History on Top, Crazy on the Bottom

Normally, I don’t really pay much attention to the links that Google News sends me that appear to be legitimate history when I’m writing posts for my blog; I’m usually drawn instead to stories with flashy titles like “Stag nights are awful – just ask the medieval strippers of Tallinn”. But this article on the 1565 Siege of Malta‘s title gave me pause: The Victory of September 11, 1565.

As I write this, it’s only an hour into September 11, 2006,* and there are already four articles indexed by Google News combining the word ‘medieval’ with retrospectives on September 11, 2001. The others refer to Osama the “medieval fanatic,” “ethnic traditions we find strange and medieval,”** and “the medieval, convert-or-die jihad mandate of world domination.”*** This is not an auspicious start to the day, but I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve blogged in the past about how the word medieval is an easy euphemism for ‘bad, in a Muslim way.’

The Siege of Malta article is written in such a way as to make it impossible to imagine anyone delivering it other than a smoking-jacket-wearing British-accented historian seated in (a sound stage made up to look like) an opulent Victorian library where all the books are bound in gilt-lettered leather.**** It has the voice of high pop history, wherein various proud groups buy things at steep prices and abstract entities like Christendom get gynopomorphized. In a nutshell, the Knights of Malta, against all odds, beat back the Muslim Turks 426 years before the Twin Towers fell. Like all grand Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire-type history, the article ends with a moral:

On this day, when we remember the act of treachery and malevolence that finally made manifest to us this war, it is foolish to abstract it from its historical context. It is foolish to remember New York, September 11, 2001, and never once think about Vienna, September 11, 1689, or Malta, September 11, 1565; or even Constantinople, May 29, 1453 or Tours, October 7, 732. We might as well talk obsessively about Normandy and say nothing of Pearl Harbor or the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. We might as well fix our attention on Gettysburg and cultivate perfect innocence of Ft. Sumter or First Manassas.

And it’s at this point that my normal narrative style fails me. It’s hard to joke after reading an article that both praises Crusaders and condemns the religiously-motivated wars of the Muslims without recognition or irony. So all I can do is check my dates and provide this handy comparison chart:

Twin Towers — Sept 11, 2001 Fall of Constantinople — May 29, 1453 Battle of Tours***** — Oct 10, 732
Normandy — June 6th, 1944 Pearl Harbor — Dec 7, 1941 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — Aug 23, 1939
Gettysburg — July 1, 1863 Fort Sumter — Apr 12, 1861 First Manassas — July 21, 1861

Clearly, the Fall of Constantinople played as great a role in our current Global Struggle With Islamo-Nazi-Fasco-Unionish-Saracens as did Pearl Harbor in World War II. Let me spell out the insinuation:

At Normandy, the Allies (U.S., Canada, Britain, and others), attacked Germany, the ally of Japan, who had attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. On Sept 11, 19 Muslim terrorists attacked the U.S., which was colonized by the English who descended from the Angles and Saxons who conquered the British who were once ruled by the Romans who lost half of their empire to the Byzantines who were in turn conquered by the Turks who answered the charge of Mohammed who chased the cat who swallowed the fly… Sorry, I got lost there.

Maybe I’m not the best person to figure out how this religious Jihad fits into the grand sweep of Western history. I’m probably better suited to the medieval strippers after all. Unfortunately, the next dozen hits I pull up for the word ‘medieval’ on Google News today are probably going to be more like these stories than my usual targets.

*No back-dating this time, true believers.
**The ethnic tradition mentioned? The “blog ravings of young Muslim women praying for the suicide deaths of their own children.” Normally, I’d make a whole post out of that sort of quote, but today’s grim anniversary has give me bigger fish to fry. You’ll just have to imagine what sort of jokes I’d make about medieval blogs. Some would be self-deprecating and meta, no doubt.
***I’d also probably make a post out of this quote from said article: “Like the evil portrayed in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” – which, after earlier conquests, went dormant for centuries, only to re-emerge in the latter days with a newly rekindled imperative to conquer the world – so it is with radical Islam.”
****Bearskin-rug-having, as well. Pipe-puffing, optional.
*****This is the battle where Charles Martel fought the Saracens.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Greg

    Of course, someone needs to point out that if Charles Martel hadn’t defeated the Saracens and the Muslims had swept through western Europe (it could have happened), everyone might have been a lot happier, as the Muslims were a lot more enlightened back then than the Christians were. Just a thought.

