This week in October marks the anniversary of an epic event that is not widely known except among history buffs, but which nonetheless dramatically shaped the future of the Western world, and which may still hold inspiration for us in the West today.
After the death of the Muslim prophet Muhammad in 632, Islam spread like a bloody tide throughout the Arabian peninsula, north to the Caspian Sea and east through Persia and beyond, westward through Egypt and across North Africa all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. From there it crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and consumed virtually all of the Iberian peninsula, or al-Andalus as the Saracens called it. In a mere one hundred years, the warlord Muhammad’s imperialist legacy was an empire larger than Rome’s had ever been.
By 732 that fallen Roman empire had devolved into a patchwork of warring barbarian tribes across what is now continental Europe. When Abd-al-Rahman al-Ghafiki, the governor of al-Andalus, crossed the Pyrenees with the world’s most successful fighting force and began pillaging through the south of what would become France toward Paris, there was no nation, no central power, no professional army capable of stopping them.
No army except one – led by the Frankish duke Charles, the eventual grandfather of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. His infantrymen, as historian Victor Davis Hanson puts it in a fascinating chapter of Carnage and Culture, were “hardened veterans of nearly twenty years of constant combat against a variety of Frankish, German, and Islamic enemies.” Hanson writes that the Roman legions had crumbled “because of the dearth of free citizens who were willing to fight for their own freedom and the values of their civilization.” But the seasoned warrior Charles had gathered spirited, free fighters under his command who were willing to defend their Christian society, and he led them to intercept the marauding infidels leaving a ravaged trail toward the ultimate prize, Paris.
On the 10th of October, 732 (some dispute the exact date), the two armies met on a wooded field between Poitiers and Tours (and so the ensuing confrontation is sometimes called the Battle of Poitiers), barely 175 miles from Paris as the crow flies. Abd-al-Rahman arrayed his cavalry against Charles’ solid block of Frankish footsoldiers, which at 30,000 was by some estimates not even half the size of the Arab and Berber army (Hanson speculates that the armies were more evenly matched, but the Franks were unquestionably greatly outnumbered).
The opposing forces sized each other up for a full week before Abd-al-Rahman ordered the charge that October morning. But his cavalry, which normally counted on speed, mobility, and terror to lay waste to undisciplined tribes, could not penetrate the highly disciplined, heavily-armed Frankish phalanx. In his must-read book Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War Between Islam and the West, my friend, historian Raymond Ibrahim, quotes a contemporary chronicler who described that the Franks “stood as motionless as a wall, they were like a belt of ice frozen together, and not to be dissolved, as they slew the Arab with the sword.”
At the end of the day’s carnage, both sides regrouped for the next day’s assault. But at dawn, Charles and his men discovered that the Muslim army had vanished, beginning their retreat toward the Pyrenees, leaving the booty stolen from ransacked churches and abbeys behind, as well as at least 10,000 of their dead – including Abd-al-Rahman himself. Exact figures in historical sources are questionable, but Arab chroniclers, Ibrahim reports, “refer to the engagement as the ‘Pavement of Martyrs,’ suggesting that the earth was littered with Muslim corpses.”
It was not the last Muslim incursion into Europe – Charles racked up subsequent victories against the Saracens for a few years afterward – but it was the beginning of the end, and Islam never again penetrated militarily as far into European territory. The victory at Tours helped solidify Charles’ standing among the Franks as a great leader (he was afterward dubbed Martel, or “the Hammer”) and defender of Christendom (the Pope reportedly labeled him “the Hammer of God”). He became ruler over all the Franks, essentially unifying all the fragmented territory of western Europe and paving the way for the rise of his grandson Charlemagne to become “the Father of Europe,” the first great ruler of Christendom.
Some historians today downplay the magnitude of the Muslim threat that Martel countered, claiming that Abd-al-Rahman’s force was only a raiding party with no grander designs on seizing the whole of the European continent. They minimize the significance of the Battle of Tours’ outcome, too; at least one historian even claims that Europe would have been better off if Islam had conquered it.
But Hanson notes that “most of the renowned historians of the 18th and 19th centuries… saw Poitiers as a landmark battle that signaled the high-water mark of Islamic advance into Europe.” Edward Creasey included it among the fifteen most decisive battles of world history. Many believe that if Charles –– had not stopped Abd-al-Rahman at Tours, there would have been nothing to prevent the Islamic tide from sweeping across the continent and making Europe Islamic. Edward Gibbon called Charles “the savior of Christendom” and wrote in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776 that if not for Charles’ victory, “perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford.”
If only Gibbon could see Oxford now. Not only is the interpretation of the Koran taught there, but Islam thrives in Oxford, thanks partly to the patronage of the UK’s current dhimmi king. In his essay “Islam in Oxford,” faux moderate Muslim scholar Muqtedar Khan writes that “Gibbon would have been surprised to learn the lesson that military defeats do not stop the advance of civilizations and the globalization of Islam is unimpeded by the material and military weaknesses of the Muslim world.”
Apart from his dubious suggestion that Islam has anything to do with the advance of civilization, Khan is right: today the Islamic incursion into Europe is of the demographic, not military, sort. The continent faces an immigration crisis due in no small part to at least one generation of willfully unassimilated young Muslims. “Nothing can stop the spread of Islam,” insists Islamic apologist Reza Aslan. “There are those who would try, but it simply will not happen. Absolutely nothing can stop the spread of Islam.”
In 732, Charles Martel begged to differ. What it took was the will, the discipline and training, and a warrior spirit and righteous faith.
Note: The painting above is French Romantic Charles de Steuben’s “Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732,” which depicts a mounted Charles Martel facing Abd-al Rahman Al Ghafiki at the Battle of Tours.
Follow Mark Tapson at Culture Warrior.