Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Islamic return to the lost theocratic ideal

In Bernard Lewis’ The Arabs in History, 1966, Chapter VII, “The Arabs in Europe” he describes the effects as the Arabs expanded into Europe. As an example of the one-way interchange of culture that was occurring, when the Normans retook Sicily in 1091 there was a potential for cultural interchange, but the change seems to have been one way such that Roger II (1130-1154) is now known as “‘the Pagan’ because of his favoring of Muslims, used Arab troops and siege engineers in his campaigns in southern Italy and Arab architects for his buildings, who created the new and distinctive Saracenic-Norman style. . . .” [page 118-119]

The most successful Islamic incursion into Europe occurred in Spain. Whenever there is mention of how well the Muslims treated Christians and Jews, the events of Spain are mentioned. The first incursion was by invitation in 710. After they learned the way, they returned and “by 718 they had occupied the greater part of the peninsula and crossed the Pyrenees into southern France, where their advance was only checked by the Franks under Charles Martel at the battle of Poitiers in 732.”

“The new regime was liberal and tolerant, and even the Spanish chroniclers described it as preferable to the Frankish rule in the north.

“In 741 the Berbers were strong enough to stage a general revolt in Spain against the Arabs, but more Arabs came from Africa and they were defeated. But Berber numbers in Spain grew through constant immigration.” This is important because they represented a more Puritanical strain of Islam and wherever they gained power, the fortunes of Jews and Christians dwindled rapidly.

“The death of Al-Mansur during the reign of Hisham (976-1008) was followed by a break-up. The relaxation of central control released the pent-up rivalries between the two parties, the ‘Andalusian’, that is to say the whole of the Muslim population of Spain, and the Berbers of recent immigration from Africa. . . . The first half of the eleventh century was a period of political fragmentation, during which Muslim Spain was divided among a series of petty kings and princes of Berber, Slav or Andalusian origin, known as the ‘party kings’. This political weakness led to a double invasion of Muslim Spain by Christians from the north with Frankish assistance, and by Berbers from the south. . . .”

“The reign of the ‘party kings’ was ended by a new Berber invasion from Africa. Yusuf ibn Tashfin, the founder of the Almoravid dynasty, entered Spain at the invitation of the Andalusians themselves in order to meet the Christian menace. Defeating the Christians in 1086, he proceeded to annex the party monarchies to his Moorish Empire.”

Eventually, however, the tide of this war (of course they were cleverer about naming wars back then and called it Reconquista) turned, and the Christians drove the Arabs, Berbers, and Andalusians out of Spain. The Reconquista was completed in January 1492, “and shortly after a Royal edict decreed the expulsion of all non-Catholics from the peninsula. Did the Arabs who were forced out of Spain take with them anything they learned from the West? Lewis doesn’t mention anything other than a love for the land itself. “Among the Arabs themselves the memory of Muslim Spain survived among the exiles in North Africa, many of whom still bear ‘Andalusian names and keep the keys of their houses in Cordova and Seville hanging on their walls in Marrakesh and in Casablanca.”

Further contacts occurred during the Crusades. Though many Westerners are inclined to burst out into fits of self-loathing at the mere mention of the Crusades, the Crusades were begun in response to an urgent request from the Byzantine State which was “unable to withstand the advancing armies of the Moslem Seljuk Turks, the latest wave of Asian invaders to penetrate the long-suffering Mediterranean world. The Turks had regained Antioch from the Greeks, and they inflicted a crushing defeat on the Byzantine armies at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. They now advanced deep into Asia Minor, and the highly intelligent but rather timid emperor, Alexius Commenus, feared that Constantinople itself was in immanent danger. The extent of the emperor’s panic may be gauged by the fact that he appealed to the traditional papal enemy to send him military aid. . . .” [from Norman Cantor’s Civilization of the Middle Ages, 1993, page 290.]

The West eventually responded with the first Crusade. On page 289 Cantor explains how the concept of the Crusade occurred to the Gregorian papacy: “It is necessary to look for the idea of the crusades in the struggle between Christians and Moslems in Spain and consider how the Latin idea of a holy war emerged from this background. When the Moslems conquered the Iberian peninsula in the eighth century, a few of the Spanish Christian princes and their followers fled into the northern mountains from which they launched the Reconquista in the tenth century. In the eleventh century these Spanish Christians, greatly assisted by the growing political disunity of the Spanish Moslems, gained their initial successes and by 11090 they held somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of the whole country. The tide of reconquest crept slowly and relentlessly southward, and while the final expulsion of the Moslems was achieved only in 1492, the greater part of the peninsula from the middle of the thirteenth century was ruled by Christian kings. The Reconquista was the dominant, almost the exclusive, theme of medieval Christian Spanish history, and some historians have seen it as the determining factor in molding the peculiar Spanish Character. All Iberian society originated in a grim war of five centuries against Islam, and the Spanish institutional structure was organized around the warlord and the necessities of aggressive warfare. The Spanish Christians eventually, and probably unconsciously, imitated the Moslem jihad or holy war, with its doctrine that the highest morality was to die fighting on behalf of the deity. . . .”

“The Gregorian papacy, through its legates, maintained a careful watch on the progress of the Reconquista and for several reasons, both intellectual and strategic, found it worthy of more general imitation.”

