The following partial book review of Raymond Ibrahim’s Sword and Scimitar was written by John C. Zimmerman, of the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and appeared in Terrorism and Political Violence (33:8, 1824-1825, DOI), a journal of the Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. The complete review can be accessed here.
Many current accounts of the long struggle between Islam and Christianity tend to focus on the periods beginning with the Crusades in the late 11th century and the era beginning with Western ascendance and colonialism in the 18th century. Utilizing a vast array of sources, Raymond Ibrahim reminds us that the actual struggle began with the Muslim conquests of Christian lands in the first half of the 7th century and that the expansion and conquests continued until 1683. Hence, “the West is what remained of Christendom after Islam conquered some three-fourths of its original territory.”
The early battles between Christians and Muslims centered on the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Christianity), North Africa, and parts of Europe (i.e Spain and France). […]
By the 11th century, the Muslim armies fighting the Byzantine Empire were dominated primarily by the Seljuk Turks. In 1049 they attacked the Armenian city of Arzden where a chronicler noted that as many as 150,000 residents were slaughtered and the city—which contained 800 churches—was torched. Eleven years later 600 churches were destroyed in Sebastia (modern-day Sivas) The devastating Christian loss at the battle of Manzikert in 1071 greatly increased Muslim strength and threatened the existence of Eastern Christianity. The victorious sultan declared: “I shall consume with the sword all those people who venerate the cross, and all the lands of the Christians shall be enslaved.” These events and many others would lead Pope Urban II to call for the crusades, intended to be a counter-offensive to reconquer Jerusalem, in 1095. “Christians everywhere felt ready to take the war to—instead of always receiving it from—the ancient foe.”
The biggest Muslim victory came with the Ottoman Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453. There had been continuous Muslim attempts to conquer the city since the early 8th century. The conquest was particularly brutal. Christian accounts speak of widespread slaughter, rape and desecration of churches. An Ottoman chronicle states: “They [Turkish soldiers] made the people of the city slaves . . . and the gazis [Turkish fighters] embraced [i.e.raped] their pretty girls.” However, the end of the Muslim conquests came in 1683 with the Christian victory in the Battle of Vienna. Ibrahim gives a riveting account of the battle. Ironically, by the mid-19th century the two most powerful colonial countries—Great Britain and France—would prevent the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire by coming to its aid against Russia, a Christian country, in the Crimean War.
Throughout the book Ibrahim emphasizes the widespread practice of enslaving the conquered Christians. Muslim accounts mention the preference for fair skinned women. This went on from the 7th through the 19th centuries. Over a three century period beginning in the mid-15th century about 3 million Slavs—Poles, Lithuanians, Russians and Ukrainians—were enslaved.
Overall, Ibrahim has given a more complete account of the troubled history between Islam and Christianity than is generally available. His focus on how the combatants primarily viewed the struggle as a religious war is especially useful in a period when such phenomenon in the West is viewed through a secular lens, and it helps explain the views of contemporary jihadists. In a time when more general accounts are likely to narrowly focus on the Crusades and Western colonialism, Ibrahim’s important book explains the origins of both.
John C. Zimmerman
University of Nevada Las Vegas