Bernard Lewis on Understanding Islam

It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them.

This is no less than a clash of civilizations - the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both... Bernard Lewis

First Things May 2002 | Richard John Neuhaus

The mention of his name is usually accompanied by descriptives such as "the distinguished," "the eminent," or "the renowned." Frequently he is simply called "the doyen of Middle Eastern studies."

All such honorifics are amply deserved. Going back many years, Bernard Lewis, Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton, has been a personal friend and, more than anyone else, my guru on matters Islamic.

His new book is What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (Oxford University Press). It is a mix of lectures and essays from the 1990s, and a font of wisdom on which to draw in order to put the world after September 11 into perspective.

I don't say Lewis is right about everything, and I know there are scholars who criticize him for over-generalizing, but that is the kind of criticism to be expected from academics who specialize in specializing. Lewis, whose command of his subject nobody can challenge, specializes in making careful and accessible arguments. His exercise of that gift and calling is on magisterial display in What Went Wrong?

For instance, Lewis writes that, during the period that we call medieval, most Muslims viewed Christendom in terms of the Byzantine Empire, "which gradually became smaller and weaker until its final disappearance with the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453."

"[In the Muslim view] the remoter lands of Europe were seen in much the same light as the remoter lands of Africa-as an outer darkness of barbarism and unbelief from which there was nothing to learn and little even to be imported, except slaves and raw materials.

For both the northern and the southern barbarians, their best hope was to be incorporated in the empire of the caliphs, and thus attain the benefits of religion and civilization. For the first thousand years or so after the advent of Islam, this seemed not unlikely, and Muslims made repeated attempts to accomplish it."

We understandably view history in terms of the rise of the West, and seen from today's circumstance, that makes sense. But that is not how, for a very long time, Muslims viewed it.

From its beginnings, Islam was on a millennium-long roll. Advancing from Arabia, Muslim armies conquered Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa, all of which had been part of Christendom. They then went on to conquer Spain, Portugal, and Sicily, and to invade deep into France. In 846, Arab forces sacked Ostia and Rome.

Only then did Christendom begin to organize a counterattack, leading up to what we call the Crusades aimed at recovering the Holy Land. In many tellings of the story, the Crusades were the horrible thing that Christians did to Muslims, and there is no doubt that horrible things were done on all sides.

What is frequently overlooked in those tellings, however, is that the Crusades were a response to Muslim aggression and, very important, that they failed. The Christians were repelled. The Muslims won, reinforcing their sense of invincibility against the infidels.

The Tables Turn

The Christian powers had occasional successes, such as the great naval battle of Lepanto, in the Gulf of Patras in Greece, in 1571. Pope Pius V attributed the victory to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and in gratitude made October 7 the feast of the Rosary. While Lepanto was a crushing defeat for Muslim forces, they viewed it as a setback at the margins of world affairs.

Lewis describes Lepanto as "a great shot in the arm in the West, a minor ripple in the East." Islam was still on a roll. By the eighteenth century, however, the tables were beginning to turn. On numerous fronts-science, politics, economics, military prowess-Christendom increasingly had the initiative.

Western travelers began to penetrate Muslim lands, and "experts" of various sorts sold their services to Muslim states. "For Muslims," writes Lewis, "first in Turkey and later elsewhere, this brought a shocking new idea-that one might learn from the previously despised infidel."

Here entered for the first time the problem of how to keep Western influence in check. For a while, the Greek Christians, who deeply resented their treatment by the Catholic West, were a help to Ottoman rule. As the patriarch of Constantinople is supposed to have said, "Rather the turban of the Turk than the tiara of the Pope."

By the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, some Muslims realized that they were falling behind. A few leaders even began to send students to the West in order to learn about the new things-especially military things-to be found there. This raised the religious and legal question as to whether it was permissible to imitate the infidels.

"The answer of the religious authorities," writes Lewis, "was that it is permissible to imitate the infidels in order to more effectively fight against them." Modernization, understood as catching up, could be endorsed with careful qualifications. Westernization, understood as cultural imitation, was something else. The West was always Christendom, and therefore the enemy of the true faith.

More progressive Muslim leaders looked for the secret to success in those aspects of the West that were most different from their own experience and, Lewis adds, "not tainted by Christianity." This is why there was great sympathy for the French Revolution, which projected itself in the East as anti-Christian.

But under the Empire and the Restoration, France lost its appeal. "For the whole of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century the search for the hidden talisman concentrated on two aspects of the West-economics and politics, or to put it differently, wealth and power."

The Christian "taint" made cultural influence forbidden, with the consequence that Islam also gained little economically. According to the World Bank, Lewis notes, the whole of the Arab world, with about 300 million people, exports less to the rest of the world than does Finland with its five million people.

