“If you are looking for a Golden Age, talk to the people that have the gold. For the rest of the people, it’s probably not that golden,” said University of Colorado-Boulder religious studies professor Brian Aivars Catlos.
Along with other panelists, Catlos’ discussion of medieval Muslim society in the Mediterranean during a recent webinar offered some remarkably serious critique—along with the usual platitudes—which was much in contrast to the usual glorification of alleged Islamic tolerance and pluralism.
With his coauthors, Catlos discussed his new book The Sea in the Middle: The Mediterranean World, 650-1650. The host for “Integrating European and Islamic History in the Medieval Mediterranean” was Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU). This Saudi-sponsored entity, along with its director, John L. Esposito, who moderated, usually engages in incessant Islamist apologetics.
“Two things you won’t find in our book are moralizing and nostalgia. We tried to present things, warts and all. No one gets a free pass. This isn’t a book that looks back to some Golden Age of intercommunal harmony,” Catlos said in a refreshing change from ACMCU’s usual pablum.
“There is a constant background of violence to all history,” he added, and agreed with his fellow panelist, University of Toronto history professor Mark Meyerson, about illiberality in the era’s Muslim and Christian societies.
“Structures of discrimination and segregation … are part of the package of premodern diversity in the Mediterranean,” he noted. Yet “minority communities or their leaders are actually advocates of these structures” at times “as the only way of preserving themselves. It is very difficult to apply a sort of modern moral perspective.”
Nonetheless, Meyerson engaged in some of the usual apologetics. Concerning religious restrictions on minority communities, he spoke of “how often [such restrictions] were not observed” and promoted the common falsehood that the dhimma status placed on non-Muslims was a form of security rather than subjugation.
University of Notre Dame history professor Thomas Burman also tried to accentuate the positive, stating that peaceful interaction among Christians, Jews and Muslims was “often more persistent than the violence.” Nevertheless, “people did try to convince each other to convert from one faith to another” and “did shout at each other in moments of religious tension and got into active violence.” He concluded that the period demonstrates “that, in fact, unlike what many people in the modern world on various sides would say, Christians, Muslims and Jews can in fact live side-by-side with a relatively high amount of peace for long periods of time.”
Over generations, Burman claimed, this mutual respect “made possible this massive transference of ideas and technologies from one part of the Mediterranean to the other.” Thus, “people were perfectly willing to put off their religious identities in order to learn how to do things like make paper.” This technology “traveled all across the Mediterranean, learned at first by Muslim artisans from Buddhist artisans in the Far East part of the Islamic world.”
Catlos also tried to describe a “constant multivalent, polyvalent process of communication that knits together the Christian, the Islamic and Jewish worlds of the Mediterranean.” For example, there were “Latin scholastics binging on Ibn Rushd” or Averroes (1126-1198), a famed philosopher from Muslim Spain often credited with reawakening Western appreciation for the ancient Greek thinker Aristotle. The Italian poet Dante (1265-1321) in his Divine Comedy depicted Islam’s prophet Muhammad in hell, but regarding Ibn Rushd, Dante “can’t bring himself to put the guy in hell, even though he is a Muslim.”
Complicated interactions occurred between Christians and Muslims in the real world as well, Catlos noted. During the Crusades, the Christian “Kingdom of Jerusalem, for example, was in a codependent relationship with Damascus,” a Muslim city-state. Christian and Muslim states also formed alliances against Byzantium or neighboring powers.
Other comments gave historical perspective on the book’s thesis of fruitful interfaith interaction between Islam, Christendom and Jews. “Many of the Arabic texts and technologies that Latin Christians acquired from Muslims were through conquest,” Meyerson noted, suggesting alternative, less peaceful ways of civilizational advancement.
Burman said he was surprised that educated people have the impression that historic Christian-Muslim relations were violent. Yet he himself wondered if the “great story of religious transformation in many ways in the medieval period is this massive conversion to Islam that happens relatively slowly at first and then with greater speed later on.” Might the pressures of oppressive, theocratic sharia law imposed by Muslim conquerors have something to do with this elimination of Christianity in its historic heartlands?
Indeed, many recent studies have debunked the oft-told tale that Judeo-Christian civilization benefited from its encounter with Islam. Imperial conquests are fundamentally violent, and the seventh- and eighth-century Islamic conquests were no exception, inflicting enormous damage on the Christian communities surrounding the Mediterranean. In fact, the spread of Greek texts in Renaissance Europe was facilitated by Greek-speaking refugees who fled Constantinople after its 1453 fall to Ottoman Muslim conquerors.
While the panel ultimately affirmed some traditional tropes about backward Christians benefitting from Muslim subjugation, the moments of critical realism were noteworthy for an ACMCU event. Perhaps academics are beginning to understand the superficiality of Manichean fairy tales. As Catlos said about the “multivalent, polyvalent process of communication,” ignorance of complex perspectives means “you’re fighting against the sources.” Such skepticism towards prevailing historiography is long overdue in Middle East studies. If this miracle of open-mindedness can occur at ACMCU, anything is possible.