One hundred years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, a battle for the soul of Europe took place.
It happened thousands of miles from the birthplace of Islam, in faraway Gaul, in what we now call France, a very different part of the world from the Arabian Peninsula where the body of Muhammad was laid to rest. It occurred at a very critical time, for the world had changed much since Islam had risen in the East. In fact, the years between the death of the Prophet and the Battle of Poitiers were some of the most dramatic and remarkable in the history of the world.
The battle itself—one of several in a small war upon which the future of Europe hinged—was hardly noteworthy. Greater battles have been fought, with more magnificent armies and more compelling turns of events—famous wars with legendary heroes, their romantic tales told and retold through the years.
Such is not the case with the Battle of Poitiers.
Few of the men who led this battle are familiar to us now: Charles “the Hammer” Martel. Abd al-Rahman. Not many recognize these names. Who were these men? What were they fighting for? Where did the battle take place? And did the outcome of this battle really change the world?
Though many of the details of the Battle of Poitiers are lost to history, this much remains clear: it was here that Europe almost lost its Christian identity. It was here, among the forests and plains of western France, that the future of Christianity was saved. It was here, north of the Pyrenees Mountains, that the Christian defenders stopped the seemingly inevitable spread of Islam into Europe.
But to understand the significance of what happened at Poitiers, we must understand the astonishing rise of the Arab Empire, the desperate Christian defenders who stood in the way of Islamic expansion, and—most important of all—why it was essential for European Christianity to be saved.
Christianity, Freedom, and Islam
Would it have mattered if Europe had become an Islamic state? Islam is, after all, one of the world’s great religions and, as with every great religion, it has many admirable traits—its emphasis on family, honesty, and fidelity, to name a few. Indeed, the Five Pillars of Islam are straightforward and clearly honorable:
1. The Testimony of Faith. La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammadur rasoolu Allah. There is no true god but Allah and Muhammad is His prophet.
2. The importance of daily prayer.
3. Concern for the poor and almsgiving to the needy.
4. Self-purification through fasting during the month of Ramadan.
5. The annual pilgrimage (Hajj) to Makkah (Mecca) as a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for those who are physically and financially able to do so.
Given these admirable teachings, is it any wonder that hundreds of millions of people have been blessed by following the precepts of Islam?
Not only are the religious teachings of Islam to be admired, so is much of its history. In the first centuries after it arose from the desert of Arabia, with the possible exception of China, Islam and the nations where it predominated were the most advanced on the earth.
In less than a hundred years, it grew to become the mightiest military power in the world. From the borders of China to the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the caliphate stretched its mighty sword, reaching from the slopes of eastern Asia to the Black Sea, from the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula across northern Africa to the Iberian Peninsula (which includes most of what we now call Spain). Along the northeastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the Byzantine Empire watched helplessly as the age of the caliphs dawned upon their world. To the west of the Byzantine Empire, the fragmented tribes and feeble kingdoms of central and western Europe seemed incapable of stopping the spread of the caliphs.
And it was not just a great military power. The economic influence of the Islamic world stretched across a large portion of the globe, with trading relationships reaching into Asia, Europe, and Africa. These powerful trade associations, along with the hordes of slaves and booty they claimed in battle, provided the caliphate the resources it needed to finance a growing empire.
The Islamic culture also had achieved the highest levels in the arts and sciences. For a time, it led the world in technological and cultural advancements, the West sitting as humble students at the feet of Islam. After it had absorbed much from the Greeks and the Persians, it took advantage of its expansive reach to borrow from the great, distant cultures of the time. For example, it adopted the use of paper from China and decimals and Indian numerals from India. Its own scientists added to the adopted body of knowledge with significant advances of their own.
But it did not lead the way in cultural or scientific discovery for long.
Soon, the Islamic world began to fall behind the West.
As the West forged ahead in the sciences, technology, cultural advancements, and in the advancements in religious thought that led to the concepts of personal freedom and self-government, the world of Islam seemed to freeze. There were no Islamic nations in which personal liberty became a priority. There were no Islamic nations in which representative government emerged. Throughout the nations of Islam, scientific and technological advances came to an end. Industrialization passed Islamic nations by.
But why would this happen?
After creating a massive kingdom from the sands of the Arabian desert, after spreading its reach across most of the known world and creating an empire that would lead the world in many technological advancements, how could the entire culture come to such a dramatic standstill?
There are a number of explanations:
1. In fundamentalist Islam, there is no law but religious law, the Sharia, or Holy Law of Islam. Sharia law is divine, the word of God. And it is all-encompassing, regulating every aspect of life: civil, commercial, criminal, and religious. As such, to the devout Muslim, the Holy Law of Islam is all the law that is needed. One does not add to or detract from Sharia, for to do so would presume that man knows better than God.
It is, therefore, absurd to think that there would be any need for mortal men to meet for the purpose of creating new law. It is absurd to think that a parliament or a congress or any other deliberative body could better the Holy Law of Islam. This leaves no room in strict Islam for self-government or representative government.
As Scholar Bernard Lewis explains, “In the Muslim perception, there is no human legislative power.”
2. The idea of separation of church and state is utterly foreign in Islam. Separation of the religious from the secular is a creation of Christianity and, as such, it is entirely rejected by the Islamic faithful. In Islamic culture, there is no equivalent of “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s,” for everything necessary to direct the affairs of men is found within the Holy Law.
3. The concept of freedom has a very limited meaning in Islam. Bernard Lewis explains:
Westerners have become accustomed to think of good and bad government in terms of tyranny versus liberty. In Middle-Eastern usage, liberty or freedom was a legal not a political term. It meant one who was not a slave. . . . For traditional Muslims, the converse of tyranny was not liberty but justice. Justice in this context meant essentially two things, that the ruler was there by right and not by usurpation, and that he governed according to God’s law.