Sea of Faith

Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World


Critical Reaction

The Globe and Mail (Canada) (2006):

O’Shea writes miraculously well and plainly admires Gibbon, “an Enlightenment Herodotus,” in his own phrase… Unlike Gibbon, who could build his edifice on a few sources, O’Shea has had to read a vast body of material, as his bibliography makes plain. What makes his book so satisfying is not all his reading, but that he has seen the places that fill the text with his own eyes. Gibbon sat behind his desk, O’Shea has travelled. This insight, this sense of being there, transforms Sea of Faith into a kind of masterpiece, unlike any other book on the subject.

O’Shea, a Toronto-born, U.S.-based journalist and writer… has become part of the places where his history happened. Once there, his narrative, always well written, suddenly takes wing. His eye and his acute sense of place have produced great writing. I would happily have sacrificed the long parade of irredeemably unimportant events, completely overshadowed by his lambent prose, for the author walking through more dusty fields or covering the ground ignored by earlier historians…

I cannot remember ever writing a review that said “this book should have been longer.” Sea of Faith is beguiling even when the power of the writing sometimes overwhelms the subject, or when the sheer profusion of names and places makes you lose your bearings. Robert D. Kaplan and William Dalrymple have journeyed through this past, and some of the same places. But Stephen O’Shea does it better, and more memorably.

Christian Science Monitor (USA) (2006):

Sea of Faith is a tour de force — literally. Complex battle maneuvers are made clear; we feel the dread and ecstasy of mortal combat… Extended narratives and character portraits often close on a sharp point of judgment.

O’Shea is a master of rhetoric in the old sense: the conveyance, through patterned language, of discriminations and qualifications. As in his previous books, he uses eyewitness description to brilliant effect… Sea of Faith is a beautiful, necessary book, punctuated with passages of dark, luminous, symbolic power.

Times Literary Supplement (UK) (2006):

… it is refreshing to find Stephen O’Shea’s latest historical excursion taking a more imaginative and robust approach to a well-thumbed subject — the interaction of Islam and Christianity around the Mediterranean (the Sea of Faith of the titile) from the seventh through to the sixteenth century… He has some interesting insights, for instance in his description of the Reconquista as “the Medieval Spanish Civil War”, or his observation of the contrasting modern memories of the story he tells. Muslim al-Andalus is today viewed, perhaps misleadingly, very positively, in contrast to the Crusades that remain, for most, a painful memory. As Stephen O’Shea concludes, these medieval religious (and, he might have stressed more, political) conflicts do not necessarily have to determine either the present or the future.

Publishers Weekly (USA) (2006):

In this elegant, fast-paced, and judicious cultural and religious history, journalist O’Shea, author of The Perfect Heresy, provides a remarkable glimpse into the origins of the conflicts between Christians and Muslims as well as their once peaceful coexistence… O’Shea vividly captures and recreates not only the enmity between the two religions but also the sectarian rivalries and political intrigues within each religion. Yet the relationship between Christianity and Islam was marked not only by bloody Crusades and wars of conquest. As O’Shea so eloquently points out, Christians and Muslims also experienced long periods of rapprochement, signaled by the long peace at Cordoba in the early Middle Ages and in the intellectual and social flourishing at Toledo and Palermo in the 11th century. O’Shea’s marvelous accomplishment offers an unparalleled glimpse of the struggles to establish dominance in the medieval worldd as well as the strategies for living together that the religions enacted as they shared the same territory.

Quill and Quire (Canada) (2006):

Having introduced the general reader to the Albigensian Crusade in The Perfect Heresy, journalist and historian Stephen O’Shea now expands his vision to encompass the history of the first thousand years of two of the world’s great monotheistic religions. Using the framework of seven pivotal battles from Yarmuk in 636 to Malta in 1565, O’Shea traces the convoluted history of Islamic/Christian interaction around the Mediterranean. It’s a dramatic story of conflict and betrayal, but with surprisingly uplifting localized interludes of hope and mutual respect… O’Shea’s talent for enlivening 1,000-year-old events, and his peronal perspective on the modern landscape where all this history happened, help the larger story move along at a cracking pace…

This is a fascinating and readable overview of a time in which the roots of the modern Middle East turmoil were firmly planted. It’s a story that reconfirms that no side has a monopoly on right or stupidity, and as such should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand our modern crusades.

The Independent on Sunday (UK) (2006):

In Sea of Faith, Stephen O’Shea finds a metaphor for Muslim/Christian relations in “two sons struggling over the inheritance”; the father being Judaism. And that insight — a convincing one — is just the start. In concentration his attention on the medieval maritime phase of this grand contention, O’Shea reminds us that it was a characteristically Mediterranean conflict, its violent squalls alternating with benign discussion in the shade of an olive tree.

This seemingly cosmetic shift of perspective has vast ramifications: you stop thinking of Muslim and Christian states, even of spheres of influence, since these shift all over the place. Every page carries a glittering freight of insight, detail and sometimes caustic observation. The breadth of research is intimidating, but the author tells his story with an engaging blend of swagger and sensitivity. You are caught up by this vast wave of learning, but never cast down.

Los Angeles Times (2006):

Absorbing, crisply written… narrated with considerable panache… O’Shea does a splendid job of making the long, complicated story he tells in the Sea of Faith vivid and accessible.

Oxford Times (2006):

If you read one book on the history of the Middle East conflict, this should be it. O’Shea carves an illuminating, compassionate path through the clashes of Islam and Christianity that dominated the medieval world in and around the Mediterranean. This book goes further — it looks at the time of tolerance, when cultures could intermingle. O’Shea is a master craftsman in plotting the course of a , 1,000-year struggle between two great civilisations. His battle tales unfold with a special momentum — Jerusalem, Constantinople, Malta, Yarmuk, Poitiers — but it is the author’s familiarity with ancient places and dynasties that provides the drama for this book.

The Independent (UK) (2006):

Admirable erudition and clarity, an authoritative overview of the period.

Chicago Tribune (2006):

Stephen O’Shea demonstrates that the Crusades were only the middle chapter in a series of military encounters between Islam and Christianity… O’Shea’s method is to narrate the past while standing on battlefields where it was transacted. It’s a captivating device.

Books in Canada (2006):

… O’Shea does succeed in providing a memorable historical account that effectively undermines the popular mythology of exclusive violence between Muslims and Christians. The lessons of convivencia, of course, ought to be heeded not only by Huntington and his defenders. There are just as many Muslims who compete with Huntington himself in pronouncing the inevitability of a clash between Islam and the West. They, too, have their own popular mythology, which differs in its parody of history only by degree. Although clearly intended for Western readers, Sea of Faith is written with the sort of fairness and sensitivity that renders it perfectly appropriate for Muslim readers as well.