Europe and the Islamic World: A History by John Tolan, Gilles Veinstein & Henry Laurens (Translated by Jane Marie Todd) - review by Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin

Shared Values

Europe and the Islamic World: A History


Princeton University Press 478pp £27.95

The three authors of Europe and the Islamic World, all based at French universities, have divided up their vast subject chronologically. John Tolan tackles the Islamic world’s relations with Europe from the rise of Muhammad to the end of the Middle Ages; Gilles Veinstein takes the early modern period; and Henry Laurens brings the story, or rather multiple stories, up to the present day. Not only does the book have three authors, but this edition (a translation from the French), also has a foreword by John Esposito, a well-known American specialist in Islamic studies. Together they set out to challenge the thesis propounded by the conservative American political scientist Samuel P Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). Huntington argued that the West and the Islamic world were divided on cultural and religious grounds and that ‘Islam’s borders are bloody’. It follows that there is a danger of major wars in the future as Muslims seek to challenge the hegemony of the West. Esposito describes this thesis as ‘infamous’, which seems a bit steep, even if Huntington generalised from a rather flimsy knowledge of history. Esposito has chosen to ignore Huntington’s denunciations of Western cultural arrogance. Moreover, Huntington did not invent the notion of a clash between Western culture and the Islamic world – that concept seems to have been first put into circulation by the great, if somewhat eccentric, French Orientalist Louis Massignon much earlier in the 20th century. 

Tolan, Veinstein and Laurens are less polemical than Esposito, but through detailed and careful scholarship they bring out the large numbers of ways in which Europeans and Muslims have interacted with one another over the centuries. Many European Christians, notably in medieval Spain and later in the Ottoman Balkans, were

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