Book Review: The Caliph's Splendor

The Caliph's Splendorby Benson BobrickSimon & Schuster, 2012Implicit in Benson Bobrick's sparkling, immensely enjoyable new work of history, The Caliph's Splendor is at best a kind of cultural equivalency test - and at worst an intended wake-up call. Bobrick, the author of Angel in the Whirlwind, a fine one-volume look at the American Revolution, and Master of War, a flat-out brilliant attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of American Civil War general George H. Thomas, in this latest work takes his readers back to 8th Century Arabia and the growing conflict between the scattered powers of Christianity (the Byzantine Empire and the Frankish kingdoms) and the Abbasid Caliphate. Spearheading Bobrick's rollicking narrative, naturally enough, are two men: Charlemagne, King of the Franks, and Harun al-Rashid, the now-legendary caliph of The Arabian Nights.Bobrick has a ripping good story to tell since, as he rightly observes, Islamic history is a largely blank slate to most of his reading public, and that history is fascinating. And he wants us to remember that history plays no favorites - the world of thirteen centuries ago was a rough place, and Charlemagne was no pacifist. He couldn't be, as Bobrick underscores in his account of the king's fight to conquer the Saxons:

It took Charlemagne some eighteen campaigns marked by ruthless tactics and wholesale forcible conversions over twenty-five years to subdue them, and in a contest that assumed the character of a holy war. In 782, in one notorious act of carnage, 4,500 Saxons were beheaded in a single day. Ten thousand others were deported with their wives and children from the banks of the Elbe to different parts of Germany and Gaul. Their ancient Saxon gods were condemned, Christian practice established, and anyone who refused baptism, ate meat during Lent, or even cremated their dead was apt to be accused of showing "contempt for Christianity" and put to death.

That's meant to have a certain humbling ring to it, yes? It's meant to remind readers that in medieval times, everybody was medieval - and some a little more than others. Bobrick's research has enamored him to his title's caliph, Harun al-Rashid, whom he as often as not portrays as a likeable rogue with a penchant for wiving - but certainly no worse than his Frankish counterpart:

Yet any notion that he excelled Harun in generosity, charitable giving, religious devotion, or moral authority would be hard to sustain. He could be and at times was a savage butcher in his wars, and though he did not maintain a harem in the institutional sense, he was as promiscuous as any lusty caliph and had from eighteen to twenty-five children by ten wives and concubines. In that respect, his court was something of a law unto itself. He was inordinately attached to the company of his daughters and discouraged them from marriage. In response, they indulged in wild and scandalous affairs that produced a swarm of bastards.

As appreciative as readers will be to finally know what the group-term for multiple bastards is, they may still need a little convincing that the fairy-tale setting of The Arabian Nights wasn't too far off from the truth, and Bobrick is ready to provide that convincing:

Called into existence "as if by an enchanter's wand," Baghdad became the greatest city in the world. Mansur christened it "Madinat-as-Salam," "the City of Peace," which is the name it also bore on the coins of the Abbasids. Mansur had laid the first brick with his own hands, and in doing so intoned: "In the name of the Lord! Praise belongeth unto Him and the earth is His: He causeth such of His servants as He pleaseth to inherit the same. Success attend the pious!" Wars, sieges, constantly recurring riots between the Sunnis and Shiites, rebellions in Medina, Basra, and Kufa, the removal of the government for a time to Samarra, higher up on the Tigris, even the devastation of the city by the Mongols in 1258 - none would ever quite succeed in totally erasing its allure.The empire had been built, its capital established, its ruling house secured. The stage was thereby set for Islam's Golden Age.

