Islam and the West

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Islam and the West Bernard Lewis—one of the grand old men of Middle East scholarship—collects eleven of his erudite and readable essays, written at widely divergent levels of specialization but all having something to do with the relation of the Islamic world and the West. The essays range from a technical consideration of the difficulties of translation from the Arabic and a scholarly treatment of Edward Gibbon’s view of Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, to an “op-ed” level polemic regarding the current attack on scholars such as Lewis himself who is proud to call himself by the term coined for those in his discipline in the nineteenth century, “Orientalist.” Despite the variety of its topics and scholarly levels, the collection is unified by its consistent tone of Enlightenment confidence in the ultimate power of reasoning to solve problems, as well as by its wide-ranging erudition.

Lewis’ main point, reiterated in the various individual essays, is that the currently fashionable disdain for the nineteenth century discipline of Orientalism is illegitimate for a number of reasons. The book builds toward a specific articulation of this point in the second of its three main subsections, which are entitled “Encounters,” “Studies and Perceptions,” and “Islamic Response and Reaction.” In the first section this point is expressed only intermittently, and the reader might almost believe that he or she has bought a book of historical interest alone. The middle section brings the topic out in the open. The book’s final section once again becomes more technical, considering the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism and offering a fascinating characterization of Shiite Islam (the minority sect, and the one in power in Iran) as congenitally prone to revolt because it is intrinsically based on rebellion against the Islamic status quo.

The opening essay in the book’s first section offers a historical overview of the interest taken by the Islamic world in the West, and that of the West in the Islamic world. Even here there are hints of Lewis’ ultimate point of view and his polemical direction. He makes the point repeatedly that before the twentieth century, interest between the two worlds was radically one-sided, consisting almost exclusively of interest by the West in the Islamic world. This one-sidedness was the result of the fact that the Islamic world was by far the more powerful: It constantly threatened the West, and was in fact enjoying steady expansion. This seems logical to Lewis. Why, he seems to ask, should a world so confident of its own power have been interested in the world of weaklings it expected ultimately to dominate? Even the Crusades that loomed so large in the Christian imagination were nothing but minor skirmishes for the Islamic world, lost in the Islamic imagination among many other military battles of the time. Here Lewis’ vast historical knowledge, worn gratifyingly lightly, comes into play.

Sketching for the layperson the Muslim expansion in Russia and across North Africa, he paints a picture of the Christian world at bay, having managed to hang on by the skin of its teeth. Lewis observes that

in recent years it has become the practice, in both western Europe and the Middle East, to see and present the Crusades as an early exercise in Western imperialism. …They were not seen in that light at the time, either by Christians or by Muslims.

Greater historical knowledge provides a different view, in other words, and it is only the impartial scholars of the area such as Lewis—those happy still to call themselves Orientalists—who can provide this historical context.

Even the essay “Legal and Historical Reflections on the Position of Muslim Populations Under Non-Muslim Rule,” also in the book’s initial section and full of historical arcana, is linked to the late twentieth century intellectual climate of suspicion toward Western considerations of Islam by Lewis’ point that Islam has never been able to rationalize a situation that has become more and more common in the West: that of Muslims voluntarily living under non-Islamic governments. It was not supposed to happen, and yet...

(The entire section is 1718 words.)