June 2005

Sharon Adarlo

nonfiction

The Cross and the Crescent: The Dramatic Story of the Earliest Encounters Between Christians and Muslims by Richard Fletcher

At this very moment, an incipient civil war rages in Iraq. People riot in the streets, brandishing kalashnikovs and copies of the Koran, and they shout lustily “Death to America.”

What seems more like the beachhead of a conflict that may rival Vietnam instead stands like a sentry in the complex and long history between the Western world or Christendom and the Dar al-Islam -- Abode of Peace, the places that Islam has covered with its tent. Reading the relatively slim The Cross and the Crescent: The Dramatic Story of the Earliest Encounters Between Christians and Muslims, historian Richard Fletcher’s new book on this history, is a worthy albeit slightly flawed introduction to the wars, the trade, cultural, and even the sexual relationships between two seemingly different cultures and religions.

Fletcher points out in the beginning of his new book that Ammianus Marcellinus, a Latin historian, who wrote in the fourth century that Arabs were wild, untamed, nomadic, and tainted by their way of living and their line of Ishmael, Abraham’s unloved son. At the very birth of Islam, there was always this wariness and suspicion between it and Christianity - something that shows Ann Coulter’s infamous 9/11 rant is but in a long line of old spit balls. Christians saw Muslims as pagans. Muslims saw the Christians as confused, imperfect, and objects of scorn. Fletcher dutifully mentions the Crusades and the many-armed conflicts between the two groups. The surprising revelation that comes out of Fletcher’s book is that in the larger history of Islam, the Crusades were mostly seen as inconsequential as rats nibbling at the edges of the Abode of Peace -- something that may not be so true today especially with Muslims wary at frequent Crusade-tinged speeches by American officials.

But what are actually more interesting are the uneasy and yet fruitful relationships between Christians and Muslims when it came to trade, culture, and bureaucracy. When Muslim warriors came and conquered Christians, they wisely kept the bureaucratic structure intact and had their subjects administer the tedious business of running a country. Many Christian officials rose through the ranks becoming indispensable and fluent in Arabic and their conquerors’ customs. Fletcher also references the cross-cultural exchanges that happen when people fall in love but more likely than not, the devoted, mostly the woman, would convert to her beloved’s religion. But the most important of the exchanges were scientific and scholarly. Fletcher cites the many times when Arabs translated important works from Ancient Greek and the way technology and innovative thought filtered from one group to another.

Fletcher’s book is concise and constitutes the “greatest hits” between the two groups, but maybe at times it is too concise. There’s an avalanche of information with so little space to flesh them out. The book is a great introduction but for a richer exploration the reader is advised to look at Nabil Matar’s books, In the Lands of the Christians and Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery. One other quibble is the common assertion that Muslims stopped innovating and stopped being culturally adaptive especially at the advent of the Ottoman Empire -- something that Fletcher agrees with and this critic does not. It’s too broad a brush. It’s too simplistic a portrayal even when we see the Muslim world convulsing and boiling over with wild-eyed fundamentalists and war and blood, but maybe instead of simple carnage, like so many other people have noted, we are instead witnessing the violent birth of an Islamic Reformation.

The Cross and the Crescent: The Dramatic Story of the Earliest Encounters Between Christians and Muslims by Richard Fletcher
Penguin
ISBN: 0143034812
208 Pages