Frontpage Interview's guest today is Raymond Ibrahim, an author, public speaker, and Middle East and Islam specialist. He is currently a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and a Judith Friedman Rosen Writing Fellow, Middle East Forum. His new book is Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West.
Frontpage: Raymond, welcome to Frontpage interview.
Ibrahim: Good to be back Jamie, thank you.
FP: Congrats on your new book coming out. Introduce us to it.
Raymond Ibrahim: Thanks, Jamie. The book’s title is Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West. As indicated by the title, it is a military history between Islam and the West, narrated around their eight most decisive clashes, the first and last of which occurred more than a millennium apart. But while the eight battles/sieges form the centerpieces of the book’s eight chapters, the bulk of the narrative chronologically traces and tells the general (but much forgotten) story of Islam and the West, most of which of course revolved around warfare—with all the attendant death, destruction, slavery, and geopolitical demarcations and map rearrangements.
FP: Quite a fascinating and original approach. How and when did you get this idea?
Ibrahim: Well, we can say I began working on portions of this book some twenty years ago—since around 1998-99, when I first started doing academic research for what became my MA thesis (in History): a close examination, including through the original Arabic and Greek sources, of the battle of Yarmuk—the first major military encounter between Islam and the Eastern Roman Empire in 636 (highlighted in Chapter 1 of the book).
Since then, I’ve continued to study the historic clash between the West and Islam, writing sporadic but relevant articles—for example on the Second Siege of Constantinople and the Battle of Tours—and of course working on and fine tuning Sword and Scimitar.
FP: While the book is obviously historical, it also clearly has crucial contemporary relevance and significance. Can you talk a bit about that?
Ibrahim: Sure Jamie, thank you. Although the book and its narrative revolve around historic warfare, it offers, as you observe, many lessons of contemporary relevance. Take for example the question of whether the behavior of Islamic groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) is Islamic or not. Those many “experts” who insist ISIS is just a gang of “terrorists” who have “nothing to do with Islam” will be hard pressed to explain why over a millennium of leading Muslims—caliphs, sultans, emirs, ulema and jurists of the highest order—have said to and done in Europe the same exact things ISIS says and does to “infidels” today.
The book also documents a little known fact: that what we today call “the West” is really the westernmost remnant of what was a much more extensive civilizational block that Islam permanently severed. Over the centuries, nonstop jihad and terror saw three-fourths of the post-Roman Christian world become Islamic, leaving the remaining quarter—Europe proper—in a permanent state of embattlement. It is, incidentally, for this reason that tiny Europe’s self-identity did not historically revolve around ethnicity or language—hence why such a small corner of the Eurasian landmass (Europe) still houses dozens of both, some widely divergent, while much larger landmasses are homogenous—but rather religion: it was the last and most redoubtable bastion of Christendom not to be conquered by Islam.
The book should further bring Westerners up to speed with Muslims, at least when it comes to the latter’s frequent (and to Western ears, cryptic) referencing of history. For example, when Yasser Arafat made a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 that was criticized by fellow Arabs and Muslims as offering too many concessions, the Palestinian leader justified his actions by saying, “I see this agreement as being no more than the agreement signed between our Prophet Muhammad and the Quraysh in Mecca”—that is, a truce that Muhammad abolished on a pretext once he was in a position of power and able to go on the offensive.
Similarly, many of the otherwise bizarre and obscene things ISIS says to the West—“American blood is best, and we will taste it soon,” or “We love death as you love life,” or “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women”—are verbatim quotes spoken by the historic jihad’s greatest practitioners Whereas many of the world’s Muslims make the connection and appreciate the deeper meaning behind the words and deeds of their politically active coreligionists, the West remains oblivious of the deliberate continuity.
In short, unlike most military histories—which no matter how fascinating are ultimately academic—Sword and Scimitar offers several contemporary lessons. It further sets the much distorted historical record between the two civilizations straight and, in so doing, demonstrates once and for all that Muslim hostility for and terrorization of the West is not an aberration but a continuation of Islamic history.
FP: Tell us about your research method in writing this book and your extremely impressive utilization of primary sources.
Ibrahim: As mentioned, because I’ve been working on this book—even if sometimes only in my head—for about two decades, I managed to create a thoroughly comprehensive bibliography, as well as make copies of several older manuscripts during my years working at the African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress. I also utilized sources in and translated from other languages—particularly Arabic, including by providing to my knowledge never before translated excerpts of the historic clash.
And yes, firmly believing that history’s Muslims and Christians had a much better idea of why they were fighting and dying, I certainly did focus on primary sources (probably well over half of the book’s one-thousand endnotes cite primary source quotes). Their words—separated by centuries and continents—evince a remarkable continuity that is alone significant.
That said, and because the oft-made boast of relying “only on primary sources” is all too often an excuse for not grappling with all the existing literature—that is, for not doing one’s homework (primary sources, especially if limited to translations, are usually only an iota of what is available)—I tried to supplement and balance the narrative with the interpretations and observations of authoritative historians, that is, secondary sources.
FP: When will Sword and Scimitar formally be published and are there any other interesting tidbits you can tell us?
Ibrahim: August 28 is the book’s official release date [pre-order here from your preferred distributor]. Because it deals with topics that fascinated me decades before I began writing about contemporary Islam, I can honestly say that I “went all out” with this book: as mentioned, it contains over one-thousand endnotes from some 220 books and monographs; 37 relevant photos (from epic paintings to modern atrocities) and a comprehensive, general map, tracing the historic struggle between Islam and the West.
My publisher, Da Capo, is moreover not only a leader in military history, but a member of the Hachette Book Group—the third largest publisher in the world—thereby positioning the book to receive suitable coverage and dissemination.
It’s also an honor that America’s premiere military historian, Victor Davis Hanson, has provided the book with an excellent foreword; similarly, a number of historians and professors in fields germane to the book—published scholars on the crusades, the Reconquista, Medieval Islam and jihad—have endorsed it.
Ultimately it’s my hope that Sword and Scimitar ends up being what I spent years working on it to be—something of a magnum opus, one that, while vividly bringing the past to life, goes a long way to make sense of the present.
FP: Thanks so much for joining Frontpage Interview, Raymond. And congratulations on this new exciting and educational read. We wish you all the best with it.
Ibrahim: Thank you, Jamie.