(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Bernard Lewis is considered by many to be the foremost scholar of Islam writing in the English language. This concise, 164-page expansion of his earlier George Polk Award-winning New Yorker article describes the historical roots of present-day Muslim hostility toward the Western world. Although President George W. Bush insists the United States is not engaged in a war with Islam, Lewis notes that terrorists reject this formulation. Osama bin Laden and his followers are proud to be Muslims and claim to be engaged in a religious war of Islam against infidels, especially targeting the United States as the leading power within the infidel world.

To explain how such extremist views arose, Lewis examines the history of Islam. He describes Islam as both a religion and a civilization. The word “Islam” connotes “more than fourteen centuries of history, a billion and a third people, and a religious and cultural tradition of enormous diversity.” During the Middle Ages, Islam was the world leader in civilization and in military power. Its great kingdoms, made wealthy by commerce and industry, supported richly creative science and literature. Jews, persecuted in Christian Europe, found refuge in the more tolerant Islamic countries. From the seventeenth century onward, however, Islam lost its dominance and world leadership, first falling behind the modern West and then the rapidly modernizing Orient.

Muslim rulers and intellectuals had difficulty accepting this loss of stature. According to the Islamic view of God’s plan for the world, Islam should have retained its dominance. Islamic thought did not include the concept of a secular realm, coextensive with a religious realm. In early Christian history, God and Caesar were opposed; within Islam, from Muhammad’s day forward, religious truth and political power were closely linked. Therefore, the loss of political position in the world seemed an affront to religious belief. Feelings of humiliation at this trend were intensified when attempts to remedy the situation by drawing on Western practices proved unsuccessful. Endeavors to implement capitalist or socialist economic and political practices failed to encourage industrialization. The Muslim world remained mired in poverty.

When East Asian nations rapidly joined the developed world in the late twentieth century, Islamic feelings of dislocation intensified. Ironically, Lewis remarks, the only Western political idea that seemed to work in the Islamic world was that of one-party dictatorship, typified by the Baath Party’s dominance in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Lewis notes that the word “jihad” comes from an Arabic root whose basic meaning is striving, and it is often used in the closely related sense of struggle or fight. In the Koran, “jihad” is sometimes used to mean moral striving; at other times it means armed struggle. Lewis finds emphasis on moral striving common in the early sections of the Koran, written while Muhammad was the leader of a minority group of believers; after he became ruler of Medina and commanded an army, the sense of armed struggle dominated. Most early commentators, Lewis insists, discussed jihad in military terms, as a religious obligation to oppose infidels and apostates. Lewis has been criticized for his view of jihad by commentators who prefer to stress the ethical and peaceful core of Islamic belief. Lewis rejects their criticism and flatly states that “for most of the fourteen centuries of recorded Muslim history, jihad was most commonly interpreted to mean armed struggle for the defense or advancement of Muslim power.”

Those who are killed in a jihad are considered martyrs who will be rewarded with eternal bliss. However, Lewis asserts that the classical texts carefully distinguish between death at the hands of an enemy and the killing of oneself; the first act leads to Heaven, the second act leads to Hell. Some recent interpretations have blurred the distinction between suicide and death in battle, but Lewis argues that stretching the concept of jihad to justify terrorism distorts Muslim theology and runs counter to centuries of tradition. Because holy war is a religious obligation, it is elaborately regulated in the shari’a (Holy Law of Islam). Soldiers are enjoined to spare women, children, and the elderly. Lewis insists that at no point do basic Islamic texts condone terrorism or murder, nor do they even consider the possibility of the random slaughter of bystanders.

Islamic tradition, Lewis explains, divided the world into two opposing camps—the House of Islam and the House of War, which was ruled by infidels. Jihad would continue until either the entire world adopted Muslim faith or it submitted to Muslim rule. In the early centuries of the Muslim era, success seemed assured. Between 622, when Muhammad assumed control of Medina (the date that marks the beginning of the Muslim era), and his death in 632, the...

(The entire section is 2004 words.)