A number of books published in recent years have demolished the myth of an allegedly tolerant Islamic culture that preserved the Greco-Roman heritage. Ibn Warraq’s book Why the West Is Best is among the better and more accessible titles in this field. As I concluded in one of my earlier essays, the only part of the ancient Greek heritage that proved to be more compatible with Muslim than with Christian European culture was slavery, and possibly anal sex with young boys in certain parts of the Islamic world.
In early 2012 the historian Emmet Scott published Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy. If you have any interest in the subject of the Greco-Roman legacy and Islam as they relate to medieval Europe, I strongly recommend that you buy this book. For those who are interested, Scott has published some excerpts from this work online at the New English Review.
Many books claim to be groundbreaking, but rather few of them actually are. Emmet Scott’s Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited falls into the latter category.
He shows convincingly that archaeological excavations paint a very clear picture of devastation brought by the Arab conquests throughout the entire Mediterranean region, from Syria to Spain, in the seventh century AD.
The Belgian historian Henri Pirenne in his work Mohammed and Charlemagne, published posthumously in 1937, suggested that Islam and the Arab conquests constituted the real dividing line between the civilization of Greco-Roman Antiquity and that of medieval Europe. Moreover, Islamic raids in the Mediterranean partially cut Europeans off from their Classical roots. Scott supports this hypothesis but goes even further than Pirenne — who focused on Europe — by showing that the Arab conquests and Islamic repression largely destroyed Greco-Roman Classical civilization in North Africa and parts of the Middle East, which were more urbanized than Europe.
In short, rather than preserving the Classical heritage, as their apologists like to claim, Arabs and Muslims did more than anybody else to wipe out Greco-Roman civilization. The modest contributions they made by preserving certain Greek texts through Arabic translations cannot in any way make up for this massive wave of destruction.
Scott demonstrates that by cutting off the normal trade of Egyptian papyrus to Europe, leaving Europeans only with expensive parchment made from animal skins as a viable alternative, the Arabs essentially doomed much of the Classical literature to oblivion due to a chronic shortage of good writing materials. Sadly, the heroic efforts made by medieval Christian monks in Europe for centuries could only partly make up for this loss.
The author also describes how certain ideas such as an early version of the Inquisition, the concept of Holy War and other often negative innovations were spread due to Islam. 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).
He rejects the distorted and romanticized view of Muslim tolerance. On the contrary, with the Arab conquest of North Africa and Spain, “a reign of terror was to commence that was to last for centuries.” After 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!” Yet this fact has been almost completely overlooked by historians, especially those of northern European extraction. As Scott concludes in his book:
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. 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.
Because of this constant Islamic threat for more than a thousand years, the Mediterranean coastal lands of southern Europe from Spain to the Balkans had to live in a state of constant alert, with fear of pirates and Jihadist slave raids never far removed. A similar pattern can be detected in the Black Sea region, from Romania to Russia.
Scott’s book does have a few weaknesses. Among the minor ones, Scott occasionally gives too much space to describe fringe hypotheses such as the one positing three missing centuries during the Early Middle Ages that supposedly never happened.
My most serious objection to Scott’s book is that, with some minor exceptions he seems to take traditional Islamic history at face value, and accepts that the Islamic expansions took place the way Muslims claim that they did. Robert Spencer’s recent book Did Muhammad Exist? presents a very different view on this matter.
It must be treated as a serious possibility that when the Arab conquests began, Islam as we think of it today simply did not exist. If that is the case, this creates some gaping holes in the apologia about the allegedly “tolerant” nature of the Arab conquests. We know both from archaeological evidence and from comments by conquered peoples that the Arabs were quite brutal conquerors. Furthermore, if Islam did not exist in recognizable form then it was not possible for the Arabs to forcibly convert the conquered peoples to Islam at this date.
Nonetheless, the single most positive thing to be said about Emmet Scott’s book is that Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited is truly groundbreaking. This is especially so when Scott explains how the archaeological evidence clearly indicates a sudden wave of massive destruction throughout the entire Mediterranean region in the seventh century of our era that can hardly be attributed to anything other than the Arab conquests.
While there are a few minor flaws in this work, the central thesis of the book is convincingly demonstrated: The decline of Greco-Roman civilization seems to coincide with the rise of Islam. That is hardly coincidental. The historical pattern is very clear: Where Islam enters, civilization soon exits.
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