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October 11th, 2001

  The United States of Islam


To offer you a little relief from the mighty flood of comment about what happened, what's happening, what should now happen and what might actually happen, let me take you on a little trip down the byways of history to explore something that, long ago, did not happen, but that, if it had, might have changed our world beyond all imagining. It might have spared us the horrors of September 11th, too, though probably — in so far as it is possible to calculate these things — at a very high price.


A number of wits have suggested that a simple solution to all our problems with the Moslem world would be for the United States to convert to Islam. (Though a sardonic friend, when he heard this proposed, said: "From the point of view of the fundamentalists, that would just mean that instead of being infidels, we would be heretics.") Well, we might have been saved the trouble if matters had worked out a little differently 800 years ago. What follows is a true story. I came across it in some random reading a few months back. The actual book I was reading was Gabriel Ronay's The Tartar Khan's Englishman, a fascinating little curiosity of historical research, unfortunately long out of print. Ronay himself took this particular incident from a history of the world titled Chronica Majora, which was written by the 13th-century English monk Matthew Paris.

The relevant events took place in the year 1213. The King of England at that time was a fellow named John Lackland, and he was in the fifteenth year of his reign. He was the only king England ever had named John, and it was the cause of some chagrin to me as a child to learn that the one English king to have borne my own name was the worst king we ever had. The sheer awfulness of King John was impressed on us by our schoolmasters, and we used to chant a silly little ditty about him:

King John was not a good king;
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no-one spoke to him
For days and days and days.

A revisionist school among modern historians has been a bit more kind to King John than my teachers were, telling us that he was a man of great capability and energy, although of low tastes and few scruples, who confronted impossible tasks.

Be that as it may, there is not much doubt that King John had, in the words of historian Norman Davies, "a genius for making enemies."  By 1213 he had alienated practically everybody it was possible for a medieval English king to alienate: His barons, the guilds, the knights, the peasantry, the Church, the Emperor, the King of France. He had previously alienated the Pope, too — was under a decree of excommunication from 1209 to 1213 — and to save his crown had made a humiliating submission to Papal authority that rankled bitterly.

Desperate to hold on to his position and confound his numerous enemies, John decided on a dramatic course of action: He would embrace Islam and turn England into a Moslem country! He thereupon despatched a delegation to the most powerful Moslem ruler he knew of. This happened to be the Emir of Morocco, who rejoiced in the name Abu Abdullah Mohammed al-Nasir and was the fourth ruler of the fanatically Shi'ite Muwahid dynasty.

Mohammed was not in the best frame of mind to receive John's ambassadors. As well as his dominions in North Africa, he held a swathe of land in southern Spain. However, the Christian Spanish had inflicted a crushing defeat on him the previous year at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, and he was plotting his counter-attack. At this difficult point in his fortunes, three Englishmen showed up at his court: the knights Thomas Hardington and Ralph FitzNicholas, and Master Robert, a London cleric. (A tonsured monk in a habit, padding into the presence of a ferocious Islamic warrior! I wonder what Master Robert had done back at the abbey to draw that short straw!) The envoys told Mohammed that John "would voluntarily give up to him himself and his kingdom, and if he pleased would hold it as tributary from him; and that he would also abandon the Christian faith, which he considered false, and would faithfully adhere to the law of the prophet Mohammed." Hardington also gave a glowing account of England, of the richness of its soil and the skill and industry of its people.

Having done my bit this past few weeks to whip up some pride in our civilization, and corresponding scorn for lesser breeds without the law, I am now sorry to have to tell you that the hero of this tale — the only one who comes out of it showing honor, dignity and good sense — was Mohammed. After hearing John's petiton, he ruminated briefly on it. (Though sensationally cruel, he seems to have been an intelligent and thoughtful man. In one of those little touches of detail that make history spring to life, the chronicler tells us that Mohammed was absorbed in reading a book when the emissaries were brought in to him.) Then he delivered his judgment.

Said Mohammed: "I never read or heard that any king possessing such a prosperous kingdom subject and obedient to him, would voluntarily … make tributary a country that is free, by giving to a stranger that which is his own … conquered, as it were, without a wound. I have rather read and heard from many that they would procure liberty for themselves at the expense of streams of blood, which is a praiseworthy action; but now I hear that your wretched lord, a sloth and a coward, who is even worse than nothing, wishes from a free man to become a slave, who is the most miserable of all human beings." Mohammed concluded by wondering aloud why the English allowed such a man to lord over them — they must, he said, be very servile and soft — and by declaring that John was unworthy of any alliance with a Moslem ruler such as himself. He thereupon dismissed the envoys, warning them never to let him set eyes on them again: "For the infamy of that foolish apostate, your master, breathes forth a most foul stench to my nostrils."

Whatever those revisionist historians say, it is hard to quarrel with Mohammed's estimation of John's character; and considering the difficulty he was having holding on to his Spanish domains, just a few miles away, it's not easy to see how Mohammed could have conquered and held down a remote and climatically inhospitable cluster of islands a thousand miles to the north. Still, just imagine what our world might be like if John's scheme had worked. The pilgrims who took ship to North America 400 years later might have been not Christian Puritans but the adherents of some severe Islamic sect — Wahabis, perhaps. Speaking English but carrying the Koran, they might have brought the word of the prophet to the prairies, canyons and forests of the New World. My imagination fails me at this point, but I've read very few stories that give such a feel for the weirdness and unpredictability of human affairs. You can't make this stuff up.

Islamic footnote.  I increasingly see the name of the Islamic holy book written as "Q'uran," "Q'ūrân," or some such gibberish. How on earth is any English-speaking person supposed to cope with spellings like this? Why is it that when some foreign culture comes into the news we are all expected to run off and take seminars in graphology and comparative phonetics? If a foreign word or name is forced on our attention we are entitled to anglicize it in any way we please, as we always have done — and as foreigners freely do with our words. (My home town of Northampton appears on Chinese atlases as "Beianpudun.") A pox on these lisping pedants! These are the same nuisances that want me to say "Mumbhai" for "Bombay," "Livorno" for "Leghorn" and "Xiamen" for "Amoy."  Until Osama bin Laden wins his war and has us all learning Arabic (in yo' dreams, Fat Lips!) it's "K-O-R-A-N."