Tag Archives: G.W. Bowersock

Muslims vs the West: History Is Not As We Have Been Told

History is never pure chronicles, rather always an interpretation. And so with double skepticism we should confront all “Arguments from History” that elicit hatred and separation: because they are likely to be unmasked as simplistic manipulations.

Excerpts from Peter Brown’s “The Voice of the Stones“, The New York Review of Books, Volume 55, Number 6 · April 17, 2008 – reviewing G.W. Bowersock’s new book “Mosaics as History: The Near East from Late Antiquity to Islam“, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 146 pp., $22.95 (article on the web for subscribers only):

[…] The second-to-last chapter of Mosaics as History—entitled “Iconoclasms”—shows that [the] descendants [(Jews, Christians, and pagans in the Middle East] were still [commissioning figurative mosaics] after well over a century of Muslim rule. Only in the year 723 did the local Christians find themselves forced to remove some of the figures from the exuberant mosaics in their churches, at the bidding of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid II. They did so with care. As Bowersock shows, this first premonitory tremor of Muslim iconophobia was limited in its extent, and it was Christians themselves who undertook to respond to it.

Far from showing a Muslim fundamentalist state flexing its muscles against religious minorities, the decree of Yazid II arose from a surprising situation. Up to that time, Muslims had often worshiped in Christian churches. They did not like all that they saw there. Some found themselves increasingly disquieted by the exuberant animal and human life that they saw on the pavements. (Put briefly: to attempt to create living beings through art began to awake fears in them that were like those stirred up, in recent years, by experiments in cloning.)

But they did not descend upon the Christians from outside, to inflict random destruction on all Christian images. Rather, the Muslims who advised Yazid II seem to have acted like partners who had already been taken into a firm. They slowly bought out their colleagues and imposed their own policies, by tweaking the image that the company was supposed to project. Eventually (as we all know) the policy of avoiding images would win out. But it only did so (and only to a certain degree) in Muslim circles, and never among the large Christian populations of the Near East, many of whose images have survived (icons, frescoes, mosaics, and all) up to this day.

[…] Altogether, Mosaics as History offers little support to inert stereotypes. Here is no abrupt end of the ancient world, brought about by Arab invaders from the desert. Here are no Christians trembling under the shadow of an intolerant Muslim empire. It is not as we had been told. But then, we are seldom told as much as we should be told about the non-Western shores of the Mediterranean and even less about the complex strands that linked the world of late antiquity to that of early Islam. We need to listen to Bowersock:

Late antiquity and early Islam are full of challenges to old easy dichotomies, such as Orient oder Rom [East or Rome—with nothing in between], that have so long dominated historical interpretation.

[…] Only the sharp tang of scholarship like Bowersock’s, devoted to a seemingly distant past, can clean our eyes, a little, of the itch of modern pseudohistory, of modern stereotypes, and of modern hatreds, so that we can view the present, if not with comfort, then at least with clarity.