It has been said that Counter-Factual history is academically useless since it dedicates itself solely to what might have been, and – more often than not – cannot be. This is mostly true, but not in all cases. Used correctly, the technique can wire us to the pulse of historical movement and expose the cost of non-resistance to the forces of our opponents.
To this end, let’s imagine a very simple distortion of the past: What would have become of world history had Muhammad never been born, or had his message never been well received? As questions go, few are of this global importance. For the sake of brevity though, we’ll limit our enquiry to the region most immediately affected by the initial spread of Islam – the greater Middle East and North Africa.
The differences possible to Jewish history had the Islamic settlement of Palestine never taken place are potentially transformative. Some of the most morally expensive disasters in the history of the West could have been avoided had the Holy land remained hospitable for Jewish culture. Indeed, the most deadly of these – World War II – can be blamed on a crackpot theory which caricatured Jews as ‘rootless’ parasites, innately hostile to the nation-state. Had the Jews never been dispossessed of their ancestral land in the first place, such views would have been impossible. Israel would flower today on a bed of centuries, undisputed and at peace.
Without Islamisation, the wars today convulsing through the Levant would also be buried beneath the weight of time. No lethal divergence in cultural content would separate the Phoenician Lebanese and Nabatean Jordanians from the Israeli Jews, or at least no more than today separates the Sikhs and Hindus of India, who – though diverging on matters of theology – nevertheless recognise a common history.
In America, where Islamophobia is known to bubble over into anti-Arab sentiment, the myth that Ancient Egypt was populated primarily by Negroes has become disgracefully well-accommodated. Indeed the references, throughout mainstream African-American culture, to ‘black’ heroes like Cleopatra and the Pharoahs no longer tend to elicit either comment or surprise.
The truth is very different of course. The ancient Egyptians were a Semitic people, and they live on today in diluted form within the same national boundaries. The legacy of Kemet has naturally been corrupted and Islamised over time, but it has not been extinguished.
And that should greatly depress any secular descendant of that society. Without the Islamic invasion, or had that invasion been repelled, the Egyptians could well have today enjoyed an Italian, Cypriot or Greek version of modernity. They could have been a wine-making, Mediterranean café culture, furnished with and supported by an ancient renown. An Egyptian passport could be amongst the most prized in the world, with resentful foreigners chasing the sunlit grandeur of Alexandria and the kingly opulence of Giza.
As it happens, only a madman would exchange European life for the cities of the Nile, and religious developments alone are equal to explaining this.
Few cultures made a more direct contribution to the creation of Christian tradition than the territory now called the ‘Islamic Maghreb’. This region, now the theatre of much disquiet, was the birthplace of Augustine of Hippo (Saint Augustine) and the scene of the first significant (and voluntary) European-African point of contact. Up until the 6th century therefore it was Roman – not Arabic – influence which predominated here and which served to foster an atmosphere of relaxed scholarship and quick development.
When Islam achieved its critical mass, almost every cultural edifice was torn down in a matter of decades and cultural nuance (the most vital ingredient in cultural sophistication) was replaced with an indistinct religious colony.
A counterfactual approach here is fascinating in other ways. There is a very real possibility that had those conquests never occurred, the world of the Berbers would have been integrated (racially and politically) into Europe. North Africa, and no doubt by extension much of the Sahara, would have also provided a base for the Christianisation of the African continent, leaving the door open for an earlier – perhaps more humanistic – colonisation than that which later occurred.
It is a concept well promoted by Iranian secularists that the degeneration of Persia into modern day Iran is rightly a cause for global – and not parochial – mourning. Ancient Persia, an empire with extremes in the Levant and Indian subcontinent, invested the world with many of its most celebrated advantages.
Persian culture was jealously noted for its social complexity and military talent. It was for many years a serious rival to the Empires of the West, and that the Islamic conquest put so inglorious an end to this happy tradition has never been forgotten by Iranian nationalists.
The most obvious focus for our counterfactual here is that without the Islamic invasion of Mesopotamia, there would be no Sunni-Shia war to appropriate the attention of millions of potentially gifted people. People would not be blown up in Iraq over dynastic quarrels. Iranians would be free to record music videos without fear of arrest. Bahrain wouldn’t be torn apart by the competing gravities of ethnicity and religion.
Lebanon is a famously divided country, the Muslim and Maronite populations having dwelled uncomfortably with one another for many centuries. It is in the Maronite areas that we can best appreciate what Lebanon (ancient Phoenicia) would likely have become without Islam.
If you’ve been to Lebanon or have seen photographs of pre-civil war Beirut, you can appreciate how quintessentially ‘European’ this country once was. A photograph of old central Beirut with the Arabic script signs removed could be readily mistaken for Israel, Southern France or Greece, with bars, nightclubs, theatres and a young, relaxed, liberal population furnishing the well-built streets.
The march of Islam has swallowed up (and destroyed) many of the greatest cultural achievements of our collective human history. Though the Middle East seems so congenitally barbed with troubles, this should not mislead us into thinking it couldn’t have been a fascinating, pricelessly rich area had the circumstances been different. Recognising this should also inform us of a very important truth. Those who doubt that England, Italy or Germany are somehow too ‘impressive’ to fall to the same force are deluding themselves.