The Crisis of Islam

by Bernard Lewis

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

Scholar and historian Bernard Lewis wrote The Crisis of Islam as an expansion of his 2001 New York Times article, itself in response of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. In this well-researched and comprehensive volume, Lewis seeks to educate the West on the history of the Middle East and how it applies to the present day. On the history of Islam, Lewis states:

. . . the general level of historical knowledge in American society is abysmally low. The Muslim peoples, The Muslim peoples, like everyone else in the world, are shaped by their history, but unlike some others, they are keenly aware of it. Their awareness dates however from the advent of Islam, with perhaps some minimal references to pre-Islamic times, necessary to explain historical allusions in the Qur'an and in the early Islamic traditions and chronicles. (17)

For Lewis, clearly, Islam cannot be understood (and so Arabs' conception of their own identity) without an understanding of history. For Muslims, history is religion. In discussing more recent history, Lewis discusses Wahhabism (a more conservative sect of Sunni Islam):

The rise of Wahhabism in eighteenth century Arabia was in significant measure a response to the changing circumstances of the time. One of these of course was the retreat of Islam and the corresponding advance of Christendom . . . The ire of the Wahhabis was directed not primarily against outsiders but against those whom they saw as betraying and degrading Islam from within. (173)

Lewis addresses the fact that the Saudi Kingdom was ready to endorse this brand of Islam because it helped the Saudis (who won control of Mecca and Medina in close succession in the early twentieth century) to shore up their power.

Also, in more recent history, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, according to Lewis, constituted a serious revolution. It represented a significant ideological change and (like the French and Russian Revolutions) has an an immense impact on its people. This, like the Soviet presence decades before, rather forced the United States to take sides. Lewis details the relationship between Palestine and the West as bound up with the issue of the United States's relationship with Israel. On this score, Lewis states:

The value of Israel to the United States as a strategic asset has been much disputed. There have been some in the United States who view Israel as a major strategic ally in the region and the one sure bastion against external and regional enemies. (146)

As a response to generally favorable treatment by the Americans toward Israel, Arab lords became increasingly hostile. The Soviet Union's encroachment into Arab lands ultimately led to these tensions with the West.

Finally, Lewis devotes a significant portion of his book a discussion of jihad. He notes how jihad can mean a mean any sort of striving—moral or militaristic. Fundamentalist groups showcase the latter implication, but in reality the term signifies a struggle for the sake God. Lewis remarks that jihad, while multifaceted, is a touchstone for Islam, while the Crusades (the obvious Christian analog) is quite different insofar as it was a later development in within the Christian tradition. He explains:

For most of the recorded history of Islam, from the lifetime of the prophet Mohammed onward, the world jihad was used in a primarily militaristic sense. Mohammed begin his prophetic mission in his birthplace, Mecca, but because of the persecution that he and his followers suffered at the hands of the pagan oligarchy ruling the town, they moved tot he town of Medina, where the local tribes welcomed the and installed the prophet first as arbitrator then as ruler. (70)

Lewis subsequently outlines various phases of jihad, and acknowledges that the militaristic interpretation of jihad is historically privileged over the moral one. No small amount of prejudice on the part of the West against the Muslims deserves from a limited understanding of this term.

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