We are, in this country right now, engaged in the process of constructing, rather hurriedly, as though we had better quickly get on with it after years of neglect, a standard, public-square image of “Islam.” Until very recently, we had hardly more than the suggestions of such an image—vagrant notions of stallions, harems, deserts, palaces, and chants. A Peter Arno drawing in The New Yorker sixty-five years ago more or less summed the matter up. A stetson-hatted tourist leans out of his roadster to ask a turbaned man prostrate in prayer by the side of the road: “Hey, Jack, which way to Mecca?”

The reason for the rush to change this casual mixture of ignorance and indifference is clear enough: September 11, suicide bombers, Kuta Beach, Osama, Nairobi, the Cole—and now the Iraq war. What isn’t clear, and will not become so for quite some time, is where it all is taking us, what our sense of this obscure and threatening Other that has appeared suddenly—and literally—on our domestic horizon is going ultimately to be. The familiar, almost intimate enemy we precipitously lost with the dissolution of the Soviet Union is being replaced in our minds by something far less well defined, much further removed from the political history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe and America. Communism, with its roots in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, at least had a Western pedigree. Marx and Lenin emerged from historical backgrounds all too recognizable, with ideological intentions derived, on the face of them, from some of our dearest social hopes. But “Islam,” a creed of Arabs, Turks, Africans, Persians, Central Asians, Indians, Mongols, and Malays, has been rather off our cultural map. What are we Americans to think about an inflamed competitor of which most of us know hardly more than the name?

There has been an avalanche in the last two or three years of books and articles—by historians, by journalists, by political scientists, by students of comparative religion, by sociologists and anthropologists, and by variously inspired amateurs—designed to assist us in answering this question, to give us a crash course in, as the phrase goes, “understanding Islam.” “Jihad,” a term most Americans had encountered, if they had encountered it at all, in dime novels or at Saturday matinees, has become a prime subject of popular and scholarly discourse. Works designed for that elusive figure, the general reader, have begun to appear on something called, variously and confusingly, “reformism, “modernism,” “radicalism,” “extremism,” or “fundamentalism”—sometimes, even, “Wahhabism”—in contemporary Islam. Handbook explications of Islamic law, of the teachings of the Koran, of the fast, the pilgrimage, or the meaning of the veil are suddenly on offer. So are introductions to Islamic schooling, science, ritual, and scholarship, and accounts of the Shiite clergy, the ecstatic brotherhoods, and that mysterious flying object, “Sufism.”

Bernard Lewis, perhaps the leading Orientalist of the day, has, at the fine old age of eighty-six, become a best-selling author, a television celebrity, an urgent hawk, and a know-your-enemy adviser to the vice-president of the United States. An attempt to introduce a course on the Koran at the University of North Carolina has produced a state-and-church cause célèbre and an outburst of right-wing sectarian rage. A short, self-confident book by Karen Armstrong, an English ex-nun with an urge to instruct, has become perhaps our most widely read guide to “the religion of the Prophet.” Even the Italian media-madam, Oriana Fallaci, rather off the radar screen since her famous sendup interview of Henry Kissinger a decade or so ago, has checked back in with a screaming attack on anything Muslim, “Afghans and Bosnians and Kurds included,” as well as anybody in the West who might consider saying something less than abusive about “the culture of the bigots with the beard and the chador and the burkah.”1

And that is only the beginning. An ex-Trotskyite, ex-beatnik, ex-obituary writer from San Francisco who converted to Sufism in Bosnia and became Washington bureau chief of the Jewish Forward issues a zealotic attack on Saudi zealotry and gets himself fired from the Voice of America. The son of a prominent anti-Soviet scholar active during the cold war carries “the West vs. the Rest” polemic forward with a “the Muslims are coming, the Muslims are coming” call to arms. A South Asian exile, publishing under an assumed name in the United States, popularizes the work of an obscure group of Arabists from London’s School of Oriental Studies dedicated to the textual deconstruction of the Koran, the Traditions, the Prophet, and “the myth of Mecca,” whole and entire. A former Supreme Court clerk to Justice David Souter, now a law professor, searches through Islamic examples of state and government looking for signs and portents of democratic potential. An ex-CIA staff officer, with thirty years of practice in the Middle East, urges us to win the hearts and minds of “Muslim intellectuals,” a growing class, he says, of open and tolerant cosmopolitan thinkers.2


Thomas Simons, Clinton’s last ambassador to Pakistan, a career diplomat retired to Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, sets “political Islam” against the background of a sweeping historical macrophase: “IT [i.e., information technology]- led globalization.” Vartan Gregorian, the head of the Carnegie Corporation and former president of Brown University, in search of “the best means to facilitate multilateral dialogues between Western and Muslim intellectuals, professionals…clerics… and theologians,” produces a power-point ex- ecutive summary of what Islam is about for his board of trustees, and gets the Brookings Institution to publish it, the Rockefeller and MacArthur foundations to support conferences to examine it. Paul Berman, a historian of the New Left, his subject remaindered, turns his attention to ferreting out the “deep,” “sophisticated” philosophy behind Islamic extremism so as to formulate a comparably reflective, comparably militant counterposition.3 Many arrows fired in many directions with varying force, varying effectiveness, and varying intent. What are we to make of it all? Which way to Mecca indeed?

