Sharif Don’t Like It

The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror
Bernard Lewis

It isn’t always easy, amid all this demonizing, to remember there was a time when the world east of the Bosporus beckoned.

Even though the charges of imperialism, cultural appropriation, and intolerance stand up to some scrutiny, you can’t deny the existence or effectiveness of the merchandising.  Given your druthers would you rather be a sociologist, an historian or an Orientalist?

I know, I know, these days that means a carpet fancier. Yet there really isn’t a better word to describe Bernard Lewis, who passed away last month at the age of 101. Dr. Lewis, who was formally Cleveland E. Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University,  was practically born into a world the Orientalists made.

Well, maybe not the academic ones.

But at the time of Lewis’ birth in London, T.E. Lawrence was promoting an Arabic fifth column within the Ottoman Empire, Rimsky-Korsakov‘s Scheherazade could be heard in concert halls and readers could choose to read Sir Richard Francis Burton‘s unexpurgated translation of the Arabian Nights.  The EastNear and Far–was exotic, romantic and seductive.

It’s also fair to say that too many distinct cultures were thrown together in a cartoonish jumble of belly dancing, flying carpets, tunics, oases, sheiks and sheath dresses.

The technologies beloved in modern Western life would not be possible had the Moors not introduced the concept of Zero to Europe.

So, too, with the academics. As a layman I get to believe that Orientalists are really historians who toss in a little anthropology.  Among the fraternity, that’s probably considered an ignorant statement. I’d prefer to think of it as revealed bias.

This short book–well under 200 pages with notes–is, in part, a response to the events of September 11, 2001.  While Lewis tells us it’s a cobbled-together expansion of an article he wrote for The Atlantic, it seems more organic than that.

Lewis has an easy way with his subject matter that I always associate with mastery. For me, the book is almost conversational. More than once I found myself imagining it possible to invite Lewis for dinner and sherry, get him going and just soak up the learning.

Of course, that’s not how it works and I’d have to have Edward Said over the next night to explain all of Lewis’ sins and errors to me. But it’s nice to dream.

So what of this crisis? It’s important to have realistic expectations. There’s no way complicated social situations can be thoroughly explained in such limited space.

What you can get, though, is enough background information to help frame what you’ve learned elsewhere. I’m not entirely ignorant of Islam as a religion or the history of the Middle East so that’s a plus.

Lewis focuses on a few key points. One of these is the danger that arises in seeking to find commonalities amid vast differences. Let’s look at a simple example. Islam, we are often taught, is one of the great monotheistic religions, like Christianity and Judaism. That’s a biggie, right? Jews and Christians are even People of the Book.

The only math I ever loved (because I understood, instantly, it’s practicality). Algebra the word comes from the Arabic: al jabr.

It turns out even such a basic bit of comparative religion might be a stretch. The  Dome of the Rock, built sixty or so years after the Prophet‘s death, contains inscriptions that ‘correct’ (Lewis’ polite term) the major ‘errors’ of Christian theology, primarily the lack of a unitary godhead. Imagine if, integral to the decoration of St. Peter’s Basilica, were elements dismissing Old Testament tenets. It’s a bigger gap than many care to admit.

In a similar vein Lewis suggests that, for historical reasons, Islam, Judaism and Christianity have different relationships with the state.  In his telling the latter two religions are rooted in traditions separate and apart from the state.  It’s a bit wobbly as arguments go, what with Jewish kings like David and Solomon, and Constantine naming Christianity the imperial religion, but there’s also some truth to it. In each case belief and practice stand apart from the secular needs of the state and society.

Both religions were minority, even oppressed, sects. By contrast, Islam’s birth, as recounted by Lewis, is impossible to separate from military action, state building and expansionary conquest.

As Lewis tells the story, the triumphant expansion of Islam across Mediterranean Africa and through southern Asia over the course of several centuries created a deep cultural memory. So deep is this memory that it is all but impossible for many Muslims to conceive that separation of church and state are beneficial.

Let’s not forget the contributions to architecture as seen here in the Alhambra.

Then there’s  that one true religion belief.

Post 9/11 the one thing you can count on is that many Americans  believe Islam seeks their conversion and submission or death.

Again, Lewis reminds us that reality is a bit more complicated. Yes, the world is divided into the House of Islam and the House of War and the job of the former is to serve as the agents of Allah‘s will in overcoming the infidel. But as with Christianity, there’s as much, maybe more, internal conflict than religious conquest going on.

Lewis offers a headier stew. In the long cultural memory of Muslims there are the frictions with Christian powers (aka the Crusades).  There is the shame of what my Iberian friends call the Reconquista. There are the indignities of pre- and post WWI imperialism with Americans replacing Brits as bad guys and Soviets replacing Germans as good guys. And the exploitation, primarily of oil, by multi-national corporations backed by their states.

Stirring this pot of lost glory are a couple of new players and a deep-pocketed banker. The banker is the Saudi state which financially supports Muslims and Islamic education around the world. That is, as long as what is being taught are the tenets of Wahhabism, the ‘flavor’ of Islam favored by the monarchy almost since its inception.

Wahhabism presents an especially strict approach to Muslim teachings and, though its tough on the laity, it’s Muslim leaders of secular governments who draw the most ire. In many cases these heads of state are painted as infidels or the agents of Satan standing in the way of an Islamic caliphate which would make all right as it was in the glory days.

Food, geometric designs and pottery. That works for me as a culture worth understanding more about.

This is the root of the sketchy ideas widely held about Islam. What’s new are the Iranian Republic and Al-Queda. The former invented a whole new role for the clergy in serving as supreme overlords, with absolute veto power, over what is allegedly a republic built on Muslim principles.

Iran actually has a range of political parties operating, and regular elections, but you can easily see this leading, as Lewis’  bon mot puts it, to “One man (men only), one vote, once.” (p. 112) For Al-Queda even the vote may be optional.

Lewis offers a quick outline of Al-Queda’s antecedents from ancient times–the Assassins were an early Islamic sect–to the more recent. He establishes the goals of modern terrorism and Al-Queda’s place among those groups. As firmly, he demonstrates that the more recent forms of terrorism are distinctly not in keeping with Islamic teaching and, in fact, dispense with teachings that undermine their approach.

There’s something for everyone to dislike in this brief volume. If you’re looking for a path to singing Kumbaya and discovering the fellowship of belief, the unblinking certainty of Islam may disturb you. If you’re looking for an effective way to persuade Islamic leaders–secular and clerical–to abandon a core religious belief in the interest of peace, you may go wanting. If you’re looking for the a-ha moment when the West single-handedly created this mess with its economic, political and cultural overreach, you may still find yourself looking.

But if you want to learn more you’ll have a solid starting point.

Dr. Said, here I come.



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