Bernard Lewis
Bernard Lewis; drawing by David Levine

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,1 which examines the Muslim encounter with and perceptions of Europe and Europeans, originated in a lecture which was delivered in 1955. The Emergence of Modern Turkey,2 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 wealth, discipline, and fighting spirit of the Ottomans to the “public poverty, private luxury, impaired strength” and “broken spirit” of the Christian states and concluded that Europe was doomed and that the Ottomans would triumph. It was Europe that feared conquest and domination; and, in Spain and Sicily, the Church and the ruling families feared the powerful attraction that Arab culture and language had for Christians. This fear and the intense accompanying concern to immunize Christians against conversion to Islam and the hope of converting Muslims to Christianity, Lewis writes, first encouraged Arabic scholarship in Europe.

Religious antagonism reinforced the intensity of the rivalry. Unlike Judaism, traditional Christianity and Islam, “both claimed to possess not only universal but exclusive truths.” Each felt it had a sacred obligation to convert others to its creed. Neither was willing to recognize the other as possessing a different, but nevertheless, valid divine dispensation. “Both shared this new and almost unprecedented idea that they were the unique possessors of the whole of God’s truth.” This, Lewis writes, made the encounter between Europe and Islam different from the encounter of Europe with China and India, and different from the relations of both Islam and Christianity with Judaism. India and China, Lewis observes were regional civilizations, and did not perceive themselves, or act, as if they possessed universal truth. The Jews, Buddhists and Hindus did not aim at converting all of mankind to their faith.

The colonial empires have come to an end in Europe, religious fervor has greatly diminished. But in many parts of the Islamic world, certainly in the Middle East, there is a widespread belief that European domination continues, this time through the control of economic resources, superior military power, science and technology, and through the pernicious influence of Western cultural values and ways of life. Thus, Lewis writes, large numbers of Muslims have recently reverted to a militant form of religion and seek, through a reinvigorated Islam, to defend themselves against a Western cultural onslaught and to assert their own, unique identity. They attack their present and past rulers—including Ataturk, Nasser, and the ruling Arab monarchs—as Muslims in name only and as tyrants and autocrats, subverters of Islamic law, and agents of Western cultural influence. Such attitudes undoubtedly result in part from modern developments, but for Lewis they also reflect and continue older animosities.


For devout Muslims, Lewis writes, Islam is not only a religion; it is “the whole of life.” It is the source of civil and criminal law, a guide to social behavior. It defines the nature of government and is the source of the legitimacy of the state. This, of course is the classical view of the relationship of Islam to society. Many would argue that it is no longer valid or, at the very least, that Islam is only one of many forces in the modern world that shape the life of Muslims, and that the content of this Islam is itself changing. Most Islamic states—Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and Algeria among them—have, Lewis notes, adopted secular legislation, inspired by European models, in civil and criminal matters; and most governments in Islamic societies diverge considerably from the ideal Koranic model. In Iraq the ruling Baath Party was militantly secular until setbacks in the war with Iran, and then with the US over Kuwait, led Saddam Hussein to rediscover his Islamic identity. In Saudi Arabia, the ruling family are keepers of the holiest shrines of Islam but its members continue to amass fortunes and to spend them lavishly in ways that are hardly in keeping with the Prophet’s ideal of the simple life.

Many Muslims lead largely secular lives. Throughout the Middle East, even in Islamic Iran, education is primarily secular and much of the technocratic elite has been educated in the West. In Iran, despite recurrent crackdowns, the government’s “moral police” cannot prevent women from using makeup and wearing fashionable Western clothes under their Islamic dress; nor can it prevent the middle class from privately enjoying alcohol, Western music, and sexual intimacy. Lewis insists, nevertheless, that even today, Islam to a large extent defines how Muslims see themselves.

When an earlier collection of Lewis’s essays, Islam in History, was published twenty years ago,3 some reviewers took Lewis to task for under-estimating the gains made by secularism in the modern world. But in his new book he makes it clear that he feels vindicated in view of three large developments, the continuing power of the Islamic revolution in Iran, the recent proliferation of Islamic movements throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and southeast Asia; and the inclination of all these movements to use Islam as the principal means of asserting individual and group identity and articulating their visions. He was among the first to sense the significance of the early stirring of the current Islamic revival. His prescient essay “The Return of Islam” recast and expanded for this book, appeared in 1976.