The problem is made all the more difficult by the fact that these arrows are not being fired randomly into the empty air, but, as the above catalog suggests, onto a scene already crowded with ideological combatants. The American idea of Islam, various, irregular, and charged with foreboding, is being built up at a time when the American idea of America is itself the subject of no little doubt and dispute, and the country as a whole seems embarked on a disconsonant and quarrelsome course. The forms the “What is Islam?” argument takes—“What do they really believe?” “How do they really feel?” “What do they really intend?” “What can we do about them?”—owe as much to domestic divisions, to warring conceptions of our national interest and national purpose, what we believe and feel and intend, as they do to the matted, instable, rapidly changing thought world they seek to represent. The effort to “understand Islam,” to locate it, describe it, and reduce it to intelligible summary, is caught up in the excitements of the present moment. It is a thing of responses and reactions—of warnings, reassurances, advices, attacks.

The literally scores of books, good, bad, indifferent, and peculiar, pouring right now from our public presses represent, therefore, more than the opportune exploitation of an emergent mass market or, what is perhaps the same thing, a strategic shift in the winds of intellectual fashion. They represent the opening stages of something quite new, and in some ways unprecedented, in our national experience: the construction, live and in real time, out there in the common culture where we can see it made, watch it happen, observe its makers, and track its progress, of an enduring image of an alien phenomenon, obscure and worrisome, working its way in toward the center of that experience. From that point of view, a making up of a collective mind about an imagined object, what needs first to be assessed is less the reliability, knowledgeability, or scholarly standing of the writers clamoring for our attention and assent. That varies enormously and is beyond summary judgment. What needs first to be assessed is: What sort of thing is it that these determined reality instructors would have us think?


In that spirit, one more concerned with assumptions than findings, it is possible to mark out four main approaches, which, although neither unmixed nor self-contained, more or less divide and bound the overall field of argument and interpretation. There is, first, the “civilization” approach, which opposes “the West” as a whole to “Islam” as a whole and compares their fates. Second, there are the attempts to pick apart the various streams of contemporary Muslim thought and practice and place them within a culturally familiar grid of ideological contrasts—to sort “good” Islam (and “Islamists”) from “bad,” “real” from “false,” “authentic” from “hijacked,” “tolerant” from “terrorist” in terms of recognized categories of political expression. Third, there are conciliative, or reconciliative, efforts seeking out “many are the roads but God is One” convergences between Islamic teachings and those of the other major religious traditions so as to lay a positive course for their co-evolution. And finally, there are place-, or people-, or nation-focused studies that conceive of “Islam” less as a cohesive mega-entity persisting through time, than as a collection of particular, in many ways disparate, “family-resemblance” traditions coming into more and more immediate and difficult contact with one another as the vast and entangling forces of all-over modernity advance.

The “civilization” conception of things was, and is, the approach generally characteristic of what is usually referred to, sometimes descriptively, sometimes tendentiously, as “Orientalism”—that is, the world-historical, textual-philological, originally European, university tradition of “‘Mid-‘ or ‘Near’ Eastern (or, sometimes, ‘Semitic’) studies,” a tradition based, from Renan forward, on an underlying thematic contrast between “Christendom” and “the Islamic World.” “Christendom,” as a term, has rather gone out of fashion since the middle of the last century when first Oswald Spengler and then, in a different way, Arnold Toynbee put a bit in the shade the fashion of characterizing whole civilizations and their evolutions on the basis of their supposed “spirits.” But recently it has experienced something of a revival, especially in geopolitical circles, with such writers as the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington and his conception of an impending “clash of civilizations” along “the bloody borders”—the Balkans, Central Asia, Sudanic Africa, the southern Philippines—that divide the Islamic from the Christian (or anyway, post-Christian) worlds.4


