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THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE AND THE RISE OF ISLAM

Tom Holland in The Guardian:

Medusa-head-008Whenever modern civilisations contemplate their own mortality, there is one ghost that will invariably rise up from its grave to haunt their imaginings. In February 1776, a few months after the publication of the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon commented gloomily on the news from America, where rebellion against Britain appeared imminent. "The decline of the two empires, Roman and British, proceeds at an equal pace." Now, with the west mired in recession and glancing nervously over its shoulder at China, the same parallel is being dusted down. Last summer, when the Guardian's Larry Elliott wrote an article on the woes of the US economy, the headline almost wrote itself: "Decline and fall of the American empire".

Historians, it is true, have become increasingly uncomfortable with narratives of decline and fall. Few now would accept that the conquest of Roman territory by foreign invaders was a guillotine brought down on the neck of classical civilisation. The transformation from the ancient world to the medieval is recognised as something far more protracted. "Late antiquity" is the term scholars use for the centuries that witnessed its course. Roman power may have collapsed, but the various cultures of the Roman empire mutated and evolved. "We see in late antiquity," so Averil Cameron, one of its leading historians, has observed, "a mass of experimentation, new ways being tried and new adjustments made." Yet it is a curious feature of the transformation of the Roman world into something recognisably medieval that it bred extraordinary tales even as it impoverished the ability of contemporaries to keep a record of them. "The greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene, in the history of mankind": so Gibbon described his theme. He was hardly exaggerating: the decline and fall of the Roman empire was a convulsion so momentous that even today its influence on stories with an abiding popular purchase remains greater, perhaps, than that of any other episode in history. It can take an effort, though, to recognise this. In most of the narratives informed by the world of late antiquity, from world religions to recent science-fiction and fantasy novels, the context provided by the fall of Rome's empire has tended to be disguised or occluded.

More here.

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The fall of the Roman empire and the rise of Islam

Rome's collapse inspired many gripping tales, from Gibbon's history to Dune and Battlestar Galactica. The story of Arthur's Camelot has its origins in this era of political convulsion, as does a narrative that has taken on vast global importance – the foundation of Islam

Medusa head
Head of Medusa, at the Severan Forum, Leptis Magna, Libya. Photograph: © Martin Bedall/Alamy

Whenever modern civilisations contemplate their own mortality, there is one ghost that will invariably rise up from its grave to haunt their imaginings. In February 1776, a few months after the publication of the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon commented gloomily on the news from America, where rebellion against Britain appeared imminent. "The decline of the two empires, Roman and British, proceeds at an equal pace." Now, with the west mired in recession and glancing nervously over its shoulder at China, the same parallel is being dusted down. Last summer, when the Guardian's Larry Elliott wrote an article on the woes of the US economy, the headline almost wrote itself: "Decline and fall of the American empire".

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Historians, it is true, have become increasingly uncomfortable with narratives of decline and fall. Few now would accept that the conquest of Roman territory by foreign invaders was a guillotine brought down on the neck of classical civilisation. The transformation from the ancient world to the medieval is recognised as something far more protracted. "Late antiquity" is the term scholars use for the centuries that witnessed its course. Roman power may have collapsed, but the various cultures of the Roman empire mutated and evolved. "We see in late antiquity," so Averil Cameron, one of its leading historians, has observed, "a mass of experimentation, new ways being tried and new adjustments made."

Yet it is a curious feature of the transformation of the Roman world into something recognisably medieval that it bred extraordinary tales even as it impoverished the ability of contemporaries to keep a record of them. "The greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene, in thehistory of mankind": so Gibbon described his theme. He was hardly exaggerating: the decline and fall of the Roman empire was a convulsion so momentous that even today its influence on stories with an abiding popular purchase remains greater, perhaps, than that of any other episode in history. It can take an effort, though, to recognise this. In most of the narratives informed by the world of late antiquity, from world religions to recent science-fiction and fantasy novels, the context provided by the fall of Rome's empire has tended to be disguised or occluded.

