Saturday, 26 July 2008

Book review: Infidels: A History of the Conflict between Christendom and Islam, by Andrew Wheatcroft

This book was released a while ago, 5 years ago to be precise. I felt the urge to re-read this book now for two reasons. The first reason is because I’ve been reading a lot of books on Islam and the West and remembered that this book contained a lot of information that makes it a good supplement to any study of Islam. The second reason, I have explained in italics in one of the paragraphs below.

In Infidels, Wheatcroft examines the initial contact between Islam and Christianity and the subsequent conflicts that have taken place over a period of time. Wheatcroft’s book starts from the Arab conquest of Jerusalem in 638 and takes us through the Moorish conquest of Spain and its re-capture by the Christians, the fight between Muslims and various European powers over Jerusalem, the colonisation of the Balkans by the Ottomans etc. Wheatcroft doesn’t cover the events mentioned above in chronological order, but he explains in great detail how Christians and Muslims hated, fought and most importantly, lived with and accommodated each other. The main thrust of Wheatcroft’s book is that the enmity between Islam and Christianity caused each side to generate a number of myths and theories about the other which have grown over a period of time. Wheatcroft tells us that some battles are remembered and embellished as great victories or defeats, whist some others, of similar magnitude are forgotten.

Wheatcroft talks of perceptions and how coloured they can get. This is naturally a two way street. For Christians, Muslims are descendants of Ishmael, the illegitimate son of Abraham, crafty, vile and barbaric. Muslims consider Christians to be only good for eating, drinking and fornicating. There is no doubt that the rivalry between Islam and Christianity is one of the biggest rivalries, if not the most important rivalry of all times. Both are religions derived from the same region and both religions have a lot in common, especially their in-built zeal for proselytisation. Christian crusades are matched by Islamic jihads. Infidels and Kafirs are hated by the other side. The human tendency to demonise enemies is taken to the extreme.

An idea floated by Wheatcrof which I found very interesting is that Muslims usually refused to accept new technology till very late and instead relied on bravery and valour. According to Wheatcroft, Christians and the West were always willing to experiment with and adapt new technology, such as Greek fire, cannons etc. Wheatcroft also has an intriguing view on the relative values of Europeans and Muslims. He says that “in the West, honour was a concept that pertained only to the topmost layer of society. Most of mankind stood outside the codes of chivalric honour. It was considered absurd for anyone not bound by noble origins to adopt knightly graces.” The Muslim soldier was totally different from the western soldier according to Wheatcroft who says that even when facing armoured knights wearing chain mail etc., “the good Muslim soldier was the man who leapt into the breach or on to the deck of an enemy vessel without armour.” The little history that has stayed in my head from my NCERT school text books, reminds me that Muslim soldiers (Arabs, Turks, Afghans etc.) who invaded India were always technologically superior to India’s rulers. The Muslim armies used cannon and cavalry, whilst our chivalrous Rajputs relied on lumbering elephants and the old fashioned sword. Maybe the Muslims had learnt from their European encounters, which made them technologically advanced when compared with Indians!

Wheatcroft ends his work by examining the aftermath of 9/11 and explaining how George W. Bush’s evangelical beliefs caused him to invade Afghanistan, formulate his ‘axis-of-evil’ theory using Iran, Iraq and North Korea, and describe the ‘war on terror’ as a crusade. Interestingly Wheatcroft does not make any mention of the Israel Lobby or any other lobby influencing Bush. According to Wheatcroft, George Bush, ardent born-again Christian that he is, behaved exactly the way any born-again Christian President would behave. When George Bush used the word ‘crusade’ to describe the US reaction to 9/11, he was using terminology evangelical Christians would be familiar or even comfortable with. I don’t want to give away too much of Wheatcroft’s explanations and spoil your fun in reading this book which ends with 2002 (and hence the actual Iraq war is outside its purview).

My main grouse with Infidels is that, except towards the end of the book when Wheatcroft analyses George Bush’s actions, Infidels is more of a description of what happened rather than an explanation or analysis of why it happened. At the end of this book, one is forced to ask, is the rivalry between Islam and Christianity any different (other than in scale) from the rivalry between say, communism and capitalism? One could take the view that capitalism has vanquished communism. But has it really? Communism is thriving and well in Nepal and in the red corridor in India. Do we know for sure that communism will not make a reappearance on a grand scale in a few decades?

Infidels is a good history book and Wheatcroft is very good at describing past events. His style reminded me of Wiliam Dalrymple, past historical events are described as if Wheatcroft was a witness as the event unfolded.

On a slightly different note, I read a not-so-flattering review of this book in the Independent, which takes issue with Wheatcroft’s description of the Kabaah as "the great black stone in Mecca", which the reviewer says is simply wrong. I couldn’t find anything wrong with Wheatcroft’s description. If anyone can tell me if I’ve missed something, I’ll be grateful.

Wheatcroft is the author of two other famous books – The Ottomans and the Habsburgs.


Anonymous said...

Hey VGJ have you stopped writing stories?


Sandeep Varma said...


1. "Fundamentalism - The Search For Meaning" by Malise Ruthven, and

2. "The Clash of Fundamentalisms Crusades, Jihads and Modernity" by Tariq Ali.

They provide a fair level of analysis on religious extremism, with a focus on Islam and Christianity.
Parallel reading could be "Threat to Reason" by Daniel Hind.

Anonymous said...

Vinod, the Kaaba or cube is a bublack ilding shaped like a cube. It is made of granite. I think Weatcroft is correct and the independent newspaper is wrong.

Hamid Ali