Cultural Tunnel Vision and the Sea of Faith

On the challenges of writing about Islam

Lecture given in Edinburgh, 2006

The idea of doing a book such as the Sea of Faith came to me slowly, on tiptoe. In previous books, the first about the Western Front of World War One, the next about the Cathar or Albigensian heretics in southwestern France of the Middle Ages, I was attracted to two notions: one, that important episodes of history are too often forgotten or not known at all; and two, that clues to those histories are often right in front our noses, just waiting to be looked at. Yes, the bulk of historical research is done sitting in a chair, reading glasses firmly in place, but a great deal of understanding can be gleaned from going to the places where history unfolded, looking at the lay of the land or the color of the sky, seeing how and if an event is memorialized, talking to people there about what they think happened, no matter how long ago. Superstition? Wildcat anthropology? Romantic maunderings? Perhaps. I just know that it has helped me, thinking of history not only in time but also as something existing in places. Add to that a belief that history is not something buried in a library, but something that is working on us every day, no matter how unconscious we are of that working. James Joyce gave a famous negative view of the process, “History” his character Stephen Dedalus says, “is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” I would add, humbly, that it is also a dream that should be interpreted. Learning history is not learning who or what to hate – in its most intimate sense, it’s learning about yourself.

So, armed with the notion that forgotten or dimly remembered history actually matters and with the superstition that history is palpable in the present, I spent much of the nineties scrambling through trenches in the forests of northern France and then climbing Cathar castles in the Languedoc. The latter journey brought me, inevitably, to the shores of the Mediterranean. By the late nineties, I’d been living in France for more than fifteen years and done the usual guileless travel around the Mediterranean, marvelling at its diversity and reading its history. A passage by Fernand Braudel was especially congenial to someone with my superstition. The Mediterranean, Braudel wrote, “is a sea that patiently recreates for us scenes from the past, breathing new life into them, locating them under a sky and in a landscape that we can see with our own eyes, a landscape and sky like those of long ago. A moment’s concentration or daydreaming, and that past comes back to life.”

To be perfectly honest, my daydreaming by its shores were not, at first, entirely satisfactory. I felt that I was missing something. Let me explain. Here I was at the center stage of history — for that is what the Med was for so many centuries — and yet I felt as if I didn’t know all of the actors. Even though I grew up and was educated in Canada, far far away from that center stage, we of course learned about the mare nostrum of Graeco-Roman times, of the Middle Ages, of the papacy, and on and on. Yet on seeing the Med, on traveling around its shores, it occurred to me there had been a lot of talk about Marco Polo and none about that intrepid traveler Ibn Battutah. About the Bourbons and Habsburgs and nothing about the Umayyads of Spain. About the scholastics and the Renaissance yet nothing of the translators of Toledo and al-Idrisi of Palermo and Ibn Khaldun of Marrakesh. About the Byzantines and nothing about the Ottomans. And so on. If anything, in some histories of the medieval period, the great accomplishments of Islamic civilization, accomplishments that spread to the West and influenced its development, are mere fodder for footnotes, and the medieval Muslim is reflexively dismissed as the sinister Saracen, as if that was all there was to it. There had been a cultural tunnel vision at work, that is, learning only those histories that redound to the benefit of whichever society happens to be setting the curriculum. You didn’t have to be as perceptive a daydreamer as Fernand Braudel to look at the Med as a whole and see that there was an intriguing confessional geography there, a geography of belief, and that Mediterranean identity was far richer than is taught on its northern shores and both sides of the Atlantic. I began, in short, to wonder how to tell how that geography of belief came about.

What finally spurred me on with the project was an event that occurred in 2001. But not the one you might think. In the spring of that year Pope John Paul II visited the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus. My decision to proceed was not prompted by the visit itself, which I thought a nice gesture, but rather the way it was reported. At the time, in the requisite overview articles on the historical relations between Christianity and Islam, there was a lot of talk about the crusades. That would have been fine, given the locale of the pope’s tourism, had the crusades not been the one and only historical reference cited, to the exclusion of everything else — in cheerful indifference to the profoundly influential matrix of conflict and complicity between Christianity and Islam over the centuries, a relationship that had shaped culture and memory in lands of the Mediterranean far removed from the old stomping ground of crusader warhorses. Had not NATO just bombed Serbia two years previously, amid endless articles in the same publications on the supposedly incurable, irredeemable, immutable enmity between Christian and Muslim in Kosovo? And not long before then, had we not heard about the interconfessional crossfire at Sarajevo, or, in 1984, of the multicultural lovefest that was that city’s Winter Olympics? In Seville, the site of the 1992 World’s Fair — had none of the thousands of journalists on assignment there noticed the minaret — the minaret! — adorning that city’s cathedral? Or elsewhere in Andalusia, had no one gone on a day-trip junket to see the Alhambra, the greatest Muslim palace in Europe? All else, even the most screamingly obvious, was squashed under the papal slipper as it scuffed the prayer mats of Damascus. A rich, long and layered history, larger and far more important than the masquerades of telegenic symbolism, had disappeared without so much as a subordinate clause.

So that was that. I recognized a history that was dimly remembered or partly forgotten. I felt the familiar tug of travel. The Mediterranean, the sea of faith, beckoned. For it was faith, the confessional geography of that center stage, that interested me. How did it go from being a querulous, quarrelsome Christian lake at the time Justinian was erecting his Hagia Sophia in Constantinople to a querulous, quarrelsome collection of creeds and cultures by the time Suleyman the Magnificent was being turned back at Vienna and Malta? Put more directly: why was Turkey Muslim, and Spain, Christian? What had happened? Who were the historical actors? Were they animated by faith, greed, sociopathy, megalomania, war lust, wanderlust? How did the glorious diversity of Mediterranean identity come about, the identity only half-glimpsed in the cultural tunnel vision of the Western curriculum?

