Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099. The Crusaders marked their victory by massacring Jewish and Muslim inhabitants. Painting by Emile Signol

We need to refute the idea that we’re living through a ‘Clash of Civilisations’ between the West and Islam – it’s dangerous bunkum argues Chris Bambery

The idea that we are living through a “Clash of Civilisations” – between a Western one and an Islamic one – rests on the idea of the superiority of the former, flowing from the traditions of Greece and Rome, transmitted via the Catholic Church after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Western Europe is held up as being central to this, and the heartland of the Christian tradition. Much later that civilisation spread to the Americas and Australasia (though the treatment of the indigenous population is an embarrassment best passed over for upholders of the supposed superiority of Western Civilisation).

The rise of Islam is portrayed as something alien to “true” civilisation, the inheritor of the Classical Age. The Arabs who conquered an Empire stretching from the Rivers Ebro to the Indus are portrayed as illiterate nomads living outside the civilised world. Their religion, Islam, portrayed as being opposed to the traditions of Greece and Rome, and to the pursuit of knowledge and scientific achievement.

In 2011 the Dutch politician Gert Wilders, noted for his opposition to the “Islamisation of Europe,” addressed the Magna Carta Foundation in Rome, telling his audience at the outset that it was great to be in “the capital and the centre of Europe’s Judeo-Christian culture.”

As we shall see Jews might not feel so warm towards the historic Christian rulers of Rome, the Papacy.

Wilders went on

‘Our national cultures are branches of the same tree. We do not belong to multiple cultures, but to different branches of one single culture. This is why when we come to Rome, we all come home in a sense. We belong here, as we also belong in Athens and in Jerusalem…our culture is rooted in Jerusalem, Athens and Rome, Islam’s roots are the desert and the brain of Muhammad.’

This narrative is emotive because it speaks to a fear, carefully manufactured, of a civilisation, Rome, falling to Barbarian hordes. The historian of Late Antiquity, Peter Brown, writes in response to Wilders:

‘The story of the fall of Rome has always left in the back of our minds a heavy sediment of fear and regret. Such a narrative is calculated to be disturbing. It presents a complacent empire, a silent build up of pressure from outside, a sudden breakthrough, a murderous campaign and then, silence…the extinction of civilisation for many centuries. What is regrettable is that this narrative should erupt from time to time, to serve the purposes of toxic political movements in contemporary Europe.‘[1]

A lot rests on this interpretation of history. What if Wilders account is simply bunkum? What if Western Europe as we know it today was not the centre of civilisation in Late Antiquity, but a region on the edge of civilisation? What if in the same period it was not the centre of Christianity, and instead a region which contained large numbers of pagans?

What could explain how, in the century between 630 and 730CE, a considerable and crucial portion of the Roman Empire fell under Muslim control, when, following a series of campaigns, Arab Muslim armies created a single empire that, for a time, would reach from northern Spain to northern India and the western borders of China? Or how that conquest would be followed by a rise of a civilisation superior to any other at the time with the exception of that of China?

To answer these questions let us step back into the Classical World.

‘The Fall of Rome’

The Roman Empire was similar to an onion, being based on rings. Its central ring was based on Rome and the Mediterranean, which was where Roman civilisation was centred. Around this were other rings with civilisation lessening the further you moved out until you reached the frontier. Thus to travel through what is now France was to travel from Provence, very much linked to Rome culturally and socially, through a society which became more and more rural, and more and more Celtic, with cities far smaller than their southern counterparts until reaching a militarised zone.

To cross the frontier in the barbarian lands was to initially experience no great change, because the barbarians lived under Roman influence for centuries, and by Late Antiquity made up increasing numbers of Rome’s frontier armies. Similarly, Bedouin Arabs, were recruited by both the rival Roman and Persian Empires, while others settled in what is now Syria and Iraq.

