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Historian tackles Muslim Spain


January 15, 2008

Though it all happened 1,300 years ago well - some of it less than 600 years ago - Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Levering Lewis says a long
military-religious campaign bore seeds of troubled 21st century history.

He picked the title of his book - "God's Crucible" -
as a figure of speech for a solid piece of geography: Spain, Portugal and a swath of southern France. It was an area invaded and partly occupied by Muslims from

721 to the end of the 1400s.

A crucible, for those who never took Chemistry 101, is platinum that can stand high temperatures without itself melting. The pot is used to liquefy metals and
other solid stuff, to combine them in new and useful compounds.

In this particular pot the civilizations fostered by Christianity, Islam and Judaism sometimes fused with one another to produce valuable new compounds in art,
science and government. Locals at the time gave the period the Spanish name of "convivencia." The word can be translated as coexistence, a prequel to the
"peaceful coexistence" some optimistic Russians and Americans liked to foresee during the Cold War.

Politics, mixed with religious zeal, produced a lot of war, betrayal, injustice and massacre in both the 20th century and during the centuries-long Christian "Reconquest" of Spain. But while the chemistry lasted there, a Spanish Christian hero like El Cid could
spend part of his career leading Muslim forces. Muslim rulers appointed Jews to head their governments and cure their ills. Jewish poets and philosophers often
wrote in Arabic.

It ended with the virtual expulsion of Muslims by Spanish Christians in 1492 and the exile or conversion of Jews decreed in the same year. The loot from the
victory over Islam may have encouraged Queen Isabel to
finance the first voyage of Columbus.

Lewis sees a resemblance between the advanced Western civilization of today compared with the backwardness of many Muslim countries and the advanced Muslim
civilization of the first millennium compared with the backwardness of Europe at the time. He acknowledges the comparisons seem remote.

"Yet it is in the long fraught saga of cultural roles
reversed and political hegemonies upended that we can

discern many of the causes for the troubled history
being made in the 21st century," he writes.

Lewis, who teaches history at New York University,
pokes fun at colleagues who see the defeat of the

Muslim advance into western Europe, near Poitiers in
the year 732, as ending a threat to Western
civilization. On the contrary, he sees it as a pivotal
moment "in the creation of an economically retarded,

balkanized and fratricidal Europe that, by defining
itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of
hereditary aristocracy, persecutory religious
intolerance, cultural particularism and perpetual

The cultural and economic level that Europe achieved
in the 1400s, he concludes, could have been gotten
centuries earlier if Europeans had been part of the
Muslim empire.


"God's Crucible - Islam and the Making of Europe,


David Levering Lewis (W. W. Norton)



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