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Snapshots of Christian/Islamic History
Posted by Timothy Haugh on 4/8/2007
In this age where conflict in the Middle East has taken center stage, it is not a surprise to find more and more popular books being published on the historical interaction between Christianity and Islam. What is less common and more pleasant to find is a book that doesn't have an obvious political ax to grind. In Sea of Faith, Stephen O'Shea has written such a book.
Let's be clear: this book is by no means complete in its coverage of the Christian/Islam conflict over the centuries. First, O'Shea limits himself to "the medieval Mediterranean world." In fact, this book is essentially a series of battle snapshots from Yarmuk in 636 to Malta in 1565. Some are Christian victories and some are Muslim but they each represented a fundamental shift in the back-and-forth between world powers masquerading as religious faith, though some of the names and places will probably be less familiar than others.
Still, if all this book achieved was a mapping of battles it wouldn't be nearly as interesting; however, O'Shea does a bit more. He uses the battles as a jumping off point to cover a lot of ground and links up the process that leads from battle to battle. He also takes a break periodically to point out places where Christians and Muslims lived in peace to the benefit of all with chapters on Cordoba, Palermo, Toledo and what O'Shea calls "the sea of faith"--Mediterranean ports where Christians and Muslims worked to trade together.
Overall, there's not much that's new here to someone who has read much in this area of history. Any yet, O'Shea uses his conceit well and tells interesting tales. For someone who is interested in well-written popular history that doesn't often slide into opinion and commentary on today's world, this book is an excellent choice.
Posted by Smallchief on 8/13/2006
"Sea of Faith" describes the relationships among Muslims, Christians, and Jews around the Mediterranean Sea during the Middle Ages.
The book begins with a lucid discription of the life of Mohammad and the rise of Islam and goes on to describe both wars and co-existence between Christians and Muslims. The ten chapters each focus on a specific place or battle: Yarmuk, Poitiers, Cordova, Palermo, Constantinople, and Malta to list a few. The tone throughout is sensible and fair-minded. The author adds personal observations about the present day appearance and situation of each of his historical focal points.
The book is relatively brief -- about 315 pages of text -- and doesn't pretend to be a complete history of Muslim/Christian relations in the Middle East, but I certainly augmented my knowledge by reading the book. For example, I had never realized that Jewish tribes were so widespread -- from Morocco to the steppes of Central Asia -- in the early Middle ages. Their role in history was occasionally important and always interesting. Some of the most vivid parts of the book are the paragraphs about the pious Christian Crusaders killing and eating their captives and his account of the defeat of Crusaders by Saladin. The book is not all about battles, however. The author uses the term "convivencia" to describe the frequent instances of Muslim, Christian, and Jew living together in peace.
The maps in the book are tolerably good; a glossary helps with a lot of unfamiliar names and place names; a few small photographs illustrate the text; and more than 50 pages of notes explain and clarify points in the text. "Sea of Faith" is an excellent and highly-readable account of Muslim and Christian interactions in the Middle Ages
A Sea of Reading Pleasure
Posted by Keith D. Hansen on 11/8/2008
This has got to be the most pleasurable history book I have ever read. So wonderful is O'Shea's writing style that my previously dormant desire for history books has been revitalized and I'm ordering several more history books to gorge on. I am remembering now why I was a history major in college.
As to the book - O'Shea discusses a wide swath of time from the rise of Islam to the Siege of Malta in 1565, all focusing on the monumental struggle, and at times cooperation (or convivencia), between the two major faiths - Islam and Christianity.
O'Shea adumbrates this struggle by focusing on the Mare Nostrum - the Roman term for the Mediterranean ("the Sea of Faith") - via the episodic but epochal battles that proved the turning points in the balance of power, such as Yarmuk, Manzikert, Hattin, Las Novas de Tolosa, the 1453 annihilation of the Byzantines and the successful defense of Malta against overwhelming odds.
Although the story focuses on these punctuated episodes, O'Shea successfully weaves the story together around the overall themes by fleshing out the linear connections between the battles and major players.
Thankfully, this is not merely a military history book, though his descriptions, particularly of 1187, 1453 and 1565, had me literally on the edge of my seat feeling out of breath from the sheer thrill of human heroism and stupidity. Jean Parisot de la Valette - wow what a genius! Raynald of Châtillon - what a lout!
No, this is also a story that most Westerners are ignorant of because it demonstrates incontrovertibly that Islam was no backwards, primitive, barbarian civilization.
I know it is difficult to swallow, but the truth is that the Muslims were further advanced than the Christian West for several centuries in learning, in philosophy, in technology, in mathematics, in architecture, and, yes, even in tolerance towards other religions. Saladin, Mehmet The Conqueror, and later Suleiman the Magnificent showed magnanimity that was sorely lacking from the Christians.
O'Shea brilliantly points out that even words like algebra, algorithm, arsenal, traffic, and cheque are borrowed Arabic terms. I did not know this but am thankful for knowing it now.
This is a must read book for those interested in medieval history, Islamic history, and those just wanting a really great story chockful of well-researched facts. You may also need a dictionary handy because O'Shea has a refreshingly prodigious vocabulary.
My only complaint is that O'Shea uses endnotes based on book pages, which means you do not know there is an endnote unless you spend time looking at the back of the book. There are a lot of gems in there but it is an awkward way to locate them.