Consider a single sheet of papyrus bearing the decidedly unromantic sobriquet of PERF 558. It was uncovered back in the 19th century at theEgyptian city of Herakleopolis, a faded ruin 80 miles south of Cairo. Herakleopolis itself had passed most of its existence in a condition of somnolent provincialism: first as an Egyptian city, and then, following the conquest of the country by Alexander the Great, as a colony run by and largely for Greeks. The makeover given to it by this new elite was to prove an enduring one. A thousand years on – and some 600 years after its absorption into the Roman empire – Herakleopolis still sported a name that provided, on the banks of the Nile, a little touch of far-off Greece: "the city of Heracles". PERF 558 too, in its own humble way, also bore witness to the impact on Egypt of an entire millennium of foreign rule. It was a receipt, issued for 65 sheep, presented to two officials bearing impeccably Hellenic names Christophoros and Theodorakios and written in Greek.

But not in Greek alone. The papyrus sheet also featured a second language, one never before seen in Egypt. What was it doing there, on an official council receipt? The sheep, according to a note added in Greek on the back, had been requisitioned by "Magaritai" – but who or what were they? The answer was to be found on the front of the papyrus sheet, within the text of the receipt itself. The "Magaritai", it appeared, were none other than the people known as "Saracens": nomads from Arabia, long dismissed by the Romans as "despised and insignificant". Clearly, that these barbarians were now in a position to extort sheep from city councillors suggested a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Nor was that all. The most bizarre revelation of the receipt, perhaps, lay in the fact that a race of shiftless nomads, bandits who for as long as anyone could remember had been lost to an unvarying barbarism, appeared to have developed their own calendar. "The 30th of the month of Pharmouthi of the first indiction": so the receipt was logged in Greek, a date which served to place it in year 642 since the birth of Christ. But it was also, so the receipt declared in the Saracens' own language, "the year twenty two": 22 years since what? Some momentous occurance, no doubt, of evidently great significance to the Saracens themselves. But what precisely, and whether it might have contributed to the arrival of the newcomers in Egypt, and how it was to be linked to that enigmatic title "Magaritai", PERF 558 does not say.

We can now recognise the document as the marker of something seismic. The Magaritai were destined to implant themselves in the country far more enduringly than the Greeks or the Romans had ever done. Arabic, the language they had brought with them, and that appears as such a novelty on PERF 558, is nowadays so native to Egypt that the country has come to rank as the power-house of Arab culture. Yet even a transformation of that order barely touches on the full scale of the changes which are hinted at so prosaically. A new age, of which that tax receipt issued in Herakleopolis in "the year 22" ranks as the oldest surviving dateable document, had been brought into being. This, to almost one in four people alive today, is a matter of more than mere historical interest. Infinitely more – for it touches, in their opinion, on the very nature of the Divine. The question of what it was that had brought the Magaritai to Herakleopolis, and to numerous other cities besides, has lain, for many centuries now, at the heart of a great and globalreligionIslam.

It was the prompting hand of God, not a mere wanton desire to extort sheep, that had first motivated the Arabs to leave their desert homeland. Such, at any rate, was the conviction of Ibn Hisham, a scholar based in Egypt who wrote a century and a half after the first appearance of the Magaritai in Herakleopolis, but whose fascination with the period, and with the remarkable events that had stamped it, was all-consuming. No longer, by AD 800, were the Magaritai to be reckoned a novelty. Instead – known now as "Muslims", or "those who submit to God" – they had succeeded in winning for themselves a vast agglomeration of territories: an authentically global empire. Ibn Hisham, looking back at the age which had first seen the Arabs grow conscious of themselves as a chosen people, and surrounded as he was by the ruins of superceded civilisations, certainly had no lack of pages to fill.

PERF 558PERF 558 … the receipt for 65 sheep, issued in year 22, written in Greek and Arabic. Photograph: National Museum In Vienna

What was it that had brought the Arabs as conquerors to cities such as Herakleopolis, and far beyond? The ambition of Ibn Hisham was to provide an answer. The story he told was that of an Arab who had lived almost two centuries previously, and been chosen by God as the seal of His prophets: Muhammad. Although Ibn Hisham was himself certainly drawing on earlier material, his is the oldest biography to have survived, in the form we have it, into the present day. The details it provided would become fundamental to the way that Muslims have interpreted their faith ever since. That Muhammad had received a series of divine revelations; that he had grown up in the depths of Arabia, in a pagan metropolis, Mecca; that he had fled it for another city, Yathrib, where he had established the primal Muslim state; that this flight, or hijra, had transformed the entire order of time, and come to provide Muslims with their Year One: all this was enshrined to momentous effect by Ibn Hisham. The contrast between Islam and the age that had preceded it was rendered in his biography as clear as that between midday and the dead of night. The white radiance of Muhammad's revelations, blazing first across Arabia and then to the limits of the world, had served to bring all humanity into a new age of light.

