The main idea of this book is not that much to present military history of the most important battles between Islamic and Christian armies, as to demonstrate that despite illusion of peace caused by contemporary overwhelming power of the West, Islamic ideology of conquest and proselytizing by force did not go away. It is also warning that if West continues its historical amnesia and ideological appeasement, the bloody fight could start again and cost dearly.
Here author characterizes this book as work of military history reviewing 8 key battles between Islamic and Christian forces. These battles, while different by time, place and participants, represent key points in 14 centuries long struggle between followers of two religions one of which generally being on offensive from 636 to 1683, while another generally losing territory and adherents during the same time. Here is the map demonstrating this point:
The initial part of the book is discussion of the nature of Islam, its creation by Muhammad as a tool to overcome tribalism and create religion-based unity open for everybody to join. It was also an effective tool of using force to expand. Author discusses notion of jihad defined as religious duty of conquest with huge rewards either in this or the other world for participants. Author also discusses West, Christendom, and their nations, which were converging into more or less loose alliances coming to life under threat of annihilation and dissipating when this threat diminished. Author also discusses very limited tolerance in Islam of Jews and Christians as “people of the book”, stressing temporary character of this tolerance.
Chapter 1 Islam Takes Christendom by Storm: The Battle of Yarmuk, 636
Here author discusses the first major victory of Islam when relatively small force of Muslims destroyed numerically superior forces of Byzantine Empire. Author stresses religious fervor of Muslims and their ability to fight in the dark, which eventually brought their victory. After the battle author reviews consequent conquests that followed: successful siege of Jerusalem, conquest of Egypt and North Africa. Author especially stresses that unlike other conquests of the period this one had very strong religious component of proselytizing by the sword and atrocities. The end result was complete change of population’s religion and permanent conversion of these territories into Islamic lands. Here is how author characterizes consequences of this battle: “two-thirds (or 66 percent) of Christendom’s original territory†—including three of the five most important centers of Christianity—Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria‡—were permanently swallowed up by Islam and thoroughly Arabized. For unlike the Germanic barbarians who invaded and conquered Europe in the preceding centuries—only to assimilate into Christian culture, civilization, and language (Latin and Greek)—the Arabs imposed their creed and language onto the conquered peoples so that, whereas the “Arabs” once only thrived in the Arabian Peninsula, today the “Arab world” consists of some twenty-two nations spread over the Middle East and North Africa.”
Author then briefly discusses events after Yarmuk when Muslim powers consolidated their gains and continuing warfare against Byzantine.
Chapter 2 The Jihad Reaches an Eastern Wall of Stone: The Siege of Constantinople, 717
This chapter describes temporary slowdown of Muslim conquest when they failed in the first siege of Constantinople in 674-678. Then author reviews follow up struggles and stresses the role of slaves’ acquisition, especially women, as significant driving force of Muslim raids, strongly supported by religions duty of jihad. Practically it meant psychologically win-win situation when strive to obtain earthly pleasures was combined with definite promise to supply high quality of such pleasures in afterlife for fallen jihadists. Author also describes growing understanding among Christians of ideological, religious character of the struggle and impossibility of permanent accommodation. At the end of chapter Author describes the second 717-718 siege of Constantinople, which also ended in Muslim defeat.
Chapter 3 The Jihad Reaches a Western Wall of Ice: The Battle of Tours, 732
This chapter moves just a dozen years later, but to different part of Europe. First author discusses Muslim conquest of Spain and initially Mediterranean coastline that was completed by 730. As usual author stresses multiple atrocities committed during this process and massive forcible conversions of previously mainly Christian population. Then he reviews history of Charles Charlemagne who defeated Islamic force in battle of Tour in 732, stopping cold their movement farther into Europe. At the end of chapter author however mentions that it did not prevent follow up attempts such as Muslim landing in Italy in 846 that ended with occupation of Sicily, many Mediterranean islands, and new long-term feature of life in these areas – Muslim piracy. Author somewhat asserts that Charlemagne victory at Tours was overstated because it did not really prevented Mediterranean from becoming “Muslim Lake”. Author even completes the chapter by stating that Muslims often not even were looking for complete conquest, but rather for raiding, looting, and acquiring slaves so actual Muslim chronicles not even mention Tours as something significant.
Chapter 4 Islam’s New Champions: The Battle of Manzikert, 1071
Here author moves to another part of Islam, the one related to Abbasid Caliphate, based on Shia branch situated in Persia with center in Baghdad. In 838 Caliph Mutasim destroyed important Byzantium city Amorium, which led to Christian counterattack when for the next two hundred years fight was continued until Turks formed Seljuk Empire and first devastated Armenia in 1019, then destroyed Byzantium forces at Manzikert and captured Roman emperor. Author characterizes this as Turkish Yarmuk, meaning that it was similarly to Arabs opened road for conquest for Turks.
