Sword and Scimitar | Book Review


In his 1996 bestseller, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel P. Huntington argued “culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest are civilization identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world.” He went on to describe several civilizational cohorts, but a comment on Islam is germane here: “In the early 1990s, Muslims were engaged in more intergroup violence than were non-Muslims, and two-thirds to three-quarters of intercivilizational wars were between Muslims and non-Muslims.” Then came his famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) conclusion: “Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards.”

Raymond Ibrahim neither quotes nor cites Huntington in Sword and Scimitar—and of course, Huntington can’t be held responsible for Ibrahim’s scholarship since he’s dead—but I get the impression that Ibrahim would assent to Huntington’s characterization of Islam, then kick it up a notch. Here’s how he describes the book’s thesis in the Preface:

Sword and Scimitar documents how the West and Islam have been mortal enemies since the latter’s birth some fourteen centuries ago. It does this in the context of narrating their military history, with a focus on their most landmark encounters, some of which have had a profound impact on the shaping of the world. However, unlike most military histories—which no matter how fascinating are ultimately academic—this one offers timely correctives: it sets the much distorted historical record between the two civilizations straight and, in so doing, demonstrates once and for all that Muslim hostility for the West is not an aberration but a continuation of Islamic history.”

Islam’s borders have been bloody since its inception, in other words.

Ibrahim argues in favor of this thesis by tracing the causes, fighting, and outcomes of eight key battles between “Islam and the West,” as the book’s subtitle puts it. Four were won by Muslim forces, four by Christian forces. The key battles are, in order, Yarmuk (636), Constantinople (717), Tours (732), Manzikert (1071), Hattin (1187), Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), Constantinople again (1453), and Vienna (1683). His narration of those events is riveting, often drawing on contemporary Christian and Muslim sources. Moreover, he shows the relationship of these battles to other practices, especially Islamic slavery and the Christian Crusades.

Obviously, Ibrahim’s is not a politically correct thesis. Essentially, it blames Islam for centuries of violence against what its author variously describes as “the West” or “Christendom.” Specifically, it identifies the source of that violence as the command of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, as expressed in both the Koran and the most authoritative Hadith. “I have been commanded to wage war against mankind,” Ibrahim quotes the prophet as saying, “until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”

It is tempting to dismiss this interpretation of Islam out of hand, but it is an old one. Ibrahim cites both Muslim explanations for and Christian denunciations of the warfare that erupted out of Arabia from the get-go. The Battle of Yarmuk, for example, took place in 636, just four years after the death of Muhammad. In the late fourteenth century, Manuel II Palailogos, heir to the throne of Constantinople, but then a hostage in the court of Turkish Sultan Bayezid, said, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the sword the faith he preached.” Pope Benedict XVI quoted these words in his 2006 speech at Regensburg, and several anti-Christian riots erupted in a few places in the Muslim world, which seemed to some to prove his point.

We often think of the relationship between the West and the Muslim umma as one of colonizer and colonized, respectively. That’s a somewhat accurate way to describe their relationship since the eighteenth century, but until then, it’s just as plausible to reverse the relationships. Until largely Catholic forces under Jan Sobieski defeated Kara Mustafa Pasha before the gates of Vienna on September 12, 1683, the relationship was often the reverse. Successive waves of Muslim colonizers controlled formerly Christian lands, first in the Middle East and Africa, then in parts of southern and eastern Europe. (Ibrahim doesn’t mention the expansion of Islam in other lands). We’re accustomed in this postmodern age to read history from its underside. Ibrahim isn’t a postmodernist by any stretch of the imagination, but much of his narration depends on reminding readers what the defeated Christian populations of the once Christianized Roman empire thought of their new Islamic overlords. It’s definitely an underside perspective.

Still, I have significant reservations about the book. First, Ibrahim positions that book as a history of warfare between “Islam” and the “West.” But by “West,” he really means “Christendom,” which included both western and eastern halves. With the exception of Moorish Spain, it’s the eastern half of Christendom that has been subject to Muslim control the longest. But more problematically, both “Islam” and “Christendom” are complex realities, whose essence is difficult to define. As a Pentecostal, for example, I’m not sure I want to be on the hook for the Crusades, as important as they may have been to medieval Christendom, let alone the cozy Constantinian relationship between Church and State that preceded it. Obviously, I can’t speak for Muslims, but if I were them, I’m not sure I’d buy Ibrahim’s essentialist understanding of Islam as jihadist.

Second, methodologically, by focusing on battles, Ibrahim paints a picture of Christian-Islamic relations that emphasizes warfighting but deemphasizes day-to-day realities. Ibrahim’s subtitle speaks of “fourteen centuries of war between Islam and the West,” but in reality, the battles were not nonstop. They occurred, then things settled down into an equilibrium. We shouldn’t paint too rosy a picture of dhimmi status, of course. Non-Muslim residents of the umma were not treated as the equals of believers, after all. But their lot wasn’t one of constant oppression, either. As Ibrahim himself notes, the brutality often happened in the wake of Muslim losses to Christian forces.

Third, we shouldn’t discount nonreligious, realpolitik, and geopolitical motivations for the warfare that occurred over the centuries. Take the Battle of Vienna, for example, which historians conventionally use to demarcate the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The September 12th battle pitted Catholic forces against Muslim forces, at least those were the dominant religious identities of the two sides. But the forces led by Sobieski included Crimean Tatars (Muslims), and the forces led by Mustafa included French and Transylvanian Catholics, as well as Hungarian Protestants. Each of the minority groups within these coalitions had grievances against their coreligionists that impelled them to join forces with the “other side.” In other words, more was at work than simple religious identity.

Fourth, contemporary Christians who read the justifications for violence blanche at the religious motives at work. When Pope Urban II called for the Crusades, he said, “Rise up and remember the manly deeds of your ancestors, the prowess and greatness of Charlemagne, of his son Louis, and of your other kings, who destroyed pagan kingdoms and planted the holy church in their territories.” No Christian today would argue that the State should plant the Church in heathen lands for the perfectly good reason that that’s not the way of Jesus Christ. Christians in earlier ages had no problems with this kind of Church-sanctioned, State-enforced violence, but we do, and with good cause. Given that contemporary Christians scratch their heads at our ancestors religious justifications for war, perhaps we should extend the same courtesy to Muslims as they read their own foundational texts.

Fifth and finally, even acknowledging that some Muslims—say, the fanatics of the Islamic State—read their foundational texts to license violence against others, the vast majority of Muslims don’t. This is the great failing of Ibrahim’s book, it seems to me. Are Islam’s borders and innards bloody? Perhaps, but the first victims are often Muslims themselves, who suffer at the hands of fanatical coreligionists they do not support but cannot overcome. This calls into question the notion that Islam, at its civilizational essence, is little more than ceaseless jihad against unbelievers.

In conclusion, Sword and Scimitar is an interesting book, especially in its quotation of primary sources, which provide a lens through which to view those battles in their historical contexts. The problem is that if you look at Muslim-Christian interactions only through that lens, you miss out on important aspects of the scene before you.

Book Reviewed
Raymond Ibrahim, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War Between Islam and the West(New York: Da Capo Press, 2018).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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