Today (actually maybe yesterday) in Islamic history: the Battle of Tours, 732 (outsourced)

Yesterday was (maybe, see at the link) the anniversary of the Battle of Tours in 732, when a Frankish army under the command of Charles Martel defeated an Arab-Berber army that had marched over the Pyrenees from Spain and was threatening to sack the rich Christian pilgrimage site at Tours. I’ve mentioned Tours in the context of my Islamic History series, but for a more in-depth examination of the battle I’m outsourcing this to the Middle East Institute’s Michael Collins Dunn, who wrote a nifty post on the battle yesterday. Of particular interest is the question of whether or not Tours was really the battle that saved all of Christendom, as Edward Gibbon wrote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and as received European wisdom has had it ever since. The Arab sources suggest that the army had invaded France on a raid, not a mission of conquest, so even if they’d beaten the Franks it wouldn’t have necessarily meant the conquest of France:

There is no real reason to doubt the assumption that ‘Abd al-Rahman’s immediate goal was Tours and the rich pilgrim’s shrine at Tours. Martel’s victory certainly saved Tours. But did it also, as the conventional European narrative had it, save Paris, save France (which didn’t exist yet), save Europe, and save Christianity? Was Charles Martel, the “hammer,” all that stood between ‘Abd al-Rahman. and Gibbon’s vision that:

the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.

Leaving aside the fact that the interpretation of the Qur’an is taught at Oxford and has been for at least the last couple of centuries, was the Battle of Tours all that prevented a Muslim conquest of all of Europe?

There is plenty of reason to question that. Most of the Arabic accounts spend less time on the battle itself but on the death of ‘Abd al-Rahman, who after all was governor of al-Andalus. The Arab historians clearly saw this as  rid on enemy territory (several note that ‘Abd al-Rahman died as a ghazi, the term used for the border raiders along the Byzantine frontier). In fact most of the Arab historians seem to portray this as a ghazwa or border raid, for plunder and retaliation against Odo of Aquitaine, remembered mainly for the “martyrdom” of ‘Abd al-Rahman and the other casualties; hence, balat al-shuhada’.

The definition of ghazi as opposed to jihad is still a debated topic in Middle East/Islamic studies, as both could be used to mean a “holy war,” but ghazi‘s original meaning really is more like “raid” (to make things more confusing, you might carry out ghazi missions as part of a jihad). These definitions are particularly debated in the much later case of the early Ottoman emperors, who styled themselves as ghazi warriors. Later Ottoman historians interpreted that to mean that they were holy warriors for the faith, when in actuality it probably meant that they led frequent raiding parties (which probably included Christian fighters, at least in the very early stages of the Ottoman dynasty) against the Byzantines.


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