To illustrate the point about where the centre of civilisation lay in the Roman world let’s take the island of Britain prior to the departure of the Roman army. A visitor from Rome, or even more so Constantinople or Alexandria would realise that on stepping off a boat into the Roman province of Britain (most of today’s England and Wales) that he was far removed from home. Cities like London and York were far smaller than those of Italy, Egypt or the Levant, and society was militarised because of increasing attacks on its borders. As the traveller moved west or north, she or he would enter what was still a Celtic peasant world, albeit Christian. To the north of Hadrian’s Wall she or he would enter a world still in the orbit of Rome (earlier Pictish kings of Orkney drank imported wine and one had visited the Emperor Claudius, the conqueror of Britain, in Colchester) but one far removed from what our Roman visitor regarded as civilised.

If our visitor’s boat returning across the North Sea had been blown off course and landed in the Rhine Delta (now Holland) they would have found themselves in a barbarian land which would remain pagan for another two centuries (something Wilders passed over).

By the 5th century Rome itself was becoming removed from the heartlands of the Empire. The Western Emperors were based to the north, in Milan, Ravenna or on the border and were military men (many of barbarian origin). The Roman armies reflected their barbarian opponents in dress and weaponry, not surprising as they were made up largely of barbarians.

The Eastern Empire (Byzantium as it would later be known) was based on Constantinople, but at its core lay in the crucial regions of Syria and Egypt. The vast majority of the world’s Christians lived in Asia Minor, the Levant, Egypt and North Africa and, crossing the imperial frontier, in the Persian Empire.

map of 5th Century Christianity

The final collapse of the Western Empire at the close of the 5th century led to the creation of new kingdoms in today’s Western Europe n which Barbarian kings commanded the loyalty of the old Roman landowners and clergy. This was not a process of invasion as portrayed in traditional accounts of the “Fall of Rome” but of the collapse of the Roman state which could no longer maintain the huge costs of its standing armies, and the rise of military leaders trained in the Roman army but of barbarian origin.

Much of Gaul (France), like Britain, simply reverted to localised peasant societies much as they had been before the Roman conquest. Many of the barbarian rulers and their followers (who would have been small in number in proportion to the native population) were already Christian but were not Catholic and were regarded as heretics both in Rome and Constantinople, but modern Germany, Holland, Scandinavia and Northern Britain were pagan (as was Eastern Europe).

Literacy did not disappear – the new rulers regarded themselves as the continuators of Roman rule – but the old Roman ruling class was itself forced to turn in on its itself, relying on their own estates, and to become militarised. The only alternative was to become court intellectuals for the new rulers or join the church. Aristocrats set up monasteries which often resembled the old villa estates.

They could still communicate with the intellectual heartlands of Christianity in the Eastern Mediterranean but the ties were loosening. More importantly fewer people identified themselves as Roman. Inside the Church the tendency over the three centuries following the end of the Western Empire was to discount the history of Rome prior the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and to stress not the Classical writings of Greece and Rome but Christian writings illustrating the continuity of the Catholic Church and enforcing the orthodoxy of its beliefs.

There was still some contact with the Eastern Empire, which in the 6thcentury took control of Rome, Southern Italy, Sicily, North Africa and even a coastal strip of Spain, and the Pope acknowledged the Emperor in Constantinople, but it was much diminished.

The rise of Islam

The thesis of the Belgian historian, Henri Pirenne, in ‘Mohammed and Charlemagne’, published posthumously in 1937, was that the real break with the Roman Empire came with the 7th Century Arab conquest which closed the Mediterranean to the West.

Today this thesis no longer holds water. The vast majority of historians agree that by 600CE Western Europe had reverted to localised economies, cities had decreased in size and importance, even in the most urbanised area, Italy, and that Christianity did not centre on the Papacy in Rome (in some ways an outpost of the Eastern Empire then).

If you read the tales of Sinbad the Sailor, set in the Fatimid Caliphate, the voyages made are in the Indian Ocean because the Islamic world traded in the main with the east, India and China, and not with the west via the Mediterranean, not because of religious or political factors but simply to the east, and not the west, was where wealth lay.

