God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215

by DL Lewis

Hardcover, 2008



Call number




W. W. Norton & Co. (2008), Hardcover, 384 pages


In this panoramic history of Islamic culture in early Europe, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian re-examines what we thought we knew. Lewis reveals how cosmopolitan, Muslim al-Andalus flourished--a beacon of cooperation and tolerance between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity--while proto-Europe made virtues out of hereditary aristocracy, religious intolerance, perpetual war, and slavery.--From publisher description.

User reviews

LibraryThing member RobertP
Excellent book, about a subject - dark ages Europe - which is little written on. It is a good look at how Europe developed - or didn't develop - after the collapse of the Roman empire, and how Islam came into being and expanded. Unfortunately, Mr. Lewis wrote what are in effect two books. The
Show More
first, better one, covers the period up to just after the death of Charlemagne. The second, shorter, and not so good book, is a lightning-fast survey of the next 400 years. During these years, Islamic Spain declined, and Christian Europe inexorably rose, and we would like to know more about that. However, it appears that David Lewis is seduced by the cultural high tide of Islamic Spain during the 7- and 800s, and would like to forget the slow decline of Islam, both in Spain and elsewhere. In the end, the lasting cultural contribution of Al-Andalus consisted of moving a body of Indian, Greek, and Roman to the West, where it was put to good use, while Islam kept fighting itself and (contrary to received wisdom) its religious minorities, until it was culturally and politically irrelevant. One interesting feature is that despite the protestations of the author that Islam was tolerant of the other people of the book, Jews get massacred quite frequently, starting with Mohammed and moving on into North Africa and Spain. These massacres would do justice to pre-Reformation Catholicism, and tend to make me sceptical of Islamic "toleration."
Overall a book worth reading, mostly crisp, well written, and pitched at a level that does not insult the reader.
Show Less
LibraryThing member nemoman
This book summarizes the rise of Islam and its conquering of Spain contrasted against the simultaneous, halting attempts by Christendom to meld the rest of Europe into something other than a bunch of roving barbarians. Europe and Catholicism come off a distant second to Mulim Spain in almost any
Show More
category of civilization. Lewis postulates that Spain under Muslim rule was some 4oo years further advanced than Christian Europe. Moreover, in contrast with Catholicism's rabid intolerance, even for different sects within its own religion, Islam comes off as relatively moderate in terms of coexistence with Jews and Christians (who nonetheless always remained second class citizens). It is altogether possible that had not Charles Martel defeated the Muslims at Poitiers, Islam may have conquered most of Europe with the result that 400 years of the dark ages might have been erased, and Europe might have entered the modern era much sooner. The book is rich in historical data; however, it lacks narrative drive in many points which makes for difficult slogging. I also struggled with the numerous Arab names.
Show Less
LibraryThing member jlbrownn23
The subject matter is interesting to me, but this was really written like you fear a career academic will write. So many names, facts and details just packed in - they get in the way of any sort of story or flowing narrative. The author could have filled 1000 or more pages with what he forced in to
Show More
350 or so, and none of it seemed all that well fleshed out for the non-expert. Because of this the narrative seemed very unfocused to me - we are bombarded with disjointed facts instead of led to a coherent thesis.
Show Less
LibraryThing member ruinedbyreading
The Enlightenment in Europe is often celebrated as the beginning of intelligent, modern Western thought after the Dark Ages. Yet many fail to realize that the roots of the Enlightenment were in the Islamic empire. God’s Crucible sets out to correct these misconceptions and remind people of modern
Show More
Europe’s roots.

Lewis gives reader a look at what the Iberian Peninsula looked like at the time surrounding the Islamic invasion. The Visigoths, who were in power at this time, were brutal in their rule. The Visigoths were former Arian Christians who had converted to Roman Christianity, which is when things started to turn sour for the Jews of Spain. Jews faced forced emigration and force conversions to Roman Christianity. At one point, the Visigoths sold all adult Jews who had refused to convert into slavery. It should be no surprise that the Jews turned to their neighboring Muslims in North Africa for liberation. However, it's important to note that Lewis' description of the Visigoth's is pretty outdated and a little harsher than what many historians today agree is reality.

The Islamic empire was far more tolerant than the Roman Christians, and proved to be a safe haven for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Yes, I know. It may be hard to believe for some, but at one point in time Jews and Muslims got along swimmingly!

