The Crisis of Islam

by Bernard Lewis
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 373

Historian Bernard Lewis's The Crisis of Islam (2004) is a unique historical examination of the roots of Islamic prejudice against the West. Lewis was a Near Eastern scholar, and, having published numerous articles on the relations between Islam and the West, he wrote three books after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The crisis of which Lewis writes in this volume concerns the mounting tensions owing to the economic inequality, poverty, and terrorism plaguing the Middle East in modern times.

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Lewis begins with a discussion of Middle Easterners' perception of both history and geography in religious terms. For example, he notes how the word for "Turkey" is a European geographic invention, and the words for Algeria and Tunisia are not separate words in Arabic. Simply put, the Muslim world defines itself in terms of religious genealogies, not geographies. Moreover, Islam is largely responsible for the vast amount of literature of the Middle East. According to Lewis, much of this literature attacks Christianity.

In Lewis's nine chapters, he devotes himself to fourteen centuries of Islam, explaining that, since its genesis in the seventh century, Islam was the conduit of knowledge between East and West during Europe's so-called Dark Ages. Under the caliphs, Islam (which, he notes, has much more in common with Judaism and Christianity than it does with Eastern religions), became a powerful state (as religion and politics were conflated) at its first capital of Medina.

The Qur'an, the divine text of the Muslim community, articulates rewards in the afterlife for suicide victims. Notions of rewards for martyrdom prompt acts of terrorism.

Lewis devotes one chapter to Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, founder of the eighteenth-century Wahhabi movement (an orthodox Sunni Muslim group) that rejected many Shia practices and vilified the West. The Saudis adopted these conservative practices, especially after the wealth injected into Saudi Arabia as a result of the oil industry.

Overall, Lewis devotes himself equally to the region's economic conditions and religious character. Much of the Middle East reads a holy text that preaches equal amounts of obedience to God and rejection of the "Pharaoh." Given this deep-seated call for opposition (even to the extent of martyrdom), it is no wonder that economic malaise has put the Muslim nations at loggerheads with the West.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2004

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 Prophet conquered all of Arabia. In the next hundred years Muslim armies defeated the Persian Empire, opening the way to Central Asia and India. They swept across and Islamized and Arabized the previously Christian territories of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa. They occupied Spain and Portugal before being stopped in France by Charles Martel at Poitiers in 732. When the Ottoman Turks later took over the leadership of Islam, they destroyed the Byzantine Empire, conquered the Balkans, and reached the outskirts of Vienna before suffering defeat in 1683.

The true weakness of Muslim countries, opening the way for European imperialism to occupy Islamic territory, did not become apparent until Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798. Muslims proved unable to dislodge Bonaparte; only the British navy, commanded by Horatio Nelson, successfully defeated him. In the following hundred years European armies established control over one Islamic country after another, culminating in the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire following World War I. Europeans had long controlled North Africa and Egypt; now Palestine and Iraq became British mandates, while France took control of Lebanon and Syria. Among the many Muslim countries, stretching from Morocco east to Indonesia and south to Nigeria, only four remained independent: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan. The European empires of France, Britain, Russia, and the Netherlands controlled the rest of the Islamic world.

Muslims considered it legitimate when they conquered and ruled Europeans but called it a crime and a sin when Europeans conquered and ruled Muslims. In Muslim eyes, the impact of European imperialism was socially and politically disastrous and an affront to Islamic pride and self-respect. The inability of the combined armies of Israel’s Arab neighbors to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state depressed and infuriated many Muslims. For aid in opposing the imperial powers, Muslim resisters turned to the enemies of their occupiers, favoring Germany in both World Wars and siding with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. When Muslims aligned with the Soviets, Israel became an invaluable strategic asset to the United States in the Middle East and received its full support.

Until World War II, inhabitants of the Muslim Middle East paid little attention to the United States. As Britain and France withdrew from the area, American economic interests, especially involving oil, increased. Knowledge of the United States among Muslims grew, partly from personal contact as Muslims traveled to the New World, and partly through images of the United States projected by American films and television programs. To admirers, the United States represented freedom and justice, its wealth and power a tribute to the success of democratic capitalism. To many Muslims, however, the United States seemed yet another imperialist power, intent on securing access to the natural resources of Muslim countries by supporting corrupt local tyrants.