The effect of this belief was to prove incalculable. To this day, even among non-Muslims, it continues to inform the way in which the history of the Middle East is interpreted and understood. Whether in books, museums or universities, the ancient world is imagined to have ended with the coming of Muhammad. Yet even on the presumption that what Islam teaches is correct, and that the revelations of Muhammad did indeed descend from heaven, it is still pushing things to imagine that the theatre of its conquests was suddenly conjured, over the span of a single generation, into a set from The Arabian Nights. That the Arab conquests were part of a much vaster and more protracted drama, the decline and fall of the Roman empire, has been too readily forgotten.

Place these conquests in their proper context and a different narrative emerges. Heeding the lesson taught by Gibbon back in the 18th century, that the barbarian invasions of Europe and the victories of the Saracens were different aspects of the same phenomenon, serves to open up vistas of drama unhinted at by the traditional Muslim narratives. The landscape through which the Magaritai rode was certainly not unique to Egypt. In the west too, there were provinces that had witnessed the retreat and collapse of a superpower, the depredations of foreign invaders, and the desperate struggle of locals to fashion a new security for themselves. Only in the past few decades has this perspective been restored to its proper place in the academic spotlight. Yet it is curious that long before the historian Peter Brown came to write his seminal volume The World of Late Antiquity – which traced, to influential effect, patterns throughout the half millennium between Marcus Aurelius and the founding of Bag... – a number of bestselling novelists had got there first. What their work served to demonstrate was that the fall of the Roman empire, even a millennium and a half on, had lost none of its power to inspire gripping narratives.

"There were nearly twenty-five million inhabited planets in the Galaxy then, and not one but owed allegiance to the Empire whose seat was on Trantor. It was the last half-century in which that could be said." So begins Isaac Asimov's Foundation, a self-conscious attempt to relocate Gibbon's magnum opus to outer space. First published in 1951, it portrayed a galactic imperium on the verge of collapse, and the attempt by an enlightened band of scientists to insure that eventual renaissance would follow its fall. The influence of the novel, and its two sequels, has been huge, and can be seen in every subsequent sci-fi epic that portrays sprawling empires set among the stars – from Star Wars toBattlestar Galactica. Unlike most of his epigoni, however, Asimov drew direct sustenance from his historical model. The parabola of Asimov's narrative closely follows that of Gibbon. Plenipotentiaries visit imperial outposts for the last time; interstellar equivalents of Frankish or Ostrogothic kingdoms sprout on the edge of the Milky Way; the empire, just as its Roman precursor had done under Justinian, attempts a comeback. Most intriguingly of all, in the second novel of the series, we are introduced to an enigmatic character named the Mule, who emerges seemingly from nowhere to transform the patterns of thought of billions, and conquer much of the galaxy. The context makes it fairly clear that he is intended to echo Muhammad. In an unflattering homage to Muslim tradition, Asimov even casts the Mule as a mutant, a freak of nature so unexpected that nothing in human science could possibly have explained or anticipated him.

Parallels with the tales told of Muhammad are self-evident in a second great epic of interstellar empire, Frank Herbert's Dune. A prophet arises from the depths of a desert world to humiliate an empire and launch a holy war – a jihad. Herbert's hero, Paul Atreides, is a man whose sense of supernatural mission is shadowed by self-doubt. "I cannot do the simplest thing," he reflects, "without its becoming a legend." Time will prove him correct. Without ever quite intending it, he founds a newreligion, and launches a wave of conquest that ends up convulsing the galaxy. In the end, we know, there will be "only legend, and nothing to stop the jihad".

