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The Great Contest

Cultures in Conflict: Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Age of Discovery

by Bernard Lewis
Oxford University Press, 101 pp., $16.95

Bernard Lewis writes history with an air of lofty detachment, a fine mastery of the English language, and an easy familiarity with Arabic and Turkish archival and literary sources. The result is delightful and impressive, and for readers familiar only with the European side of the long story of Muslim-Christian encounters he has much to teach. On the other hand, he neglects the interactions between Muslims and Indians, and Muslims and Chinese, and as result his portrait of the last two thousand years of Middle Eastern history is sharply skewed westward.

This is understandable, for what Lewis is most concerned with is to explain recent and contemporary relations between Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Those relations turn upon the way the course of history appeared to reverse itself after 1699, when a thousand years of Muslim successes in encounters with the Christian West gave way to three centuries of increasingly serious Muslim defeat and failure. According to Lewis, the resulting decline in Muslim morale and disarray in Muslim institutions resulted in a breakdown of consensus among Middle Eastern peoples on the way to deal with such humiliation, and their bewildered resentment turned the Middle East into the volatile political cockpit we hear about every day.

To be sure, the victories of the Hapsburg armies in defending Vienna and reconquering Hungary from the Ottoman Turks between 1683 and 1699 were not the first defeats suffered by Muslim armies. Crusaders conquered the Holy Land in 1099 after all; and the Christian reconquista of Spain was complete by 1492. But as Lewis makes clear, renewed Muslim successes counteracted these setbacks. After 1699, however, victories for Dar al-Islam were few and trivial, while defeats were serious and, indeed, crippling.

Lewis approaches this prolonged confrontation of religions and civilizations by seeking to understand how the contesting parties viewed one another. In his words: “The thousand-year-long Muslim threat to Europe was twofold, military and religious, the threat of conquest and of conversion. West of Iran and the Arabian Peninsula the vast majority of the early converts to Islam in the Levant and North Africa were converts from Christianity.” As a result, “there is a pervasive sense of fear in discussions, by Europeans, of Islam and of the Muslim peoples whom they encountered.” By contrast,

Judging from the rare and rather disdainful references in Muslim writings, western Europe must have appeared to them rather as Central Asia or Africa did to Victorian Englishmen. For Muslims, the land beyond the northwestern frontier of Islam was a remote and unexplored wilderness inhabited by exotic and picturesque tribes with dirty and nasty habits, possessing a very low level of culture and professing a superseded religion, and with few commodities of any value to offer, apart from their own people, who might be brought to some minimal level of civilization through the divinely ordained institution of slavery.

Lewis emphasizes the parochialism of medieval Christendom, writing in Cultures in Conflict that “Islamic civilization, in contrast, was the first that can be called universal, in the sense that it comprised peoples of many different races and cultures, on three different continents.” And,

Yet it was the poor, parochial, monochrome culture of Christian Europe that advanced from strength to strength, while the Islamic civilization of the Middle East suffered a loss of creativity, of energy, and of power. Its subsequent development has been overshadowed by a growing awareness of this loss, the search for its causes, and a passionate desire to restore its bygone glories. (The Middle East)

Cultures in Conflict, based on three lectures, explores an episode in this seesaw of encounters between civilizations. Lewis set out to correct our preoccupation with Columbus by connecting the European discovery of the Americas with the far-reaching shift in the Muslim-Christian balance of power that was set in motion by the Spanish conquest of Granada in 1492. He points out that Ottoman victories over Christendom in Hungary—notably at Mohacs in 1526—more than counterbalanced Christian military successes in Spain and the almost contemporary Russian emancipation from their Muslim overlords in 1480. He goes on to discuss the hardening religious confrontation that resulted from the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain, and their subsequent dispersal within the still-rising Ottoman Empire, where many of them became trusted and economically useful instruments of Ottoman statecraft.

A final chapter takes up the great European explorations not only of previously unknown places but of long-neglected cultures as well. The latter are what principally interests Lewis. “The parallel discoveries—of antiquity by scholars, of the world by travellers, of their own languages by humanists—and the weakening grip of religious authority on the mind of Europe all combined to encourage a new perspective in which religion was no longer the primary, still less the sole, definition of identity, otherness and conflict.”

This world view is what Lewis himself finds congenial, and he does not disguise his impatience with contemporary critics of secular Western civilization and its recent record of triumphant expansion. “In setting out to conquer, subjugate, and despoil other peoples, the Europeans were merely following the example set them by their neighbors and predecessors and, indeed, conforming to the common practice of mankind…. The interesting questions are not why they tried, but why they succeeded and why, having succeeded, they repented of their success as a sin. The success was unique in modern times; the repentance, in all of recorded history.”

