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I n the resonant surroundings of the British Museum's Reading room, I was invited yesterday to participate in a discussion with the writer Stephen O'Shea about his timely and welcome new book, Sea of Faith about the "sibling rivalry" between the many societies influenced by Islam and Christianity. The book relates 10 critical episodes in the encounter in the lands in and around the Mediterranean between the followers of the two great monotheistic faiths in the nearly thousand years spanning the death of the Prophet Muhammad in CE and the Ottoman siege of Malta in O'Shea was keen to highlight that as well as times of bitter conflict there were also long periods of genuine convivencia, or intelligent co-existence between followers of the two faiths that deserve to be better known.
Why, during the course of a standard Western education, was there so much talk of the Habsburgs and the Bourbons, but very little of the Umayyads and the Ayyubids?
We celebrate the scholastics and the Renaissance yet hear nothing of the translators of Toledo and the Muslim scientists of Palermo. I recently bought Lord Clark's often-praised BBC Civilisation series on DVD and have to concur with O'Shea's assessment of the rather narrow approach undertaken and could not help wondering why we cannot with some justification talk about an Islamo-Christian civilisation.
Robin Cook, the former Foreign Secretary, used to say that the biggest foreign policy question that faced Western countries in the 21st century was how to relate to the Muslim world. Looking at the choices history offers us: there is the Reconquista model of the Mezquita in which the Umayyad mosque was turned into a cathedral.
On the other side, there is the triumphant Ottoman model in which the Aya Sofya cathedral was turned into a mosque. Whatever model is finally chosen, O'Shea is surely right to believe that it is necessary for us all to have a firm grasp of the past "so that others, with different agendas and motives, don't dictate to you what that past, and therefore, what your present is.