Images of American society outraged “fundamentalist” Muslims. Lewis points out that, unlike Christian fundamentalists, Muslim fundamentalists do not challenge their mainstream theology. They stress traditional behavior and assert that Muslims have been seduced by Modernism and Western ideas. The United States is seen as the most powerful seducer. Corrupted Muslims are considered to have wandered away from the pure forms of behavior enjoined by the Prophet and elaborated in Islamic Holy Law.

This sense of outrage at religious backsliding inspired the Wahhabi movement, a call for rigid imposition of Muslim religious law that began in Arabia as early as the eighteenth century. Supported by Saudi oil wealth in the late twentieth century, the Wahhabi movement influenced the entire Muslim world. It provided funding for mosques, where its views would be preached, and for religious schools indoctrinating young Muslims with rigid interpretations of Muslim belief.

Muslims accepting Wahhabi ideas and intellectuals who celebrated the glorious centuries of Islamic cultural and military dominance while bemoaning the present state of affairs were not seduced by American culture. Many aspects of the American life seemed particularly sinful and degenerate. The assertion of women’s rights was thought to encourage debauchery and promiscuity. Permitting youth to attend unsupervised dances and movie theaters seemed equally licentious. Freedom of speech could protect blasphemers. Worst of all, separation of church and state was considered an affront to God, a rejection of the correct position of religion as the ruler of state and society.

Lewis objects to two views of Islam prevalent in the United States. The first view argues that, with Soviet communism defunct, radical Islamic fundamentalism has replaced it as the major threat to the Western way of life. This school of thought predicts a clash of civilizations, with Islam implacably hostile to the West. The second view sees Muslims, including the fundamentalists, as basically peace-loving and pious people, driven to desperation by Western misbehavior. Lewis calls both ideas dangerous oversimplifications. He stresses that Islam is not in itself a threat to the West; only Islamic extremists are dangerous. Believing that extremism is solely a reaction to Western actions is equally misleading. Such a position ignores the way extremists distort aspects of Islamic history and ideas to claim religious sanction for their actions.

In his final chapter Lewis focuses on the rise of terrorism. He states that most Muslims are not fundamentalists, and most Islamic fundamentalists are not terrorists. Terrorists, however, need only a few adherents, especially if they can arouse the sympathy of their coreligionists. Although Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda do not represent Islam, and many of their ideas and actions directly contradict basic Islamic teachings, they arise from within Muslim civilization and need to be understood in terms of its history. Suicide terrorism directed at civilians is a recent development defended by terrorists through highly selective choices and interpretations of Muslim sacred texts. In the Arabic press, reactions to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks shifted uneasily between denial and approval, illustrating the difficulty al-Qaeda’s appeal to Islamic resentment of the West posed for Muslim intellectuals. Expressions of horror at the slaughter often contained comments that the Americans only got what they deserved, along with denials that any Muslim was capable of carrying out such an act. Lewis fears the consequences if Osama bin Laden convinces many Muslims to follow his lead. He urges the United States to support Muslim modernizers and moderates in their opposition to extremists.

The Crisis of Islam has been criticized for oversimplifying the diversity of Muslim cultures and for its cursory treatment of the Islamic thought. This problem is a consequence of Lewis’s decision to present his ideas in a compact fashion. Complexity is difficult to manage in 164 pages. In such a short volume it is easier to state that Middle Eastern countries failed in their attempts to modernize than to explain fully why they were unsuccessful. Less defensible is his critics’ accusation that Lewis stresses terrorism in order to defame Islam. Lewis did not invent the acts of terrorism whose cultural and historical roots he describes. His informative chapter on religious justification and elaborate regulation of jihad is one of the most illuminating sections of his book. This well-written volume provides the reader with a useful introduction to the historical roots of twentieth century Islamic terrorism.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 16 (April 15, 2003): 1430-1431.

The Boston Globe, June 8, 2003, p. H8.

The Economist 367, no. 8322 (May 3, 2003): 77-78.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 5 (March 1, 2003): 364.

Library Journal 128, no. 5 (March 15, 2003): 102.

The New York Times Book Review 152, no. 52445 (April 6, 2003): 11.

The Washington Post Book World, April 6, 2003, p. T3.

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