Lewis concludes on a rather dour note, declaring that

Imperialism, sexism, and racism are words of Western coinage, not because the West invented these evils, which are alas universal, but because the West recognized and named and condemned them as evils and struggled mightily—and not entirely in vain—to weaken their hold and to help their victims. If, to borrow a phrase, Western culture does indeed “go,” imperialism, sexism, and racism will not go with it. More likely casualties will be the freedom to denounce them and the effort to end them.

It may be that Western culture will indeed go: The lack of conviction of many of those who should be its defenders and the passionate intensity of its accusers may well join to complete its destruction. But if it does go, the men and women of all the continents will thereby be impoverished and endangered.

Nothing so emotionally intense as this appears in the pages of Lewis’s more formal work, The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. Indeed most of its pages describe the world of Islam and the institutions and the ideas that governed it with the lively, sympathetic, and somewhat condescending curiosity that has informed his ceaseless inquiries into Arabic and Turkish texts during the past sixty years. Born in London in 1916, Lewis published the first of his more than twenty books on Islamic history in 1940. He pursued a successful academic career at the University of London, and then left for Princeton in 1974; his retirement only seems to have increased the pace of his historical writings.

Lewis explains in the preface that he started his account of the Middle East with the Christian era in order to “rescue the two great empires of Persia and Byzantium from the modest place usually assigned to them” and “establish some link between the Middle East that we know today and the ancient civilizations of the region.” He works, he writes, “to reduce the political narrative to a minimum and to devote more attention to social, economic and, above all, cultural change.”

Lewis achieves the second of his professed goals admirably; but the opening chapters entitled “Before Christianity” and “Before Islam” struck me as thin and conventional, and they do very little to rescue Persia and Byzantium from undeserved neglect. The rest of the book is divided into three roughly equal sections of which the first gives an account of Middle Eastern events from the origins of Islam to the end of Ottoman expansion in the seventeenth century. The second analyzes Islamic society in essays on “The State,” “The Economy,” “The Elites,” “The Commonalty,” “Religion and Law,” and “Culture.” These chapters concentrate on the centuries between Muhammad’s revelation and the seventeenth century, and sum up what Lewis has to say about the achievements of Muslims before their frustrating failures in competition with the rising power of Western Europe.

The book concludes with an account of clashes between Muslims and the Western nations since 1699. Here Lewis mingles sketchy political narrative with observations about social, economic, and above all cultural changes that swept across the Middle East in these centuries. He is concerned to show how the older, autonomous, Muslim civilization was twisted into new forms, even, or especially, when reformers’ intent was to return to old truths and authentic holiness.

Surprising information frequently appears in Lewis’s pages, for instance the fact that black African slaves served in an Egyptian expeditionary force sent to Mexico in 1863. Or again, I for one was not previously aware that the Ottoman government was distracted from suppressing the Greek rebels seeking independence in 1821 by its last war against Iran. More generally, when we look at public events from a Middle Eastern vantage point, as Lewis does throughout, we find that the importance of Persia expands, both politically and culturally. Of the Iranians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries he writes:

All their neighbours—the Ottomans, the Muslim states of Central Asia, of Afghanistan, of India—were Sunni, and their Shi’a faith brought sharp contrast and permanent conflict with these neighbours. Patriotism came late to Iran, and when it came it exercised an irresistible appeal even for the anti-Western, anti-modern, anti-secular leaders of the Shi’ite radical movements.

With such observations Lewis makes very clear how the unexpected impact of Khomeini in American public life in 1979 had roots in Islamic and, indeed, in pre-Islamic history. This is one of the valuable lessons he has to teach.

Lewis offers another striking challenge to prevailing academic views by skipping over the Crusades, regarding them as entirely trivial. As he casually remarks: “So far had the idea of jihad faded from Muslim consciousness that when, at the end of the eleventh century, the Western crusaders occupied Palestine and captured Jerusalem, their presence and their actions aroused hardly a flicker of interest in the surrounding Muslim countries.” The Crusaders never appear in his pages again. Instead he is interested in what really mattered for Muslims in the centuries when the intrusive Christians still clung to their footholds on the eastern Mediterranean coast. For what concerned them was the challenge of the “extremist” and “insurrectionary” Isma’ili sect to the unity of Islam, which was then reaching its climax.

Another surprise for me was Lewis’s repeated assertions reflecting his view that “in the earnestness and seriousness of their loyalty to Islam,” the Turks were “equalled by no other people.” As a result, he says, “the Ottomans made what was perhaps the only really serious attempt, in a Muslim state of high material civilization, to establish the Holy Law of Islam as the effective law of the land.” Between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, “they gave to its scholars and its judges a power such as they had never known before.” He also points out that “the classical jihad against Christendom was resumed by the Ottomans—of all major Muslim dynasties, the most fervently and consistently committed to the Muslim faith and to the upholding and enforcement of the Holy Law.”

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