Islam’s Engine of Conquest
Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War Between Islam and the West
By Raymond Ibrahim
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Review Author: Terry Scambray
We judge individuals by what they say and what they do. We judge cults, religions, and ideologies the same way — that is, by their doctrines and history. This is common sense. Apparently, though, common sense is abandoned when it comes to ideologies like Marxism, which has largely escaped such scrutiny in our schools and popular culture. Now the same cover-up is happening with Islam. But Raymond Ibrahim, fluent in Arabic, is an equal-opportunity Middle East scholar committed to truth rather than conforming to dangerous fads. Ibrahim gained attention with revealing translations in his book The Al Qaeda Reader (2007), which shows the difference between what Osama bin Laden said in Arabic to Muslims and what he said for receptive, if not gullible, Western audiences. Ibrahim’s second book, Crucified Again (2013), shows the murder and destruction that Christians endure at the hands of Muslims throughout the world.
In Sword and Scimitar, Ibrahim begins by explaining Muhammad’s doctrine of jihad or “holy war”: “Whereas the rewards of the pre-Islamic tribal raid were limited to temporal spoils and came with the risk of death, the deified raid (jihad) offered rewards in the here and the hereafter — meaning it was essentially risk free — and thus led to a newborn fanaticism and determination.” In other words, robbery, murder, and enslavement were sacralized and then transformed into a prodigious engine of Islamic conquest.
Conquest being the major feature of Islam’s 1,400-year history, Sword and Scimitar takes the reader on a tour — a “tour of force” — as represented by eight significant battles and an array of lesser clashes. Ibrahim relies on first-person descriptions, and his gripping narration evokes the pain and terror of warfare. A recounting of these barbaric episodes and their consequences is unsettling, especially after the current revival of jihad.
The clashes are presented chronologically, beginning in A.D. 636 with the lesser-known Battle of Yarmuk, near the border of Syria. The fierce power of jihad displayed there left a fear of Islam imbedded in the Western mind for the ensuing 1,000 years. And with good reason, for, as Ibrahim, channeling other historians, reports, Yarmuk “had more important consequences than almost any other battle in all world history.” Within 73 years of this Muslim victory, the area from Syria west to Morocco — 37,000 square miles — was permanently conquered by Islam! “Put differently,” writes Ibrahim, “two-thirds of Christendom’s original territory — including three of the five most important centers of Christianity — Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria — were swallowed up by Islam and thoroughly Arabized.”
Despite Islam’s vast conquests, Constantinople, “the Eastern Rome,” with its wealth, strategic location, and light-skinned women (prized as potential concubines and slaves), tantalized the Muslims. So, in 717, Constantinople was sieged by the Arabs of the Umayyad Caliphate. Unfortunately for them, their invading fleet was commandeered by their own conscripted Coptic Christians. Worse for the jihadists was the annihilating weapon called “Greek fire,” akin to modern flamethrowers, which, along with a huge storm and debris from a volcano, wrecked all but five of the 2,560 attacking Muslim vessels. That the Byzantines withstood this siege was a stunning setback for an insurgent Islam. A Muslim victory would have opened a crucial portal into a then-divided and vulnerable Europe.
Islam’s defeat at Constantinople was followed in 732 by another debacle at the opposite end of the Mediterranean, 150 miles south of Paris, at Tours. The Charles Martel-led Franks, organized into phalanxes, literally undercut the charging Berber Muslim cavalry. It was a rout. After Tours, no serious attempt was made to breach the wall of the Pyrenees, though Islam occupied Spain until 1492, when Columbus discovered America while seeking an alternate route to India so as to avoid Muslim raids on caravans through the Middle East.
But if the Pyrenees became a dam against the rising tide of Islam, that tide subsequently overflowed into the Mediterranean, as Ibrahim notes. Thus, the coastline of southern Europe was awash with raids by Saracens, as they were then called, making the Mediterranean “a Muslim Lake” just as it once was “a Roman Lake.”
In 1095 Christendom finally mounted an offense against Islam: the Crusades. The immediate reason for this counter-attack was that the Seljuk Turks had gained control of the Islamic Empire and began raping, murdering, and enslaving pilgrims to the Holy Land. The crusaders took the fight across the Mediterranean and mostly prevailed over the Muslim occupiers of territory that Christianity had originally gained by conversion.
In 1071 the Seljuk Turks won a significant victory over the Byzantine Empire at the Battle of Manzikert. This triumph marked the “Turkification and Islamification of Anatolia,” Ibrahim writes. What Yarmuk was for the Arabs, Manzikert is for the Turks, with the victory commemorated annually by current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Turkish government. Even the battlefield is considered sacred, wherein “15,000 Turks defeated 210,000 Christians,” as the official account puts it.
