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Pulitzer Prize-winning author illuminates Islamic history

Anyone wishing to understand the post-Sept. 11 world might want to travel back in time to A.D. 570, the year of the birth of the prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam.

Muhammad was 40 years old and married to Khadija, a wealthy Meccan woman of status, when he had his first vision of the angel Gabriel appearing before him and commanding him to recite what would become a verse in the Quran. Not at all certain of his sanity or whether he wanted to become God's earthly messenger, Muhammad sought the counsel of his wife. Through the help of a learned cousin, Khadija convinced her husband of the truth of his vision and became his first disciple.

In an erudite, lively book, "God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215" (W.W. Norton, 2008), New York University professor and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel Levering Lewis sets a fast course through a decisive period in history that persuasively shows that events happening today are inextricably linked to a past most of us have either forgotten or never even known.

The story of Muhammad's, and Islam's, rise is set in the context of the times. The exhausted Roman Empire was in decline, divided into two parts, nearly bankrupt, but trying to preserve its power. The Eastern Roman Empire was locked in continual fights with the Persians.

In this power vacuum, Islam found its toehold, gaining converts fiercely committed to the cause. Islam flourished and contracted in fits and starts until decisive military victories began with the Battle of Badr. The reclaiming of Mecca, the town that had banished Muhammad and his followers, was a triumph for Islam. Jihad (holy war) plumped the coffers and won cities and converts, eventually taking most of the area around the Mediterranean and establishing a beachhead in today's Spain (al Andalus, or Andalusia) from which to expand into the Western part of the former Roman Empire.

There was no united Europe in the seventh and eighth centuries, but rather a scattering of wild forest tribes engaged in perpetual warfare. The papal seat in the See of Peter was under siege, mostly from the Langobards (Lombards) of Scandinavia. A few key converts were won to Catholicism: Clovis, Charles Martel and Charlemagne among them.

Islam and Christianity clashed in conflicts like the Battle of Poitiers that were not recognized for their epic importance until history gained 20/20 hindsight into the events. In assessing the Muslim defeat at the Battle of Poitiers, Lewis quotes two historians who ruefully estimate that had Islam won, Europe might have gained 267 years of advances in philosophy, trigonometry, astronomy and mathematics and avoided the wars of religion.

Lewis collected historical data from an astonishing number of sources. He provides readers with descriptions that make this period of history come to life. It's an amazingly bloody time, with constant war, skirmishes, ethnic cleansing and epic bloodletting that rivals the 20th century.

Every spring for half a century, Charlemagne summoned the able men in his empire to the Marchfields. They were to come prepared for three months and take up the fight wherever the empire deemed it most necessary, whether subduing the heathen Saxons yet again, fighting the Lombards in Italy or invading Muslim Spain. Spoils of war won along the way served to enrich, motivate and reprovision his army. Patiently detailing battle after battle, Lewis manages to make each one distinct in its execution, outcome and significance.

Acknowledging the natural tendency to assume that there is a correctness to the course of history because history is written by the victors, Lewis is able to fit a different lens on our accustomed perspective. Muslim Spain, especially for the 250 years beginning with the governance of Abd al-Rahman, was a sophisticated, cosmopolitan place of culture, learning and architecture. The beginnings of Europe, in contrast, were backwater. Converts were won to Catholicism by the sword, presaging the Crusades, whereas religious freedom was tolerated in Muslim Spain, in observance of one of the central tenets of Islam, which holds that there is no compulsion in religion.

The sheer amount of history covered in "God's Crucible" is amazing. The Arabic names can make for rough reading for Westerners. Lewis' dry humor is the leavening agent that lightens what could have been an indigestible clump of names, dates and places.

"God's Crucible" is available at the Los Altos main library.

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