For the past couple of weeks I've been reading God's Crucible, a history book by David Levering Lewis—which I gave to my dad for Christmas, but which he's loaned back to me. Today I got a lot of reading done, because my body was screwing with me: I'll have to skip my cancer medications for the next day or two because the intestinal side effects, unusually, lasted all day today and into the night, and I have to give my digestive system (and my butt) a rest.
Lewis's book covers, at its core, a 650-year span from the 500s to the 1200s, during which Islam began, and rapidly spread the influence of its caliphate from Arabia across a big swath of Eurasia and northern Africa, while what had been the Roman Empire simultaneously fragmented into its Middle Ages in Europe. That's a time I've known little about until now.
The history I took in school and at university covered lots of things, from ancient Egypt and Babylon up to the Roman Empire, and from the Renaissance to the 20th century, as well as medieval England. I learned something about the history of China and India, as well as about the pre-Columbian Americas. But pre-Renaissance Europe and the simultaneous rapid expansion of the dar al-Islam are a particularly big gap for me.
I knew a little about Moorish Spain, and a tad about Charlemagne and Constantinople, but otherwise it was just the Dark Ages for me, and for a lot of students who learned the typical Eurocentric view of history. There was much more going on in more populated and interesting parts of the world, though. While Europeans (not even yet named that) eked along with essentially no currency, trade, or much cultural exchange beyond warfare with horses, swords, and arrows:
Crucially important, of course, was Islam. Muhammad was born in the year 570, and shortly after he died about six decades later, Muslim armies exploded out of Arabia and conquered much of the Middle East and North Africa, then expanded east and north into Central Asia. By the early 700s, the influence of the caliphate headquartered in Damascus had reached Spain (al-Andalus), where Muslims would remain in power for 700 years.
In his book, Lewis flies through the origins of Islam, the foundations of the Byzantine and Roman branches of the Catholic Church after the fall of Rome, the interminable conflict between it and Zoroastrian Persia to the east, the Muslim caliphate's sudden rise up the middle to take over the eastern and southern Mediterranean, and the crossing of Islamic armies into Europe at Jebel Tariq (now called Gibraltar) in 711. Then things bog down a little.
I'm about half-way through the book, and Lewis throws out so many names, alternate names for the same people, events, places, and such that it's hard to keep up. He hops back and forth in time enough that what story he's trying to tell isn't always clear—he was won the Pulitzer Prize, but that was for more focused historical biographies, such as of W.E.B. Du Bois, rather than sweeping surveys like this one. His writing isn't overly complex, and I'm learning a lot, but it's a tough go sometimes. Still, I think it will be worth sticking it out.