Lewis’ area of expertise is not Islamic history, and that it shows in some parts of God’s Crucible. I don’t know enough about Islamic history in Europe to pick out any mistakes that he’s made, but I did pick up on one little mistake in his retelling of early Islamic history, when he chalks Uthman’s assassination up to Muslims just being angry over his burning Qur’an’s in the process of compiling it. Lewis fails to realize that his political corruption was the main reason why he was killed. I thought it was a little too obvious to overlook and misinterpret, so if he got that wrong what else did he misinterpret later in the book?

I don’t expect a history book to keep me on the edge of my seat, but it was hard to keep focused on the text when Lewis began talking about history that, while connected to the main subject of the book, was not always entirely relevant or necessary. When he wrote about the topic directly it was much more interesting. But, the book really could have been cut down quite a bit. I felt like he would go into great detail in some parts, but in others he would just skim over names and terms without bothering to explain who these people were.

Despite its downfalls, I think God’s Crucible is an important book. This is a topic that needs to be discussed and paid attention to. There aren’t very many books out there who really deal with this subject, and probably none that are written by a Pulitzer Prize winning historian. If history books are your cup of tea, I would recommend it.
Show Less
LibraryThing member jensenmk82
This book is a welcome corrective to the standard Eurocentric account of the Middle Ages. Lewis writes the dense prose of a mandarin historian, with magisterial periods and ornate formulations, but James Reston Jr. was overly harsh when he spoke of "stilted academic prose" in his review in the
Show More
Washington Post. However, God's Crucible, Lewis's first foray into pre-modern history, leaves something to be desired. The notes for this extraordinarily far-ranging work show that supporting documentation (largely secondary sources; journal articles are rare) is thin. Footnotes sometimes do not correspond to the text.

More disturbingly, Lewis often chooses an interpretation that hews to a predetermined narrative and does not deeply scrutinize the historical record or interpretative debates among historians. Lewis is, in fact, a traditionalist historian, not a 'mythistorian' at all, pace the title of Ch. 7. Though he decenters the narrative, he does not allow postmodernist indeterminacy to trouble the confident progress of his history, which depends on traditional political history and is intent on inventing a new myth, one that instructs Westerners about their indebtedness to Muslim civilization and about the ruthlessly blood-soaked origins of Christian Europe. A brutal, uncouth Charlemagne contrasts with an enlightened, suave 'Abd al-Rahman I.

Many reviewers have concluded that Lewis "overstates his case," as Ed Voves said in the California Literary Review, and it's true. Unpleasant traits of Frankish leaders are unrelentingly emphasized, those of Muslim leaders are universally softened or excused (e.g. "Crucifixions and expulsions were regrettable aspects of [al-Hakam's] nation-building. Enlightened despotism was the alternative to rule by the consensus of classes or rule by the oligarchy of affluent familes . . ." [311]).

Lewis has also produced a text bereft of historical consciousness to an extent that seems deliberate. His narrative is replete with anachronistic attributions of mental states and motivations. Lewis imagines premodern leaders were preoccupied with "grand strategy" (253, another anachronism). Lewis also has a taste for anachronistic metaphors as well—"speed bump," "conveyer belt," etc. All these devices are designed to reach the contemporary reader.

In short, Lewis is very much on a mission, and while it may be a laudable one, his methods do not always stand up to scrutiny. The book has, unsurprisingly, been skewered by critics on the right like "Fjordman," the anonymous but influential Norwegian Islamaphobe, who devoted a long critique to the book when it came out in mid-2008. Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times was also hard on the book, complaining that Lewis is "in thrall to an idealized Umayyad Spain." But Kwame Anthony Appiah gave the book a more favorable review in the New York Review of Books, calling it "rich and engaging" with an "uplifting message."
Show Less
LibraryThing member charlie68
A good well written history from the birth of Islam to its sence in Spain in the 13th Century. The white hats and black are dispersed fairly evenly between Muslims and Christians. And Christian society definitely benefited from the Muslim renaissance that occurred in Spain.
LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
Mr. Lewis has produced a readable book on the effect of the Spanish Islamic community on the more northerly European Countries. He covers the history of that country's caliphate in more detail than normal, and gives a number of illuminating details. The book is useful, and gives a fuller picture of
Show More
the tensions and advances in the western Mediterranean until the mid-1200's. It is a good place to start further exploration of the question of the interactive effect on the general development of world civilization . Sadly, I note his footnotes and bibliography rely heavily on secondary books and English language translations rather than direct quotations.
Show Less


Original publication date


Physical description

512 p.; 9.3 inches


0393064727 / 9780393064728
Page: 1.1211 seconds