Islam’s long history in Europe has entered a new chapter


Islam in Europe goes back a long way

Feb 14th 2019Print edition | Special report

THE SYRIAN refugees who recently arrived on Greece’s shores punctured their dinghies to ensure there was no way back. They were following a tradition dating to Islam’s first foray into Europe. In 711, a century after the faith was founded, Tariq ibn Ziyad, a Muslim commander, sailed across the Strait of Gibraltar and ordered his men to burn their boats on arrival. His successors established a caliphate, or realm, over al-Andalus that was to remain on the Iberian peninsula for the next 782 years.

A Muslim army that fanned north across the Pyrenees was defeated by Frankish and Burgundian forces between Tours and Poitiers in 732. But for that defeat, wrote Edward Gibbon, an 18th-century English historian, “the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames.” The colleges of Córdoba, in southern Spain, became a centre of scholarship for science, medicine and literature as well as Islamic studies. With few exceptions, Muslim rule was pluralist and inclusive of Christians and Jews. Not so the Christian armies who pushed them back in the Reconquista, culminating in 1492 with their victory in Granada, the last Muslim-controlled enclave. Libraries were burned, mosques and synagogues destroyed, and their worshippers expelled, forced to convert, or killed. The Inquisition purged what remained.

While one caliphate waned in western Europe, another rose in the east. The Ottoman empire started in what is now Turkey and at its height dominated parts of central and south-eastern Europe, north Africa and the Middle East. In 1453 the Ottomans conquered Constantinople (now Istanbul), the seat of eastern Christianity. They were not beyond turning churches into mosques and forcibly converting Christians. But they also presided over another era of pluralism. Muslims and Jews fleeing Catholic Spain found refuge in the east, as did many Christians deemed heretics by the pope.

In much of the Ottoman empire Muslims were a minority. The sultan delegated authority over non-Muslim communities to their religious leaders in a system of government called the millet. Mosques, churches and synagogues in Ottoman cities were built side by side. And while Christians were fighting religious wars elsewhere in Europe, the Ottomans preserved a remarkable peace among different faiths in territories now regarded as seething with religious strife.

The Ottomans ruled their European possessions for longer than they did their Middle Eastern ones. They gave Austria its coffeehouses and, legend has it, France its croissants (from the Islamic crescent on the Ottoman flag). One of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s operas is set in a seraglio. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of Germany’s greatest writers and poets, spoke Arabic. His “West-Eastern Divan”, a collection of poems, takes its title from the Koranic verse, “to Allah belong the east and the west.”

The Ottomans twice laid siege to Vienna, in 1529 and 1683, and lost both times. Thereafter the Muslim tide retreated. Christian nationalists from Athens to Budapest re-enacted the Reconquista, levelling hundreds of mosques and expelling millions of Europe’s Muslims. Meanwhile across the Atlantic Muslim slaves were baptised by their owners and given Christian names. By the eve of the first world war, Muslim life in the West had all but come to an end.

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