Another pivotal Muslim victory, this time led by the Ayyubid sultan Saladin, occurred in 1187 at the Battle of Hattin, near Tiberius. This ignominious defeat of the crusaders was capped by Saladin gleefully watching while Sufis and other devout Muslims beheaded captured Christians. These defeats hastened the crusaders’ departure from the Holy Land, though the superior crusader forces could have remained in Palestine. But they left in 1291, tired of this distant conflict, just as Americans are tiring of their own overseas wars with jihadists.
Spain was a microcosm of the war between Islam and Christianity, says Ibrahim, starting three centuries prior to the Crusades and lasting more than three centuries after Hattin. Thus, the Spanish victory in 1212 at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa was transformational, for it ended Muslim hegemony in Spain. The victory was celebrated for hundreds of years until Vatican II abolished it.
Constantinople, however, remained “a bone in the throat of Allah.” In 1453, 100,000 Turkish fighters and 100 warships surrounded the great metropolis, while a mere 7,000 Christians guarded its 15-mile wall. The previously repelled Muslims now possessed a cannon (provided by a bribed German or Hungarian) that had a one-mile range and belched out 1,300-pound bombs — though it took hours to reload. When holes were blown in the city’s walls, defenders hurriedly repaired them; when Turks tunneled under the wall, they were intercepted or buried alive. When a fire-spewing siege tower was rolled up to the wall, defenders blew it up.
After seven frustrating weeks, the Ottoman Turks’ leader, Muhammed II, exhorted his troops with promises of women, handsome boys, and virgins in the next world and booty and concubines in this world. Slackers were promised “a lingering death” by impalement, which meant hammering a lengthy pole up the anus and then standing the pole and person upright like a scarecrow to frighten other potential deserters. As one observer of the ensuing carnage wrote: The invaders climbed through breeches in the walls and clawed over human pyramids of their own fallen; the defenders fought bravely with axes, pikes, and javelins.
Finally, with overwhelming numbers, the jihadists triumphed. The city that began with Constantine the Great ended with Constantine XI, and the Roman Empire, dating from 753 B.C., concluded its 2,206-year run. The victors then forced the vanquished to endure “strange and horrible unions and foul debaucheries,” according to contemporary commentators. Survivors were enslaved; the Hagia Sophia, the most beautiful church of the early Middle Ages, was transformed into a brothel.
Gaining impetus by this momentous victory, the scourge of Islam continued to lash its victims into submission, though there were notable defeats at Malta and Lepanto. Nonetheless, Muslim forces began bombarding Vienna in mid-July 1683. The Viennese retaliated with their own artillery barrages. But the Ottoman blockade caused the spread of dysentery inside the city, and bodies began piling up. As had happened in 1453 with Constantinople, Europe refused to help because of its own troubles and because of the disunity caused by the Protestant Reformation. By September the situation was dire. Polish military hero John Sobieski offered deliverance. As Ibrahim writes, “The Poles were common and crude, at least to the ultra-refined, wig-and-powder-wearing Viennese court.” Nonetheless, Leopold, king of Hungary and Bohemia, flatteringly wrote to Sobieski, “Your name alone, so terrible to the enemy, will insure victory.” By then, joining to rescue Vienna was Charles V and his 40,000 Austro-German troops, who merged with the 25,000-man Polish army. Though outnumbered by jihadists, the Christians turned back this last direct attack on Europe by Islam.
One could argue that Ibrahim has equated lesser battles with historical hinge points like those at Tours, Constantinople, Lepanto, and Vienna. Nonetheless, he establishes the significance of each of his choices, and his book offers depth and perspective on Muslim conquests and depredations. Ibrahim fleshes out the history of these eight battles by recounting the numerous attacks and savagery that occurred in their wake. One such occurred in 1019 when the Ottoman Turks descended on Armenia, the first Christian country. The Armenians fought bravely but succumbed to plunder, rape, and massacres by the invaders. As one commentator noted dryly, “This was the beginning of the misfortunes of Armenia.” Cameos of fearless individuals like the Genovese nobleman Giovanni Giustiniani animate the history. Giustiniani, a siege expert, rushed in to defend Constantinople at his own expense, accompanied by 700 highly trained soldiers, at a time when others were fleeing in panic.
Ibrahim’s book confirms historian Bernard Lewis’s observation that “the limits and even the identity of Europe were established first through the advance, and then the retreat, of Islam.” Or, as Ibrahim himself trenchantly concludes, “Simply put, the West is actually the westernmost remnant of what was a much more extensive civilizational block that Islam permanently severed.”
That separation remains, though it is sometimes blurred by the velocity and volume of contemporary events. But Sword and Scimitar is a compelling reminder of the terrifying dynamic that drives the Islamic world. History hasn’t ended, and Ibrahim has written an engaging and sobering narrative that makes that extremely clear.
©2019 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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