I have just finished reading The Cross and the Crescent: Christianity and Islam from Muhammad to the Reformation by Richard Fletcher. It’s a concise history of conquest and empire building in the Mediterranean region.
The growing strength of the Arab nations and of Islam in the 20th century has taken some of us by surprise. I wasn’t aware of what a powerful force they were in the Middle Ages nor of the important role they played in shaping modern-day Western culture.
The Moors first conquered Spain in 711. Al Andalus became an independent caliphate in 929. Cordoba, its capital, was the greatest city in Europe, a centre for art, science and literature. Granada remained under Islamic rule until 1492. Fletcher comments that Europe’s advances in economics, institutions and sciences were achieved in large part by acquiring what the Islamic world had to offer.
Fletcher notes in the closing chapter of his book that the Arab world was largely ignorant of the growth and increasing sophistication of European culture. “Seen from Baghdad in, say, the year 900, the Christian world was a jumble of confused sects and petty monarchies squirming about in an unappealing environment. The Islamic community had no rival in its wealth, its technology, its learning and its culture as well as in its faith. A lofty disdain was the only intelligible attitude for Muslims to adopt towards Christians.” And that attitude persisted, long after it had ceased to be accurate.
Richard Fletcher goes on to make a statement, which has universal application. “Attitudes laid down like rocks long ago continue to shape their moral environment for many centuries thereafter. There is a geology of human relationships which it is unwise to neglect.”
(Photo of the Alhambra Palace, Granada, Spain)