Chris Wickham points out that Syria, Palestine and Egypt were no longer centred on a Mediterranean world, trading with the northern shore of that sea, but eastwards to the Iranian plateau and beyond.[2]

A traditional explanation for the Arab conquests was that the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Empire bled each other white in a disastrous war in the 7thcentury. The Roman Empire lost control of Syria and Egypt and only retook it after a massive effort which drained the Empire’s powers. At that moment the Arabs, newly united under Islam, burst forth and took advantage of the power vacuum to seize vast territories. The Persian Empire sunk and the Roman Empire survived, just, but was now centred on a Greek speaking world.

There is some truth in all this. But it misses one very important point. The Arab takeover was in part through conquest, but a majority of cities surrendered without a fight and in many towns and villages the new rulers were welcomed.

That is because the majority of the population were Christian, but regarded as heretics by Constantinople, or Jews, subject to persecution under imperial rule. The Arab conquest was not followed by economic and social collapse, rather by the regeneration of these societies following decades of war and recession.

The Arabs themselves had developed a beautiful language over centuries which was now the language of the Qu’ran. Some were Bedouin but the Prophet and other inhabitants of the towns of the Hijaz were traders in contact with Syria, Egypt and Iraq. They had resisted conversion to Christianity and Judaism but that does not mean they were barbarians in the modern sense of the word.

Mohammed united them and created among many other things a talented leadership team which combined military skill with political acumen.

The Arabs conquered what were the core regions of the Roman Empire and of Christianity. Antioch in present day Syria and Alexandria in Egypt were two greater centres of Christianity in Late Antiquity. Aziz Al-Azmeh points out that the Abbasid caliphate was, “in many crucial respects, in linear continuity with the earlier ones [empires] in place, but with greater geographical extent.” He goes on to argue:

‘Barbarian Arab invaders gave it [the Roman Empire] added capacity and vigour, greater geographical extension, and a fresh lease of life, albeit under a novel and unexpected signature. The Arab Empires were in continuity with Rome in terms of their notion of a monotheisistic world religion, in their oecumenical vacations, and in a variety of other senses as well, including culture.’[3]

The new rulers allowed their subjects to continue as before, except that they had to pay a poll tax as non-believers. In return they essentially ran things along old lines and were allowed to practice their religion. For those Christians, defined by Constantinople as heretics, and for Jews this was a welcome step. Christianity continued to flourish for centuries to come. There were no forced conversions, something Mohammed warned against.

Peter Brown argues:

‘It seems to me that the balance of learned opinion is that the early Muslims were both conquerors and good listeners. They were proud to have been conquerors. They had watched a Middle East where the collision between East Rome and the Sassanian Empire to their north and the bitter Red Sea Wars to their south made plain that God showed his favour on entire kingdoms by granting them victory over their enemies. Their own stunning success confirmed (in a language that all seventh-century persons could understand) that theirs was a religion “victorious over all religions.” But victory was not enough. Muslims needed to be reassured. Far from leaving their subjects alone, out of proud indifference or sheer ignorance, they wanted to prove the superiority of their own religion by participating vigorously in the debates of others. They knew how to pick up the religious twittering of the age.’[4]

He adds: 

‘Not only did Christianity remain the religion of the majority of the inhabitants of the Middle East until the year 1000; the rival Christian churches continued debates among themselves into which Muslims were drawn by the sheer vigour and openness with which these debates were conducted.'[5]

Clearly Byzantium, as we might now call it, could lay good claim to be the heir of Rome even after it became essentially a Greek empire. The new conquerors recognised that by calling it ar-Rūm. But the new Islamic Caliphates of both the Abbasids & Fatimids could lay equal claim, and, far later the Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople/Istanbul, Mehmed II, took the title of  Kayser-i Rum (Caesar of the Romans).

To visit the great Abbasid mosques, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and Damascus’s Great Mosque is not to step into an alien world. They were distinctively Islamic in design but they employed Byzantine craftsmen and techniques in their construction. Islam’s prohibition on portraying the Prophet struck a chord among Christians, many of whom were opposed to idolatry.