Today Lewis argues that secularism in the Islamic world is under attack, and the current wave of Islamic movements in North Africa, Egypt, Iran, and even Turkey

share the objective of undoing the secularizing reforms of the last century, abolishing the imported codes of law and the social customs that came with them, and returning to the holy law of Islam and the Islamic political order.

This is what Islamic fundamentalism is primarily about.

This development, Lewis suggests, is in part the result of the decline and fall of the old Westernized elites and “the entry into political life of more authentically popular elements.” The fundamental sentiments of the masses in many of the Muslim countries are, he clearly believes, sympathetic to the Islamic vision; and therefore it is likely that greater popular involvement will only strengthen the Islamic element in political life. The recent election in Algeria of an Islamic party with genuine popular support, an election soon annulled by the military, is only one of many recent cases bearing out his analysis.

In his essay “State and Society under Islam,” which appears in the revised edition of Islam in History,4 Lewis considers the prospects for “civil society” in Islamic countries. By this he means a society in which the initiative for political action, for the organization of social and cultural activity, does not come from the elites who hold power, whether monarchs or military dictators or political mullahs. It comes instead from people who have their own close ties to the local community. Lewis describes the many forms of civic activity in traditional Muslim society: a deeply rooted tradition of private charity and private charitable endowments for the common good; strong bonds within the family, kin group, and clan, and among Sufi brotherhoods, crafts, and guilds; the strength of neighborhoods or wards in the Islamic cities; a degree of tolerance for other “recognized” religions (Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism), and for diverse sects within the larger Islamic community.


But Lewis also observes that in the Islamic world, religion was never entirely displaced as the organizing principle of society, that the separation of religion and state was seldom recognized and rarely took place. Religion has been formally disestablished only in two Middle Eastern Muslim states, Turkey and Lebanon. In all the others, Islam is officially recognized, although in some instances, as in Syria, the constitution merely requires that all laws be in accordance with the shari’a. If in the West the independence and initiative of civil society are measured in relation to independence from the state, Lewis observes, under Islam it must usually be measured in relation to the independence of society from religion, of which the state is merely the instrument. He argues, therefore, that in Islam, civil society would mean a society in which the organizing principle is something other than religion.

Lewis does not say what this organizing principle might be. But he points elsewhere to the example of Turkey, which removed any references to Islam from its constitution and abrogated shari’a as a source of the law. No other Middle Eastern Muslim state has gone this far, although several, including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran before the overthrow of the monarchy, restricted the application of the shari’a primarily to family law and moral content, such as laws against adultery. Lewis reverts to the same idea in an essay on the notions of secularism and of separation of church and state in the Middle East and in Europe. He notes that in the Middle East the idea of church and state being separate had no coherent meaning and that in both the Islamic states and in Israel there has been an increasing tendency for the religious leaders to become active in politics and assume political office.

Secularism in the Christian world was an attempt to resolve the long and destructive struggle of church and state. Separation…was designed to prevent two things: the use of religion by the state to reinforce and extend its authority and the use of the state power by the clergy to impose their doctrines and rules on others. This is a problem long seen as purely Christian, not relevant to Jews and Muslims. Looking at the contemporary Middle East, both Jewish and Muslim, one must ask whether this is still true—or whether Jews and Muslims may perhaps have caught a Christian disease and might therefore consider a Christian remedy.

The “Christian remedy” to which Lewis refers is of course the separation of state and religion; but in view of the central importance that Lewis ascribes to both religion in Muslim societies and to the sympathy of the masses for Islam, one can doubt he sees much prospect of this separation taking place.

The essays in this collection make large statements and, though scholarly, are not overburdened by extensive footnotes and paraphernalia. They tell us a great deal about Lewis’s approach. Whether he is writing about contemporary events, such as the murder of President Sadat, or medieval Islamic concepts of war and peace, he examines his subjects in their historical setting, and tries to show how they evolved. He insists that judgments on matters of history must be firmly rooted in a careful examination of texts and documents and, in studying these, he attaches great importance to the nuances of language—whether Arabic, Persian, or Turkish—so that one can grasp the sense in which words and concepts were applied in the past. The methods he used in his The Political Language of Islam5 are much in evidence here. That book was a study of the language of politics, in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian, and, through language, of the ways in which Muslims conceived of relations between ruler and ruled, rights and duties, legitimacy and illegitimacy, obedience and rebellion. He showed how changes in political attitudes and concepts can be traced through changes in political vocabulary and its meaning. For example, in classical Arabic the term watan meant one’s place of birth or residence, but under the impact of Western notions of nationalism is today most often used (in its Persian and Turkish variants also) to mean patrie, or fatherland. The modern Arabic term for liberty, hurriyya, Lewis points out, was first used in this sense in a proclamation issued by Napoleon when he landed in Egypt in 1793. It derives from a root that had a primarily legal connotation and that meant “free” as opposed to slave.

