David Levering Lewis: Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Levering Lewis says a long military-religious campaign bore seeds of troubled 21st century history





"God's Crucible _ Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215" (W. W. Norton, 475 pages, $29.95), by David Levering Lewis: Though it all happened 1,300 years ago well _ some of it less than 600 years ago _ Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Levering Lewis says a long military-religious campaign bore seeds of troubled 21st century history.

He picked the title of his book _ "God's Crucible" _ as a figure of speech for a solid piece of geography: Spain, Portugal and a swath of southern France. It was an area invaded and partly occupied by Muslims from 721 to the end of the 1400s.

A crucible, for those who never took Chemistry 101, is a melting pot lined with material such as porcelain or platinum that can stand high temperatures without itself melting. The pot is used to liquefy metals and other solid stuff, to combine them in new and useful compounds.

In this particular pot the civilizations fostered by Christianity, Islam and Judaism sometimes fused with one another to produce valuable new compounds in art, science and government. Locals at the time gave the period the Spanish name of "convivencia." The word can be translated as coexistence, a prequel to the "peaceful coexistence" some optimistic Russians and Americans liked to foresee during the Cold War....

Lewis, who teaches history at New York University, pokes fun at colleagues who see the defeat of the Muslim advance into western Europe, near Poitiers in the year 732, as ending a threat to Western civilization. On the contrary, he sees it as a pivotal moment "in the creation of an economically retarded, balkanized and fratricidal Europe that, by defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of hereditary aristocracy, persecutory religious intolerance, cultural particularism and perpetual war."

The cultural and economic level that Europe achieved in the 1400s, he concludes, could have been gotten centuries earlier if Europeans had been part of the Muslim empire.


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