Let’s say it from the outset: for anyone interested in the debate about the place of Islam in the modern world, this is a must read. The reason is that Efraim Karsh, a professor of Mediterranean Studies at King’s College, London, does not fall into either of the camps that have dominated the debate for years.
One camp, let’s cal them apologists, represents Islam as a religion of peace that created a great civilisation that was later weakened, through no fault of its own, and subjugated by Western Imperialism. Presented as a mea culpa, the narrative produced by this camp is, in fact, marked by contempt for Muslims who are presented solely as victims and mere objects in their own history. According To writers in this camp Muslims, at least since Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt, have done nothing on their own, being mere puppets in the hands of their Western Imperialist masters.
The second camp, which could be called Islamophobic, portrays Islam as a manual for terror, and presents its history as a chronicle of plunder, destruction and death. In this narrative Islam is the foe not only of civilisation but of mankind, with no redeeming features as faith or culture. According to writers in this camp the only way that the West can deal with Islam is through intimidation and force.
Karsh offers a new approach. He rejects the condescending approach of the apologists and the hateful passion of the Islamophobes. Instead he presents Islam as a rival for Western civilisation in what is, after all, a contest for shaping the future of mankind.
Karsh does not hide whose side he is on in this contest. Te reader would immediately know that Karsh is a champion of the West, warts and all, when it comes to its confrontation with Islam. Muslim readers would respect him because, while he designates Islam as an adversary, he respects them. Being disliked for the right reasons is better than being liked for the wrong ones.
Using Western and Islamic sources, Karsh demolishes the position of the apologists by showing that the misfortunes that befell Muslims were mostly of their own doing. He argues that the achievements of the so-called “Golden Age“ of Islam have been exaggerated thus making a proper appreciation of Islam’s contribution to civilisation, which he admits was significant, that much more difficult.
Karsh offers a fresh look at the Crusades which, incidentally, were seldom seen by Muslims as religious wars but as aggressive forays by the Franks. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that Muslim writers borrowed the term “Crusades” from Western authors and historians and stared to see the wars between the Franks and the Mamelukes as a conflict not between rival powers on the opposite sides of the Mediterranean but as a war between Islam and Christendom.
It is interesting to note that a very small fraction of Muslims participated in the “Crusades” which were mostly fought in the Levant, a tiny pocket of territory in the much vaster Muslim world. Persia, then the greatest of the Muslim powers, did not take part in the “Crusades” and was, on occasions, pleased that its Turkic rivals in the region were kept busy by the invading Franks. In other words the common perception that the “Crusades” pitted the whole of Islam against the whole of Christendom is nothing but a lie invented in recent years.
Fighting between rival powers on opposite shores of the Mediterranean was, of course, nothing new and had preceded both Christianity and Islam.
The Phoenicians, setting out of what is now Lebanon, established colonies as far away as Cornwall and as early as 1000 BC. Hannibal, the Carthaginian who sacked Rome,
was certainly not a Muslim general.
And such Western invaders of the East as Alexander, Trajan and Julian were certainly not Christians. The shores of the Mediterranean had been zones of conflict long before either Christianity or Islam appeared and may well continue to be so long after religion has faded into the background.
Focusing on the last 250 years, that is to say since the first modern encounter between the West and Islam, Karsh demonstrates that the Western powers were almost always taken by surprise in the Muslim east.
Contrary to the apologists’ claim, Karsh shows that the Western democracies did not wish to dismantle the Ottoman Empire and did much to keep it alive as long as possible to counterbalance Tsarist Russia . And, once the Ottomans had self-destructed, Western democracies, led by Britain, reshaped the region more in response to Arab demands at the time rather than any sinister “Imperialist plot.” While the conventional view is that Hussain, the Sharif of Mecca and his sons were tools of British Imperialism, Karsh shows that it was, in fact, they who manipulated British power to win several Arab crowns for themselves.
Could one regard the British Empire as the largest Muslim empire ever? At one level the answer must be no because the rulers of that empire were not Muslims. But in terms of territory it controlled and number of Muslim subjects it had the British Empire, in its heyday was larger than any empire created by Muslim conquerors.
Karsh is unkind about a number of Muslim conquerors, notably Sultan Mahmoud Ghaznavi, who he presents as a thief and plunderer. But Mahmoud was no more and no less of a thief and a plunderer than British and other Western empire-builders who invaded and conquered other nation’s territories and exploited their human and natural resources for their own ends.
Karsh is less convincing when he moves out of his domain as historian to tackle theological and/or philosophical issues which he does not fully master.
For example, he speaks of “ Islam’s wholesale incorporation of Hellenistic culture and science”, something that did not happen, and sees it as the genesis of Islamic politics and jurisprudence. He also states that Islam was attractive to people it conquered because in it ” ethnic and tribal origins counted for nothing.” But that was certainly not the case. Three of the Prophet’s immediate successors were his fathers-in-law while the fourth was his son-in-law. The Umayyad Caliphate, the first Islamic empire, was dominated by the Quraish while the Abbasids claimed descent from the Prophet’s uncle, and the Fatimids, who ruled Egypt, from the Prophet’s daughter. Karsh’s assertion that Islam replaced absolutist rule by pluralism is also debatable, at least as far as the last 1000 years are concerned.
What does Islam want? Karsh poses the question and answers it unambiguously: it wants to reshape the world after its own fashion just as Christianity did in its heyday. This, of course, does not mean that Islam wants to conquer the world by force if only because the current balance of global power is not in favour of Muslim powers. At the same time, however, militant Islamic groups are unlikely to argue in terms of conventional power and might, as we have seen, have recourse to asymmetrical warfare to pursue their goals or resist further incursion by the West.
Karsh’s message is clear: the world would do well to take Islam’s ambitions seriously.