  • Prup (aka Jim Benton)

    Given the amount of noxious Rovian garbage being dumped into the political environment by the White Housae and the neocons, it’s too easy for liberals and Bush-haters (both of which I proudly am) to fall into the mistake of going too far in the opposite direction and Seeing Islam and the Islamic social system as being little different, fundamentally than that of Western Christendom of the time. It is a particular temptation for atheists such as myself, who ‘have no dog in this hunt’ to do so. (Much as McCarthyite nonsense caused some people to whitewash Communism and Stalinism in the 50s instead of pointing out that both were wrong and evil in different ways.)

    No, Greg, people might have been happier, for the moment, had Charles Martel failed, but there were three very important reasons why this would not have been true in the long run that we are currently living in. And while it is possible to argue that Islam would have developed differently had this occurred, this is pure speculation. We can only deal with the Islam that did exist, not one that might have.

    (I am going to discuss each of them in separate posts so if anyone wishes to dispute any individual one it is easier.)

    The first is that, in Christendom (I am referring to the West here, the “Orthodox” sphere was somewhat different) the ‘temporal’ and ‘spiritual’ reigns had become separate. Even the papacy and various Christian writers, while insisting on the superiority of the spiritual over the temporal, had given up the thought of them being joined in one person. And in fact, the two realms remained both separate and independent, and the spiritual was never able to achieve dominance over the temporal.

    For Islam, on the other hand, both were combined in the person of the Caliph. At the time of the invasion this was less important, but later, when Islam was ‘frozen’ by the action of the ulemma (sp?) and the banning of ‘ijtihad,’ this freezing could be successful through “Islamdom.”
    At no time in Christianity could a similar action be successful — and it was certainly tried.

    (It is also important to point out that when the fusing of the two regimes in the specific area of the Papal States led to corruption and to the low-water mark of the papacy, this was limited to this one area. In Islam, when attempts were made to gain political power by controlling the Caliphate were attempted, the results were periods of corruption that went through the entire empire, and attempts to prevent this led to some of the worst aspects of the later and final Ottoman periods.)

  • Prup (aka Jim Benton)

    The second major difference is that, almost from the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, Christendom shattered, politically, into a number of regimes. (I will use the word ‘states’ for these, though purists might question whether the earlier regimes deserved the term. I have no doubt that the reader will understand the usage.)

    The rivalry, competition, and even the warfare between such states were major factors in the development of science, technology, and engineering, and their eventual separation from the religious ‘sciences’ of theology, epistemology, and the like.

    After all, if you are attempting to create weapons that will defeat your enemy, you do not look into the Bible. You investigate how things work in nature. Similarly with more accurate navigational systems, stronger bulwarks for defense, medicine to lessen casualties etc.

    Even if you are merely engaged in a rivalry with other states, attracting scientists, philosophers, artists or even theologians could increase your prestige against your rivals.

    And those thinkers whose ideas might be viewed ‘heretical’ by the Church could frequently find protection from a ruler of one or the other of the separate states that existed.

    The Caliphate was not a ‘perfect union’ of course, and there were rivalrys and disputes, but there was little opportunity for them to spur the sort of growth that was possible in Europe. (For one thing, two “Christian” rulers might fight over a particular territory, or be rivals in a particular area. For Islam, because of the failure to separate the ‘spiritual’ and ‘temporal’ regimes, the goal, almost always, had to be the control of the Empire as a whole.)

    It is true that, during the initial expansion of the Caliphate, Islam rediscovered, transmitted, and even expanded on pre-Islamic ideas that were discovered. But even then they were less likely to be original thinkers than to be transmitters. Many of the early-Islamic contributions to science merely consisted of passing on ideas discovered by the Greeks, the Hindus, etc. This put them initially ahead of the Christians of the time, but the lack of substantial original thought, the ‘freezing’ and the fundamental idea that ‘all knowledge was contained in the Qur’an’ forfeited this initial advantage.

    The question of art should be mentioned as well. As time went on, one factor in the rivalry between states was the sponsorship and patronage of various artists and musicians, first in ‘sacred’ fields and later in the secular realm. But Islam prohibited representational art and ‘liturgical’ music, and frowned upon even secular music and poetry — even though it was never able to stamp such out entirely, even after the ‘freezing.’

    Islamic artistical achievements were limited almost entirely — except for some secular poetry — to architecture and non-representational design. And while the achievements in these fields were impressive, even then the innovation factor was somewhat limited. There was little difference, in essence, between the design of mosques from the early to the final Ottoman period. Much can be said about their use of design.

    In all these areas, the Islamic world made initial great strides to surpass Christendom, and succeeded, but once they had done so, they remained fixed and were surpassed by the innovations that were possible in the west and not in the Caliphate.

  • Prup (aka Jim Benton)

    The final problem has to do with the basic structure and belief of Islam itself.

    For Christianity, the ‘core beliefs’ are the ‘Divinity’ and ‘Resurrection’ of Christ. Christianity, particularly Medieval Christianity reverenced the Bible, and saw it as the “word of God’ in that God had directly inspired the writers to write as they did. At the same time, there was no doubt that the actual books had been written by men, that the Gospels were distinct books each giving — in their view — the eyewitness testimony of different followers and companions of Christ.

    And from the beginning, the works of commentators, of the “Church Fathers,’ of Augustine, and the other writers on Christianity were, if not considered “Canonical” or “Inspired” still considered vital for the unde3rstanding of Christianity.

    (If I may indulge myself by swatting a particularly annoying but off-topic fly, I occasionally see claims by my fellow atheists that “Christianity was invented by” (or at the time of) “Constantine.” These writers, as far as I have seen, have no knowledge of, or explanation for, the writings of the “Early Fathers” who wrote in the two centuries before Constantine and the counsels he called.

    (A further, minor point should be made, though I would not attempt to weigh its importance. The Christian Bible that was used was, unlike the Hebrew Bible or the Qur’an, a translation of the original, most usually the Vulgate of Jerome. As important as this was, as ‘Divinely inspired’ as Jerome might have been considered, there must have been some consideration that this WAS a translation, which could not have had quite the respect that the original would have received.)

    The ‘core belief’ of Islam, on the other hand, is the Divine Authorship of the Qur’an, and thus its unchangeability.

    Even today, the Qur’an is not, in Muslim eyes, translated, rather an English version is considered and called “The Meaning of the Qur’an” rather than “The Qur’an.”

    (I must admit that this rigidity is softened by the fact that the Qur’an is written in Arabic, which is, from what I have discovered from Arabic speakers — I do not speak it myself — perhaps the most ambiguous language on Earth. Five equally accomplished scholaras can ‘interpret’ (or translate) a given Sura in ways which seem to be entirely contradictory, or at least vary in ways an order of magnitude greater than might five English translations of a Chapter in the Bible, Christian or Hebrew. And Western commentators, hearing how Muslims might argue equally strongly that two contradictory ideas are Qur’anic might be tempted to accuse one or the other of hypocrisy, when it is merely the difference in interpreting the Arabic — of course, to these Western eyes there are, in fact also countless contradictions in the Qur’an and the ‘Doctrine of Abrogation’ is nothing more than an attempt to hide this.)

    This insistence on the “Divine Authorship” and hence the unchangeability of the Qur’an — some Muslims would state that a pristine copy of the Qur’an exists in Heaven itself — greatly limits, both in theory and in practice, the possibility of Islam adapting to changing conditions — and this was made much worse once ijtihad was banned.

    Thus, to return to Greg’s point that was the stepping-off point for this extended essay, yes, it is possible to argue that Islam was more advanced at the time of Charles Martel, and that people then would have been happier had Islam triumphed. But now is not then. Christianity and Western though6t have changed, progressed, improved from those times in ways that islam did not and could not have been allowed to.

    This is the answer to many Muslim apologists who, when taxed about the status of women in Islam, argue that the Qur’an was a major step forward in this aspect over the contemporary world. Even if this is true — and I am not at all sure that it is, if Christendom as a whole is looked at rather than merely the Christianity of the Arabic world — today’s Western thought has advanced beyond those days in many ways that Islam did not and cannot.

