Jonathan Sumption

The first iron curtain

Religious tradition has defined human societies and shaped their habits of mind more strongly than any other factor. It still does, even in communities which have lost their collective belief in God. Indifference to formal creeds may be common to the governing elites of most countries, and in Europe to their electorates as well. Yet the world is still living with the consequences of centuries of mutual hostility and incomprehension among the three great monotheistic religions of the Mediterranean.

The sudden birth of Islam and its rapid and violent spread through North Africa and the Middle East in the seventh century shattered the political and intellectual certainties of Europe more completely than the Germanic invaders of the Roman empire had ever done. The ‘barbarians’ from the north had been drawn by the wealth and prestige of the empire, and were absorbed, civilised, Christianised by their victims within a few generations of their arrival. The Islamic conquests were quite different. Here were conquerors with certainties of their own. The only civilisations which they absorbed were those, like the Persian, which they converted to Islam. The unity of the Mediterranean world, which had been the dominant geographical fact of the ancient world, was broken for 12 centuries until the colonial empires re-established it on European terms in the age of Napoleon and Kitchener. For most of the intervening ages, an iron curtain divided the self-contained world of Islam from Christian societies.

The chinks and gaps in the curtain are the subject of Richard Fletcher’s interesting extended essay on cross and crescent in the Middle Ages. Much of his material is familiar, but he has a graceful way with words and ideas, and brings plenty of ideas of his own to his vast theme.

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