- The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization
World historians will enjoy and profit from this wise and wonderful book with an eye-opening approach succinctly captured in its title: The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization. Richard W. Bulliett, professor of history at Columbia University and former director of its Middle East Institute, offers a startlingly original interpretation that challenges not only conventional wisdom but the historical master narrative of the last fourteen centuries. No one who has digested this little volume will be able to look at Islam and Christianity again in the same way.
At the first glance, Bulliet's book appears to be a rebuttal of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis. In fact, the real target is Bernard Lewis, sage of Middle Eastern studies, who originated the term in an article on "The Roots of Muslim Rage" in 1990 and whose baleful influence on the Bush administration helped spur the American occupation of Iraq in 2003. It is a distinguished Arabist's response to the academic and policy-making drum beaters of American empire whose misunderstanding of Islam and Middle Eastern history have led to talk of a generations-long war with radical Islam and trying to make Mesopotamia safe for democracy.
To this task Bulliet brings many a qualification. For more than three decades he has taught at Columbia University, establishing a reputation as an innovative scholar in Islamic and Middle East studies. Since the publication of his first book, The Camel and the Wheel (1975), he has demonstrated time and again an ability to see things in a new way, to take a view from the edge, and in doing so has enriched the fields of medieval Islamic and modern Middle East studies. His contributions [End Page 99] to world history include a survey, The Earth and Its Peoples (1997), an essay titled "Themes, Conjunctures, and Comparisons" in Teaching World History: A Resource Book (1997), and editing The Columbia History of the Twentieth Century (1998). He has also published four novels, and he recently returned to where he began with Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The History of Human-Animal Relations (2005).
His case is composed of four essays, each of which can stand alone but taken together make an ingenious argument that Islam and Christianity should be thought of as two versions of a common socioreligious system, like Orthodox Christianity and Western Christendom. Recalling that "Judeo-Christian civilization" is a term originally coined by Nietzsche to deride both and was adopted only after World War II, when its acceptance changed the master narrative, he hopes to do the same by proposing an Islamo-Christian kinship that will help Americans find a common ground with the Muslims in their midst. Against perceptions of the "otherness" of Islam, he argues the two are sibling civilizations, actually fraternal twins, sharing more similarities than differences. While it seems a stretch to argue for a twinned relationship when they were separated by births six centuries apart, Bulliet's re-narration demonstrates how the two civilizations exhibit similar historical trajectories, went through the same developmental stages, and confronted similar internal challenges. From the seventh to the fourteenth centuries, Latin Christians and Middle Eastern Muslims traveled parallel, even overlapping, paths, until divergences developed in the later Middle Ages.
Bulliet founds his case on a slow model of religious conversion, arguing that both faiths had roughly the same start lines as they expanded into regions beyond their core areas. "Islamization" and "Christianization" were centuries-long processes that only gradually won over the vast majority of populations in the Middle East and Europe north of the Mediterranean. From the ninth century onward, they mirrored one another in the growth of bodies of religious specialists, the ulama and monks; the adoption of a single language of religion, Latin and Arabic; organization of religious studies in madrasas (religious colleges) and universities; and the rise of lay religiosity that spawned Sufi brotherhoods and the Beghards and Beguines. These innovations offended religious authorities, but whereas in Christendom the confrontation...