The most prominent figure here, as well as the most controversial, is, again, Bernard Lewis. Lewis, who was educated in Islamic history at the University of London’s School of Orien-tal and African Studies before the Second World War, served during that war in British intelligence, and moved to Princeton in 1974. He is the author of more than twenty books and hundreds of articles on Near Eastern and Islamic subjects: the formation of the Turkish Republic; race, color, and slavery in Islam; the history of the Arab-speaking peoples; the political language of Islam; the Muslim discovery of Europe; the Jews of Islam; and the avant la lettre twelfth-century terrorist cult called, after its members’ supposed addiction to hashish, “the Assassins.” Possessed of an assured and liquid style, casually erudite, sardonic, dismissive, and given to grand conclusions, he has, by dint of tireless writing, lecturing, traveling, consulting, and media-swinging, established a public, quasi-official role for himself as the go-to authority on all things Middle Eastern.

His two most recent books, What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam, evolved out of popular articles in The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, written before September 11 and now seen to be prescient. They are well on the way to becoming the standard accounts of the us-and-them, war-of-the-worlds, believers-and-infidels conception of the Muslim mind. “For newcomers to the subject,” Time magazine has proclaimed, “Bernard Lewis is the man.” For US News & World Report he is “the scholar of the hour.” For National Review, “the father of us all…when it comes to Islamic studies.”

Lewis’s argument is simple enough. Muslims the world over are caught up in a confused and resentful mourning over the loss of a cultural primacy that was once theirs and has now been lost. They are enraged alike at the West, history, infidels, and “modernity,” as well as at themselves for having allowed matters to come to such a pass. At the time when Christian Europe was mired in the Dark Ages, what knowledge it had even of its own roots was mediated through Arabic translations of Greek manuscripts. The Muslim world—Damascus, Baghdad, Grenada, Istanbul, Fustat, Isfahan—was, for about a thousand years, not just the preeminent civilization in the world, it was, walled and self-contained and sequestered China aside, the only civilization:

For many centuries the world of Islam was in the forefront of human civilization and achievement. In the Muslims’ own perception, Islam itself was indeed coterminous with civilization, and beyond its borders there were only barbarians and infidels…. The remoter lands of Europe were seen in much the same light as the remoter lands of Africa—as an outer darkness of barbarism and unbelief from which there was nothing to learn and little even to be imported, except slaves and raw materials. For both the northern and the southern barbarians, their best hope was to be incorporated in the empire of the caliphs, and thus attain the benefits of religion and civilization.

What changed all this was the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Industrial Revolution: the revival of Western learning and the decay of Arabic, Persian, Moorish, and Ottoman culture; the rationalization of Christian doctrine and the petrification of Islamic; the growing military and economic disparity between the technologically developed, “scientific” West and the traditional, backward, “handicraft” East. The opening of the sea routes to India and to the New World in the sixteenth century, the Ottoman halt before the gates of Vienna in the seventeenth, and the entry of Napoleon into Egypt at the end of the eighteenth were but so many stages in the long withdrawing roar of Islamic grandeur, the descent of the once great Muslim world of Avicenna and Ibn Khaldun, Saladin and Suleyman the Magnificent, into “a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression, culminating…in alien domination” and the radical xenophobia that has gone with it.

In What Went Wrong? this seesaw version of Christian-Muslim history—when the one is up, the other is down—is related in casual, restrained, almost regretful tones, punctuated with sly asides and dégagé observations; and that is, surely, the main reason, apart from the fortune of its spot-on timing, for the book’s extraordinary public reception. At a time when so much history writing has abandoned causal, storybook, “and then, and then…” narrative for postmodern nonlinearity, skepticism, relativism, flash, and indeterminacy, the classical grand récit, breathing the authority of received scholarship, measured tone, the long view, and plain fact, comes as something of a relief. At least someone knows.

But in The Crisis of Islam, written after September 11 (What Went Wrong? was written just before it; a brief postcript describing the attack as “the latest phase in a struggle that has been going on for more than fourteen centuries” was added upon publication), Lewis dramatically abandons this donnish and deliberate deep-view position for intense, and intensely contemporary, close-up polemic designed to arouse the West, and most especially the United States, to armed response. Mossadeq, Ba’athism, Suez, the Muslim Brotherhood, Wahhabism, the massacre at Hama, suicide bombers, Khomeini, the Taliban, the Islamic Salvation Front, Saddam, Osama—what was in the first work but implied and insinuated is here explicitly stated, sans nuance, sans reserve: Muslim rage at Muslim failure, “holy war and unholy terror,” has become a threat, not just eventually and to Christendom, but here and now and to the world as a whole:

If the [Muslim fundamentalists] can persuade the world of Islam to accept their views and their leadership, then a long and bitter struggle lies ahead, and not only for America. Europe…is now home to a large and rapidly growing Muslim community, and many Europeans are beginning to see its presence as…a threat. Sooner or later, Al-Qa’ida and related groups will clash and the other groups will clash with the other neighbors of Islam—Russia, China, India—who may prove less squeamish than the Americans [have] in using their power against Muslims and their sanctities. If the fundamentalists are correct in their calculations and succeed in their war, then a dark future awaits the world….


