Islam and the West
Islam and Christianity, Bernard Lewis writes in his new book, have been called “sister religions,” because of their shared Judaic, Hellenistic, and Middle Eastern heritage. Yet throughout thirteen centuries they have most often been in combat. They were both “old acquaintances” and “intimate enemies, whose continuing conflict derived a special virulence from their shared origins and common aims.”
Lewis has long been fascinated with the encounter between Islam and Christendom, Islam and the West, two religions and civilizations. He has returned to the subject again and again. The Muslim Discovery of Europe, a study of the late Ottoman Empire and the Turkish republic, deals extensively with the political, territorial, social, and cultural changes the Ottomans brought about as part of their increasingly unequal confrontation with Europe.
The essays in Islam and the West illustrate three broad themes: the nature of the encounter itself, European perceptions of the world of Islam, and Muslim perceptions of and responses to the European challenge. The collection also provides us with insight into Lewis’s distinctive understanding of the relations past and future between Islam and the West.
For Lewis, the encounter between the two has been central and fateful to the history of both civilizations. The expansion of European power during the last five centuries he sees as rooted in the clash of Islam and Christendom; it was partly a response to the growth of Ottoman power and partly a continuation of the struggle of the conquered peoples of Europe to free themselves from Muslim subjugation. Of course there were long periods of coexistence, accommodation, mutual borrowing, even alliances between the Ottomans and European states, as when the Ottomans fought as allies of the British and French against the Russians in the Crimean War. But Lewis describes the relationship as one in which the antagonisms of the Ottoman period established perceptions, suspicions, and enmities that would continue to shape the relations between Islam and the West.
The story turns on conquest and counter-conquest. The Islamic empire and Europe disputed a common territory, first in the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain, then in southeastern and central Europe. Christians and Muslims competed for domination of trade and sea routes. During the last two centuries, in the age of imperialism and colonialism, we have come to view Europe as the dominant power in this relationship. Lewis reminds us that for almost a thousand years, from the founding of Islam to the second siege of Vienna in 1683, Islam, as it developed in the Near East, Iran, North Africa, and the Turkish lands, among other places, was the expansionist power; it was most often superior to Christian Europe in wealth, armies, learning, science, and technology.
In the middle of the sixteenth century, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor to the Ottoman court, compared the …