Thus, not only were the Crusades a response to a Muslim attack but the philosophy behind the Crusade was derived from the Muslims.

Lewis writes (page 164) “The Crusaders had brought a piece of western Europe to the very heart of the Arab East. But these contacts, fruitful for the West which had learnt much from the Arabs, had little effect on the latter. For them the relations were and remained external and superficial and had but little influence on Arab life and culture. The geographical and historical literature of the mediaeval Arabs reflects their complete lack of interest in western Europe, which they regarded as an outer darkness of barbarism from which the sunlit world of Islam had little to fear and less to learn.”

One observes that for quite a long time the Arab East was justified in its low opinion of Europeans, but for reasons I don’t completely understand, they lacked the flexibility to adjust to new circumstances even when beaten over the head by them. On page 165 Lewis writes, “European expansion at the beginning fo the sixteenth century was of a new type. It began with French negotiations with the Ottomans for an alliance against a common enemy. Skillful diplomacy transformed that alliance into a trade pact, giving certain rights and privileges to French traders in the Ottoman territories. These rights were enshrined in the so called Capitulations of 1535, guaranteeing to French traders the safety of their persons and property, freedom of worship, etc. This was in effect a measure of extra-territoriality. It was at first not a concession wrung from a weak oriental Power, but the granting, by the gesture almost of condescension, of the rights of Dhimmis in Muslim society, extended by the inner logic of the Muslim code to foreign Christians. . . .”

“Until the nineteenth century, the military, as distinct from the commercial, advance of Europe in the Near and Middle Eastern Muslim world was limited to its northern borders, where Austria and Russia advanced steadily at the Ottoman expense into the Balkans and along the northern and eastern shores of the Black Sea. The Arab lands were affected only commercially, mainly by English, French and Italian traders, who came to buy and sell. great change came with the occupation of Egypt in 1798 by Napoleon Buonaparte. This expedition, the first armed inroad of Europe on the Arab Near East since the Crusades, began a new era. The Ottoman Mamluk order crumbled at once and the French were able to occupy the country without serious difficulty. Their rule in Egypt was of brief duration but profound significance. It began the period of direct Western intervention in the Arab world, with great economic and social consequences. By the easy victory which they won the French shattered the illusion of the unchallengeable superiority of the Islamic world to the infidel West, thus posing a profound problem of readjustment to a new relationship. The psychological disorders thus engendered have not yet been resolved.”

Dashing past Lewis’s description of the colonial period, he concludes [the comparison between this conclusion, written in 1966, with the one he wrote in 2002,quoted in my last note, is interesting] on page 177, “Once again, as in the days when the advance of the Arab warriors brought their faith into contact with Hellenism and engendered a new and fruitful offspring, Islam today stands face to face with an alien civilization that challenges many of its fundamental values and appeals seductively to many of its followers. This time, the force of resistance are far stronger. Islam is no longer a new faith, hot and malleable from the Arabian crucible, but an old and institutionalized religion, set by centuries of usage and tradition into rigid patterns of conduct and belief. But if the metal is harder, so too is the hammer – for the challenge of today is incomparably more radical, more aggressive, more pervasive – and it comes not from a conquered, but a conquering world. The impact of the West, with its railways and printing-presses, aeroplanes and cinemas, factories and universities, oil-prospectors and archaeologists, machine-guns and ideas, has shattered beyond repair the traditional structure of economic life, affecting every Arab in his livelihood and his leisure, his private and public life, demanding a readjustment of the inherited social, political and cultural forms.

“In these problems of readjustment the Arab peoples have a choice of several paths; they may submit to one or the other of the contending versions of modern civilization that are offered to them, merging their own culture and identity in a larger and dominating whole; or they may try to turn their backs upon the West and all its works, pursuing the mirage of a return to the lost theocratic ideal, arriving instead at a refurbished despotism that has borrowed from the West its machinery both of exploitation and repression and its verbiage of intolerance, or finally – and for this the removal of the irritant of foreign interference is a prerequisite – they may succeed in renewing their society from within, meeting the West on terms of equal co-operation, absorbing something of both its science and humanism, not only in shadow but in substance, in a harmonious balance with their own inherited tradition.”

Lewis wrote his conclusion in the midst of the Cold War. It is interesting that he thought the “removal of the irritant of foreign interference” a possibility. However, since the end of the Cold War foreign interference had dramatically reduced. The direct control of Colonial powers had been eliminated. Trade agreements did impose ongoing obligations, but most Arab nations, Conspiracy Theories notwithstanding, had the primary control of their own destinies. Unfortunately, Lewis’s worst case scenario (at least I think he would call it the worst) chosen by a substantial segment of the Arab East, that of “a return to the lost theocratic ideal.”

This return to the lost theocratic ideal comprises the modern rejection of the West. By returning to the Koranic ideal, to a perfect keeping of the Sharia, modern ideologues have promised the Fundamentalists Allah’s approval. He will bless them if they persevere in all aspects of the Sharia especially the lesser Jihad, which Sayyid Qutb ceased calling “lesser” and drive the infidel from the land conquered by Mohammad and the righteous Caliphs. There is no need to study the West beyond learning to use their technology. There is nothing in the degenerate West that is of interest. Far better to look in the Sharia and seek to do what it says. For then Allah will bless them and the modern Crusaders will fall be for them as readily as the Medieval ones did before Saladin.

Lawrence Helm

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