitudes which the Christians began to imbibe. It is an acknowledged fact that it was in Spain that the warriors who later joined the First Crusade learnt their antisemitism. In the words of Steven Runciman, “Already in the Spanish wars there had been some inclination on the part of Christian armies to maltreat the Jews.”[27] Runciman notes that at the time of the expedition to Barbastro, in the mid-eleventh century, Pope Alexander II had written to the bishops of Spain to remind them that there was all the difference in the world between Muslims and Jews. The former were irreconcilable enemies of the Christians, but the latter were ready to work for them. However, in Spain “the Jews had enjoyed such favour from the hands of the Moslems that the Christian conquerors could not bring themselves to trust them.”[28] This lack of trust is confirmed by more than one document of the period, several of which are listed by Runciman.

Just over a decade after the Christian knights of France and Germany had helped their co-religionists in Spain to retake the city of Toledo from the Muslims, some of them prepared to set out on the First (official) Crusade. Before they did so, a few of them took part in the mass murder of several thousand Jews in Germany and Bohemia – an atrocity unprecedented in European history.

In view of the fact that these pogroms were committed by warriors some of whom had learned their trade in Spain, and in view of the fact that such atrocities were hitherto unknown in Europe, we may state that there is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that the Christians had been influenced by Islamic ideas.

To conclude, I am not trying to argue that anti-Semitism did not exist among Christians before the rise of Islam. Obviously it did. Yet the influence of Islam, and the terrible struggle between the two intolerant ideologies of Christianity and Islam which began in the seventh century, had a profoundly detrimental effect upon the Jews; and it was then, and only then, that the virulent and murderous anti-Semitism so characteristic of the Middle Ages entered European life.

*          *          *

The undoubted negative influence of Islam upon the character and culture of Spain and the other Mediterranean lands should not blind us to the fact that the Christian message was never completely lost nor the church as an institution completely corrupted. Following the rise of the Germanic kingdoms in the fifth century, the church worked hard to uphold the rights of slaves and the peasants against the cupidity and passions of the fierce warrior-class which now ruled Spain, Gaul and Italy. This continued during the period of the Muslim and Viking invasions and afterwards. “The tenth and eleventh centuries saw a struggle between the lords and the church over the rights of these people [the peasants]. The lords wanted to deprive the serfs of all the rights of human beings, to say that they had no souls and to refuse to call their unions marriages.”[29] The church, notes the above writer, won this battle, but not without fierce resistance on the part of the nobles. This struggle on behalf of the poor continued right throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, and we have already noted how the monasteries, for example, provided free medical care, as well as alms and shelter, to the poor and destitute all throughout this epoch. And the church further protected the poor by ensuring the enactment of laws against speculation, such as the fixed price of bread and grain, and the various rules which governed the business of the guilds. Even war was regulated by the church, and medieval conflicts, at least within Europe, were not nearly as violent as many imagine. As Sidney Painter notes; “Even when kings and feudal princes fought supposedly serious wars in the early Middle Ages, they were not bloody. At the great and decisive battle of Lincoln in 1217, where some 600 knights on one side fought 800 on the other, only one knight was killed, and everyone was horrified at the unfortunate accident.”[30]

There is no question that the medieval custom of ransoming important hostages provided an economic motive for this remarkable unwillingness to use lethal force; but it is equally clear that the idea of chivalry, with its strongly Christian overtones, exerted a powerful moderating influence.

