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What we can learn from re-writing the past

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September 23, 2020

“Bring me his head!” The order came from Abd al Rahman al Ghafiq, the ebullient governor of Al Andalus. The date was 10 October 732, the place was open ground between Tours and Poitiers in western France. It was a gusty day, and to the howls of wind which swept the plain were added the groans of the dying and wounded. Many more bodies, struck down in the fiercest fighting, lay perfectly still and silent.

Abd al Rahman al Ghafiq was exhilarated. Allah had just favoured him with the most exalted victory over the infidel Franks in the heart of Europe. His Arab army, according to the eighth-century Mozarabic Chronicle, had remained “immobile as a wall” against the enemy’s advances and had held together “like a glacier”. Then, “In the blink of an eye, they annihilated the Franks with the sword.”

The Muslim army, once again, was victorious, and in frenzied hand-to-hand fighting the Frankish leader was hacked down and beheaded. His name was Charles, duke and prince of the Franks. A few hours later one of his senior commanders presented the governor with his blood-smeared trophy. He nodded with satisfaction. “Praise to God. It is done.”

There could be no doubt that God was on the Muslims’ side. Ever since the Prophet Mohammed had first unified the squabbling pagan tribes of the Arabian Peninsula under the banner of Islam, the new faith and its warriors had never looked back. Mohammed had died in 632, a century before the Battle of Tours, and the procession of victories had begun immediately after his death.

In 634 Damascus had fallen, and three years later the hoary old Patriarch of Jerusalem surrendered the Holy City to the Muslim caliph Umar, and by 641 Byzantine Egypt had folded. In 651, Yazdgird III, Persian King of Kings, was killed at Merv in Turkmenistan and the once mighty Sasanian Empire had been toppled. The Byzantines were flattened, too. Out of nowhere the Islamic Empire was rampant and resplendent — but there was more, much more, to come.

From the 670s, Muslim armies fanned across North Africa and swathes of Central Asia. In 711, the Berber commander Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed the Straits of Gibraltar with Muslim forces and landed on the Iberian Peninsula. Within five years the majority of it acknowledged Muslim authority. Coins were issued with a Latin inscription proclaiming the Islamic creed, modelled on Byzantine issues in North Africa: In nomine Dei Non Deus Nisi Deus Solus Non Deus Alius. In the Name of God, There is no God but God.

The Muslim victory at Tours was a turning-point. Had the Christians prevailed at the battle, the 14th-century Egyptian historian Maqrizi imagined, an Arabian fleet might never have sailed unchallenged into the Thames. “Perhaps the interpretation of the Bible, not the Quran, would still be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a God-fearing people the sanctity and truth of the Holy Trinity,” he wrote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Infidels.

Tours was no one-off raid on the Franks — it marked instead the beginning of Islamic consolidation and expansion in western Europe. For the Iberian Peninsula that the Arabs had travelled through to fight at Tours, the consequences were profound. Starting in the eighth century, droves of Christians converted to the new faith and the sound of church bells tolling became a thing of the past. Jews remained a tolerated minority for centuries to come; they were not hounded out of the Peninsula by the resurgent kingdoms of Castile, Léon, Navarre and Aragón because there was no Reconquista, and there was no Spain. The formerly Christian Hispania of Romans and Visigoths remained proudly Muslim Al Andalus.

The messenger sent to bring the Umayyad caliph Hisham ibn Abd al Malik the stirring news of the victory at Tours failed to find the leader of the Islamic world in his palace in Damascus. He was instead besporting himself in his vast desert palace-fortress of Qasr al Hayr al Sharqi, near Palmyra, where he loved to hunt, listen to music, drink copious bumpers of red wine and seek pleasure in the arms of his concubines. The caliph appeared unimpressed by the Muslim triumph almost three thousand miles to the west.

“It is well,” he said, waving the messenger away. “Let them continue north.”

They followed his command and did just that. After Tours, the Umayyad army under Abd al Rahman al Ghafiq, swelled by defectors, pressed north and east. Over successive  generations, Muslim armies continued the jihad. Many Christians converted at the point of a sword, many more — together with growing numbers of Jews — took up the faith voluntarily.

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Born a decade after Tours, Charles’s grandson Charlemagne grew up in its shadow. As king of the Franks from 771, his energies were consumed not so much by imperial and religious expansion — uniting all the Germanic peoples into one kingdom and converting his subjects to Christianity — but in desperate attempts to resist the mighty Islamic wave crashing over western Christendom. Exalted in his aims, however, he was unsuccessful on the battlefield.