    Similarly, the ban on interest that did exist in Christianity could be, and was, changed into a ban on excessive interest, on usury, and this made modern capitalism possible. This may be a ‘mixed blessing’ but Islamic countries are still attempting to create an “Islamic banking system” that continues — or pays lip-service to — the ban on interest as a whole and yet remains workable. (And in fact, most banks in Islamic countries, like the Habib bank, ignore the ban and, where necessary, clerics and rules ‘look aside’ and ‘see nothing.’ And of course, the more radical Islamists attack this non-Qur’anic practise.)

    The rigidity of Islam can be amazing to the curious Westerner who looks at it with no preconceptions on either side. Let me end this seemingly interminable piece with an example concerning Ramadan, the month-long period of fasting.

    Ramadan begins with the full moon that begins a month in the Islamic Lunar calendar — and the fact that Islam uses an unreformed lunar calendar is amzing and indicative in itself. But for many Muslims, mostly but not exclusively Selafis(Wahabbis), it is not proper merely to consult the calendar. Ramadan may not begin unless the new moon is actually physically spotted.

    If this seems absurd and unlikely, a prominent (admittedly highly conservative Muslim site, Islam Q&A, quotes the “Council of Senior Scholars” as follows:
    “They have decided unanimously that astronomical calculations carry no weight in determining the new moon with regard to Islamic matters, because the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said, “Fast when you see it and stop fasting when you see it.”


    Another — also conservative but not selafi — site, “Ask Imam” is asked about the attempt of the Islamic Society of North America to determine the beginning of Ramadan by calculation. The response:
    “We have studied the research of ISNA as prepared by Zul Fiqar Ali Shah of Millwaukee and found it to be flawed from many angles. We are busy preparing a response to that and will post on the site as soon as we have prepared our response.

    It is compulsory to see the crescent with the naked eye. Also attached is a paper presented at a conference in London regarding crescent sighting.

    and Allah Ta’ala Knows Best”


    (It should be noted that the Ramadan fast requires that nothing, not even water — or, according to “Ask Imam” even inhaled medicines like asthma sprays — may be consumed from daybreak until sundown, and that, another example of Islam’s rigidity, sexual intercourse with one’s spouse is equally forbidden during those periods.)

  • Prup (aka Jim Benton)

    I should mention that the question to “Ask Imam” was not some note from a medieval text. It was submitted on September 4, 2006, less than two weeks ago.

  • Greg

    I’m certainly not going to refute you point by point (because I ain’t smart enough and I agree with a lot you say), I’m just saying at the Battle of Poitiers, the Muslims were the far superior culture at that moment. Based on the early years of the Umayyad Caliphate in Spain and the reign of enlightened guys like Harun al-Rashid, Islam may have evolved along “enlightened” lines had they conquered Europe. I read once that one of the reasons Europe developed as an “enlightened” continent is because they began to look outward (i.e., to the New World) because the land routes to Asia were cut off. They were forced into innovation, in other words. Who knows, if the Muslims had conquered Europe, what would have happened? You’re certainly absolutely correct about the state of Islam today, but that comes from 500 years of Western domination, which has led to a reactionary kind of governing. Charles Martel losing is, of course, one of the great counterfactuals of history, and at that moment in the eighth century, it might have been better for northern Europe to get a taste of what Spain was about to experience.

  • Another Damned Medievalist

    Well, I for one, debate the idea of superior culture. It’s not as though the first generation or three of caliphs were particularly well-educated or enlightened. As for the people who invaded Spain and swept north, it’s not as though they were sweeping through a cultural desert. Visigothic and Frankish societies were vibrant and full of all kinds of interesting cultural developments — perhaps not particularly artistic, but vibrant and interesting. Another big what-if is, after all, what if the Muslims had beaten Charles Martel and settled in non-urbanized areas of Europe. Islam has taken on lots of local cultural traditions and characteristics wherever it has gone. What if the Frankish leading men had converted to Islam? What would have been the difference (other than religions)? It’s entirely possible that the Carolingians could have ended up running a rival Caliphate.

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