Nor should we forget that during the centuries which followed the First Crusade, when we might imagine Christians in Europe to have become thoroughly accustomed to the idea of fighting and killing for Christ, there is much evidence to show that this did not happen. The idea of violence in the name of Christ was, in the words of Jonathan Riley-Smith, “without precedent” when it was first promoted in the eleventh century.[31] “So radical was the notion of devotional war,” says Riley-Smith, that it is surprising that there seem to have been no protests from senior churchmen”[32] Be that as it may, Christians could never be fully at ease with the idea, and enthusiasm for crusading soon waned. Riley-Smith notes that, following the success of the First Crusade, the supply of new recruits immediately dried up, even among those groups and families who had been its strongest supporters. These reverted, instead, to the traditional non-military pilgrimage to the Holy Land.[33] We should note too individual statements like that of the English Franciscan Roger Bacon in the 1260s, who criticized the very idea of Crusading, arguing that such military activities impeded efforts to peacefully convert Muslims.[34] Contrast this with the attitude in Islam, where all warriors who died in the Jihad were “martyrs” and guaranteed an immediate reward of 72 virgins in Paradise. And the contrast is seen very clearly in the words of Gregory Palamas, an Orthodox metropolitan, who was a captive of the Turks in 1354: “ … these infamous people, hated by God and infamous, boast of having got the better of the Romans [Byzantines] by their love of God. … They live by the bow, the sword, and debauchery, finding pleasure in taking slaves, devoting themselves to murder, pillage, spoil … and not only do they commit these crimes, but even – what an aberration – they believe that God approves of them.”[35]

And when the Spaniards began the conquest of the New World, one should not forget that the great majority of the excesses carried out were by individual and unregulated adventurers, over whom the royal and church authorities had little control. Nor should we neglect to mention that it was owing to the enormous and sustained pressure of many humane and courageous churchmen that the custom of enslaving the native inhabitants of the New World was finally abandoned.

Thus it would be a mistake to imagine, amidst the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the colonization of the Americas, that the original spirit and teaching of the Carpenter of Galilee was irretrievably lost. Nonetheless, the violent world in which the church found itself put many strains upon it; and the message of Christ was undeniably diluted.

*          *          *

The removal of Roman power in the fifth century and the flooding of the western provinces by barbarian armies produced in Europe a revival of the military and warrior spirit which had characterized Rome herself in her earlier days. But the barbarians themselves became “softened” by the settled lives they began to lead in the western provinces and by the influence of the Christian faith. Even newly-arrived hordes, like the Franks and Langobards in the late fifth and sixth centuries, fell under the civilizing spell of Rome and of Christianity; and the fierce customs of the men who, just a generation earlier had dwelt in the forests and wildernesses of Germany, soon began to be softened in the vineyards of Gaul and the olive-groves of Spain. Then, however, early in the seventh century, when the West was about to be re-Romanized, there appeared a new enemy: one that could not be placated and could not be Christianized. To the normal horrors of war the Muslim invaders added a new and dangerous element: religious fanaticism. Here were conquerors intent not only on plunder and enslavement, but also on the extinction or at the very least subjugation of the Christian faith. Against the barbarians of Germany and Scythia, the Christians of the west might fight for the possession of their homes and their lands, but such enemies were not intent on the destruction of the Christian religion. Christians were free to worship as they wished; and indeed many of the barbarians showed, from the very start, that they could be influenced by and even converted to the Christian faith.

With the Muslims, this was never an option. These were the “unconvertibles”, men who were driven by their own religious zeal, and who waged war specifically to spread that faith. And this was an enmity that time did not ameliorate: for centuries after the invasions of southern Italy, Spain and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, Muslim freebooters scoured the Mediterranean and the coastlands of southern France and Italy, robbing, killing and enslaving. With the arrival of Islam, Mediterranean Europe was never again at peace – not until the early part of the nineteenth century, anyway. Muslim privateers based in North Africa, the Barbary Pirates, terrorized the Mediterranean until after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In the centuries preceding that, Muslim armies, first in the form of the Almoravids and later the Ottomans, launched periodic large-scale invasions of territories in southern Europe; and even when they were not doing so, Muslim pirates and slave-traders were involved in incessant raids against coastal settlements in Spain, southern France, Italy, Dalmatia, Albania, Greece, and all the Mediterranean islands. This activity continued unabated for centuries, and the only analogy that springs to mind is to imagine, in northern Europe, what it would have been like if the Viking raids had lasted a thousand years.

