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August 2007

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Islam vs. Christianity in Medieval Times
Review by John Burgess

Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World, by Stephen O'Shea. (Walker & Company, 2006)

This review was originally published in the Summer, 2007, issue of Middle East Policy (www.mepc.org), and is reprinted by permission.—Ed.

For the general reader as well as the specialist, for Westerners as much as Arabs, Stephen O'Shea's Sea of Faith is a very good read. O'Shea tells a broad story of Christian and Islamic conflict during the medieval period, organizing it around a handful of battles: Yarmuk (636), Poitiers (732), Manzikert (1071), Hattin (1187), Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), Constantinople (1453) and Malta (1565). More important, he makes a great effort to explain and describe periods of convivencia—times when a modus vivendi was found in which Christian, Muslim and Jewish populations found a way of living together peacefully and productively, no matter which power was on top.

The book packs a lot of disparate history within its covers. From the early spread of Islam to the repurposing of mosques and churches, from the architecture of the Krak des Chevaliers or the Zisa in Palermo to the scholarship of Roger II of Sicily, O'Shea shines light on many of the neglected corners of medieval times. Consistent throughout, though, is his depiction of a flow of history based on contingent politics, often using religion as a motivating force to help achieve very political ends, whether the actors were Christians or Muslims. He notes the way in which Christian rulers would ally themselves with Muslim rulers in fights against other Christians and their own Muslim allies. By the time of the various Crusades, it appears that it was every ruler for himself, with Aleppo battling Damascus, only pausing to take aim, variously, at Egypt or the occupying Latin kings. The role of the Nizaris, moving from their holds in the Jebel Ansariya to kill on order inconvenient rulers—Christian or Muslim—is well detailed without hyperbole. Of particular note is how only a distinct atrocity by one leader or another could serve to unify, for a time, the competing factions. Once the atrocity was avenged, things reverted to their messy norm.

The book offers many helpful reminders that, while history may not repeat itself, it certainly does "rhyme," as Mark Twain is alleged to have noted. The following quote, from Isaac of Étoile, an English Cistercian monk of the twelfth century, is not at all dissimilar—with a word change or two—from what we read today from leaders caviling about those who pervert their own understandings of Islam:

This dreadful new military order that someone has rather pleasantly called the order of the fifth gospel was founded for the purpose of forcing infidels to accept the faith at the point of the sword. Its members consider that they have every right to attack anyone not confessing Christ's name, leaving him destitute, whereas if they themselves are killed while thus unjustly attacking the pagans, they are called martyrs for the faith.... We do not maintain that all they do is wrong, but we do insist that what they are doing can be an occasion of many future evils.

As much as the conflicts, however, O'Shea also focuses on the long periods in which peace of a sort reigned. He writes that for a variety of reasons—physical or financial exhaustion, inconvenient deaths, decadence—war became unpalatable or impossible. Whether in Cordoba and other centers of Andalusia or in the Christian courts of Spain, Sicily or Outremer, rulers found that they needed to maintain good relations with the majority population. The Latin powers needed the local population to till the fields and build the castles. Muslim rulers faced the same issues in Andalusia. As a result, East became West and West became East, with each side adopting local practices and, in some cases, values. This led to periods of great intellectual and artistic achievement, as both learned of and from the other. Even here, though, politics reared one of its uglier heads. Overzealous Europeans newly arrived in the Holy Land complained bitterly about the “poulains” who they thought had “gone native.” In a situation familiar to many modern diplomats, those with regional expertise had to defend themselves against their own, whose ideological sense of duty conflicted with the limits of the possible. Things weren't any better on the Muslim side. Rulers from Spain to eastern Turkey and Iraq were accused by the fervid of being too soft or of out-and-out apostasy for their lack of belligerence.

Sea of Faith also provides a corrective for those whose last run-ins with this time period date back a while. O'Shea notes that the Chanson de Roland, which actually refers to Roland's rear-guard action against the Basques, was revised to meet a later need for anti-Islamic propaganda. The Cid was typical of his era as an opportunistic warrior for hire, not only a brave Christian defender of the faith.

O'Shea's earlier books—on the western front during World War I (Back to Front), where he sought to find and photograph the locations of various battles, and his look at the crusade against the Albigensians of Languedoc (The Perfect Heresy)—are partial models for this work. Scattered throughout are photographs, maps and prints (uncredited) of the periods on which he focuses. The quality of reproductions is not great, but they are adequate, enriching the text and providing context for the reader. Several seem to be his personal photographs of the locations of the battlegrounds, often based on a best-guess as the precise locations are lost to us. Others are of the statuary erected over the centuries to commemorate what is often lost to even local memory. The reader gets the sense that O'Shea is doing what he can to ensure that history is not totally forgotten.

Sea of Faith makes great use of contemporary records—Muslim, Christian and Jewish—to tell how the events were seen contemporaneously as well as by later historians. In his extensive endnotes, he expands his theses, providing further quotation and argument. Also included in the end matter is a “who's who” of the period, a basic timeline and a very useful, 10-page bibliography of sources.

This book provides a great look at a period that is usually neglected in both American and Arab classrooms. It will prove useful at the high school and university levels as an auxiliary text. For the general reader, it shines an exciting, often humorous light on the times.


John Burgess is a retired Foreign Service Officer and served as counselor for public affairs, Riyadh, 2001-2003.

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