In the new collected essays, too, Lewis stresses language and the evolving meaning of central terms and concepts. Because of the importance he attaches to Islamic law in shaping Muslim society and attitudes, he is closely attentive to legal concepts and to the legal definition of the status of minorities under Islam and the relations of Muslim with non-Muslim states. Muslim jurists, Lewis notes, argued whether Muslims under non-Muslim rule were still subject to Muslim law and the jurisdiction of Muslim judges, whether Muslims whose territory had been conquered by Christians could stay or were required to migrate to a Muslim land. This leads him to discuss a new and historically unprecedented development—the substantial numbers of Muslims who have voluntarily chosen to emigrate and live in non-Muslim countries. In Europe there are today large Muslim communities—Turkish “guest workers” in Germany, Muslims from Pakistan and India in England, Muslims from North Africa in France. These communities, Lewis writes, make for a “massive and permanent Muslim presence in Europe.” They are tied by culture, language, religion, and kinship to their countries of origin, but as they are inexorably being integrated into their countries of residence, their presence “will have incalculable but certainly immense consequence for the future of both Europe and Islam.” Characteristically Lewis’s essay on Muslims under non-Muslim rule deals primarily with the attitudes of Islamic law toward emigration. An anthropologist would obviously take a different approach showing how Muslims were absorbing, rejecting, modifying European practices and their own.

It is perhaps this emphasis on texts, language, and law that led one reviewer to remark that Lewis “often abstracts the concepts from the real-life situations in which they take their actual meaning.”6 No doubt it is true that the world of Islam is extraordinarily varied, and that “Islam” and “Muslims” can mean very different things in, say, Egypt and Indonesia. It is also the case, as Lewis himself shows, that some of the thinkers who shape current Islamic movements, in Iran, Egypt, North Africa, and elsewhere, are attempting to reinterpret classical Islamic law and doctrine in new ways. Some of them read into these a commitment to social justice and the more equal distribution of wealth.

The Iraqi Shi’ite scholar Mohammad Baqer Sadr, for example, argued during the 1960s that the leader of an Islamic state (who would necessarily be a cleric) could take over private property in the interests of the disinherited classes. In Egypt and in Algeria, where there is much talk of popular sovereignty, ideologues of the Islamic movement condemn autocratic rule and argue for popular participation; they do so by giving a new twist to a saying, attributed to the Prophet, commanding the faithful to consult with one another on public affairs. We may describe the recent movements as “fundamentalist”; but as Lewis points out they are not always literal in their treatment of the Koran, the law, and religious tradition.

In dealing with such new developments Lewis’s inclination, again, is to look at the way in which they influence the interpretation of Islamic law and tradition among jurists. The law, as he shows, was repeatedly modified to accommodate reality. For example, in considering the obligation under Islamic law of the head of the Muslim community and state to wage jihad, or “holy war,” against the infidels, Lewis writes that in principle this war against unbelievers “was to continue until all mankind either embraced Islam or submitted to the authority of the Muslim state.” But only in principle: the Islamic jurists, whether in Ottoman Turkey or contemporary Pakistan, have interpreted this obligation to permit inaction, accommodation, even temporary peace with infidel powers.

Even when Lewis’s approach is “legalistic,”—indeed perhaps because it is—he can bring out basic factors that form Islamic attitudes. His approach reminds us of an enduring tension between the Islamic ideal, which is based on the Koranic law, and the realities of everyday life and politics. Islamic fundamentalists for example interpret the Islamic prohibition of usury to apply to interest on loans. Yet banks in Islamic countries, including Pakistan and Iran, where “Islamic banking” laws are in force, both pay and charge interest, although this is thinly disguised as a share in bank profits or a charge for bank services. The ruling classes in Islamic states, whether Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Algeria, evidently fall far short of the ideals of piety, justice, incorruptibility, and material austerity they are supposed to subscribe to; and this contradiction has been effectively exploited by the Islamic groups calling for stricter observance. Yet Lewis is skeptical about the prospects of pan-Islamic cooperation among the different national religious movements; he points to a lack of “educated, modern leadership” within them.