There is an irony in this, an echo not only of the spectacular growth of the historical caliphate, but of how the traditions told about Muhammad evolved as well. Ibn Hisham's biography may have been the first to survive – but it was not the last. As the years went by, and ever more lives of the Prophet came to be written, so the details grew ever more miraculous. Fresh evidence – wholly unsuspected by Muhammad's earliest biographers – would see him revered as a man able to foretell the future, to receive messages from camels, and to pick up a soldier's eyeball, reinsert it, and make it work better than before. The result was yet one more miracle: the further in time from the Prophet a biographer, the more extensive his biography was likely to be.

Herbert's novel counterpoints snatches of unreliable biography – in which Paul has become "Muad'Dib", the legendary "Dune Messiah" – with the main body of the narrative, which reveals a more secular truth. Such, of course, is the prerogative of fiction. Nevertheless, it does suggest, for the historian, an unsettling question: to what extent might the traditions told by Muslims about their prophet contradict the actual reality of the historical Muhammad? Nor is it only western scholars who are prone to asking this – so too, for instance, are Salafists, keen as they are to strip away the accretions of centuries, and reveal to the faithful the full unspotted purity of the primal Muslim state. But what if, after all the cladding has been torn down, there is nothing much left, beyond the odd receipt for sheep? That Muhammad existed is evident from the scattered testimony of Christian near-contemporaries, and that the Magaritai themselves believed a new order of time to have been ushered in is clear from their mention of a "Year 22". But do we see in the mirror held up by Ibn Hisham, and the biographers who followed him, an authentic reflection of Muhammad's life – or something distorted out of recognition by a combination of awe and the passage of time?

There may be a lack of early Muslim sources for Muhammad's life, but in other regions of the former Roman empire there are even more haunting silences. The deepest of all, perhaps, is the one that settled over the one-time province of Britannia. Around 800AD, at the same time as Ibn Hisham was drawing up a list of nine engagements in which Muhammad was said personally to have fought, a monk in the far distant wilds of Wales was compiling a very similar record of victories, 12 in total, all of them attributable to a single leader, and cast by their historian as indubitable proof of the blessings of God. The name of the monk was Nennius; and the name of his hero – who was supposed to have lived long before – was Arthur. The British warlord, like the Arab prophet, was destined to have an enduring afterlife. The same centuries which would see Muslim historians fashion ever more detailed and loving histories of Muhammad and his companions would also witness, far beyond the frontiers of the caliphate, the gradual transformation of the mysterious Arthur and his henchmen into the model of a Christian court. The battles listed by Nennius would come largely to be forgotten: in their place, haunting the imaginings of all Christendom, would be the conviction that there had once existed a realm where the strong had protected the weak, where the bravest warriors had been the purest in heart, and where a sense of Christian fellowship had bound everyone to the upholding of a common order. The ideal was to prove a precious one – so much so that to this day, there remains a mystique attached to the name of Camelot.

Nor was the world of Arthur the only dimension of magic and mystery to have emerged out of the shattered landscape of the one-time Roman empire. The English, the invaders against whom Arthur was supposed to have fought, told their own extraordinary tales. Gawping at the crumbling masonry of Roman towns, they saw in it "the work of giants". Gazing into the shadows beyond their halls, they imagined ylfe ond orcnéas, andorthanc enta geweorc – "elves and orcs", and "the skilful work of giants". These stories, in turn, were only a part of the great swirl of epic, Gothic and Frankish and Norse, which preserved in their verses the memory of terrible battles, and mighty kings, and the rise and fall of empires: trace-elements of the death-agony of Roman greatness. Most of these poems, though, like the kingdoms that were so often their themes, no longer exist. They are fragments, or mere rumours of fragments. The wonder-haunted fantasies of post-Roman Europe have themselves become spectres and phantasms. "Alas for the lost lore, the annals and old poets."

