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.”

Lewis matches these judgments by downgrading the importance of religion (at least in governmental circles) during the early Muslim centuries, when the Community of the Faithful was gathered under the political umbrella of the Umayyad Caliphate between 661 and 750 and the Abbasid Caliphate between 750 and 1258. Perhaps he is correct, but one can’t help recalling that the Ottoman and other Turkish dynasties also allied themselves with dervishes, whose mystical and personal approach to God was distinctly at odds with the formalities of the Sacred Law.

In general, Lewis pays little attention to the dervishes in the Ottoman Empire; and, more generally, he minimizes the Sufi transformation of Islam wrought by the spread of dervish beliefs and practices after 1000. Their personal and collective cultivation of religious mysticism does not appeal to him, and Lewis’s explanation of mysticism’s roots seems seriously misguided. He writes:

In the beliefs and practices of the various dervish orders, one may recognize something of the dance cults of the ancient Aegean lands, the seasonal rituals of Egypt, Babylon and Persia, the shamanistic ecstacies of the Central Asian Turks, and the mystical philosophy of the Neoplatonists.

But this entirely omits the principal wellspring of mystical ritual and religion, which was located from time immemorial in India.

A far more persuasive account, in my view, would show how collective techniques for inducing mystic trances infiltrated the Islamic lands from India, allowing restless young men to find God firsthand through a variety of collegial disciplines. These included suppression of normal breathing, chanting and dancing, drinking that religiously prohibited mood-altering drug called wine, or smoking hashish. Moreover, some of these same techniques were taken up among Orthodox Christian monks in the fourteenth century—a clear transfer from Muslim dervish practices—and the contagion also took root among gatherings of Latin Christian laymen, spreading as far as the Netherlands by the fourteenth century.

This neglect of mystical practices and their history points up one of Lewis’s serious limitations. He pays almost no attention to the contacts Muslims had with the two civilizations that lay to the east of them. Yet in the early Muslim centuries there was far more to learn from India and China than from backward and barbarous Europe. And, in fact, Muslims did take notice, borrowing techniques for inducing mystic trances primarily from the practices of Indian holy men. The advantages of such cultural borrowing were considerable, for dervish discipline and practice raised the commitment to Islam to a new level of emotional intensity, as personal and private encounters with God became routine for thousands upon thousands of people. One result was a fresh burst of missionary success that more than doubled the realm of Islam between 1000 and 1700.

As for China, Lewis mentions en passant that Muslim armies expressed a sort of cultural obeisance to the distant power of Peking when they adopted Mongol dress in the thirteenth century, just as they adopted European uniforms in the nineteenth. He also mentions Chinese paper, printing, and gunpowder and their effect on Muslim society. But he fails to recognize that the Chinese constituted the most influential society in Eurasia between about 1000 and 1450, achieving a position of primacy comparable to the one held by Muslims between 632 and 1000 and to which Western Europeans succeeded after 1500.

In fact, Chinese trade, Chinese technology, and Chinese wealth and power far outstripped the rest of the world for almost five hundred years, and this was when the Middle East first fell behind—at least partly because, as again later in relation to Western Europe, attachment to their past inhibited Muslims from taking foreign innovations seriously. They deliberately rejected printing, for example. Instead, instruction in Muslim learning continued for centuries to center upon oral recitation—centuries when Europeans cheapened and popularized literacy, and recklessly used the printing press to disrupt their medieval heritage by rediscovering pagan antiquity, questioning Papal authority, and spreading news about America and other exotic parts of the earth with unexampled rapidity.

This remarkable contrast between European and Muslim reactions to Chinese imports (including gunpowder) brings us to the grand question that informs Lewis’s entire approach. How was it that Muslims fell so helplessly behind their neighbors in Europe? He tells the story largely by emphasizing military and political conditions and intellectual and cultural ones, with little attention to social, economic, or technological aspects of the encounter.

Military failure was the catalyst: the Muslim response to defeat in battle was to borrow whatever seemed central to Europeans’ military success. When weapons and uniforms proved not enough, Muslims next resorted to imitating and adapting political practices. At one time or another, they imitated Western liberalism, fascism, and various forms of socialism; when these experiments failed they installed revolutionary and, in some cases, professedly Islamic dictatorships, which, Lewis writes, consciously or unconsciously used Western methods to reject the West. Here, for example, is his judgment of the Iranian revolution:

The mixture of repression and subversion, of violence and indoctrination that accompanied the consolidation of power—all this owes far more to the examples of Robespierre and Stalin than to those of Muhammad and Ali. These methods can hardly be called Islamic; they are, however, thoroughly revolutionary.

With the collapse of Soviet power, Lewis claims, “outside powers no longer determined or directed the course of events in the Middle East.” Instead, “in the last decade of the twentieth century, it became increasingly clear that…the governments and peoples of the Middle East were substantially on their own. Outside powers were no longer interested in directing, still less dominating, the affairs of the region. On the contrary, they displayed an extreme reluctance to become involved.”

How the peoples and governments of the Middle East will react to this is for Lewis fatefully unclear. “They may unite—perhaps, as some are urging, for a new holy war, a new jihad which, again as in the past, might well evoke the response of a new Crusade. Or they may unite for peace—with themselves, their neighbors, and the outside world, using and sharing their spiritual as well as their material resources in search for a fuller, richer, freer life.”

Lewis obviously favors the latter path but scarcely expects that it will be followed. Indeed, he looks back on the interwar years, when Europeans ruled the roost, with odd nostalgia. “The Anglo-French domination also gave the Middle East an interlude of liberal economy and political freedom,” he says. “That freedom was always limited and sometimes suspended, but in spite of these limitations and suspensions, it was on the whole more extensive than anything they experienced before or after.” What Lewis says here may well be true for private, personal lives; but such an assertion will only appall and exasperate his Arab critics, for whom collective subjection to European imperialists was the exact opposite of freedom.