Apart from oil, of course, and its effective exploitation is in Western hands. Unlike the rising powers of Asia-such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, et al., most of which started from a lower economic base than the Middle East-Muslim countries have not caught on to the rudiments of investment, capital formation, job creation, and productivity.

"The difference between Middle Eastern and Western approaches," Lewis writes, "can be seen even in their distinctive form of corruption, from which neither society is exempt. In the West, one makes money in the market, and uses it to buy or influence power. In the East, one seizes power, and uses it to make money.

Morally there is no difference between the two, but their impact on the economy and on the polity is very different." I'm not sure he's quite right about there being no moral difference.

Money influencing power can be corruption, but it is not an evil of the same magnitude as perpetuating grinding poverty or ruling by a system that is aptly described as tyranny tempered by assassination.

The differences between the West and the Near East are evident, Lewis emphasizes, in different attitudes toward women, science, and music. Islam, like most non-Christian societies, permits polygamy and concubinage, and Western visitors to Muslim lands have traditionally evidenced a predictable interest in the harem system and have spoken with ill-concealed envy of what they take to be the rights of Muslim men.

"Muslim visitors to Europe," on the other hand, "speak with astonishment, often with horror, of the immodesty and frowardness of Western women, of the incredible freedom and absurd deference accorded them, and of the lack of manly jealousy of males confronted with the immorality and promiscuity in which their womenfolk indulge."

There were three groups of people who did not benefit from the general Muslim principle of legal and religious equality-unbelievers, slaves, and women. Lewis does not depict dhimmitude-the system under which non-Muslims, mainly Christians and Jews, live in Muslim societies-in terms as severe as those employed by Bat Ye'or, whose work has been discussed at length in these pages.

Yes, he suggests, the infidels were definitely second- or third-class citizens, but for the most part their lot was tolerable, so long as they did not challenge Muslim dominance. Slavery in the Middle East, he also says, was not so harsh as slavery in the Caribbean or North America. Actually, slavery was not officially abolished in some Mideast countries until the 1960s, and still flourishes today in, for instance, Sudan.

Keeping women in what is thought to be their place is deeply entrenched in Arab societies. "Westerners tend naturally to assume that the emancipation of women is part of liberalization, and that women will consequently fare better in liberal than in autocratic regimes. Such an assumption would be false, and often the reverse is true."

Some notoriously oppressive regimes have advanced the legal emancipation of women, while in somewhat more open societies, such as Egypt, the weight of tradition has successfully prevented such change.

For radical Islamists, such as the former Taliban in Afghanistan, the confinement of women to their traditional roles is at the top of their agenda. "The emancipation of women," Lewis writes, "more than any other single issue, is the touchstone of difference between modernization and Westernization."

Modernization is the adoption of technologies, especially those of warfare and propaganda. But the emancipation of women is Westernization. "It must be kept from entering the body of Islam, and where it has already entered, it must be ruthlessly excised."

Muhammad His Own Constantine

There are odd twists and turns here. For instance, in the military, civil service, and often in everyday street wear, men have adopted Western styles of clothing. Even the diplomats of the Islamic Republic of Iran wear Western suits, "with only the missing necktie to symbolize their rejection of Western culture and its symbols."

Why the rejection of the necktie? "Perhaps because of its vaguely cruciform shape," Lewis suggests. In the final analysis, it all does come back to religion and what Muslims continue to view as Christendom.

In its view of the right ordering of the world, Islam has nothing remotely comparable to the Christian understanding of sovereignties in tension, as evident in Christ's words about rendering what is due to Caesar and to God.

Lewis emphasizes that Christianity, until its legal toleration and later establishment in the fourth century, had the experience of three hundred years struggling against authority. "Christianity was a persecuted religion-different from, sometimes opposed to, and often oppressed by the state authority."

The contrast with Islam could not be more dramatic. Lewis puts it nicely: "Muhammad was, so to speak, his own Constantine. . . . At no time did [Islam] create any institution corresponding to, or even remotely resembling, the Church in Christendom."

There have been and are, to be sure, conflicts between religious and political authorities. But, unlike the case of the Church in the West, there is no institutionalizing of a claim to a distinct sovereignty in tension with the sovereignty of the state.

Put differently, the "Constantinianism" of Islam is radically monistic. And again, far from having gone through a long period of struggling and persecution, Islam understood itself from the very beginning to be a force of all-encompassing conquest, and the success of its first millennium powerfully reinforced that self-understanding.

Muhammad achieved victory and triumph in his own lifetime. He conquered his promised land, and created his own state, of which he himself was the supreme sovereign.

