The Sea of Faith, by Stephen O'Shea

Calm between the storms
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In this meticulous study of the clash between Islam and Christianity for the territories encompassing the Mediterranean (the "Sea of Faith"), Stephen O'Shea offers this quotation from the 11th-century Syrian poet Abu Al'a al-Ma'ari, known as "The Heretic": "There are two types of people:/ Those with brains and no religion,/ And those with religion and no brains." This aphorism, albeit crude, encapsulates many of the encounters between Christianity and Islam over the past 14 centuries.

Since both faiths have Judaism as their "paternal authority", O'Shea sees this conflict as "sibling rivalry writ very large". Very Oedipal - even more Oedipal is the grudgingly acknowledged contention of some theologians on both sides that, until Judaism is extirpated from the consciousness of man, neither Christianity nor Islam can claim incontrovertibly to possess the "True Religion". The zealotry with which both religions sought to convert the Jews gives body to this contention. Sadly, this aspect is outside O'Shea's remit.

O'Shea believes that the nine centuries of the Middle Ages - from Islam's emergence in the seventh century to its quiescence in the late 16th - establish and consolidate the fundamentals of this conflict. He sets out to present, with admirable erudition and clarity, an authoritative overview of the period, and concentrates on seven epochal military engagements while providing a fluent account of the politicking that preceded them.

The first battle took place at Yarmuk in 636, where emergent Islam, united under the second Caliph Umar, defeated the Byzantines. At Poitiers in 732, the Arab conquest of North Africa, Spain and Gaul was arrested by Charles Martel. Around 755, the establishment of the unitary state of al-Andalus under Abd al-Rahman turned the Christian mare nostrum into a Muslim lake and established a golden age of enlightenment and co-existence: convivencia.

Newcomers to the region, the Turks from Central Asia defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert in 1071. The conquest of Palermo in 1072 by the Norman brothers Guiscard and, in 1085, the capture of Toledo by the Castilians both established - as if to mock history - fresh periods of convivencia in those realms.

In 1187, Saladin defeated the Crusader knights at Hattin, in Palestine, and recaptured Jerusalem. Then, at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, three Spanish kings and the archbishop of Toledo obliterated al-Andalus by defeating the Caliph Muhammad al-Nasir. The conquest of Constantinople in 1453, by the Ottoman Mehmet II, brought to an end the Christian empire of Byzantium. Yet at the siege of Malta in 1565, a resolute contingent of Knights of St John, led by their grand-master Valette, repulsed a vast Ottoman army.

As counterpoint to these battles, O'Shea emphasises the instability, intrigues, divisions and betrayals among the rulers of both camps as well as the religious fanaticism that unleashed Islamic jihads and, for the Christians, urged the spilling of Arab blood as malecide - the slaying of evil. Just as the Sunni and Shi'a schism thwarted the possibility of a united House of Islam, so did the pursuit of power by Christian feudal adventurers and the Latin Church foil the chances of a unified Europe.

The conflation of piety and lust for power, an obsession that corrupts most rulers, fits perfectly with Al-Ma'ari's axiom about brains and religion. Thus the culture of warfare, the greed for its spoils, the cravings for martyrdom and the rigid canons of honour rendered into dust such expectations as respect for life, humility, compassion, charity and co-existence.

Yet the human spirit, through self-interest or the goading of an ethical self, seeks conditions of peace, enlightenment and cordial relationships with the Other. By highlighting periods of convivencia in Baghdad, al-Andalus, Toledo and Palermo, O'Shea offers the hope that the Christian-Muslim conflict, still seething after the stalemate reached in the 16th century, might be resolved one day. Considering some of today's leaders, one is tempted to add a third type of people to Al Ma'ari's lines: those who have neither brains nor religion. Which makes O'Shea's hope a slim one, but still a hope we desperately need.

Moris Farhi's novel 'Young Turk' is published by Saqi