In general, Lewis’s history suffers from the very strength of its approach. Having read so widely in Turkish and Arabic texts—literary and religious as well as archival and administrative—he concentrates his attention on the conscious reasons Muslims had for dealing with the West as they did and for changing their regimes. But there are other aspects of the great drama of the encounter between Muslim and Western people, which he neglects. Two in particular seem important to me. One was change in climate. Part of the difficulty Middle Eastern peoples had in keeping up with Western Europe after 1699 may have been the result of warmer and drier conditions. We know that such a change took place in the far western part of Europe beginning about 1750, and it could have affected the Middle East as well. In the West warmer weather meant better harvests; in the Middle East a parallel shift could only have brought drought and crop failures.

It is true that adequate evidence of climate change in the Middle East has yet to be compiled by use of the techniques that experts applied some thirty years ago to the history of climate in Western Europe; and no doubt Lewis can be excused for not discussing what is not yet known for sure. Yet there is a great puzzle, at which he barely hints, in the demographic history of the region, a puzzle which would be much clarified if, as seems probable, climatic change in the Middle East paralleled the changes to the north and west. Lewis merely remarks that there was “a rapid decline in population, particularly in the villages and especially during the eighteenth century. From such evidence as is available, it would seem that the populations of Turkey, Syria, and Egypt were lower in 1800 than they had been in 1600.” This is all he has to say on the subject, even though rapidly growing populations in Europe in the same century surely do much to account for the increasing strength of Hapsburg, Russian, and West European governments, armies, and economies.

After 1800, by contrast, there was a dramatic increase in population in the Middle East. Lewis treats the change with equal brevity. He cites population estimates showing numbers more than doubling in Egypt between 1800 and 1907 and nearly doubling in Anatolia, Istanbul, and the Turkish Islands between 1831 and 1913. About the continued, explosive population growth of the peoples of the Middle East in our time he has nothing whatever to say. Yet according to World Bank estimates, in many Middle Eastern countries “more than half the population is under the age of fifteen.”* It seems obvious to me that the recent fervor of revolutionary discontent, of which Lewis is so acutely aware, draws much of its energy from the frustration young people feel when they cannot take over traditional adult roles in their native villages simply because there is not enough land for them to cultivate as their parents did.

Migration to the towns is a dubious even if necessary solution. Jobs in overcrowded slums are hard to find and a satisfactory life is far to seek. In such circumstances, the moral community offered by an emotionally charged revolutionary party seeking the restoration of pristine Islam can be all but irresistible. Once Islamic movements take power, promises of a better life may be broken, as they have in Iran and other countries. But so long as such movements are in opposition, even if at risk of brutal police repression—as in contemporary Egypt—they can help to sustain otherwise bleak lives.

It is not surprising that Lewis does not consider whether demography could have such psychological consequences for contemporary Middle Eastern affairs. He relies on written texts, as a historian must, and does not depart very far from what they tell him. Since religious and other revolutionary movements do not attribute their appeal to demographic circumstances, no one is likely to find an explicit textual basis in primary sources for suggestions about the importance of both demography and climate for recent Middle Eastern history. Yet a consideration of the variable circumstances of which contemporaries may not be aware, or about which, for reasons of their own, they remain silent, ought not to be dismissed from historians’ repertory of explanation simply because overt statements are absent. Inference and intuition can often discover the central factors in a situation quite apart from what surviving documents tell us.

Conscious and professed purposes are not everything in human affairs. On the contrary, a great variety of processes, including deep changes in the natural and technological environment, of which participants may be unaware, often twist human hopes and intentions this way and that, and divert them from their ostensible goals. Historians have always recognized the discrepancy between what people want and hope for and what they experience. Our early predecessors explained persistent discrepancies by invoking God’s will, fortune, or chance. Since the European enlightenment most academic historians have preferred to identify various historical processes without agreeing on how to analyze them and feeling wholly justified in departing from what their sources have to say.

Lewis’s disregard of the rural majority throughout his book reflects both this conscientiousness—and lopsidedness. “Peasants,” he says, “…are the silent ones. Their views and their feelings are for the most part not reflected in the literature and documents which provide most of our information about the history of the region.” Quite so; yet to omit discussion of them, as he does, because the texts he uses say so little about them, is not a satisfactory solution. After all, the cities, along with the scribes and professional writers who made all those records, ate food from village fields. Peasants were in the majority—the great majority—and considerations of how their conditions of life altered across the centuries in Christian and Muslim countrysides would add a great deal to the portrait of the encounter between civilizations that Lewis has undertaken.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, for example, there is reason to think that peasants of the Balkans found Ottoman government easier to bear than what they had known under Christian overlords. By the eighteenth century or before, however, that pattern was almost certainly reversed, partly for institutional, partly for technical, and partly, perhaps, for climatic reasons. And the demographic growth and decline that took place at the same time had much to do with altering the military and political balance between Muslims and Christians. But that is a different story from the tale Lewis tells so elegantly of changing tides in the consciousness of urban elites, and the shifting patterns of disdain, fear, imitation, admiration, and rejection that have characterized Muslim-Christian relations during the past 1,364 years.

But it is foolish to reproach Lewis for not writing a different book from the one he chose to put before us. Instead one should admire its polish and respect its wide learning, and ask others to explore the demographic, rural (and also artisanal) aspects of the great drama of the Muslim-Christian encounter, to which he has devoted his professional life.

This Issue

June 20, 1996