Bernard Lewis, who passed away recently, was a doyen of Ottoman and Arab history. In his work, he explained why Muslim have shared an uneasy relationship with modernity and West
Bernard Lewis (1916-2018), the renowned American scholar of Islamic and Middle Eastern history, passed away recently at 102. He will be remembered for his penetrating insight into the Ottoman Turkish and Arab history. He coined the term “clash of civilisations”, which later became famous in an essay for The Atlantic magazine in 1990. Lewis was one of the illustrious alumni of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Born in a Jewish family in London in 1916, he grew up through times when Islam had ceased to be a factor in global discourse.
The Institution of the Caliphate which had existed in Islam since the seventh century, was abolished in 1924 by the newly founded Republic of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Persia and Egypt had adopted for a Western type education and politics. Thus, when Lewis opted for an academic career in an arcane subject like history of Islam and Middle East rather than law, which he had also studied, people might have chuckled in wonder. But by the turn of the 21st century, when he was still intellectually active, Islam repositioned itself as the biggest X-factor in global history. Bernard Lewis stood vindicated.
His critics tend to accuse Lewis of Western triumphalism. He was indeed an unapologetic Westerner, wistfully reminiscent of Europe’s historical ordeal when Arabs followed by Turks and Tartars hemmed into the continent from different directions. “At first there seemed every reason” observes Lewis, “why Islam should triumph and Europe succumb. Almost from its beginning, Islam was a world empire and a world civilisation extending over three continents, inhabited by different races, including in itself the seats of ancient civilisations of Egypt and Fertile Crescent, to which were added Iran and northern India. Muslims had inherited the philosophy and science of Greece, which Europe did not discover for centuries to come; the wisdom and statecraft of Iran; and much even of Eastern Christian and Byzantine heritage. While Europe was caught between Islam in the south, the steppes in the east, the Ocean in the west, and frozen wastes in the north, the world of Islam was in contact, sometimes in war but often peacefully, with rich and ancient civilizations of India and China” (Islam and the West, P8).
What saved the day for Europe was the Italian Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, maritime explorations, resourcing of gold and silver from South America, wresting of the Indian Ocean spice trade, colonialism and Industrial Revolution. Otherwise Europe’s game would have been up pretty long ago.
The Arabic rule lasted in Spain close to 700 years. Its cessation was marked by the reign of Barbary corsairs, in the northern African coast, who held the European maritime commerce to ransom for more than 300 years. Then there was the fall of Constantinople (1453) to the Turks, followed by the overrunning of the Balkans and seizing of Vienna twice. In the game of chess, to use that metaphor, it was often a close call for Europe. Islam would have proclaimed Shah-maat (checkmate) anytime.
His detractors criticise Lewis for promoting religious antagonism. But his intellectual temperament was farthest from it. His approach was clinical, impartial, shorn of any kind of emotions. He sought to examine how the foundational legacy of Islam was different from that of Christianity and why Islam shared an uneasy relationship with modernity and universalism.
He located the answer in a verse from the Bible: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Mathew 22:21). Its implication is that there is a distinction between religious and secular spheres of life in Christianity. The State can co-exist with the Church. But for the Muslim, God is Caesar and the Caliph is vice-regent. In Islam there is no clear distinction between the religious and secular facets of life. Thus, theology can overrule astronomy in Hijri Calendar; revelation can override reason in matters of law, what can be false in philosophy can be true in religion. Lewis was aware of Islam’s glories at the height of political power. “In most of the arts and sciences of civilisation” says Lewis, “medieval Europe was a pupil and in a sense dependent of the Islamic World.” But he knew that Christians and Muslims were inspired by very different foundational legacies.
Lewis reminds that Jesus died upon the Cross, whereas the Christians remained a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire for close to three centuries. But Mohammed, the prophet and founder of Islam, achieved worldly success during his lifetime, becoming the head of state that would soon grow into an empire. Thus, power, in Islam’s narrative is inseparable from faith. Allah, Muslims feel, wants them to dominate the world.
Lewis, a polyglot, knew Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, modern Turkish, Ottoman Turkish, French and German extremely well. In February, 1998, when Osama bin Laden issued his “Declaration of World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders”, Lewis interpreted it in the light of his knowledge of Islamic history and Arabic in an essay in Foreign Affairs (“License to Kill”, FA November-December, 1998).
The fatwa was issued apparently to oust the American soldiers who had established military bases in Saudi Arabia, to defend the kingdom against Saddam Hussein’s expansionist designs. But Lewis interpreted the core motive of Osama bin Laden by citing a fatwa of Caliph Omar (641 AD) which stated that Jews and Christians should be removed from Arabia to fulfill an injunction uttered by Prophet Mohammed on his death bed: “Let there be no two religions in Saudi Arabia.”
Lewis belonged to a tradition of Orientalism, which as against popular misconception, had begun ages before the Colonial era. Ramon Llull (1232-1316), a Catalonia philosopher and theologian, was the first European to realise the need for Christians to master Arabic and Islam. Lewis, aware of this Oriental heritage, informs that the first chair in Arabic in France was founded in the Collège de France by King Francis in 1538.
In England, the first chair in Arabic was instituted in Cambridge in 1633 and in Oxford in 1636. These were centuries before France or Britain embarked upon any colonial career in Egypt and the Middle East. Lewis took cudgel against Edward Said (1935-2003), disproving his famous theory that Orientalism was a construct of colonial interests. Throughout his life, Lewis continued only one passion, the Ottoman and Arab history, not interested in the world, even Islamic world, outside that ambit.
(The author is an independent researcher. The views expressed are his personal)