He lived just long enough to see Paris fall to Muslim forces. A year later, in 814, the self-styled Emperor of the Romans died, plunging his embattled kingdom — and much of Europe — into internecine strife, energetically stoked by Umayyad leaders. Bruges fell in 847. By 900 Rome, Genoa, Milan, Florence and Venice had either fallen to the Muslims after fighting or had surrendered voluntarily to avoid further bloodshed. Puppet popes, shorn of real power, henceforth were the order of the day.

There was no Carolingian Renaissance to illuminate the continent. Instead that role fell to those fortune-seeking Muslim scholars who followed in the wake of the Arab warriors. After their lightning campaigns across the continent, the great European monasteries, formerly illustrious centres of learning, were either torched or converted to Islamic madrassas, colleges where students learned the sacred truths of the Quran and fikh, Islamic jurisprudence.

Arab science, medicine and mathematics broke new ground in Muslim Europe. Beginning in the tenth century, Rome, once the fortress of western Christendom, emerged as a powerhouse of Islamic philosophy, law, astronomy, history, geography, cartography and calligraphy. Scholars from as far afield as Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad flocked there to find imperial patronage, translating some of the great works of classical Greek, Hindu and Persian scholarship into Arabic. Seminal works by Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Hippocrates, Galen and others found their way onto the bookshelves of generations of Umayyad Muslim emirs (princes) in their Roman palaces.

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Portraiture became virtually unknown in Europe. Learned scholars spoke mysteriously of ancient Persian miniatures depicting images of men, women and animals, but these were frowned upon as the impious works of artists who had lost their way and departed from the true faith. Sculpture died out completely and, led by the Arabs, artistic life focused on architecture, calligraphy, mosaics, pottery, embroidery and carpet-weaving.

Over several centuries, Umayyad power expanded across Europe. Christendom found itself increasingly hemmed in and hard-pressed within the southeastern rump of the continent, harried by ever more damaging Ottoman incursions. Christians no longer looked to compromised Rome for spiritual leadership and salvation, but east to Constantinople, last independent bastion of the faith. There were no Crusades in the Middle East because there were no Christian armies left to fight them.

Then, in 1453, calamity struck. Constantinople had resisted foreign invaders for more than 1,000 years. The long line of would-be conquerors included Attila the Hun (447), the Avars (626), the Umayyad caliph Muawiya (674–678) and the Russians (860). But on 29 May, the 21-year-old Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II finally succeeded where all before him had failed. The Byzantine emperor Constantine XI, “Constantine Palaiologos, in Christ true Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans”, to give him his official title, was killed and beheaded in a frantic defence of eastern Christendom’s millennial headquarters.

Orthodox Constantinople, “City of the World’s Desire”, became Muslim Istanbul. The Balkans, much of which had already been conquered, were completely overrun. From one end of the continent to the other, the Muslim crescent, rather than the Christian cross, now dominated the skyline.

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Those who had prayed that peace and prosperity might finally flow from a united Sunni Muslim Europe soon discovered that their hopes and dreams had been illusory. True, there were no sectarian wars pitting Catholics against Protestants, but far worse was to follow.

Arabs and Ottomans may both have been Muslim, but that was all that bound them together. During the Forty Years War, which began in 1460, Arab armies fought repeated campaigns against the Ottomans as Islamic Europe tore itself apart. Muslims, alongside those Jews and Christians who had chosen to retain their faiths and remained dhimmi protected persons in return for payment of the jizya capitation tax, watched aghast as the continent immiserated itself.

There was no Reformation and there was no Renaissance. Western Europe had been gobbled up by Arab Muslim armies, Eastern Europe had succumbed to Ottoman steel and artillery and now the two Muslim forces battled it out for supremacy. For many Europeans, whatever their religion, it seemed as though the Dark Ages had returned.

Justin Marozzi is the author of Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization, published by Penguin.

Join the discussion


  • October 15, 2020
    And christians arent as bad give me a break. Read more

  • October 13, 2020
    I just find it laughable and ironical that a muslim Arab would criticize Western imperialism considering that your own religion was anything but a brutal imperialist religious ideology conquering and subjugating majority Christian lands of the Byzantine empire in the Near East and North Africa and... Read more

  • October 4, 2020
    Where are our reparations? Read more

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