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Islam Creates Europe June 27, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback

Modern Europeans tend to have mixed feelings about the rise of Islam: Islam and Christianity have, after all, been butting heads for the last fifteen hundred years. What is not normally appreciated though is the fundamental role Islam had in creating Europe.

Islam, it will be remembered, was born in the Middle East in the early seventh century. By Mohammed’s death in 632 all the tribes of Arabia had been united into one bloc. Then, by 700, the armies of Islam had poured out of the Middle East across northern Africa and into Spain, and through Persia towards the Ganges; some had even made their way across the Sahara and into Sub-Saharan Africa. This ‘Empire’ was not destined to last: it would splinter into a hundred shards. But Islam would become the religion of the majority in these territories.

So what has this to do with Europe? First, it must be recalled that Europe did not, in any real sense, exist prior to the Islamic invasions. What we refer to as Western Civilisation was the Roman Empire and the Roman Empire was a Mediterranean Empire: with the Red Sea and Britain standing as distant and rather unimportant outliers. A family in Rome had far more in common with a family in Egyptian Alexandria than it did with a family in Britain let alone unconquered and tribal Germany. The Mediterranean was linked by city life that characterised every coastline on that sea: whereas city life never took off in what we think of today as northern Europe, where often towns and villages were lacking.

In the fourth century a melange of different polytheistic religions were replaced with Christianity around the Med and Christianity became the badge of the Roman Empire and subsequently the west. It  may be a shock today but when Constantine legalised Christianity, the most Christian part of the Mediterranean was probably Egypt where perhaps 50% of the population was already of that faith: modern Copt Christians are their last descendants. It is a nice question if there were any Christians in Germany at that date; Christian numbers for Britain are often given at under 5% for this date, though this number is little better than a guess.

So where does Islam come in? Quite simply ‘Europe’ were the Christian territories that survived the onslaught of Islam. These were the territories on the northern banks of the Mediterranean and these were called ‘Europe’ after a term that stretches back to Herodotus but that had had different application earlier in history.

True, European Spain and Sicily fell into the hands of Islamic conquerors, and these were ‘between’ lands at least until the twelfth century when the Re-conquest pushed Islam back here. Then too northern Europe would only be slowly integrated with southern Europe, essentially by trade, invasion (from north to south) and, most importantly, by missionaries. But when we look at the Christian territories in this hemisphere, c. 1000, we are looking essentially at Europe.

The division of the old Mediterranean into two units has been exaggerated, especially through an overly persuasive thesis of the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne (obit 1935). Modern historians have shown, in the last decades that, in fact, the Mediterranean remained open right through the early Middle Ages, despite bubbling resentment between Muslims and Christians. But clearly Islam played a role in delimiting the borders of the most artificial continent: Europe is far more than Asia, Africa or the Americas a cultural construct. Yes, that role was largely negative. Indeed, saying that Islam created Europe is a bit like saying that the Fire of London created the modern British capital. But both statements have a good deal of truth in them.

For more subtle Islamic cultural influences on Europe follow this link: for other views – drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


30/06/2012: LTM kindly sends in this reference to an important new book on Arabic Sicily. Oh to have been there or, failing that, to have six hours to read this. Thanks LTM!