A well-tempered survey of nearly a thousand years of Muslim-Christian interaction—most of it unhappy.
Medievalist Fletcher (The Barbarian Conversion, 1998, etc.) apologizes at the outset for the overused title (“I . . . venture the modest hope that the present work will be considered worthy of inclusion among the Hundred Best Books called The Cross and the Crescent”) and a slight anachronism within it, in that the crescent did not become the symbol for Islam until the Ottoman era. Those are the only apparent flaws in this lively overview, which does not shy from touching on fundamental issues that divide the two “peoples of the book”: Islam’s bewilderment that there could be such a thing as a God split into three aspects (“What else is a God . . . who can turn himself into a man or a dove or a lamb but some form of polytheism or idolatry”); Christianity’s rejection of Islam’s austere monotheism; the two religions’ widely divergent ways of looking at civil authority as against that of the divine. As Fletcher notes, history has seen plenty of instances of peaceful coexistence among the faithful; he writes, for instance, that the so-called Captive Churches were anything but, given full freedom to operate under Islamic dispensation, and that “in the central Islamic lands of the Fertile Crescent . . . Christian and Muslim cooperated fruitfully in tilling the contiguous, often overlapping fields of professional service and intellectual exchange.” Yet this collegiality disappeared with the rise of both doctrinaire movements and increased military friction, as Saracens raided into France and Italy and Christian emperors fought crusades and wars of “reconquest.” In the end, Christian Europe overshadowed the Muslim world through technological and commercial advances, the most important of which, Fletcher holds, was the printing press, a forbidden instrument in Islamic lands. “The rise of the West took the world of Islam by surprise,” he concludes. “Given Islamic disdain for the West, perhaps it had to happen thus.”
Smoothly written and useful in understanding events of the past—and present.