Islamic piracy, especially in the Mediterranean waters and European coastal areas and terrotories, had an impact that went far beyond the economic impoverishment of Europe...

In my recently-published book, "Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization", I have argued that it was the coming of Islam, in the mid-seventh century, which effectively brought the Classical Civilization of Greece and Rome to an end and initiated the Middle Ages. There I showed that the Muslim conquest of the Middle East and North Africa, from the 630s onwards, closed those areas to trade from Europe; and the consequent impoverishment of the latter led to the decline of the urban centers, which had been the powerhouses of Classical culture.

But it was not war alone that brought this about. After all, from the beginning of history, empires had come and gone around the shores of the Middle Sea, yet trade and economic life had continued. With the rise of Islam, it is clear, this did not happen. All trade between the Christian West (and Christian East) and the newly-Islamic East was terminated, definitively. We know this for certain by the data brought forth by Henri Pirenne and others. Why did it happen? Did the Caliphs forbid merchants to trade with infidels?

The truth is far worse.

One of the fundamentals of the Islamic faith was the acceptability, even the duty, of Muslims to wage war against the infidel. Islam divided the world into two starkly opposing camps: that of Islam, the Dar al-Islam, and that of the unbelievers, which was known as the Dar al-Harb. But Dar al-Harb literally means 'House of War'.

Jihad or Holy War, as we have seen, was a fundamental duty of all Muslim rulers. Truces were allowed, but never a lasting peace. (See e.g. Koran 8:40 and 9:124). In the words of medieval historian Robert Irwin, “Since the jihad [was] …a state of permanent war, it excluded] …the possibility of true peace, but it [did] …allow for provisional truces in accordance with the requirements of the political situation” [Robert Irwin, “Islam and the Crusades: 1096-1699,” Jonathan Riley-Smith ed., The Oxford History of the Crusades, Oxford, 1995, pp. 237]. Also, “Muslim religious law could not countenance the formal conclusion of any sort of permanent peace with the infidel” (Ibid). In such circumstances, it is evident that, when the Islamic forces were in a position of strength, almost all contact between them and the outside world was warlike. And this was not war as is waged between two kingdoms, empires, or dynasties: This was total war, war that did not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, and war that did not end. In this spirit, Islamic generals launched attack after attack against the southern shores of Europe during the seventh and eighth centuries; and these “official” actions were supplemented by hundreds, even thousands, of lesser raids, carried out by minor Muslim commanders and even by private individuals: For it was considered legitimate that the Muslim faithful should live off the infidel world. Whatever spoils could be taken, were divinely sanctioned.

Thus the coming of Islam signaled a wave of banditry and piracy in the Mediterranean such as had not been seen since before the second century BC, when such activities were severely curtailed by Roman naval power. Indeed, it seems that this new Islamic piracy surpassed in scope and destructiveness anything that had come before. We could mention here, from the seventh and eighth centuries and later, quite literally hundreds of accounts of attacks in Greece, Italy, southern France, Spain, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, carried out by Muslim freebooters and slave-traders. Neither Eastern nor Western Christendom was safe, and Crete, for a long time, was the centre of the Mediterranean slave-trade; a dubious honor she retained till the island was retaken by the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas around 956 (See John Julius Norwich, 'The Middle Sea', p. 94). These cut-throats, it seems, did not confine themselves to capturing towns and their inhabitants, but plundered churches and monasteries too, putting their occupants to the sword or selling them into slavery. The entire Mediterranean, east and west, was now off-limits for trade and, “In the Occident …the coast of the Gulf of Lyons and the Riviera to the mouth of the Tiber, ravaged by war and the [Muslim] pirates, whom the Christians, having no fleet, were powerless to resist, was now merely a solitude and a prey to piracy. The ports and the cities were deserted. The link with the Orient was severed, and there was no communication with the Saracen coasts. There was nothing but death” [Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne, p. 184]

The history of Muslim freebooting in the Mediterranean has never, I feel, been properly written. This is a great omission, as its effect upon history and the development of western civilization was profound, even decisive: For it was Muslim piracy, much more than regular warlike activity, that brought classical civilization in the west to an end. This was the force which terminated, once and for all, the cultural and economic contacts between east and west, and which gave birth, as Pirenne rightly saw, to what we now call the Middle Ages. Of the situation at the time, we might agree with the judgment of a Dutch economic historian who wrote: “One could say, in modern parlance, that an iron curtain now divided the Mediterranean, whose littoral had once formed an economic whole.” (B. H. Slicher Van Bath)

The pillaging and slave-raiding which began in the seventh century never really came to an end. It continued incessantly, with varying degrees of intensity, until the beginning of the nineteenth century, and was to have a devastating effect not only on trade, but on the culture of every society bordering the Mediterranean, and eventually on the whole of European civilization. Both East and West were devastated. Nor was the pillaging confined to the sea and coastal regions. From the mid-seventh century onwards Arab forces struck at Constantinople both by sea and by land, through the Middle of Asia Minor. In the latter case “not once or twice,” as Cyril Mango noted, “but practically every year …for nearly two centuries.” [Cyril Mango, “Byzantium, The Empire of New Rome”, p. 25]. The consequences of this prolonged process, he notes, “are easy to imagine: much of Asia Minor was devastated and depopulated almost beyond repair.” And we should not imagine, as some authors do, that the revival of Europe during the eleventh century and the advance through the Mediterranean of fleets of Crusaders brought Muslim piracy – at least temporarily – to an end. This was emphatically not the case. Large, heavily armed fleets might move safely through the Mediterranean, but it was very different for merchant vessels. These, travelling alone, or in small and lightly-defended groups, were never safe. The Mediterranean remained a very dangerous place for all merchant shipping until the early nineteenth century!