It has been estimated that between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries Muslim pirates based in North Africa captured and enslaved between a million and a million-and-a-quarter Europeans.[36] Although their attacks ranged as far north as Iceland and Norway, the impact was most severe along the Mediterranean coasts of Spain, France and Italy, with large areas of coastline eventually being made uninhabitable by the threat.

The impact of this incessant violence has never, I feel, been either thoroughly studied or fully understood. The Mediterranean coastlands must learn to live in a state of constant alert, with fear never far removed. Populations needed to be ready, at a moment’s notice, with a military response. Fortifications must be built and young men trained in the use of arms. There was the development of a semi-paranoid culture in which killing and being killed was the norm, or at least not unusual. Small wonder that some of these territories, particularly Southern Italy, Sicily, Spain, Corsica, parts of Greece and Albania, would in time develop their own violent and relentless cultures; and that it would be above all in Spain that the Inquisition would find its spiritual home. Small wonder too that it would be from this same land that Holy Warriors would set out, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, to conquer the peoples of the New World for Christ.[37]

It is not true, of course, that Christendom and the Christian Church can be entirely absolved of the guilt for what happened in the decades and centuries that followed the First Crusade. There can be little doubt that some Christian doctrines made their own contribution. The narrow teaching which confined truth and salvation to the Christian community alone cannot have but produced a intolerant and irrational attitude to those of other faiths. In the end, however, it seems that without the continued and incessant violence directed at Christendom by Islam over a period of many centuries, Europe would have developed in a very different way: And it seems certain that the rapacious militarism which characterized Europe from the beginning of the Age of the Crusades would never have appeared

How then, without Islam, would events have unfolded? It is of course impossible to say with certainty, but it seems fairly obvious that the “medieval” world as we now know it would never have appeared. Certainly, the period we now call the Middle Ages would have been a lot less “medieval” and a lot more Roman. It is likely that Byzantium would have continued the process, already well under way in the late sixth century, of raising the cultural level of the West. The break between Rome and Byzantium might not have occurred, or been so acrimonious, and there seems little doubt that Western Europe would have experienced its “Renaissance”, or re-flowering of classical civilization, much earlier; perhaps half a millennium earlier. Indeed, it is likely that by the late seventh century the whole of western Europe would have come to resemble contemporary Byzantium, with expanding cities and a thriving cultural and intellectual life. The Viking raids would not have occurred, or at least would not have been as destructive as they were. There would certainly have been no Crusades, there being no Islam to launch them against. And the lack of Viking and Islamic influence would almost certainly have induced the development in Europe of a more pacific culture. Without Islamic influence it is doubtful if the particularly virulent form of anti-Semitism that characterized Europe from the eleventh century would have arisen. The lack of an external and dangerous enemy like Islam would have hindered the development of the paranoia that gripped Europe over the issue of heretics and “witchcraft”. There would probably have been no Inquisition. And without the Islamic example of slavery, the contact with the natives of the New World, when it came, would have been very different, as would Europe’s relations with the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa.

So much for a world without Islam. But what if Islam had been triumphant? What if Europe had become Muslim in the seventh and eighth centuries? No less a person than Gibbon mused on the likely outcome of an Islamic conquest of France, when he noted that, had such an event transpired, then the whole of western Europe must inevitably have fallen, and the Dean of Oxford would likely then have been expounding the truths of the Koran to a circumcised congregation. Against such “calamities,” noted Gibbon, was Christendom rescued by the victory of Charles Martel at Tours in 732. But an Islamic conquest of Europe would have had far more serious consequences than that. From what we have seen of Islam’s record elsewhere, it is likely that the continent would have entered a Dark Age from which it would never have emerged. If we seek the model for Europe as a whole we might look to Albania or the Caucasus of the nineteenth century. These regions, inhabited by semi-Islamicized tribes, were the theatres of perpetual feuding. A Europe under Islam would have been no different: A backward and greatly under-populated wasteland fought over by Muslim tribal chiefs, conditions which would have persisted right into the present century. There would perchance have remained a few, largely decaying and very small, urban centers, in places like Italy, France and Spain; and these territories would have housed an impoverished and sorely oppressed remnant population of Christians. In Rome the Pope would preside over a miserable and decaying Vatican, whose main monuments, such as the original Saint Peter’s, founded by Constantine, would long ago have been transformed into mosques. In such a Europe the entire heritage of classical civilization would have been forgotten. Of Caesar and his conquests, of Greece with her warriors and philosophers, the modern world would know nothing. The very names would have been lost. No child now would know of Troy or Mycenae, of Marathon or Thermopylae. The history of Egypt too, and all the great civilizations of the Near East, would lie buried in the drifting sands of those lands, forever lost and forgotten.

