The Crisis of Islam

by Bernard Lewis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The themes of Bernard Lewis' The Crisis of Islam include religion (specifically the practice of jihad), history, and economics. The book was an expansion of a New Yorker article that Middle Eastern historian and scholar wrote in response to the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

As to the first, Lewis remarks that the nature of the Qur'an actually promotes martyrdom, and moreover suggests that it is not enough to praise God (as did Muhammad in the seventh century), but Muslims are also enjoined by religion to resist forces inimical to Islam (as Mohammed resisted the Meccans). Another marked feature of Islam that Lewis points out is that it is conjoined in Middle Eastern culture with politics. The title "caliph" means "successor" as well as "deputy." One example tenet of Islam is jihad, which means "armed struggle" as well as "moral striving." The militaristic view of jihad is, according to Lewis, very specific and misrepresented by a select group of extremists.

The first several chapters of the book are devoted to the history of the Islamic states from the days of the prophet Muhammed to the present. Lewis outlines the history of the several caliphates that ruled throughout the Arabian peninsula and parts of Europe and Africa. Since the establishment of the religion with the recognized status of Mohammed as a prophet, the religion of Islam has grown to attract a billion and a third people. Lewis emphasizes that the Islamic religion represented the dominant culture in the Middle Ages. It is only relatively recently (since the seventeenth century) that the Islamic states of the Middle East have been outpaced by the West and the Orient.

Lewis also carefully details the current economic disadvantages of the Middle East. While the Saudi peninsula is oil-rich, it is controlled by exponents of Wahhabism—a very conservative and strict variety of Sunni Islam that is suspicious of novelty. Also noted by Lewis is the relatively small number of books translated to Arabic, suggesting that the ruling parties seek to regulate what the population reads. The relatively stagnant economy in the Middle East is part and parcel of the limited education (as many regions feature only Wahhabi schools), which itself is an enduring effect of centuries, at this point, of European colonialism.

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