Up and down the coasts of Europe one can find ruins, the remnants of ancient watchtowers and fortifications. One is seldom provided with any explanation; when something is written very occasionally in a guidebook, there is mention of “invaders.” Who were these “invaders”? The history of Muslim raiders, up and down those European coasts, the pillaging and razing of villages and towns, the murders, the vandalism, the seizure and enslavement of, over time, at least a million people from Western Europe, with the raiders even getting as far as Ireland and, in one celebrated case, Iceland, is hardly known to the Western world.
Giles Milton’s book White Gold focuses on one Cornishman, Thomas Pellow, who was seized and brought back to Morocco in the mid-18th century. There the vast palace complex of Moulay Ismail, which Western tourists come to admire, was built on the sites of, and making use of the stone taken from, the prior non-Muslim structures. So many of the so-called “wonders of Muslim architecture” were built in this way, including the celebrated Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, which is on the site of, and makes use of, the St. John the Baptist Church that was previously on the same site. And who do you think built the Taj Mahal? Muslim soldiers, or enslaved Hindus?
When you begin, as many Infidels have, to study Islam, and then extend your study beyond the texts, and then add the behavior of Muslims today, and then go still further and begin to study the history of Islamic conquest, and the Islamic exaggerated claims to achievement, and the Islamic treatment of all non-Muslims subjugated by Muslims and Muslim rule, all sorts of the dark past become necessarily illuminated. How many of us, a few years ago, had any idea about when the Turks arrived in Byzantium, or why Constantinople fell, or when? Who knew about the Seljuk Turks, or the Ottomans? Who was aware of where Aramaic was spoken, or that the Maronites were a non-Arab people living in present-day Lebanon long before the Arab Muslims arrived? Who knew, even — why Tom Friedman has just in the last week or two discovered — that there are Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, and that the difference is not a minor one, and did not originate with the Americans clumsily undoing all that splendid harmony that naturally reigned in Iraq just a few pre-Saddam years ago? This is all nonsense, of course, but it is predictable nonsense.
It is wonderful, isn’t it, to begin to study the history of the Middle East, and the history of Byzantium, and the history of Europe, all because it now has an immediacy and a significance that we who were not history-haunted did not previously ascribe to it all. But now that we are menaced by those who are haunted not so much by history as their own crazed version of history, we are forced to study — and we are forced to be quick studies.
It’s going to school, setting yourself to school, all over again.
Despite the boredom that Islam itself creates, studying that history is now essential. It is necessary to learn what taqiyya is, and what constitutes an acceptable isnad-chain, and the details of Muhammad’s life (as Muslims accept it). It is essential to find out that Muslims do not accept the principle of Pacta sunt servanda, but follow instead the model of the Treaty of al-Hudaibiyya. All this is all the more essential seeing how even the most reasonable westernized semi-truth-telling Muslim will continue to skitter around the central question, if he has not made the Ibn-Warraq break with Islam — see Kanan Makkiya, see Fouad Ajami, see the smiling Fareed Zakariya (with, for god’s sake, his wine column — yet for careerist considerations, he thinks it is far better to keep letting himself be thought of as a “good Muslim” rather than as no Muslim at all, for then his usefulness would be much diminished).
You didn’t expect, ten or five years ago, that the acquisition of a CD-Rom of the Encyclopedia of Islam would thrill you. You had no idea you would read, with pleasure, Joseph Schacht or Antoine Fattal or William St. Clair Tisdall.
But it’s fun, isn’t it? Fun, and indispensable.