So wrote JRR Tolkien, philologist, scholar of Old English, and a man so convinced of the abiding potency of the vanished world of epic that he devoted his life to conjuring it back into being. The Lord of the Rings may not be an allegory of the fall of the Roman empire, but it is shot through with echoes of the sound and fury of that "awful scene". What happened and what might have happened swirl, and meet, and merge. An elf quotes a poem on an abandoned Roman town. Horsemen with Old English names ride to the rescue of a city that is vast and beautiful, and yet, like Constantinople in the wake of the Arab conquests, "falling year by year into decay". Armies of a Dark Lord repeat the strategy of Attila in the battle of the Catalaunian plains – and suffer a similar fate. Tolkien's ambition, so Tom Shippey has written, "was to give back to his own country the legends that had been taken from it". In the event, his achievement was something even more startling. Such was the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, and such its influence on an entire genre of fiction, that it breathed new life into what for centuries had been the merest bones of an entire but forgotten worldscape.

It would seem, then, that when an empire as great as Rome's declines and falls, the reverberations can be made to echo even in outer space, even in a mythical Middle Earth. In the east as in the west, in the Fertile Crescent as in Britain, what emerged from the empire's collapse, forged over many centuries, were new identities, new values, new presumptions. Indeed, many of these would end up taking on such a life of their own that the very circumstances of their birth would come to be obscured – and on occasion forgotten completely. The age that had witnessed the collapse of Roman power, refashioned by those looking back to it centuries later in the image of their own times, was cast by them as one of wonders and miracles, irradiated by the supernatural, and by the bravery of heroes. The potency of that vision is one that still blazes today.

The last crusade

The claim that Christianity provides the bedrock of Western culture might serve the interests of extremists, but it is a betrayal of a far more complex history, argues Kenan Malik.

In the warped mind of Anders Breivik, his murderous rampages in Oslo and Utoya earlier this year were the first shots in a war in defence of Christian Europe. Not a religious war but a cultural one, to defend what Breivik called Europe's "cultural, social, identity and moral platform". Few but the most psychopathic can have any sympathy for Breivik's homicidal frenzy. Yet the idea that Christianity provides the foundations of Western civilisation, and of its political ideals and ethical values, and that Christian Europe is under threat, from Islam on the one side and "cultural Marxists" on the other, finds a widespread hearing. The erosion of Christianity, in this narrative, will lead inevitably to the erosion of Western civilisation and to the end of modern, liberal democracy.

The claims about the "Muslim takeover" of Europe, while widely held, have also been robustly challenged. The idea of Christianity as the cultural and moral foundation of Western civilisation is, however, accepted as almost self-evident – and not just by believers. The late Oriana Fallaci, the Italian writer who perhaps more than most promoted the notion of "Eurabia", described herself as a "Christian atheist", insisting that only Christianity provided Europe with a cultural and intellectual bulwark against Islam. The British historian Niall Ferguson calls himself "an incurable atheist" and yet is alarmed by the decline of Christianity which undermines "any religious resistance" to radical Islam. Melanie Phillips, a non-believing Jew, argues in her book The World Turned Upside Down that "Christianity is under direct and unremitting cultural assault from those who want to destroy the bedrock values of Western civilisation."

Christianity has certainly been the crucible within which the intellectual and political cultures of Western Europe have developed over the past two millennia. But the claim that Christianity embodies the "bedrock values of Western civilisation" and that the weakening of Christianity inevitably means the weakening of liberal democratic values greatly simplifies both the history of Christianity and the roots of modern democratic values – not to mention underplays the tensions that often exist between "Christian" and "liberal" values.

Christianity may have forged a distinct ethical tradition, but its key ideas, like those of most religions, were borrowed from the cultures out of which it developed. Early Christianity was a fusion of Ancient Greek thought and Judaism. Few of what are often thought of as uniquely Christian ideas are in fact so.

Take, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the most influential of all Christian ethical discourses. The moral landscape that Jesus sketched out in the sermon was already familiar. The Golden Rule – "do unto others as you would have others do unto you" – has a long history, an idea hinted at in Babylonian and Egyptian religious codes, before fully flowering in Greek and Judaic writing (having independently appeared in Confucianism too). The insistence on virtue as a good in itself, the resolve to turn the other cheek, the call to treat strangers as brothers, the claim that correct belief is at least as important as virtuous action – all were already important themes in the Greek Stoic tradition.

