Andreas Whittam Smith: Islam, Christianity and the ties that bind us

Some fourteen European countries were ruled by Muslims for periods of a century or more
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Three books I took with me on holiday during the summer each left me thinking, gosh, I'm glad I read that. One of them, relatively unknown, is I think, very important. I will come to it last.

A big pleasure was Indecision, a first novel by a young American, Benjamin Kunkel, which I expect will get the same rapturous reception in Britain that it has received in the United States. Jay McInerney described it in The New York Times, after reading it twice, as the funniest and smartest coming-of-age novel in years. In its atmosphere and in its delights, Indecision is a direct descendant of J D Salinger's Catcher in the Rye published more than 50 years ago. You can read Kunkel's first chapter on The New York Times website.

The second book I want to mention has been on the American bestseller lists for 16 weeks and currently lies in second position in the non-fiction category: 1776 by David McCullough. Published by Allen Lane in this country, it describes the opening of the American wars of independence when Britain lost Boston, then in splendid style chased the rebels out of New York but ended the year with a silly defeat at Trenton, New Jersey. I was reading it in Sag Harbor at the eastern end of Long Island, where many combatants in the independence wars lie buried in village cemeteries, each with a special marker and a flag. Almost all the names on the memorial stones are as English as the game of cricket. With Mr McCullough's book in my hand I began to feel as if I was visiting second cousins with whom I had once had a falling out.

The third item on my list is a very different case. It has received little attention. I doubt if it can reach the bestseller lists seeing how difficult it was to find it in good American bookshops. Nor does its title help - The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilisation. I had seen a reference to it just before going away. It is written by Richard W Bulliet, professor of history at Columbia University and published by Columbia University Press.

Professor Bulliet starts by noting that nowadays we easily accept the idea of a "Judeo-Christian civilisation". Even though the two faiths were bitter enemies for most of the past 2,000 years, the notion of shared values is no longer questioned. Why have we come to this benign conclusion? Because we have the same bible roots, because we have some similar theological concerns, because we have lived together for a long time and because we value the contribution each has made to our common civilisation.

But consider. The scriptural and doctrinal linkages between Judaism and Christianity are no closer than those between Judaism and Islam or between Christianity and Islam.

Muslim scholars made an enormous contribution to philosophical and scientific thinking in the West during the late mediaeval period and strongly influenced the Renaissance. And goodness knows, we have visited and traded with and lived in each other's countries for more than a millennium.

Some 14 of today's 34 European countries were at one time or another wholly or partially ruled by Muslims for periods of a century or more. Yet now we cast the relationship as a "Clash of Civilisations".

Instead, argues Professor Bulliet, if the Muslim societies of the Middle East and North Africa and the Christian societies of Western Europe and America are seen as belonging to the same civilisation, then conflicts between the two constituent elements of that single civilisation would automatically take on an internecine character, analogous historically to past conflicts between Catholicism and Protestantism. The presumption of a common heritage would make it easier to imagine their eventual reconciliation.

The bulk of the book is taken up with a comparison of the development of Western Christendom and Islam. In the early centuries the sibling tradi- tions moved through their life stages in astonishingly similar ways. Christianity's seven-century head start was more a period of religious thought and institutional experiment than it was of conversion. Muslims and Latin Christians seeking to extend their faiths in the 7th century were both starting from small territorial and demographic bases.

From the 12th century onwards, lay people in both traditions wanted to conduct their religion in their everyday spoken language instead of in Latin or Arabic.

The growing role of legal matters in religious affairs left many lay people longing for a more emotional and less legalistic religious experience. On the Christian side this led to communal living and popular preaching movements; in Islam the same pressures gave rise to brotherhoods and Sufism. Then after 1500 came the fateful parting of the ways.

I hope I have given a sufficient taste of Professor Bulliet's illuminating approach. While I shall be interested to see which friends read Indecision when it is published in Britain and while I shall go on recommending 1776, the book I really care about is The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilisation. I ought to send copies to the Prime Minister and to the Foreign Secretary as well as to religious leaders.