Lewis' 'What Went Wrong': Muslim history with immediacy

On Books

January 13, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

In the four months since 9 / 11, a great deal of attention has gone to the question of what makes a terrorist go resolutely to a fiery death. In strong contrast, and less attended, is a broader mystery -- the cultural compulsion from which that terrorism grows and thrives.

I know of no scholar of Islam in the Western world who has more thoroughly earned the respect of generalists and academics alike than Bernard Lewis, a towering figure among experts on the culture and religion of the Muslim world. He is a chaired professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton and has written more than two dozen books, principally on the Middle East.

Now comes his fresh perspective -- history with electric immediacy: What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (Oxford, 169 pages, $23).

The central truth of Islam has not changed since its beginnings in the seventh century A.D. For all Muslims, Lewis writes, "Christianity, and therefore by implication everything associated with it, was known, familiar, and discounted. Christianity and Judaism were precursors of Islam, with holy books deriving from authentic revelations but incomplete and corrupted by their unworthy custodians, and therefore superseded by the final and perfect revelations of Islam. What was true in Christianity was incorporated in Islam. What was not so incorporated was false."

And a second vital Muslim awareness is that for most of the time from the eighth up to the 18th century, Islam led the world in arts and science -- was the strongest, richest and most influential and international of the world's civilizations. Europe was a source of slaves, at best the student, to Islam, the master.

Put together, those roots of Islamic terrorism become not only understandable, but compelling.

"For those nowadays known as Islamists or fundamentalists," he writes, "the failures and shortcomings of the modern Islamic lands afflicted them because they adopted alien notions and practices. They fell away from authentic Islam, and thus lost their former greatness."

This is not a universal belief among the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. More progressive thinking, he says, inverts that idea: "It is to fanaticism, and more particularly to fanatical religious authorities, that they attribute the stifling of the once great Islamic scientific movement, and, more generally, of freedom of thought and expression."

But that moderate, and considerably westernized, perception is anathema to the Islamists. And they are bolstered and nourished by the fact that in all history only one Muslim state, Turkey, has ever constitutionally removed Islamic doctrine as the law of the land.

In the Middle Ages, Muslim forces conquered not only all of North Africa but Spain, Portugal, Sicily and significant parts of Eastern Europe, and invaded and sacked Rome. The response was the Crusades, which were far from a total victory for Christendom. Islam retained huge control and influence in Europe until the end of the 1400s, by which time Spain and Russia were liberated. But Muslims were still a mighty world force well into the 1600s, dominating much of Eastern Europe.

By the 18th century, Europe was leaping ahead in science and sophistication of almost every description. Within the Ottoman Empire and other Islamic states, there was a great deal of concern about "What are we doing wrong?" And, equally "What are they -- the infidels -- doing right?"

Lewis contends that these questions produced -- as they do today -- an urgent sense of the need to return to root principles.

And that is empowered by a tradition of egalitarian, upward mobility -- for men. Islam condones slavery and relegates all women to being virtual chattel, but for men it is socially and economically democratic. "Islamic doctrine," Lewis writes, "was strongly opposed to hereditary privileges of all kinds, even including, in principle, the institution of monarchy." In traditional Islam, there is no clergy, only teachers, interpreters of immutable truths. No distinction between church and state is possible -- or even imaginable -- since all law derives from the Koran, which is taken literally as God's word.

But much of the present-day Islamicist excesses -- those most threatening to Westerners -- are far from traditional. "The office of ayatollah is a creation of the nineteenth century," Lewis writes, "the role of Khomeini and of his successor as 'supreme jurist' an innovation of the twentieth."

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