“Unlike most military histories—which no matter how fascinating are ultimately academic—this [book] offers correctives; it sets the much discussed historical record between these two civilizations straight and, in so doing, demonstrates once and for all that a Muslim hostility for the West is not an aberration but a continuation of Islamic history.” — Raymond Ibrahim, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West (New York: De Capo Press, 2018), xvi
“For unlike Manzikert (1071), which was more a Turkic victory, the conquest of Constantinople (1453) had greater significance for all Muslims. Even in Egypt, where the Ottoman’s chief rivals the Mamluks reigned, the ‘good tidings were proclaimed and Cairo decorated’ to celebrate ‘this greatest of conquests.’ The Sharif of Mecca wrote to Muhammed (II), calling him ‘the one who has aided Islam and the Muslims, the Sultan of all kings and sultans,’ and—further underscoring the idea that conquest over infidels is the epitome of Islamic piety—‘the resuscitator of the Prophet’s sharia.’” — Raymond Ibrahim, Sword and Scimitar, 247.
Some things we prefer not to know. Among these, it often seems, is an accurate account of the origins, extent, and the means of expansion of Islam over its now 1200 year history. During this time period, the armies of Islam managed to conquer a good fifth of the world’s geography and population. This growth and expansion show few signs of abating, in spite of Islam’s expulsion from Spain in the fifteenth century and from the Balkans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The main reason that Islam is not larger is because—and only because—it was defeated in some major historic battles. In recent years, with its high birth-rate and its immigration, Islam has a new lease on life in the West, particularly in Europe, from which it had been turned back in the eighth century at the battle of Tours and in the fifteenth at Vienna. Both Europe and America are now dotted with mosques in hundreds of places, the construction of which is usually financed by Saudi Arabia.
In this riveting account of the history of Islam’s military accomplishments, Raymond Ibrahim shows that Islam has followed a consistent policy that has combined politics, war, terror, and religion. Its purpose was, and remains, essentially religious, however unwilling we might be, because of our own presuppositions, to grant that fact. This purpose follows a reading of the Koran as Islam’s central guide and ultimate justification as the message of Allah to mankind. It also manifests the core reason why Islam, throughout its history, has sought to expand. Other motives—economic, ethnic, and political—were also present, but this religious motive was at its core. Until that core is rejected by enough individual Muslims, it will continue to inspire, , by ever varying means—sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent—this drive to conquer what is not yet under Islamic control.
What is difficult for many to understand is the persistence of a singular purpose, carried on century after century: the submission of the world to Allah. Both those who believe in nothing and those who believe in other gods are tempted to think such a concept to be preposterous or impossible. Yet this purpose is what motivated and inspired the Muslim caliphs, beys, emirs, sheiks, merchants, and peasants, whether Sunni or Shiite, to continue their mission no matter how hopeless it seemed at first.
This expansion involved massive genocides and slaughters in various parts of the world and in different eras, about which Ibrahim gives a detailed and often graphic account. But such shocking means, deliberately undertaken, do not obviate this prior religious purpose. Indeed, this religious purpose is part of the rationale of the expansion, which used whatever means that worked. The philosophical voluntarism that finally explained Muslim actions came into being to justify the use of violence in religion. As explained by al Ghazelli in the eleventh century, Allah could will the opposite of what he willed; everything depends on Allah’s will that is bound to no permanent truth.
To understand Islam, it is necessary to follow its history, which is inspired by the Koran and its interpretations. Thus we have both what the Koran teaches and the historic record of what Islam did following upon those teachings. Noted historian Victor Davis Hanson, in the “Foreword” to Ibrahim’s book, gives a brief list of its major theses: 1) “Islamic armies saw themselves as expansionary and messianic, eager to engage the West and to annex its territory and convert its people”; 2) The wars against the West were not seen primarily as localized but “as religious rather than national or ethnic…their warring against the Westerners was so seen as mostly a monolithic struggle against Christendom rather than against particular European States”; 3) Islamic leaders have seen Christianity as inherently against Islam; 4) Muslims in Western states had much more freedom than Christians in Muslim states.
The book is a detailed, well-researched account of the major battles between Islam and the West. The same methods of warfare, conquest, and imposition of Muslim law occur again and again. The Crusades were not signs of Christian aggressiveness but of a final, usually desperate effort to protect themselves from Muslim incursions. Two things are striking in this presentation. The first is that the positive use of violence is considered a legitimate way to deal with those deemed as enemies of Islam. With almost monotonous regularity this factor is seen in every battle and its aftermath. It can be, from an Islamic perspective, justified from Koranic verses and from the historical record. The only time a Muslim doubts his faith is when he is soundly defeated in battle. But military defeat is only temporary. As long as the Koran is read, Islam will rise again. Islam, we see again and again, is both patient and unforgiving.
The second striking thing is the extent and prevalence of slavery, of slave markets, of the need of slaves to make possible the kind of life that Muslim leaders carved out for themselves. Most Americans are aware that slavery existed in their own country. What is not so widely known is the place of Arab middle men who were the slave brokers for both black and white slaves. Though slavery is found in many cultures throughout history, it was a constant element in Muslim life. And the slaves were not mostly black, but white; the choice slaves were acquired by raids along the European coasts or as the booty of conquest.