This issue of relative toleration and the pursuit of knowledge is important. In what was beginning to be called Christendom, encompassing Britain, the Low Countries, France, Germany and Italy, knowledge was under effective control of the Catholic Church which viewed “pagan” Greek and Roman books with suspicion and access to them was controlled (watch or read “The Name of the Rose”). In Constantinople there was a similar stress on orthodoxy. In contrast across the Islamic world rulers encouraged scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim, to translate them into Arabic and to develop and apply that knowledge.

During the two Caliphates Islam not only preserved the knowledge of the Classical World it developed it, laying the basis for much of modern science, medicine and much else. By 1000 the greatest city in Europe was not Constantinople or Rome but Cordoba, the capital of Al-Andalus in today’s Spain. Scholars from the Christian north came there to learn, acknowledging the superiority of Islamic civilisation. Pilgrims from the west still visited the holy places in Palestine, undisturbed by order of the new rulers. It’s hard to imagine in a reverse world Muslim pilgrims being welcomed in the Kingdom of the Franks (then encompassing Belgium, France, Germany and Northern Italy.

As the first Caliphate was being founded Charlemagne, the Emperor of the Franks, was conquering Germany and forcibly converting its pagan people.

As Christendom emerged there it was involved in the conquest of pagan central and Eastern Europe, wars with Al-Andalus and the persecution of the one religious minority within its borders, the Jews.

Rome had a Jewish population from the days of the late Roman Republic, suffering occasional persecution under the Emperors Tiberius and Claudius. But their position worsened after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Nevertheless the city’s Jewish population maintained itself suffering occasional persecution by particular Popes until 1555 when the Pontiff forced them into a ghetto and enforced rigorous restrictions on their ability to work or own property. The ghetto remained walled off until the city was incorporated in the new Italian state in 1870.

Anti-Semitic violence and persecution was a feature of Feudal Europe until the liberation of Jews achieved by the English and French Revolutions. Even then, as we know, it would re-emerge in a far more brutal form.

The Eastern Empire was more discriminatory against Jews, in large part because it wanted to enforce a state religion and its clergy were a pillar of imperial rule. Defeat at the hand of Arab armies led to greater persecution and an attempt at forced baptism within the Byzantine Empire.

Jews were relatively safe in Muslim lands until the Crusaders arrived and began butchering them! Much later, in 1492, the Jews expelled from Spain would find a home in the Ottoman lands.

But we have stepped out of the period I wish to examine.

In the 8thcentury to live in the Muslim world was to live in a society where you could travel freely from the Pyrenees to the western border of China. It was a world where the pursuit of knowledge, as laid down in the Qu’ran, was at a premium and where scholars debated and discussed. Any visitor from London or Paris entering Cordoba, Palermo, Damascus or Baghdad would be entering a different world – of libraries open to all, where people bathed and changed their clothes, of concern about diet and wellbeing and of schools and universities.

The idea of Western supremacy is based on myth. The “Clash of Civilisations” is another, dangerous, myth. For much of history Western Europe as we know it was perched on the far edge of civilisation. When it finally burst forth it brought much good to the world, but also suffering and bloodletting on a new scale.

Muslims, like other peoples of Asia and Africa, have cause to remember slavery, colonialism and other ills inflicted on them by the West. They have a right to resent being told they must recognise the superiority of Western civilisation. In the fight against Islamophobia we need to refute the ideas underlying a “Clash of Civilisations”. They are bunkum, dangerous bunkum.


[1] Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Disaster, AD 200-1000, 10thAnniversary Revised Edition, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013, PXX11

[2] Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, Oxford University Press, 2006, P130-131

[3] Aziz Al-Azmeh, The Empire of Islam in Late Antiquity: Allah and His People, Cambridge University Press, 2014, P39

[4] Peter Brown, Recovering Submerged Worlds, New York Review of Books, 11 July 2013

[5] Brown ibid

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

Tagged under: