Editor’s note: The following book review by Raymond Ibrahim of William R. Polk’s book, Crusade and Jihad: The Thousand-Year War between the Muslim World and the Global North (Yale University press, Jan. 2018) first appeared in the Christian Research Journal.
From beginning to end, Crusade and Jihad: The Thousand-Year War between the Muslim World and the Global North by William R. Polk is paradigmatic of all the misrepresentations and errors of history that have caused the West to become clueless of the sources behind its conflict with the Muslim worldview. Worse, such blatant distortions of the past leave the West unable to provide solutions for the present.
Title vs. Content
For starters, the book’s title and ambitious subtitle present it as a comprehensive history. The jacket cover claims that “Crusade and Jihad is the first book to encompass, in one volume, the entire history of the catastrophic encounter between the Global North … and Muslim societies.” The book reportedly “explain[s] the deep hostilities between the Muslim world and the Global North and show[s] how they grew over the centuries” (emphasis added).
Rather bizarrely, however, the first thousand years of history are allotted only some 30 (out of 550) pages of coverage; that is, only 5% of the book deals with the many centuries of conflict between the eighth and eighteenth centuries.
What explains this lopsided approach? After all, that initial millennium contains all the seeds of conflict. As historian Franco Cardini explains,
If we … ask ourselves how and when the modern notion of Europe and the European identity was born, we realize the extent to which Islam was a factor (albeit a negative one) in its creation. Repeated Muslim aggression against Europe between the seventh to eighth centuries, then between the fourteenth and the eighteenth centuries … was a ‘violent midwife’ to Europe.
While these “violent midwives” are known today as Arabs, Moors, Turks, and Tatars, their invasions and subsequent atrocities were all conducted under the same jihadi logic used by contemporary groups such as the Islamic State: as “infidels” (or kuffar), Christian Europeans were always free game for rape, enslavement, or slaughter.
Or to quote Bernard Lewis:
We tend nowadays to forget that for approximately a thousand years, from the advent of Islam in the seventh century until the second siege of Vienna in 1683, Christian Europe was under constant threat from Islam, the double threat of conquest and conversion. Most of the new Muslim domains were wrested from Christendom. Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa were all Christian countries, no less, indeed rather more, than Spain and Sicily. All this left a deep sense of loss and a deep fear.[i]
A Twisted Vacuum
Not only are these formative centuries largely ignored, but what Polk does present is often distorted to Islam’s favor. As the book’s succinct description explains, “Polk shows how Islam arose and spread across [euphemism for violently conquered] North Africa into Europe, climaxed in the vibrant and sophisticated caliphate of al-Andalus in Medieval Spain, and was the bright light in a European Dark Age.”[ii]
Similarly, after effusively praising Islamic Spain, Polk writes (rather disdainfully) that “The contrast to the rest of Europe was stunning. Few in Europe could read, and those few were holed up in monasteries…. It is hard to find evidence of more than a few men or women of culture or even of a degree of social refinement. In al-Andalus, in contrast, the arts flourished, new forms of poetry were invented, and musical tastes” advanced.[iii]
The problem here is not that these descriptions are false but that they are presented in a vacuum. In fact, the prosperity of Islamic Spain, as with all premodern Islamic states, was built almost entirely on plundering its non-Muslim neighbors of their wealth and bodies (Córdoba was a slave emporium of white flesh for centuries). As earlier and more sober historians, such as Louis Bertrand, explained:
To keep the Christians [of northern Spain] in their place it did not suffice to surround them with a zone of famine and destruction. It was necessary also to go and sow terror and massacre among them. Twice a year, in spring and autumn, an army sallied forth from Córdoba to go and raid the Christians, destroy their villages, their fortified posts, their monasteries and their churches…. If one bears in mind that this brigandage was almost continual, and that this fury of destruction and extermination was regarded as a work of piety — it was a holy war [jihad] against infidels — it is not surprising that whole regions of Spain should have been made irremediably sterile. This was one of the capital causes of the deforestation from which the Peninsula still suffers. With what savage satisfaction and in what pious accents do the Arab annalists tell us of those at least biennial raids. A typical phrase for praising the devotion of a Caliph is this: “He penetrated into Christian territory, where he wrought devastation, devoted himself to pillage, and took prisoners.”… The prolonged presence of the Muslims, therefore, was a calamity for this unhappy country of Spain. By their system of continual raids they kept her for centuries in a condition of brigandage and devastation.[iv]
Likewise, Polk fails to mention that the “stunning” illiteracy of Europeans was itself a byproduct of the jihad. After the Muslim conquest of Egypt (circa 641), papyrus ceased to be imported into Europe, causing literacy rates to drop back to pre-Roman levels. Indeed, Christian Europe’s “Dark Ages” came about largely “because Islam had destroyed the ancient unity of the Mediterranean,” as eminent medievalist/archaeologist Henri Pirenne showed.
“Victimhood”: The Blame-All to Islam’s Problems
About 520 of 550 pages (or 95%) of Polk’s book on The Thousand-Year War are confined to the last two or so centuries, when Europe ceased being on the defensive and went on the offensive against Islam. Here Polk meticulously describes in vivid (and hyperbolic) detail every conceivable sin the West committed against Muslims:
Beginning at various times after Christopher Columbus led the way across the Atlantic and the Portuguese plunged down the West African coast, the actions of the North have been uniformly destructive and sometimes genocidal…. The first cause of the danger and insecurity [i.e., Islamic terrorism] we feel today is the long history of imperialism. A century or more of invasion, occupation, humiliation, and genocide has left scars that are still not healed, and cannot heal if they are constantly reopened.[v]
Having whitewashed the first millennium of jihad on the West, it’s easy for Polk to make Europeans appear as unprovoked aggressors—greedy monsters come to destroy the glories of Islam. Yet he fails to mention that Columbus sailed west precisely because the Mediterranean was an Islamic terror zone; and he presents Russian expansion into Tatar regions as a merciless enterprise without explaining that the Tatars—known as the “heathen giant who feeds on our blood”—terrorized and enslaved Russians for centuries earlier.
As more balanced historians, such as Bernard Lewis, have long known:
[T]he whole complex process of European expansion and empire … has its roots in the clash of Islam and Christendom. It began with the long and bitter struggle of the conquered peoples of Europe, in east and west, to restore their homelands to Christendom and expel the Muslim peoples who had invaded and subjugated them. It was hardly to be expected that the triumphant Spaniards and Portuguese would stop at the Straits of Gibraltar, or that the Russians would allow the Tatars to retire in peace and regroup in their bases on the upper and lower Volga—the more so since a new and deadly Muslim attack on Christendom was underway … threatening the heart of Europe. The victorious liberators, having reconquered their own territories, pursued their former masters whence they had come.[vi]
Regardless, Polk habitually harps on how “Memories of [Western] imperialism are deep [among Muslims], and they helped create much of the world’s disorder and danger today…. [T]he humiliation and wholesale massacres of populations carried out by imperialists, though largely forgotten by the perpetrators, remain today vivid to the descendants of the victims.”[vii] As such, every Islamic terror group—including the Islamic State—are products of “the anger and frustration of Muslims.”[viii]
Again, one need only look to real history to appreciate the folly of this deterministic reading which sees Muslims as perpetual victims of an imagined history. After a millennium of actual European victimhood—a millennium of Muslim invasions that saw the conquest of three-quarters of Christendom’s original territory, the enslavement of five million Europeans (between just the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries), and the slaughter of untold millions—“backwards” Europe still managed to rise to the top of the world, and without any apologies or appeasements from Muslims.
Why can’t Islam? Could it be that its problems are intrinsic and have nothing to do with the purported sins of Europe?
For instance, in Polk’s chapter, “Somalia, the ‘Failed State,’” imperialism is again cited as the blame all. Yet in 1855, decades before Europeans colonized it, adventurer Richard Burton described Somalia in decidedly unappealing terms, adding that Somalis “are extremely bigoted, especially against Christians … and are fond of Jihading.” Today Somalia remains a “failed state,” Al Shabaab (“the Youth”) is its jihadi vanguard, and any Somali outed as a Christian is beheaded. Is European colonialism really necessary to explain such continuity?
“What Went Wrong?”
This is the crux of the issue: in order to exonerate the problems plaguing and emanating from the Muslim world—from socio-economic-political difficulties, to rampant Islamic radicalization and terrorism—Islamophiles like Polk are committed to two premises: 1) that for centuries Islam was a beacon of light in a dark world (and thus something must have gone wrong since) and 2) that which went wrong begins and ends with Western meddling via colonization.
As should be evident by now, the reverse is true: Islam always did what Islam does, and was constrained only during that brief era of Western assertion. The greater irony is that whereas jihads often culminated in slavery, depopulation, and devastation, European colonialists abolished slavery and introduced their Muslim subjects to the boons of modernity, from scientific and medicinal advances to the radical concepts of democracy and religious freedom.
“In a word,” writes a Copt around the turn of the twentieth century concerning British rule, “we say that the Egyptian State was at the highest degree of justice and good order and arrangement. And it removed religious fanaticism, and almost established equality between its subjects, Christian and Muslim, and it eliminated most of the injustice, and it realized much in the way of beneficial works for the benefit of all the inhabitants.”
Or consider how North Africa was among the most prosperous and civilized regions of Christendom in the seventh century, but centuries of “jihading,” ransacking, and the enslavement of literally millions turned it into a desert. Then, for some three centuries before the colonial era, its Muslim population subsisted entirely on enslaving Europeans.
In fact, the United States’ first war as a nation was with these “Barbary States.” When Thomas Jefferson and John Adams asked Barbary’s ambassador why his countrymen were enslaving American sailors, he said nothing about “open scars” or the “anger and frustration of Muslims.” Rather the “ambassador answered us that it was founded on the laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that … it was their right and duty to make war upon them [non-Muslims] wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners….”[ix]
Sticking to the “Narrative”
Sadly, Crusade and Jihad is reflective of both academic and popular opinion concerning the relationship between Islam and the West. As is typical of the social sciences—and increasingly the hard sciences as well—reality, in this case history, has been recast in conformance to the accepted narrative, one which follows a familiar matrix: anything white and Christian = hypocrisy, intolerance, greed, exploitation; anything nonwhite and non-Christian = honesty, tolerance, fair-mindedness, dignity.
The double standards required to make this narrative work are often stark. Thus and despite how Muslims persecuted Spain’s Christians for centuries, here is how Polk describes the indigenous liberators vis-à-vis the invading occupiers: “Over the centuries … the warlike Christian states … pushed south until, in 1492, they drove away tens of thousands of Muslims … and put an end to one of the most advanced societies in Europe.”[x]
The lesson is clear: from a historical point of view, Islam can do no wrong—even when it invades, conquers, and persecutes; and the West can do no right—even when it defends, liberates, and civilizes. While we are to exonerate contemporary Muslim terrorism as a product of “grievances” against (an imagined) history, only censure remains for those premodern Christians who set wrongs to rights (but to Islam’s disadvantage).
Such are the pseudo-histories that have long plagued the West’s understanding of its relationship to Islam. It is in part to combat these false narratives that I wrote my new book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West. Not only does it document the politically incorrect facts of history, but every century gets its fair due.
Raymond Ibrahim has been researching and writing on Western and Islamic history since 1998, when he began his MA thesis in History on the Battle of Yarmuk (636), the first and arguably most consequential battle between the two civilizations (available here) . He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
[i] Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 127.
[ii] Al-Andalus was the Arabic name for Islamic Spain. The word is etymologically based on an Arabic corruption of the word “Vandal,” apparently the earliest Germanic barbarian group to invade and be known to the inhabitants of North Africa.
[iii] Polk, Crusade and Jihad, 31–32.
[iv] Louis Bertrand, The History of Spain (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1952), 90-91.
[v] Polk, Crusade and Jihad, 518, 533.
[vi] Lewis, Islam and the West, 17-18.
[vii] Polk, Crusade and Jihad, 518.
[viii] Ibid., 436.
[ix] Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 9 (Princeton University Press, 1954), 357–359.
[x]Polk, Crusade and Jihad, 32.