Modern Europeans tend to have mixed feelings about the rise of Islam: Islam and Christianity have, after all, been butting heads for the last fifteen hundred years. What is not normally appreciated though is the fundamental role Islam had in creating Europe.
Islam, it will be remembered, was born in the Middle East in the early seventh century. By Mohammed’s death in 632 all the tribes of Arabia had been united into one bloc. Then, by 700, the armies of Islam had poured out of the Middle East across northern Africa and into Spain, and through Persia towards the Ganges; some had even made their way across the Sahara and into Sub-Saharan Africa. This ‘Empire’ was not destined to last: it would splinter into a hundred shards. But Islam would become the religion of the majority in these territories.
So what has this to do with Europe? First, it must be recalled that Europe did not, in any real sense, exist prior to the Islamic invasions. What we refer to as Western Civilisation was the Roman Empire and the Roman Empire was a Mediterranean Empire: with the Red Sea and Britain standing as distant and rather unimportant outliers. A family in Rome had far more in common with a family in Egyptian Alexandria than it did with a family in Britain let alone unconquered and tribal Germany. The Mediterranean was linked by city life that characterised every coastline on that sea: whereas city life never took off in what we think of today as northern Europe, where often towns and villages were lacking.
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