So they were big questions, enough to staff dozens of departments at several universities. Then again, almost any subject can staff dozen of departments at several universities. My challenge was not to write an exhaustive, analytical account of a period stretching from Antiquity to the Reformation; no, it was to construct a narrative history that evoked several emblematic episodes of this long process. To write is to choose, and I chose ten episodes — of war and of peace — to tell the story, at best to refresh memories, at worst to relieve ignorance.

Briefly, then, I start at Yarmuk, where present-day Syria, Jordan and Israel meet and where, in the year 636, the forces of Arabian Islam, then a fledgling empire, met and defeated the Byzantines. An enormously important event in the confessional history of the Middle East, yet for all that Yarmuk is not exactly a household word. The only time Westerners come across it is in the horrific reports of the charnel house at Yarmuk Hospital in present-day Baghdad. From there to the Battle of Poitiers in distant France, where Charles Martel made his famous stand. In this, I use the battle, which is almost impossible to reconstruct, to evoke the story of the great Arab conquests of north Africa. Why do we not know the fantastic story of Kahina, the semi-legendary Jewish Berber prophetess-warrior-queen who held up this seemingly unstoppable conquest in the mountains of Tunisia and Algeria? In my opinion, it’s as intriguing a story as Joan of Arc’s. Then I turn to peace and the magnificent accomplishments of Umayyad Spain, al-Andalus, and its admixture of Muslim, Christian and Jew in creating a prosperous, cultivated society. I believe that ignorance of Muslim Spain, reducing it just to the Moor’s Last Sigh at Granada in 1492, is the greatest omission perpetrated by cultural tunnel vision.

The story changes locale, picks up speed. Around the turn of the millennium the Seljuk Turks arrive from the east and by century’s end have defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert, in Armenia, thereby sealing the fate of Christian Asia Minor. At the same time another group, the Normans, come to the shores of the Mediterranean. Their conquest of Muslim Sicily ushers in another moment of confessional complicity, as the Norman court at Palermo becomes an exemplar of learning and an Islamicized Christian monarchy. At precisely the same moment, the Castilians capture the great Muslim city of Toledo and, subsequently, the flow of translations and knowledge stream out of that city to irrigate the awakening intellectual traditions of the Latin West. Not only does Aristotle arrive via Baghdad, then Cordoba, then Toledo, but so too do such telltale Arabic words and notions as algebra, algorithm, admiral, cheque, tariff, bazaar and so on. These eleventh and twelfth centuries show the medieval sea of faith, in war and in peace, at its most active and I attempt to take the reader to their various sites of memory.

Those centuries were, of course, the start of the era of the crusades. However much I just disparaged the journalists for dwelling on this era when the pope went to Damascus, the crusades are of crucial importance, both historically and, perhaps more importantly, imaginatively. I will admit here that I did spend more time than was necessary in northern Syria panting through the underbrush to see the ruins of the castles of the Assassins. My bemused guide there, much younger than me, took to calling me The Old Man of the Mountain. In the Crusade chapter I examine the century leading up to the Battle of Hattin, in 1187. Saladin’s victory over the crusaders at Hattin spelled the doom of Outremer, the Christian crusading states of the Levant.

Then the story moves on to other sites of memory. Las Navas de Tolosa, the Almohad defeat that ushered in the end of al-Andalus, is taken up in its turn. In the final chapters we see the rise of the Italian merchant republics, the rise of commercial logic over confessional scruples, the appearance of the Ottomans. I of course deal with the fall of Constantinople, but also the rise of the astonishingly cosmopolitan Kostantiniyye in its place. Suleyman’s sixteenth-century Kostantiniyye — later Istanbul — was as fascinating and variegated a place as tenth-century Umayyad Cordoba. As a postscript, I end in Malta, which is itself a theater of memory today. The unsuccessful Ottoman siege of Malta, followed by the Turkish defeat at Lepanto, is the end of what I term the sea of faith, when its confessional geography was still in play. By then we have entered the suburbs of our own recent past and beyond the scope of what I set out to narrate.

Which brings me, finally, to the question of our recent past, and our present. Yes, there is a lot of war in this book, holy but most unholy, such was the tenor of the times. But there is also a lot of complicity and intermingling. It is a shared story, a common heritage for those of us who consider ourselves children of the Mediterranean. Historian Richard Bulliett of Princeton has likened the interaction between the two faiths during this period as “sibling rivalry.” I prefer that term to the shibboleth of “clash of civilizations”. The reader will see that I do not speak of Islam or Christendom as monoliths — almost as much time is spent on divisions, schisms and rivalries within each faith. Speaking of either as a monolith I will leave to fanatics.

So it was a sea of faith, in an age of faith. If individual actors varied in the depths of their piety, they still swam in a sea where the hand of God could save them from drowning or push their head under. Times have and have not changed. Amartya Sen, in his valuable new book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, argues against miniaturizing people, taking only one aspect of their identity and pigeonholing them as Muslim, Christian or whatever. I agree with him. In this book, although it may seem polar or binary in its construction, I have attempted to show that there is a common heritage, a shared past, and an astounding diversity that ranged all round the Med. The twain did meet, mingle, marry and forge something new. I would hope that that is what the reader takes from this book. At the very least, he or she might read those newspapers differently. Or when someone like Dick Cheney starts muttering about concepts like “the caliphate”, we’ll at least have an idea of what it is he is misrepresenting this time around. There’s only so much you can take on faith, especially bad faith.

Thank you.