Book Review: Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War Between Islam and the West by Raymond Ibrahim. Da Capo Press, 2018. Pp. 297

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Terry Scambray // New Oxford Review

Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War Between Islam and the West by Raymond Ibrahim.  Da Capo Press, 2018.   Pp. 297

             We judge individuals by what they say and what they do.  We judge cults, religions and ideologies the same way; that is, by their doctrines and history.  

             Which is common sense, of course. 

Apparently though, common sense is abandoned when it comes to ideologies like Marxism which has largely escaped such scrutiny by our schools and popular culture; and now the same cover up is happening with Islam.

But Raymond Ibrahim, fluent in Arabic  is an equal opportunity Middle East scholar committed to truth rather than conforming to dangerous fads.  

Ibrahim gained attention with his revealing translations in his 2007 book, The Al Qaeda Reader, which showed the difference between what Osama bin Laden said in Arabic to Muslims and what he said for receptive, if not gullible, Western audiences.

Ibrahim’s second book, Crucified Again, showed the murder and destruction that Christians are enduring at the hands of Muslims throughout the world.

In Sword and Scimitar, Ibrahim begins by explaining Mohammed’s doctrine of jihad or “holy war”: “Whereas the rewards of the pre-Islamic tribal raid were limited to temporal spoils and came with the risk of death, the deified raid (jihad) offered rewards in the here and the hereafter – meaning it was essentially risk free – and thus led to a newborn fanaticism and determination.”   In other words, robbery, murder and enslavement were sacralized and then transformed into a prodigious engine of Islamic conquest.   

Conquest being the major feature of Islam’s 1,400 year history, Sword and Scimitar takes the reader on a tour – “a tour of force” – as represented by eight significant battles and an array of lesser clashes. 

             Skillfully relying on first person descriptions, Ibrahim’s narration of these battles is gripping and suspenseful while also evoking the pain and terror of warfare.   Especially after the current revival of jihad, his recounting of these barbaric episodes and their consequences is not comforting.   

              The battles are taken chronologically beginning in 636 with the lesser known Battle of Yarmuk, a place now in Syria.  This battle displayed the fierce power of jihad by imbedding in the Western mind a fear of Islam for the ensuing 1,000 years.

And with good reason, for as Ibrahim, channeling other historians, reports, Yarmuk “had more important consequences than almost any other battle in all world history,” for within 73 years after this Muslim victory, the area from Syria west to Morocco, 37,000 sq. miles, was permanently conquered by Islam!  “Put differently, two-thirds of Christendom’s original territory – including three of the five most important centers of Christianity – Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria – were swallowed up by Islam and thoroughly Arabized,” as Ibrahim puts it.

             However, despite Islam’s vast conquests, Constantinople, “Eastern Rome”, with its wealth, strategic location and light skinned women, prized as potential concubines and slaves, tantalized the Muslims.

            So in 717, Constantinople was sieged by the Arabs of the Umayyad Caliphate. Unfortunately for them, their invading fleet was commandeered by their own conscripted Coptic Christians, who jumped ship once the opportunity presented itself.  Worse for the jihadists was the annihilating weapon called “Greek fire,” akin to modern flamethrowers, which along with a huge storm and debris from a volcano, wrecked all but five of the attacking 2,560 Muslim vessels.

That the Byzantines withstood this siege was a stunning setback over an insurgent Islam which had it prevailed would have opened a crucial portal into a then divided and vulnerable Europe.

Islam’s defeat at Constantinople was followed in 732 by another debacle at the opposite end of the Mediterranean at Tours, 150 miles south of Paris.   The Charles-Martel-led Franks, organized into phalanxes, literally undercut the charging Berber Muslim cavalry.  It was a rout.

              After Tours, no serious attempt was made to breach the wall of the Pyrenees though Islam occupied Spain until 1492 when Columbus discovered America while seeking an alternate route to India so as to avoid Muslim raids on caravans through the Middle East.

             But if the Pyrenees became a dam against the rising tide of Islam, that tide subsequently overflowed into the Mediterranean, as Ibrahim notes.  Thus the coastline of southern Europe was awash with raids by Saracens, as they were then called, making the Mediterranean “a Muslim Lake” just as it once was, “a Roman Lake.”

            In 1071, the Seljuk Turks won a significant victory over the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert, also now in Syria.

             This triumph marks the “Turkification and Islamification of Anatolia,” as Ibrahim writes.  So what Yarmuk was for the Arabs, Manzikurt is for the Turks, with the victory commemorated annually by Prime Minister Erdogan and the Turkish government.  Even the battlefield is considered sacred wherein “15,000 Turks defeated 210,000 Christians”, as the official account puts it.  

In 1095, Christendom finally mounted an offense against Islam, the Crusades.   The immediate reason for this counter-attack was that the Seljuk Turks had gained control of the Islamic Empire and began raping, murdering and enslaving pilgrims to the Holy Land.  Thus, the Crusaders took the fight across the Mediterranean, a thousand miles away, and mostly prevailed over the Muslim occupiers of territory that Christianity had originally gained by conversion.  

             Another pivotal victory, this time led by Saladin, occurred in 1187 at the Battle of Hattin, near Tiberius.   It was an ignominious defeat of the Crusaders by Saladin who gleefully watched while Sufis and other devout Muslims beheaded captured Christians.

