Today, more than 50 million Muslims make their home in Europe. While this number is less than 10 percent of the overall population, recent conflicts over a number of issues (from cartoons to veils) have set off flash points and highlighted cultural conflict. Yet the interaction between Islam and the West is not a recent phenomenon. The interaction between Europeans and Muslims pre-dates recent times, even the Middle Ages, when the clash of religious differences led to the Crusades.
Although the most obvious symbols of Islamic incursion and settlement of European lands are usually associated with Spain, where remnants of Islamic culture can be seen in areas like Granada, Muslims have long interacted with Europeans. From initial interactions along trade routes like the Silk Road to settlement of the Iberian Peninsula to the Ottoman seizure of the Balkans to the arrival of post-Colonial immigrants from around the world, the relationship between Islam and the West in Europe has had a long and varied history.
A series of trade routes that crisscrossed the known world, the Silk Road led to the interaction of different peoples for trading purposes for more than 3,000 years of history. While its main intention was to trade goods from as far east as China to the western edges of the Mediterranean, it also resulted in the spread of ideas, culture, religion, even disease. Evidence of the spread of Islam can be seen in countries such as Hungary (12th century) and Poland-Lithuania (16th century).
In the east, the clash between Arab Muslims and the forces of the Byzantine Empire was ongoing for centuries. In 824, Arabs conquered part of Crete, which was eventually overtaken again. In the 10th century, Muslim influence had extended to Bulgaria and parts of Russia, and was considered a state religion in what is now Eastern Russia (then Volga Bulgaria). There are also tales of trading that occurred between Muslims and Vikings, who made their way east to Russia.
More than half of the eastern portions of Ukraine and Russia were Muslim from the 13th to the 15th centuries, and the Mongols considered Islam their state religion.
During the Ottoman Empire, expansion of Islamic influence into Eastern Europe was substantial. In fact, influence had spread to countries as far west as Greece. Much of Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and Hungary fell under their influence until 1699, when the Ottomans were pushed back to the border of Turkey.
Meanwhile, Islamic invaders gained a foothold in Sicily as early as 652. From 711 forward, the Muslims had settled into Andalusia (parts of Spain and Portugal) and, by the 10th century, had a Muslim majority. Ironically, this was also the time of the golden age of Jewish culture in Spain, and there was a strong Christian influence in the country as well. After battle upon battle, by 1236, all that remained under Islamic influence was the Spanish province of Granada.
Muslim forces had made incursions into France, Italy, and Switzerland during these years of Iberian conquest, but never were ultimately successful. The Moors were eventually driven from Spain between 1609 and 1614, during the reign of Philip III.
Colonization and immigration
The conquest of North Africa, the Malay Peninsula, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Indian Peninsula by European nations led to colonization of those areas and the eventual immigration of Muslim peoples back to Europe (many as guest-workers during the 1970s and 1980s). While post-Colonial immigration status has been tightened throughout Europe late in the last century, those seeking asylum, those who already have family in Europe, and those who marry European citizens are the most recent Muslim “influence” to be seen there.
Despite the recent attention to Islamic life and culture in Europe, it is apparent from this brief history of Islam in Europe that the interactions have been long, and often substantial. The clash between East and West will no doubt continue, but so too will the learning and adaptation as peoples continue to influence each other and share their ideas.