Lewis’s scholarship is prodigious. He is deeply read in the original sources, the classical texts, and the secondary literature of Islamic and Ottoman history. His knowledge of Islamic and Ottoman history and law is vast, and he writes about them with exceptional clarity. His mastery of Arabic is everywhere evident, and he is equally at home in Ottoman and modern Turkish, Hebrew, Persian, and other languages.

It is precisely on the matter of scholarship that his deepest differences have emerged with the critics of the “orientalist” tradition in Islamic scholarship. “Orientalist” is a term that refers to scholars of Eastern, including Islamic, languages and cultures, just as “Hellenist” refers to scholars of the Greek world. But it has recently come to assume an almost pejorative connotation, owing to the attack launched on the tradition of scholarship it represents by Professor Edward Said, initially in his book Orientalism, and in subsequent essays. Basically, Said claims, oriental studies were a handmaiden to imperialism and that orientalists, and specifically academics concerned with the Islamic world, looked down on the people they studied, and, in misunderstanding them, created demeaning images of the East and Islam that were part of the larger imperialist enterprise. Their very concern with the past and with ancient texts was a way of denying the reality of life as it is lived by contemporary Muslims. A younger generation of scholars has fastened on this criticism and carelessly used the term “orientalist” as if it were a form of abuse, an accusation of moral inadequacy.

But Lewis points out that this criticism gets historical facts wrong. (His response to Said, “The Question of Orientalism,” first published in the New York Review, appears in an expanded version in this volume.) Western study of the Islamic world, he points out, preceded and did not follow empire. The first chairs in Arabic were established at the Collège de France in Paris and at Cambridge and Oxford universities in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, long before imperialists turned their attention to the Arab or Islamic world. Early scholarship was defensive, in that it was driven by the desire to learn more about an encroaching and superior Islamic power; some of it grew out of polemics between Catholics and Protestants. Western scholarship of the Islamic world, moreover, was carried out not only in France and England, but in Germany and other countries that had few imperial interests in the region. Much of the scholarship of ancient and dead languages or of archaeological sites had little conceivable connection with the advancement of empire; most orientalists spent years studying difficult languages and editing difficult texts out of intellectual curiosity and a desire to understand another civilization, not out of imperial design. Commerce and administration encouraged scholarly interest but they did not dictate it.

Europeans, Lewis writes, often viewed Islam through a distorted mirror. But he shows that the general imputation of pernicious motives to European scholars of the Islamic world is contradicted by careful examination of particular writers and texts. His own essay “Gibbon on Muhammad” is a case in point. Lewis is closely familiar with the European texts that Gibbon used for his study of the life of the Prophet and with the Arabic texts on which these studies were based. He shows that Gibbon was influenced by “several layers of myth and misunderstanding” regarding the Prophet but that he also shrewdly saw through the polemics in his sources and was not taken in by them.

Gibbon shared some of the condescending Enlightenment attitudes toward Islam but he also brought to his subject his own perspective, and he used his own judgment in assessing the life and acts of Muhammad. In praising aspects of Islam, moreover, he was indirectly criticizing the Christian beliefs and practices of his own day. When Gibbon, like his Enlightenment predecessors, portrayed the Prophet of Islam as an ordinary mortal he did so, Lewis notes, in order to argue against the Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ. He described Islam as a religion without priests, church, or excessive dogma to suggest a contrast with what he saw as a Christianity burdened by all three. (“The Mohometan religion,” Gibbon wrote, “is destitute of priesthood or sacrifice; and the independent spirit of fanaticism looks down with contempt on the ministers and slaves of superstition.”) The picture that emerges is thus complex. Gibbon is neither an agent of the British imperial enterprise nor a defender of the British ruling classes but a uniquely gifted as well as flawed writer grappling with the problems of reconstructing history.

In examining the broader, orientalist scholarly tradition, Lewis, unlike his critics, does not take a monolithic view. He does not conclude that because there was scholarship and there was empire, the two must converge, or that the imperial impulse and the lack of appreciation of Islamic (and other non-European cultures) permeated all of Western culture, including its scholarship, literature, and political philosophy. He avoids dogmatic positions himself and sees dogma as something to be analyzed. It is this sense of nuance, of historical setting, of honesty to texts, that informs the essays in Islam and the West.

This Issue

October 7, 1993