There would have been no High Middle Ages, with their Gothic cathedrals, no Renaissance, no Enlightenment, and no Age of Science.

The fall of Europe would have had consequences far beyond its shores; and the twenty-first century may have dawned with an Islamic (and underpopulated and impoverished) India threatening the existence of China, which would then likely be the last significant non-Muslim civilization. The wars waged between the two would be pre-modern, and though the two sides might employ primitive firearms and cannons, the sword and the bow would remain the most important weaponry, and rules of engagement would be savage.

But these are all what-ifs. History happened, and what happened cannot be changed. Yet if we are not to repeat the mistakes of the past, it is important that we understand exactly what did happen, and why.

[1] Painter, op cit., p. 303

[2] Briffault, op cit., p. 217

[3] Ibid. p. 219

[4] Ibid. p. 217

[5] Trevor-Roper, op cit., p. 143

[6] Ibid., p. 133

[7] Ibid., p. 137

[8] Muhammad said, “If anyone changes his religion, kill him.” (Bukhari, Vol. 9, book 84, no. 57).

[9] Bat Ye’or, op cit., pp. 60-1

[10] Ibid., p. 61

[11] Trevor-Roper, op cit., p. 159

[12] Lactantius, “The Divine Institutes, in “Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 156-7.

[13] John Chrysostom, Homily XLVI, in George Prevost, trans. “The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom” in Philip Schaff, ed. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol. X (Eedermans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1986), p. 288

[14] St Augustine, Letter C, in “Letters of St. Augustine,” in J. G. Cunningham, trans. in A Select Library of the Nicene (etc as above)

[15] Colin Wilson and Christopher Evans, (eds.) Strange but True (Parragon Books, 1995), p. 285

[16] Ibid. p. 285

[17] Bertrand, op cit., p. 76

[18] Trevor-Roper, op cit., p. 147

[19] Ibid., p. 17

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History Vol. 1 (Trans. Franz Rosenthal, Bollingen Series 43: Princeton University Press, 1958), p. 480. Cited from Bat Ye’or, The Dhimmi, p. 162

[22] Bertrand, op cit., p. 163

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., p. 159

[25] Ibid., p. 160

[26] Bat Ye’or, op cit., p. 87

[27] Steven Runciman, The History of the Crusades, Vol. 1 (London, 1951), p. 135

[28] Ibid.

[29] Painter, op cit., p. 100

[30] Ibid., p. 119

[31] Jonathan Riley-Smith, “The State of Mind of Crusaders to the East: 1095-1300,” in Jonathan Riley-Smith (ed.) Oxford History of the Crusades, p. 79

[32] Ibid., p. 78

[33] Ibid., pp. 80-2

[34] Alan Forey, “The Military Orders, 1120-1312,” in Jonathan Riley-Smith (ed.) Oxford History of the Crusades, p. 205

[35] Robert Irwin, “Islam and the Crusades: 1096-1699,” in Jonathan Riley-Smith (ed.) Oxford History of the Crusades, p. 251

[36] http//

[37] We should not forget of course that the Conquistadors usually acted without official sanction, and that the Church, often in co-operation with the Spanish Government, worked very hard to control their excesses.

Emmet Scott is a historian specializing in the ancient history of the Near East. Over the past ten years he has turned his attention to Late Antiquity and the declining phase of classical civilization, which he sees as one of the most crucial episodes in the history of western civilization.

His new book, Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy is published by New English Review Press. It may be ordered through Amazon here and is available on Kindle here.

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