Chapter 5 Christendom Strikes Back: The Battle of Hattin, 1187
The next point of this long struggle was the first Crusade when continuing deprivation against Christian by Muslims in what used to be Christian territories containing multiple religious sites. Author describes it as the holy war initiated in response and retaliation against Muslims’ jihad. Author starts this part of history in 1095 with Christian mobilization, initial victories resulted not in small part because of general indifference of Muslim population. Muslims were much more busy fighting each other in Shia vs. Sunni struggle to pay attention to such insignificant things as Jerusalem and area around. However they noticed that something is not exactly right and produced Saladin, who manage mobilize Muslims, win battle of Hattin and expel Crusaders.
Chapter 6 The Crusade Victorious: The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, 1212
This chapter starts with discussion of incomplete conquest of Spain in 8th century by Muslins when small Christian enclaves in mountainous Astoria managed to survive and repulse many consequent attacks for centuries. Author also discusses what he believes erroneous narrative for Muslim tolerance and scientific prosperity of Islamic Spain. Author discusses an interesting dynamics created by massive use of slavery, especially enslaved women of European background that, combined with acceptance of children produced by these women as legitimate issue of their Muslim fathers. Author describes details of this long continuing war, which eventually ended by complete expulsion of Muslims from Spain in 1492.
Chapter 7 Muhammad’s Dream: The Siege of Constantinople, 1453
Here author reviews the late part of Byzantine decline and raise of Ottomans with their peculiar institution of kidnapped in childhood slaves-soldiers that eventually become key component of Ottoman state. At the end author discusses final destruction of Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) and fall of Constantinople due to numeric and technological superiority of Ottomans.
Chapter 8 The Rise and Fall of Islam: The Siege of Vienna, 1683
This chapter is about pick Islam when Ottomans sieged Vienna, but where defeated by alliance of European Christian armies. Author looks at previous events in Eastern Europe when Mongols conquered Russia in 1240 and then become Islamized by 1300. It was not an easy process and author describes it in some detail. By 1380 Russians achieved some success in repulsing Tatars, but the fight was periodically continuing until in 1478 Russia stopped paying tribute. The Islamic raids with plunder and abduction continued for another century, but complete dominance over Russia ended. Author reviewing similar evens all over the Europe and Middle East when Islam was stopped and after a few centuries of relative equilibrium with raids and mutual retaliations until very religious Ottoman Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa decided renew Islamic conquest and moved against center of European Holy Roman Empire – Vienna. Despite usual betrayals of some Christian nations and leaders, enough forces arrived to protect Vienna with key role played by Jan Sobieski’s Polish army to achieve victory, forcing Ottomans to retreat. After another 15 major battles from 1683 to 1697 the treaty of Karlowitz was signed practically ending 1000 years Islamic military offensive against Christianity.
Author briefly describes the following centuries when Islamic forces were limited to raids with no ability to launch massive military attack any more. The response was various from Russian conquest of Crimea to American punitive naval expedition against barbarian pirates. Author ends in 1924 when the last great Islamic power – Ottoman Empire was dissolved and West European countries divided Islamic lands between themselves as mandates or colonies.
Postscript Muslim Continuity vs. Western Confusion
Author’s postscript kind of laments current situation that he believes characterized by Western loss of memory about 1500 years war and came up with politically correct interpretation of Islam as religion of peace, that no truly religious Muslim really accept. Consequently the Islamic jihad renewed in form of terrorism. It is clearly supported by restoration of Islamic states such as Iran or ISIS. These Islamic states are way too weak to be serious threat for now, but are quite inspirational for Muslims in their ability to stand up against non-Islamic powers and dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons. Author makes the point that current overwhelming military power of West is combined with ideological weakness and loss of history and understanding of enemy, making situation quite dangerous with potential to be be costly in the future: “In short, if Islam is terrorizing the West today, that is not because it can, but because the West allows it to. For no matter how diminished, a still swinging Scimitar will always overcome a strong but sheathed Sword.“
MY TAKE ON IT:
I think that author is quite correct in his estimate of dangers of Islamic ideology. However I do not think that Islam is as strong as it was 1000 years ago mainly because humans are moving away from strong religious believes. It is fully applied to Muslims all over the world and a pretty good example of this had been provided during 1950s and 60s when people in these countries moved to quasi-scientific secular ideology of socialism. It ended in disaster and misery and partial return to militant Islam is reaction to this disaster. However the terrorism against West and application of Sharia laws is even more disastrous for Muslims. The problem is they see no alternative since West at this point does not inspire following despite overwhelming technological and economic superiority. The resolution of these problems will actually come from the West’s accommodating to tremendous technological and political changes it is undergoing right now. Such western renewal would once again provide example for emulation and people in Islamic world eventually leave this militant religious ideology of 7th century in dustbin of history where it belong.