Crowded yet sprightly account of Islam’s definitive shaping of the world map during the so-called Dark Ages.
While the Roman Empire was crumbling, writes Pulitzer Prize–winner Lewis (History/New York Univ.; W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century 1919–1963, 2000, etc.), Muhammad was taking up the sword for Allah. “The Arab jihad swept aside kingdoms and empires,” he notes, achieving a tremendous revolution in power and culture in both Asia and fledgling Europe. Indeed, Lewis demonstrates beautifully, if the Franks under Charles Martel hadn’t turned back the more enlightened Muslim invaders at Poitiers in 732, the continent might have been spared becoming “an economically retarded, balkanized, fratricidal Europe that, in defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy.” This thoughtful overview sheds welcome light on an increasingly relevant period of history. Avoiding the Eurocentric route, Lewis first traces the demise of the two superpowers, Graeco-Latin Rome and Persian Iran, grown exhausted through waging perpetual war on each other by the sixth century. Simultaneously, the self-proclaimed prophet Muhammad emerged from the proud, dominant Quraysh tribe of bustling Mecca to lead his people out of ignorance. He conquered Mecca with an army of believers before his death in 632, but it was his ardent followers who assembled the vital texts that would become the Qur’an and built a formidable military machine, sweeping over Syria, Persia, Egypt and the Maghreb. They crossed into Visigothic Iberia in 711, establishing a highly learned, tolerant culture that endured for 500 years. Lewis portrays a staggering number of personalities among the successive caliphs, as well as the righteous leaders of the marauding Lombards, Franks and Carolingians such as Clovis and Charlemagne.
A work of clear-eyed scholarship—and occasionally challenging vocabulary.