Posts Tagged ‘the Muslim World’

Richard Fletcher: The Cross and the Crescent

December 16, 2020

     This is a short, well-written and very readable account of the interactions between Christianity and Islam in their early days. Various pieces of a complex jigsaw are laid out clearly, and contrasts, connections and overlaps between the two faiths and their world-views explained lucidly.

There were a number of reasons why Islam tolerated both Judaism and Christianity in the lands it rapidly overran in the seventh and eighth centuries: partly the injunctions in the Qur’an about respecting the other ‘peoples of the book’ and partly Muslims were often in the minority, and needed the remnants of the old Roman Empire to continue functioning, which meant using its learned men and its bureaucrats.

What had never occurred to me was that the only possible framework within which Christianity could explain and view Islam was that of heresy: there were plenty of heresies that the orthodox church was trying to suppress in those days, and the such an idea was reinforced by the evident overlaps between the Christian and Muslim holy writings. Certainly there was no concept at all of a ‘new religion’. Equally, there was a tendency among in Islam to ignore Christianity, given the belief that Muhammad was the last of the prophets, with the final and perfected message from God, which necessarily superseded that of the Old Testament and Jesus… Christianity was passé, if you like.

Nor did the Christian lands seem to have very much to offer the Islamic world and its rulers; society in Christian lands was backward, primitive, agrarian. Although they were not very interested in each other as belief systems, there was much interest in the spread and sharing of knowledge, and eventually in trade. The gradual diffusion of the learning of the ancients was a lengthy process involving translations through multiple languages. Here was the greatest and most fruitful area of co-operation: curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge knows no boundaries. Yet, once the Christian West had gained the knowledge it wanted from its Eastern rivals, the two worlds gradually drifted apart, and Islam became more aloof and self-isolating.

And while Christians threw themselves with great energy and violence into Crusades to recapture the holy places from the ‘infidels’, the Muslim world was largely indifferent to what were merely pinpricks, and was far more concerned with serious dynastic rivalries and other more weighty issues. On the other hand, the Crusaders were having their eyes opened to a much wider world than the one they had known…

So Fletcher offers us a good number of refreshing new perspectives, which certainly helped me deepen my understanding of what went on in that era, from the seventh century to the Renaissance. He also explores, as far as the available evidence allows – and recognises where it is lacking or incomplete – how the Christian world eventually came to gain the edge over the Islamic world. He is clear that it was a complex spread of factors involving trade, Mongol invasions, dynastic rivalries in the Muslim nations and others… and others have also highlighted that the rapid adoption of printing technology in the West but not in the East, had much to do with this.

In Fletcher’s judgement, through the Middle Ages there was a persistent failure by both sides to try and understand each other – and I feel he is more than hinting at a message for contemporary readers here – which he recognises was probably inevitable. Certainly the rise of the West took the Islamic world by surprise, and it has probably never recovered from this. Here is a really interesting and useful read.

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