Conversely, perhaps the most profound contribution of Christianity to the Western tradition is also its most pernicious: the idea of Original Sin, the belief that all humans are tainted by Adam and Eve's disobedience of God in eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was a doctrine that led to a bleak view of human nature; in the Christian tradition it is impossible for humans to do good on their own account, because the Fall has degraded both their moral capacity and their willpower.

The story of Adam and Eve was, of course, originally a Jewish fable. But Jews read that story differently to Christians. In Judaism, as in Islam, Adam and Eve's transgression creates a sin against their own souls, but does not condemn humanity as a whole. Adam and Eve were as children in the Garden of Eden. Having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, they had to take responsibility for themselves, their decisions and their behaviour. In Judaism, this is seen not as a "fall" but as a "gift" – the gift of free will.

The story of Adam and Eve was initially, then, a fable about the attainment of free will and the embrace of moral responsibility. It became a tale about the corruption of free will and the constraints on moral responsibility. It was in this transformation in the meaning of Adam and Eve's transgression that Christianity perhaps secured its greatest influence, a bleak description of human nature that came to dominate Western ethical thinking as Christianity became the crucible in which that thinking took place. Not until the Enlightenment was the bleakness of that vision of human nature truly challenged.

Not only are the key ethical principles of the Christian tradition borrowed from pagan philosophies, but that tradition has been created as much despite the efforts of Christian churches as because of them. The collapse of the Roman Empire under the weight of the barbarian invasions of the fourth and fifth centuries left Christian clergy as the sole literate class in Western Europe and the Church as the lone patron of learning. But if the Church kept alive elements of a learned culture, Church leaders were ambiguous about the merits of pagan knowledge. "What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem?" asked Tertullian, the first significant theologian to write in Latin. So preoccupied were devout Christians with the demands of the next world that to study nature or history or philosophy for its own sake seemed to them almost perverse. "Let Christians prefer the simplicity of our faith to the demonstrations of human reason," insisted Basil of Caesarea, an influential fourth-century theologian and monastic. "For to spend much time on research about the essence of things would not serve the edification of the church."

Christian Europe rediscovered the Greek heritage, and in particular Aristotle, in the 13th century, a rediscovery that helped transform European intellectual culture. It inspired the work of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest of all Christian theologians, and allowed reason to again take centre stage in European philosophy.

But how did Christian Europe rediscover the Greeks? Primarily through the Muslim Empire. As Christian Europe endured its "Dark Ages", an intellectual tradition flowered in the Islamic world as lustrous as that of Ancient Athens before or Renaissance Florence after. The discovery, and translation into Arabic, of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and other Greek philosophers helped launch the golden age of Islamic scholarship.

Arab scholars revolutionised astronomy, invented algebra, helped develop the modern decimal number system and established the basis of optics. But perhaps more important than the science was the philosophy. The Rationalist tradition in Islamic thought, culminating in the work of Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, is today barely remembered in the West. Yet its importance and influence, not least on the Judeo-Christian tradition, is difficult to overstate. Ibn Rushd especially, the greatest Muslim interpreter of Aristotle, came to wield far more influence within Judaism and Christianity than within Islam. It was through Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes) that western European scholars rediscovered their Aristotle, and his commentaries shaped the thinking of a galaxy of philosophers from Maimonides to Aquinas.

Christians of the time recognised the importance of Muslim philosophers. InThe Divine Comedy Dante places Ibn Rushd with the great pagan philosophers whose spirits dwell not in Hell but in Limbo, "the place that favour owes to fame". One of Raphael's most famous paintings, "The School of Athens", is a fresco on the walls of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, depicting the world's great philosophers. And among the pantheon of celebrated Greek philosophers stands Ibn Rushd.

Today, however, that debt has been almost entirely forgotten. There is a tendency to think of Islam as walled-in, insular, hostile to reason and freethinking. Much of the Islamic world came to be that way. But the fact remains that the scholarship of the golden age of Islamic thinking helped lay the foundations for the European Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. Neither happened in the Muslim world. But without the Muslim world, it is possible that neither may have happened.

If the story of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution has been rewritten in the interests of creating a mythical "Christian Europe", so too has the story of the relationship between reason and faith in the Enlightenment. What are now often called "Western values" – democracy, equality, toleration, freedom of speech and so on – are the products largely of the Enlightenment and of the post-Enlightenment world. Such values are, of course, not "Western" in any essential sense but are universal; they are Western only through an accident of geography and history.