As such, he promulgated laws, dispensed justice, levied taxes, raised armies, made war, and made peace. In a word, he ruled, and the story of his decisions and actions as ruler is sanctified in Muslim scripture and amplified in Muslim tradition. . . .

The state was the church and the church was the state, and God was head of both, with the Prophet as his representative on earth. In the words of an ancient and much cited tradition: "Islam, the ruler, and the people are like the tent, the pole, the ropes and the pegs.

The tent is Islam, the pole is the ruler, the ropes and pegs are the people. None can thrive without the others."

Lewis continues: "Such terms as clergy or ecclesiastic cannot properly be applied to Muslim men of religion. These were in time, and in defiance of early tradition and precept, professionalized, and thus became a clergy in a sociological sense. They did not become a clergy in the theological sense.

Islam recognizes no ordination, no sacraments, no priestly mediation between the believer and God. The so-called clergyman is perceived as a teacher, a guide, a scholar in theology and law, but not as a priest." Nonetheless, and perhaps inevitably, something like a church and a clergy has emerged, at least functionally.

In the Ottoman Empire, for instance, the government appointed a Chief Mufti who exercised ecclesiastical jurisdiction, so to speak, over a city. "One sees it even more dramatically," Lewis writes, "in the ayatollahs of Iran, a title dating from quite modern times and unknown to classical Islamic history.

If the rulers of the Islamic Republic but knew it, what they are doing is Christianizing Islam in an institutional sense, though not of course in any religious sense. They have already endowed Iran with the functional equivalents of a pontificate, a college of cardinals, a bench of bishops, and, especially, an inquisition, all previously alien to Islam."

Because the implied distinction of sovereignties has no secure basis in Islamic thought, this is a very fragile innovation and is subject to challenge by monistic purists.

Making Laws, Making Music

In Islam, the law is already given. At least theoretically, there is no place for debate or legislation. All that is required is submission (submission being, of course, the meaning of the word "Islam").

In the first account we have of a Muslim visiting the British House of Commons in the eighteenth century, the writer expresses his astonishment at the sorry fate of a people who, unlike the Muslims, did not have a divinely revealed law, "and were therefore reduced to the pitiable expedient of enacting their own laws."

The monism of Islam, Lewis suggests, is also evident in its aversion to polyphonic music. In polyphony, voices and instruments-whether in duets, trios, or full orchestra-are "following different routes in a common purpose." "Different performers play together, from different scores, producing a result that is greater than the sum of its parts."

Lewis has an extended excursus on this musical dimension of "the difference" between East and West, and, whether or not one finds his explanation entirely convincing, there is no denying that Western music is not well received in the Middle East.

"To this very day the Middle East-with the exception of some Westernized enclaves-remains a blank on the itinerary of the great international virtuosos as they go on their world tours."

They are celebrated almost everywhere-even in Japan, China, and India-except in the Middle East. Maybe polyphony is the key, or maybe it is part of a more general aversion to Western culture, "tainted" as it is by Christianity.

The Christian West is curious about, and eager to welcome, other cultural traditions. Witness the magnificent Islamic holdings in any Western museum or library of note.

Throughout the huge swath of the world dominated by Islam, there are no comparable holdings of Western art, music, or literature, never mind of philosophy or theology. It would seem that the Arab world in particular really is, in the phrase of David Pryce-Jones, a "closed circle."

The conclusion of What Went Wrong? is grim. After its millennium-long roll of conquest and great cultural achievement, the Muslim world fell further and further behind.

Its consolidation in the Ottoman Empire fell apart after choosing the wrong side in the First World War, and the subsequent hegemony of the British and French, and now of the Americans, has left Islam seething with resentments.

"Worst of all is the political result," says Lewis. "The long quest for freedom has left a string of shabby tyrannies, ranging from traditional autocracies to new-style dictatorships, modern only in their apparatus of repression and indoctrination."

The question asked by Muslims is "Who did this to us?" rather than "What did we do wrong?" A few people, however, are beginning to ask the second question, Lewis writes, and in that there is a glimmer of hope. But it is only a glimmer. Lewis concludes with this:

If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression, culminating sooner or later in yet another alien domination; perhaps from a new Europe reverting to old ways, perhaps from a resurgent Russia, perhaps from some new, expanding superpower in the East.

If they can abandon grievance and victimhood, settle their differences, and join their talents, energies, and resources in a common creative endeavor, they can once again make the Middle East, in modern times as it was in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, a major center of civilization.

For the time being, the choice is their own.

If. . . . It seems a wan hope, but hope we must. The better part of wisdom, it would seem, is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.


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