             These defeats hastened the Crusader’s departure from The Holy Land, as Ibrahim writes, though the superior Crusader forces could had remained in Palestine.  But they left in 1291, tired of this distant conflict just as Americans are tiring of their own overseas wars with jihadists.

             “For more than three centuries prior to the Crusades and for more than three centuries after Hattin, Spain for eight hundred years was a microcosm of the war between Islam and Christianity,” Ibrahim adroitly summarizes.  Thus the Spanish victory in 1212 at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa was transformational, for it ended Muslim hegemony in Spain and was celebrated for hundreds of years until Vatican II abolished the celebration.

             Constantinople, however, remained “a bone in the throat of Allah.”   So in 1453 the Turk’s 100,000 fighters and 100 warships surrounded the great metropolis’ 7,000 Christians guarding its 15 mile wall.

The previously repelled Muslims now possessed a cannon provided by a bribed German or Hungarian.  It had a mile range and belched out 1,300 pound bombs which devastated the walls of the city though it took hours to reload.  When holes were blown in the city’s walls, the defenders hurriedly repaired them; when the Turks tunneled under the wall, they were intercepted or buried alive.  When a fire spewing siege tower was rolled up to the wall, the defenders blew it up.

After seven frustrating weeks, the Turk’s leader Muhammed II exhorted his troops with promises of women, handsome boys and virgins in the next world and booty and concubines in this world; slackers were promised “a lingering death” by impalement which meant hammering a lengthy pole up the anus and then standing the pole and person upright like a scarecrow to frighten other potential deserters.

As one observer of the ensuing carnage wrote: the invaders climbed through breeches in the walls and clawed over human pyramids of their own fallen; the defenders fought bravely with axes, pikes and javelins.

            Finally on May 29, with overwhelming numbers, the jihadists triumphed.  So the city that began with Constantine the Great ended with Constantine XI, and the Roman Empire, dating from 753 BC concluded its 2,206 year run!  The victors then forced the vanquished to endure “strange and horrible unions and foul debaucheries,” according to other contemporary commentators.  Survivors were enslaved; the Hagia Sophia, the most beautiful church of the early Middle Ages, was transformed into a brothel.

             Gaining impetus by this momentous victory, the scourge of Islam continued to lash its victims into submission though there were notable defeats at Malta and Lepanto. 

Nonetheless, Muslim forces began bombarding Vienna in mid July 1683.  The Viennese retaliated with their own artillery barrages.  But the Ottoman’s blockade caused the spread of dysentery inside the city and bodies began piling up. 

             As happened in 1453 with Constantinople, Western Europe refused to help because of its own troubles and also at this juncture because of the disunity caused by the Reformation.

             By September the situation was dire.   Fortunately, the Polish military hero, Jon Sobieski, offered deliverance.  As Ibrahim writes,” the Poles were common and crude, at least to the ultra-refined, wig-and-powder-wearing Viennese court”; nonetheless, King Leopold flatteringly wrote Sobieski, “Your name alone, so terrible to the enemy, will insure victory.”

             By then, joining in to rescue Vienna were 40,000 Austro German troops which merged with the 25,000 man Polish army.  Though outnumbered by jihadists, the Christians turned back this last direct attack on Europe by Islam.

             One could argue that Ibrahim has equated lesser battles to historical hinge points like those at Tours, Constantinople, Lepanto and Vienna.  Nonetheless, as one can see, he establishes the significance of each of his choices just as his book demonstrates that his knowledge of Muslim conquests and depredations offers depth and perspective to each of his choices.

             This is so because Ibrahim fleshes out the history of these eight battles by recounting the numerous attacks and savagery that occurred in their wake.  One such occurred in 1019 when the Seljuk Turks descended on Armenia, the nearest Christian country.  The Armenians fought bravely but succumbed to the plunder, rape and massacres by the invaders; as Ibrahim dryly writes, “This was the beginning of the misfortunes of Armenia.”

Cameos of fearless individuals like the Genovese nobleman, Giovanni Guistiniani, animate this tale of the killing fields of jihad.  In 1453 Guistiniani, a siege expert, rushed in to defend Constantinople at his own expense accompanied by 700 highly trained soldiers at a time when others were fleeing in panic.  

Ibrahim was an Arabic language specialist for the Library of Congress and has testified before Congress, is a consultant to America’s intelligence community and lectures at universities and the National Defense Intelligence College.   

Ibrahim quotes Bernard Lewis to the effect that, “.  .  . the limits and even the identity of Europe were established first through the advance, and then the retreat, of Islam.”  As Ibrahim trenchantly concludes, “Simply put, the West is actually the westernmost remnant of what was a much more extensive civilizational block that Islam permanently severed.”

And that separation remains though it is sometimes blurred by the velocity and volume of contemporary events.   But Sword & Scimitar is a compelling reminder of the terrifying dynamic which continues to drive the Islamic world.   History hasn’t ended and Ibrahim has written an engaging and sobering narrative that makes that extremely clear.

This review originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of the New Oxford Review, and is reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2019 New Oxford Review,

Terry Scambray lives and writes in Fresno, California

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