On October 10, 732 a.d., some 80,000 Muslim cavalrymen attacked 30,000 Frankish infantrymen near Tours in present-day France. Those Muslims had already conquered Northern Africa and Spain, and they were poised to sweep over the rest of Europe.
Normally, foot soldiers are no match for horsemen with lances, especially when outnumbered. So the Frankish king, Charles “The Hammer” Martel, arrayed his men at the top of a steep wooded hill, hoping that having to charge uphill and avoid trees would at least slow down the Muslim cavalry. Most importantly, he had his men huddle together to form a large square, their holding up their shields to form a “shield wall” and creating a thicket of spears to fend off the horses.
If anyone broke away from the group, if anyone ran away, if the shield wall collapsed so as to force a scattered retreat, the horsemen would easily cut them down as they ran. But during the battle, as wave after wave of cavalry threw themselves against the formation, the shield wall held. Not only that, the Franks utterly defeated the invaders, slew the Muslim general, and drove his surviving forces back over the Pyrenees.
Mental experiment: What if the shield wall broke? What if the Muslims won the Battle of Tours? What if the Muslims in the eighth century took over Western Europe? If they did, what would our culture look like today?
Thinking that surely Western civilization would have survived despite a Muslim conquest is naive. Medieval Christendom was probably not as culturally robust as the Byzantine Empire was, but after Constantinople fell to the Muslims much later, hardly anything survived that culture’s Islamicization.
Just saying that we would be like Iraq or Iran is surely not enough. In their clothing, architecture, and technology, these Islamic countries show a Western influence. When the jihadist terrorists attack Western civilization, they are using bombs, guns, and Internet communications that Western civilization has made.
So let us imagine what our culture would be like if the Muslims conquered Europe, as very nearly happened.
We would have no legislatures, since Islam does not recognize the creation of new laws, since the Shari’a of the Qur’an is considered sufficient for all time. This would be enforced by an absolute ruler, such as an emperor or caliph. We would today either own or be slaves. The kinds of political liberty we take for granted today would not exist.
Islam does not approve of representation art, just elaborate designs for their mosques and tapestries, so we would not have much heritage in the visual arts, and the development of distinctly visual media, such as film and television, would be unlikely. We would have little, if any, music, whether symphonic compositions or rock ‘n’ roll. Islamic countries usually have religious and erotic poetry, but, despite occasional tales such as The Arabian Nights, we would probably have little fiction. The novel would not have been invented. Islam has no drama, and without the biblical plays of the early church and without Shakespeare, neither would we.
We might have some science. The ancient Muslim world was good with mathematics. But it would not take the same form. Science would probably remain in the realm of the abstract and theoretical, missing the way Western engineers turned scientific discoveries into applied technology.
Christianity would survive. Christ has promised that. But the church would be marginalized and restricted. Islamic tolerance means that Christians would be allowed to stay in their little groups and propagate their faith within existing families, as long as they pay deference to Islam. But woe to you if you try to evangelize a Muslim. Our churches would be little enclaves, as with the Assyrians in Iraq or the Copts in Egypt. Christianity would exist, but Muslims would control the culture.
The Qur’an seeks to establish — and to fix permanently — the laws of Allah. Shari’a does not change, and so the culture it governs will not change, especially if it escapes the contingencies of history by becoming universalized.
Christianity teaches that human institutions are to be judged according to the transcendent moral law of God. Thus we have the habit of criticizing our rulers and our institutions when they do not measure up. And because Christianity teaches that we live in a fallen world, we know they never do. And because this world is not absolute but contingent, that it passes away, we accept and sometimes even cause cultural change.
In short, if it were not for that Frankish soldier who refused to run when the Muslim horses charged down on him, we would still be, for all practical purposes, in the eighth century.
To think what Islam’s cultural influence would have been throws Christianity’s cultural influence in high relief. Christianity either directly shaped or allowed to come into being what we now recognize as Western civilization.
That the shield wall held is an example of God’s providential reign over history.