Of that Abu Jafar Abdullah al-Mansur who's doing the foundation stone-setting and crying out about the pious, Bobrick assures us, "in time proved an exemplary ruler, thrifty, energetic, circumspect, and wise." The Abbasid caliphate that forms so much of Bobrick's subject was founded by Mansur's brother, Abu al-Abbas, who started his reign by slaughtering all the members of the previous Umayyad house that he could get his hands on - he was proud of the title "Saffah," "Bloodshedder," and he held his greatest victory feast on a field full of corpses, which he covered in a red carpet on which was placed feasting tables and couches and chairs. Thrifty, energetic, circumspect, and wise Mansur attended that feast, feeling flesh flatten under his slippers, watching dark blood-stains spreading under the carpet while he nibbled pomegranates. Years later, that Mansur's uncle, Abu Muslim, led his troops in a successful effort to defeat a Syrian revolt against his rule, and once he succeeded, Mansur had him hideously executed in 775 in order to curry favor with the Syrians. None of which (and there's ever so much more along those lines, about Mansur and Harun and every other Abbasid who ever personally castrated a screaming pre-teen nephew out of an afternoon's boredom) explicitly rules out either thrift, energy, or circumspection, although we might hope that wisdom would be a bit milder.It matters not, Bobrick maintains. Yes, the caliphate could be cruel, but it gave the West so much! Aristotle and Galen, preserved from the sack of the West. Vocabulary like 'caravan,' 'bazaar,' 'traffic,' 'admiral,' 'talisman,' 'julep,' 'lemon,' 'apricot,' and 'magazine.' Architecture, philosophy, medicine, forensics, book-binding, mirrors, windmills, algebra, the decimal system, the guitar. "When the West eventually reaped the harvest of what the Arabs had achieved," we're told, "even bigoted Christians were astonished and amazed." According to Bobrick, the two worlds don't exactly measure evenly:

The contrast could hardly be more striking. While turbulent conditions in Europe led to intolerance, ignorance, and a general hostility toward intellectual pursuits, a succession of caliphs and emirs in Baghdad, Cordova, Toledo, Seville, Sicily ... and elsewhere fostered education among their subjects and afforded protection and encouragement to scholars of all faiths ... In Cordova, it was said, "every boy and girl of twelve was able to read and write - at a time when the barons and ladies of Christendom were scarcely able to scrawl their names."

Bobrick is a trained historian and a fine researcher; he knows perfectly well - and admits often, throughout The Caliph's Splendor - that the caliphate could be incredibly harsh and repressive, just as the militant Christianity of the West could be. In the end, the equivalency test of his book is its wake-up call: that Cross and Crescent are roughly the same, that they certainly have a great many things they can learn from each other, and that continued ignorance only leads to continued misunderstanding. The West owes a great debt - cultural, aesthetic, intellectual - to the history of Baghdad, which was glittering with night-lighted city streets while London and Paris were still little better than brawling pig-pens.The debt can't be denied, and that cultural disparity in the 8th Century is a matter of indisputable fact. But the iron-clad sharia that governs Islam is also a matter of fact, in large parts of the Middle East virtually indistinguishable today from the time of Harun al-Rashid and his terrified concubines. Yes, London and Paris were intolerant, barbaric places in the 8th Century - but they eventually left the 8th Century. Heretics there are no longer executed; daughters are no longer locked up and beaten for defying their parents (or baring their faces to the sunlight); criminals are no longer branded or dishanded; blood-hunts aren't sanctioned against dissenters (be they novelists or cartoonists). If you can't say all those things about the country where you live in the 21st Century, you're going to need more than saffron and Hippocrates to balance the scales. "Most Americans," Bobrick writes, "even among the educated, know almost nothing about Islam except that Muslims profess it and that Christians and Muslims clashed at the time of the Crusades." This is an astonishing thing for a historian to write. Most Americans, educated or not, know at least one other thing about Islam - that it promises paradise to believers in exchange for suicide-bombing innocents - and perhaps two - that it yearns for the annihilation of Israel ... and wouldn't terribly mind seeing Christianity go the same route. Benson Bobrick has written an engaging, gently thought-provoking book on a subject he's right to say isn't well enough known in the West. But it would gain him no friends in most neighborhoods of Baghdad, in this or any other caliphate.