But the notion of Islam as a “civilization”—an autonomous, continuous, self-organizing thought world, border-guarded and set apart—is not confined to the Muslim/Christian, Orient/ Occident way of looking at things. One can also see Islam, thus imagined, as a particular example of a general process, a distinct and special version of a developmental progression characteristic of human history overall. Or one can see it against the background of its involvements, also troubled, also longstanding, also worsening, with another “great religion,” this one a large-scale, long-lived cultural formation neither Western, scriptural, monotheistic, nor (at least until recently) proselytizing. Or, and perhaps most familiarly, least self-consciously, one can see it as the persistence across the centuries of an original revelatory moment, a fixed prophetical message, restated and redescribed under the varying pressures of time and circumstance but, in the very nature of the case, unchanged and unchangeable.

Thomas W. Simons Jr., who was the US ambassador to Pakistan between 1996 and 1998, and before that (1990– 1993) to Poland and deputy assistant secretary of state for the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Yugoslavia, and before even that a Council on Foreign Relations Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a doctoral student at Harvard specializing in European history, is obviously the sort of figure who would be inclined to think big. In Islam in a Globalizing World, a short, sweeping, rather breathless book (there are almost more citations than there are sentences), Simons sees Islam, not just at present, but over the entire course of its thirteen-hundred-year career, as “the world’s most powerful engine, agent, and vehicle of globalization, and…[its] most sharply contested battleground.”

Since the fall of communism, and of the class-and-domination terminology that went with it, Simons says, the idea of globalization has emerged as a “common denominator in analyses of world affairs.” Defined as “the impulse among humans to reach…beyond the families and kinship groups that historically have provided their first self-definition and best security; to multiply and strengthen their ties via interactions with other human beings; and to argue about why they should or should not do these things,” globalization is a historical constant. How far it extends, how fast it moves, and how deeply it penetrates at any particular time or place varies with “the state of technology, social organization, and conceptualization.” But rather like the dialectic, it is always there, driving and directing the pace of change.

It is not so difficult to fit so vague a phenomenon as “Islamic society” into so pliable a scheme. For “the first thousand years” of that society’s existence (from Muhammad’s death in 632 to the second Vienna siege in 1683), Muslims, like Christians, Hindus, and Chinese, “lived in agricultural economies from which rulers based in cities extracted and spent surpluses in ways that generally had religious sanction.” “The astounding expansion” of “the small Muslim community the Prophet had established in the Arabian merchant cities of Mecca and Medina,” its engulfment of Syria, Egypt, North Africa, Anatolia, Iraq, and Persia over the course of a few centuries, launched the most powerful and far-flung movement toward cultural, political, and economic integration the world had ever seen. The Umayyads, Abbasids, Buyids, Seljuqs, Timurids, Safavids, and Ottomans (they all pass by in a dizzying, “meanwhile in Afghanistan” procession) represent but so many turns “in history’s wheel,” so many stages in the foundation of a Nile-to-Oxus globalization—Hodgson’s “Islamicate”—still very much in place.

The appearance of “globalization by blood and iron” after the eighteenth century, and the imperialism—Napoleon, Algeria, and the Great Game—it brought with it, “coarsened” matters somewhat and led to a “progressive simplification and brutalization of the [increasingly revivalistic] Islamic discourse.” But it was not until the 1970s, when “globalization led and driven by coal, steel, and petroleum [gave] way to globalization led and driven by information technology”—“IT”—that the classic Islamic world began to come, dangerously and definitively, apart. The dispersion of religious authority, the weakening of the nation- state, the failure of “defensive modernization…strapped to the chariot-wheel of import substitution,” and an emerging sense of elite betrayal all conduced to a new radicalism that was “the real starting point for the intricate, winding paths that led some thirty years later to the stupefying attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon.” Well, perhaps—though recent events suggest that the shaping force of steel and petroleum may be far from spent, and who knows where any fatality starts.

There is, in any case, another, more easterly, less developmentalist position from which to look at the long and relentless expansion of the Islamicate, another enormous confusion of mythological tales, micro-states, and magical traditions into whose cultural space it has long since obtruded—i.e., “India.” In his exuberant, overwritten, rambling and contentious, but for all that sporadically incisive The Shade of Swords, M.J. Akbar, Muslim founder-editor of the English-language Indian daily The Asian Age, former Congress MP, and a nonstop commentator on all things political, describes how “the rise of Islam” looks from Delhi.

