A fresh look at a ‘dark topic’

By on January 1, 2005

In 1993, Andrew Wheatcroft started to research what he calls “this dark topic.” Ten years later he finished Infidels. Along the way he uncovered some fascinating facts about the ongoing conflict between the Christian and Islamic worlds. Wheatcroft teaches in the English Department at the University of Stirling in Scotland and is director of the university’s Centre for Publishing Studies. Prior to this book he wrote The Ottomans and The Hapsburgs.

The thesis of this book is that both Muslims and Christians consider adherents of the other faith to be infidels and not to be trusted. They have also, from the beginning of the Muslim faith, cursed and fought each other on a regular basis. Infidels is a well-written, well-researched and well-documented account of this ancient, yet very modern subject. It contains copious notes, a massive bibliography and excellent maps of the areas where the two faiths came into conflict.

Mohammed, the founder of Islam, lived around AD 570-632. When he was 40, Muslims believe, he was visited by the angel Gabriel who ordered him to preach the true religion. Shortly after this, God dictated Islam’s sacred book, the Koran, to him and Mohammed began to preach its teachings. Within a generation after his death, Islamic armies attacked Byzantium, at that time the most important part of the Christian world. Infidels tells the history of the conflict between the two religions from that time up to and including Osama bin Laden and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and President George W. Bush’s subsequent reaction to those attacks. It is the history of Islamic jihads versus Christian Crusades; both considered “holy wars” by the respective faiths. Because of the state of world politics in the 21st century it is a timely book since it puts the current struggle between west and east (Christianity and Islam), represented by President Bush and Osama bin Laden, in context.

Rather than start his story in 633 when Arab armies arose in the desert and attacked Byzantium, Mr. Wheatcroft begins with the Battle of Lepanto off the coast of southern Greece in 1571. He likely chose this battle because, in addition to being a massive struggle between two huge armadas, it is an example of the concept of a holy war. The Christian navy, known as the fleet of the Holy League, sailed with the blessing of Pope Pius V who sanctified the war “waged under the protection of the golden figure of Christ.” Anyone who died would bypass purgatory and go straight to heaven.

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The Ottoman fleet sailed with a similar spiritual blessing. The commander was given an enormous banner on which were embroidered in gold “the 99 names and attributes of God.” The crews and soldiers of both fleets believed they were doing God’s work and if they died would be rewarded by going to paradise.

Infidels covers the three battlegrounds between Islam and Christianity ( Spain, the Levant and the Balkans) in considerable detail. The reasons for the original Islamic expansion in the 7th century in the Levant are not clear. Arab armies just started to advance and often easily overcame all resistance. When there was resistance, their enemies were often outclassed by Muslim soldiers who fought like men possessed. The animosity of the believers of the two faiths toward each other was, and is, with some people today, very strong. This often resulted in extreme acts of cruelty. It is difficult to understand how two such deeply religious peoples could commit such horrific acts of barbarism. For example, wholesale decapitations on both sides were quite common. At the same time once war ended, both victor and vanquished, while not really trusting each other, could live together in harmony.

Mr. Wheatcroft chose a complex history to tell. That is why it took him so long to research and write. As he often points out, it is not a simple story about good and evil but about how members of two very different religions and cultures interacted over a very long period.

It is a very interesting story but covers such a wide sweep of history that there is almost too much detail for the reader to absorb and understand. It is like a vast painting filled with many details that one needs to return to again and again to fully understand. And, of course, the story is not over as events in Iraq clearly indicate. Mr. Wheatcroft has done an excellent job but his book requires a lot of time to absorb fully its contents.

Thomas F. Chambers is a retired college teacher living in North Bay, Ont.

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