A complex debate has arisen about the relationship between the Enlightenment and the Christian tradition. As the notion of the Christian tradition and of "Western civilisation" have become fused, and as the Enlightenment has come to be seen as embodying Western values, so some have tried to co-opt the Enlightenment into the Christian tradition. The Enlightenment ideas of tolerance, equality and universalism, they argue, derive from the reworking of notions already established within the Christian tradition. Others, more ambiguous about the legacy of the Enlightenment, argue that true liberal, democratic values are Christian and that the radicalism and secularism of the Enlightenment has only helped undermine such values.

Both views are wrong. For a start, the historic origins of many of these ideas lie, as we have seen, outside the Christian tradition. It is as apt to describe concepts such as equality or universalism as Greek as it is to describe them as Christian. In truth, though, the modern ideas of equality or universality are neither Greek nor Christian. Whatever their historical origins, they have become peculiarly modern concepts, the product of the specific social, political and intellectual currents of the modern world.

Moreover, the great figures of the Christian tradition would have been appalled at what we now call "Western" values. In his book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, the American writer Christopher Caldwell argues that Muslim migration to Europe has been akin to a form of colonisation, threatening the very foundations of European civilisation. Yet Caldwell also acknowledges that "What secular Europeans call ŒIslam' is a set of values that Dante and Erasmus would recognise as theirs." At the same time, the modern, secular rights that now constitute "core European values" would "leave Dante and Erasmus bewildered". There is, in other words, no single set of European values that transcends history and binds together the Christian tradition in opposition to a single corpus of timeless set-in-stone Islamic values.

Not only are "Christian values" and "Islamic values" more complex and with a more convoluted history than contemporary narratives suggest, so too is the relationship between Enlightenment ideas and religious belief. There were, in fact, as the historian Jonathan Israel has pointed out, two Enlightenments. The mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume is the one of which we know and which provides the public face of the movement. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d'Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and, in particular, Spinoza, that provided the Enlightenment's heart and soul.

The two Enlightenments divided on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition – the view of the mainstream. The attempt of the mainstream to hold on to elements of traditional beliefs constrained its critique of old social forms and beliefs. The radicals, on the other hand, were driven to pursue their ideas of equality and democracy to their logical conclusions because, having broken with traditional concepts of a God-ordained order, there was, as Israel puts it, no "meaningful alternative to grounding morality, political and social order on a systematic radical egalitarianism extending across all frontiers, class barriers and horizons".

The moderate mainstream Enlightenment was overwhelmingly dominant in terms of support, official approval and prestige. But in a deeper sense it proved less important than the radical strand. What Israel calls the "package of basic values" that defines modernity – toleration, personal freedom, democracy, racial equality, sexual emancipation and the universal right to knowledge – derive principally from the claims of the Radical Enlightenment. Most Enlightenmentphilosophes were believers (though not necessarily theists) and their Christian faith shaped their ideas. Yet what we now call "Western values" were honed arguably as much by thinkers who rejected the Christian tradition as by those who embraced it.

To challenge the myths and misconceptions about the Christian tradition is not to deny the distinctive character of that tradition (or traditions), nor its importance in incubating what we now call "Western" thought. But the Christian tradition, and Christian Europe, is far more a chimera than a pure-bred beast. The history of Christianity, its relationship to other ethical traditions and the relationship between Christian values and those of modern, liberal, secular society are far more complex than the trite "Western civilisation is collapsing" arguments acknowledge. The irony is that the defenders of Christendom are riffing on the same politics of identity as Islamists, multiculturalists and many of the other "-ists" that such defenders so loathe.

The reason to challenge the crass alarmism about the decline of Christianity is not simply to lay to rest the myths about the Christian tradition. It is also because that alarmism is itself undermining the very values – tolerance, equal treatment, universal rights – for the defence of which we supposedly need a Christian Europe. The erosion of Christianity will not necessarily lead to the erosion of such values. The crass defence of Christendom against the "barbarian hordes" may well do.

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