The effects of this incessant pillaging upon the societies of Southern Europe, those on the front line of this unofficial and interminable war, are not too difficult to imagine. Large areas of the coastlands of Mediterranean Europe became uninhabited and uninhabitable. The only analogy that springs to mind is to imagine the impact upon Northern Europe if the Viking raids had lasted a thousand years! Those communities which did survive, especially in the most vulnerable regions such as southern Italy, Southern Greece, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, etc, were changed forever. The constant threat was to produce an almost paranoid suspicion of the outside world, plus a culture in which violence and vendetta were endemic.

Whilst the impact of Muslim piracy was thus decisive in the seventh century in terminating Classical Civilization, it was equally decisive in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in forcing Europeans out into the Atlantic in search of safer ways to travel to the Far East. With the blockade of the Mediterranean, Europeans were debarred from the rich spice trade with the Indies. For a brief period in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Mongols had opened trade to the Orient, at least by overland routes, and Europeans dreamed of a sea-route that would bypass the Muslim territories and the Muslim pirates in the Mediterranean. First, under Henry the Navigator, they sought a way round the southern tip of Africa, and later, under Columbus, they sought a quick route by sailing directly westwards. Columbus believed the earth to be much smaller than Eratosthenes had calculated, and imagined that China and the Indies lay roughly where we now know North America lies.

The Age of Discovery was therefore launched to find a way around the threat of Islamic piracy. Yet these journeys had another, more military, purpose in mind. In his representations to the Spanish King and Queen, Columbus made it clear that the discovery of a “short” route to China might open the possibility of an alliance against Islam. The main purpose of the projected expedition was, in the words of Louis Bertrand, “to take Islam in the rear, and to effect an alliance with the Great Khan – a mythical personage who was believed to be the sovereign of all that region, and favourable to the Christian religion …” [Louis Bertrand, ‘The History of Spain’, p. 163]. Bertrand was very insistent on this point, which he emphasized in half a dozen pages. The voyage of discovery was to begin a new phase, he says, in “the Crusade against the Moors which was to be continued by a new and surer route. It was by way of the Indies that Islam was to be dealt a mortal blow” (Ibid).

So certain was Bertrand of the connection between the exploits of the

Conquistadores in the Americas and the war against Islam that he actually describes the conquest of America as the “last Crusade.”

The record of the Conquistadores in the New World needs no repetition here: It is one of cruelty and greed on a truly monumental scale. Yet the habits of the Spaniards here, habits which gave rise to the “Black Legend,” were learned at the school of the Caliphs. In Bertrand’s words: “Lust for gold, bloodthirsty rapacity, the feverish pursuit of hidden treasure, application of torture to the vanquished to wrest the secret of their hiding-places from them – all these barbarous proceedings and all these vices, which the conquistadores were to take to America, they learnt at the school of the caliphs, the emirs, and the Moorish kings” (Ibid, p. 159).

Indeed all of the traits associated with the Spaniards, for which they have been roundly criticized by Anglo-Saxon historians, can be traced to the contact with Islam.

“The worst characteristic which the Spaniards acquired was the parasitism of the Arabs and the nomad Africans: the custom of living off one’s neighbour’s territory, the raid raised to the level of an institution, marauding and brigandage recognized as the sole means of existence for the man-at-arms. In the same way they went to win their bread in Moorish territory, so the Spaniards later went to win gold and territory in Mexico and Peru.

“They were to introduce there, too, the barbarous, summary practices of the Arabs: putting everything to fire and sword, cutting down fruit-trees, razing crops, devastating whole districts to starve out the enemy and bring them to terms; making slaves everywhere, condemning the population of the conquered countries to forced labour. All these detestable ways the conquistadores learnt from the Arabs.

“For several centuries slavery maintained itself in Christian Spain, as in the Islamic lands. Very certainly, also, it was to the Arabs that the Spaniards owed the intransigence of their fanaticism, the pretension to be, if not the chosen of God, at least the most Catholic nation of Christendom. Philip II, like Abd er Rahman or El Mansour, was Defender of the Faith.

“Finally, it was not without contagion that the Spaniards lived for centuries in contact with a race of men who crucified their enemies and gloried in piling up thousands of severed heads by way of trophies. The cruelty of the Arabs and the Berbers also founded a school in the Peninsula. The ferocity of the emirs and the caliphs who killed their brothers or their sons with their own hands was to be handed on to Pedro the Cruel and Henry of Trastamare, those stranglers under canvas, no better than common assassins.” (Ibid. p. 160)

John J. O'Neill is the author of recent book, Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization.

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