David Levering Lewis: Interviewed about his new book on Islam

Historians in the News

In his vivid and illuminating new book, "God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215" (Norton, $29.95), historian David Levering Lewis re-examines the 400-year era of Muslim rule in Europe, a period during which a sophisticated and tolerant Islamic empire conquered - and profoundly influenced - parts of a West that had fallen into barbaric tribalism following the collapse of the Roman empire.

Lewis, a professor at New York University, received the Pulitzer Prize for both volumes of his two-part biography of W.E.B. Du Bois and is the author of eight other books, including "King: A Critical Biography" and "When Harlem Was in Vogue." He spoke from his home in New York City.

Q: What drew you to this period?

A: In a previous book, "The Race to Fashoda," I wrote about the speed bump that the British empire encountered with Islamic fundamentalism in the 1890s. For 10 years the world's mightiest empire was simply stymied in the Upper Sudan. Well, I'm a citizen of the American empire, and I began to see that we were headed for similar speed bumps. I thought it would be useful to write a book - a short book - about Islam in Europe. So off my wife and I went to Morocco, and we arrived in Rabat on the morning of 9/11. A meditation of a time long ago suddenly seemed very pertinent.

Q: It was going to be a short book?

A: But that's not what happened. The post-9/11 culture made it more and more difficult not to write a larger book in which the inferences about then and now would be clearer. I wanted to connect the Iberian history, which is I think fairly well known, with what it meant on the other side of the Pyrenees in terms of the geopolitics and ideology of the Catholic faith. So I spent a lot of time tracing the bargains that arose between these Germans and the bishops of Rome.

Q: Was Europe, in a sense, created by Islam as much as by Christianity?

A: Cautiously I would say yes, and that's what I wanted to emphasize. The Renaissance is profoundly indebted to what I call the conveyor belt of knowledge coming out of Toledo. We would all applaud that, the maintenance and enrichment of the knowledge of Plato and Aristotle, the science of the academy of Athens, the Hindu [mathematics]. In the negative sense, Islam also becomes the template against which Europe compares itself, fights, profits. Finally, the kind of theocracy that emerges in Europe is directly a consequence of Charles Martel's victory over Islam at the Battle of Poitiers in 732....
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