Near the end of the book, Ibrahim recounts the experience of the early American founders with Islam. The first American war, some might be surprised to learn, was with the Barbary Pirates in North Africa. The United States paid regular and enormous ransom fees to recover Americans held as hostages. Ibrahim cites the letter that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson wrote to Congress on March 28, 1786:
We took the liberty to make some inquiries concerning the grounds of their (Muslim) pretentions to make war against nations who had done them no injury, and observed that we considered all mankind as our friends who had done us no wrong, nor had given us any provocation. The (Muslim) ambassador answered us that it was founded on the laws of their Prophet, that was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war on them wherever they could be found and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Musselman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise (284).
This analysis of Adams and Jefferson sketches and summarizes the essential theses of this book, which draws out in detail the record and working out of the Muslim practice of warfare and governance as seen embodied in its history.
The book leaves us with several questions. Can one really be a faithful Muslim and not accept this history and its rationale? Can non-Muslims rest content that this religious warfare in various forms will not be unleashed on them whenever the opportunity arises? As Ibrahim points out, a Muslim is free to say in public that he will not practice violence provided that he secretly agrees in his heart that he will follow, when he can, the Koran and what it says about such violence.
A further issue is whether an accurate knowledge of Islamic warfare and history is not somehow illiberal, unfair, or, yes, provocative. Those who maintain, in spite of all evidence, that Islam is a religion of peace do neither Islam nor themselves any favor. We honor Islam best by judging it first by its own standards and purposes. In this sense, Ibrahim’s book is most welcome. It does not pretend that the record of what Islam does and says of itself is something else other than it is. And no one denies, of course, that Islam is composed of many internal struggles both of its theology and of its politics.
In many ways, Islam has been its own worst enemy. Efforts to democratize Islam have taught many Muslims how to use democratic processes for their long term goals. While Islam approves of conquest by arms, it does not disdain any other way to power if it can finally impose its law (Sharia). While there are no Muslim armies today capable of defeating any major power in the field, the use of terrorist tactics can, if unchecked, still effectively disrupt and even weaken any modern society.
In Belloc’s 1900 book Miniatures of French History we find a chapter entitled “The Breaking of Islam,” which is about the Battle at Poitiers and Tours in 732, a seminal battle that Ibrahim likewise covers. It was a battle that saved France and probably Europe. To explain why Islam was in France in the first place, Belloc wrote:
Mahomet, acquainted with the Faith, selected from manifold Christian truth what few points seemed good to him, and composed a new heresy alive with equality and the reduction of doctrine to the least compass. He denied the Incarnation and left the Eucharist aside. Mahomet had vision and heard divine commands. Stones spoke to him and he perceived the glories of heaven. But more than this…he was filled with a command to teach what he had seen and known. He must remake men. For this mighty task he found two mighty levers—brotherhood and simplicity—and to these he joined the delight of arms.
Belloc, as Ibrahim also notes, was far ahead of his time in seeing the meaning and scope of Islamic thought and history. Belloc paid the honor to Islam of taking its religious side, its history, and its messianic purposes seriously. He could do this because he could understand the call of its faith. This understanding of Islam’s faith is what is important in Sword and Scimitar. We cannot read Muslim history as if it is explained by the liberal mind that cannot (or will not) understand the call of such a faith over time. Christians have been mostly driven out of Muslim lands. They have suffered attacks and killings in our day, the same kind of atrocities that occurred again and again in the past. We pay little or no attention. Those most eager to dialogue with representatives of Islam usually do not know its history. They cannot understand why this dialogue results mostly in an effort to settle more and more of Mohammed’s followers in lands that Islam could not conquer before by arms.
Belloc, in his book The Crusades—in a section on the Battle at the Horns of Hattin (1187), after the crushing of the Crusaders’ last hold in the Holy places—said that if Islam ever gains the power again, it will do exactly as it did before. He wrote this in the 1930s; by the second decade of the 21st century, it is clear that he was right. Ibrahim’s book provides the background to verify this thesis.
Islam cannot reform itself by denying its own history and the methods to achieve its successes. And it cannot be Islam and deny what is in the Koran. Wherever the Koran is read carefully and seriously, the drive to world submission to Allah will reappear and continue. Sometimes it will be defeated; at other times it will succeed. Islam is content to wait, but it always is prodding. It understands that its immediate enemy is the West—not China or India or Russia. It has every reason to believe that it is gradually but definitely making inroads into Europe, often without the need of bloodshed. It has not repudiated terror, but it has realized the possibility of using Western political means to bring the Sharia into effect in any given city or country. If it can expand by democratic means as well as with terror and war, so much the better. The end remains the same–the conquest of the world for Allah, the mission assigned to it from the beginning.
Islam today is divided into various factions and dozens of states, some struggling against others. It has no final authority of interpretation of its texts; it has no unified army. The recent defeat of ISIS on the ground made clear that its expansion might now use other means. Historically, Christians and non-Christians falling under the control of Muslim majorities have been required to pay a fine and accept second class citizenship, convert, or die. Peace for Islam means the condition brought about when everyone is Muslim. Until then, a state of war with non-Muslims de facto exists. Again, the purpose of Islam is the subjection of all men and nations to Allah. Without this ultimate goal, Islam is not Islam. One cannot but admire this religious impetus, while, at the same time, doing one’s best to see that it never succeeds—both for the good of non-Muslims and Muslims alike. Sword and Scimitar offers a challenging and direct explanation why these things make sense.