It looks horrendous. (Akbar’s jacket photo of a raging-turban mob of anti-US demonstrators thronging the streets in Peshawar after September 11 conveys the view he takes of Islam, as do his chapter titles—“The Joys of Death,” “Circle of Hell,” “History as Anger.”) And what is more, it looks—whether he discusses Kashmir, the Taliban, Zia ul-Haq, or Ramzi Youssef—increasingly menacing. The first hun- dred or so pages of Akbar’s book is given over to an offhand, Sunday-supplement account of the rise of Islam and its engagements with Christianity—engagements that were virtually always hostile, always ignorant, always unperceiving. But it is in the final hundred pages or so, when he turns to his own, South Asian, side of things (“Jihad in the East: A Crescent over Delhi”), that he contributes something, if not more measured, at least more shaded and directly felt.

Partition (“a history of anger and a literature of revenge divided India and created Pakistan”) was but the most dramatic stage in the long-term production on the subcontinent of a Crescent and Saffron Robe struggle, a jihad and counter-jihad that would match, both for persistence and for violence, the Cross and Crescent one to the west. Kashmir, Bangladesh, the destruction of the Babri Mosque, the rise of Hindu radicalism, and the appearance of Osama bin Laden, an export from the one battlefront to the other, in Kabul and Kandahar: “The jihad is never over.” “Defeat is only a setback in a holy war.” “The jihad goes on.” And the stakes by now are nuclear.

In short, for Akbar, as for Lewis and for Simons, “Islamic civilization” is to be seen more in the perspective of its reactions to what surrounds it, to what confronts it and what it confronts—the West, the East, globalization—than it is to the promptings, whatever they might be, of its spiritual character. It is its encounters with others, rather than with itself, that have shaped it. In her Islam: A Short History, Karen Armstrong, author of a number of earnest, tract-like books on religious subjects—Buddhism, Genesis, medieval mystics, Judaism, fundamentalism, devotional poetry, “Christianity’s creation of the sex war in the West,” and her own experiences as first an aspirant and then a breakaway nun5—takes another tack and portrays the course of Muslim history as a temporal unfolding from a revelatory foundation, the carrying forth of a settled faith into an unsettled world:

The historical trials and tribulations of the Muslim community—political assassinations, civil wars, invasions, and the rise and fall of the ruling dynasties—were not divorced from the interior religious quest, but were of the essence of the Islamic vision. A Muslim would meditate upon the current events of his time and upon past history as a Christian would contemplate an icon, using the creative imagination to discover the …divine kernel. An account of the external history of the Muslim people [is not] of mere secondary interest, since one of the chief characteristics of Islam has been its sacralization of history.

This approach to the matter has at least the advantage of being more or less the way the vast majority of believing Muslims look at things, and Armstrong writes with a crisp, catechistic authority that gives her book (like Lewis’s, it is a national best seller) a ready appeal. The lack of concern with specifically religious conceptions and specifically spiritual motivations in most of the “understanding Islam” literature does produce something of a Hamlet without the Prince effect.

But, still, an account “through the eyes of faith” of the “external history” of Islam has difficulties of its own, for it involves accepting the Koranic account of things, and especially of the Prophet and the Prophecy, more or less at face value. Viewing the whole career of Islam in the world, all those assassinations, wars, invasions, and dynasties, as a temporal unfolding out of its “primitive,” revelatory moment—Muhammad in Mecca and Medina, the transmission of the Koran, the battle at Badr—risks being seen, rather like viewing Christianity as an extension of the story “He was born, He was crucified, He was resurrected” told in the Gospels, as at once naive and apologetic, a just-so Sunday-school tale too simple to be credible, too coherent to convince, too deeply absorbed in its inner impulses to see very clearly what has, in the hard course of events, become of them.

Indeed, any attempt to conceive of “Islam” in sweeping, “civilizational” terms—Lewis’s, Simons’s, Akbar’s, Armstrong’s, or anyone else’s—is in some danger of conjuring up cloudscapes mighty like a whale and concocting Joycean big words that make us all afraid. A descent into the swirl of particular incident, particular politics, particular voices, particular traditions, and particular arguments, a movement across the grain of difference and along the lines of dispute, is indeed disorienting and spoils the prospect of abiding order. But it may prove the surer path toward understanding “Islam”—that resonant name of so many things at once.

—This is the first of two articles.

This Issue

June 12, 2003