... it sometimes seems to the general reader that "dispassionate historian" is an oxymoron.
The new Carolingian order [of the later 8th century]...was religiously intolerant, intellectually impoverished, socially calcified, and economically primitive. Measured by these same vectors of religion, culture, class, and prosperity, 'Abd al-Rahman's Muslim Iberia was at least four centuries more advanced than Western Christendom in 800 CE. An ironic intelligence from another planet might have observed that if Carolingian Europeans believed that Charles the Hammer's victory at Poitiers made their world possible, then it was a fair question to ask whether or not defeat might have been preferable.
What can one say about this sort of thing? Is there any truth in it? Well, yes, there is some. It is often the case, in history's great churnings, that one nation strides ahead of another, only to fall back into decadence or barbarism a century or few later. And as Michael Hart notes in his recent book Understanding Human History: "Although at times the Moslem world was more advanced culturally than the Byzantines, it was never much more advanced." Notice Lewis's comparison, though: Western Christendom, Carolingean Europeans. His is a much narrower scope than a thorough comparison of Islam and Christendom would require.Counterfactual speculations of the kind that Lewis is trading in are in any case airy and insubstantial because we lack the knowledge required to evaluate them.
On the other hand, for Derbyshire - Kennedy does a decent job of presenting a historical understanding of Islam in his work. In Kennedy's work facts are presented and the narrative arises from those facts. And so Derbyshire says, "His aim in The Great Arab Conquests is strictly narrative: to tell a curious nonspecialist what the Arabs did between the death of Mohammed in A.D. 632 and the fall of the Umayyads 118 years later. There are no counterfactual speculations here." In fact he asserts that Kennedy as a writer of History, "is at pains all through his book to emphasize the scarcity and unreliability of sources for the period. This was, after all, the Dark Ages. Kennedy tells us what is known. When he has to choose between conflicting accounts, or fill a void with speculation, he does so with utmost caution and many warnings..."
The beauty and danger with Jenkins' writing is that he challenges assumptions, but generally does it with a healthy balance of fact and narrative. This doesn't mean that Mr. Jenkins is innocent of pomo tendencies in writing - he's just more of a Gibbon, than a Spencer or Lewis. He's not out to completely change and scrap the narrative framework that we operate in as much as expand it to be more inclusive without having to make extreme mental leaps. He is a passionate dispassionate historian.
All of this to say that I can't wait to read it.