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…

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