April 21, 2003




Western Impact and Middle East Response


Bernard Lewis

Oxford University Press, 2002, 180 pp. 


Lewis, Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton, is one of the foremost authorities on Islamic history and culture.  The book, written largely from three public lectures given in 1999, documents the historical eclipse of the Middle East over the past three centuries.  A somewhat academic volume, it is generally positive and optimistic about Islam.  It offers some clues to but does not seem to anticipate the high level tension of today’s political situation. 


For many centuries Islam was in the forefront of human civilization. (3) Europe was seen much as Africa, “an outer darkness of barbarism and unbelief from which there was nothing to learn…” (4)  “…the Renaissance, the Reformation, the technological revolution passed virtually unnoticed in the lands of Islam.” (7)


Ch 1.  Battlefield Lessons

For centuries Islam was victorious.  The first peace signed by a defeated Ottoman Empire with victorious Christian adversaries was the Treaty of Carlowitz in 1699. (18)


In 1630 an Ottoman civil servant drew attention to civilian and military weaknesses, attributing them to a falling away from the good old ways.  The remedy was a return to them.  “This diagnosis and prescription still command wide acceptance in the Middle East.” (23)


Ch 2.  The Quest for Wealth and Power

“In a society accustomed to despise the infidel barbarians…even traveling abroad was suspect; the idea of studying under infidel teachers was inconceivable.”  However, religious authorities gave permission to imitate infidels in order to fight them more effectively.  For a long time, they didn’t ask why the infidels were the ones inventing the new devices.  (43)


In the early 1800s, the Ottoman leaders began to ask the source of European wealth and strength.  Since Christianity was known to be an inferior and corrupt form of religion, the source had to be elsewhere.  (45)  “For the whole of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century the search for the hidden talisman concentrated on two aspects of the West—economics and politics, or to put it differently, wealth and power.” (46)


Modernization in the Ottoman Empire was accelerated by printing, translation, newspapers, telegraph, war correspondents, and Christian missions.  Proselytizing Muslims was a capital offense but Catholics and Protestants competed to win the Eastern Christians.  They printed newspapers and other literature that gained a wide readership. Newspapers transformed peoples’ perception of themselves and the world. (51-2) 


“The cumulative effect of reform and modernization was, paradoxically, not to increase freedom but to reinforce autocracy: 1. by strengthening the central power through …central communication…, and 2. by enfeebling or abrogating the limiting traditional intermediate powers….”  (53)


Liberty or freedom meant one who was not a slave.  “The converse of tyranny was not liberty but justice.  Justice in this context meant essentially two things, that the ruler was there by right and not by usurpation, and that he governed according to God’s law….” (54)


“By 1920, it seemed that the triumph of Europe over Islam was complete.”  “The once great Ottoman Empire was defeated and occupied, its Muslim provinces parceled out among the victorious powers.”  “But the victory was illusory and of brief duration.  The West European empires, by the very nature of the culture, the institutions, even the languages that they brought with them and imposed on their colonial subjects, demonstrated the ultimate incompatibility of democracy and empire, and sealed the doom of their own domination.”  “…these ideas had encouraged the Christian subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire to rebel and demand their independence.  In the twentieth century, the same ideas had the same effect on the Muslim subject peoples of the European empires….”  (60-1)


 “The difference between Middle Eastern and Western economic approaches can be seen even in their distinctive forms of corruption, from which neither society is exempt.  In the West, one makes money in the market, and uses it to buy or influence power.  In the East, one seizes power, and uses it to make money.  Morally there is no difference between the two, but their impact on the economy and on the polity is very different.”  (63)


Ch. 3.  Social and Cultural Barriers

Women, science, and music, mark three crucial differences in approach, in attitude, and in perception between two neighboring civilizations.  (66)


“According to Islamic law and tradition, there were three groups of people who did not benefit from the general Muslim principle of legal and religious quality—unbelievers, slaves, and women.  The woman was obviously in one significant respect the worst-placed of the three.”  (67)


“The emancipation of women by modernizing rulers was one of the main grievances of the radical fundamentalists, and the reversal of this trend is in the forefront of their agenda.”  “The emancipation of women is Westernization; both for traditional conservatives and radical fundamentalists it is neither necessary nor useful but noxious, a betrayal of true Islamic values.” (73)


Islamic civilization (in the Middle Ages) made immense contributions to the rise of modern science in Europe but it was very reluctant to investigate and accept it.  “In Europe, the scientific movement advanced enormously in the era of the Renaissance, the Discoveries, the technological revolution, and the vast changes, both intellectual and material, that preceded, accompanied, and followed them.  In the Muslim world independent inquiry virtually came to an end….” (78-9)


Ch. 4. Modernization and Social Equality

“The slave, the woman, and the unbeliever were subject to strictly enforced legal, as well as social, disabilities, affecting them in almost every aspect of their daily lives.  These disabilities were seen as an inherent part of the structure of Islam, buttressed by revelation, by the precept and practice of the Prophet, and by the classical and scriptural history of the Islamic community.” (84)


“Islam, in contrast to both ancient Rome and the modern colonial systems, accords the slave a certain legal status and assigns obligations as well as rights to the slave owner.”  “The institution of slavery is not only recognized but is elaborately regulated by Islamic law.”  (85)


“Form a traditional Muslim point of view, to abolish slavery would hardly have been possible.  To forbid what God permits is almost as great an offense as to permit what God forbids.” (86)


Ch. 5. Secularism and the Civil Society

“Secularism in the modern political meaning—the idea that religion and political authority, church and state are different, and can or should be separated—is, in a profound sense, Christian.”  “The authoritative Christian text on these matters is the famous passage in Matthew 22:21, in which Christ is quoted as saying, ‘render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.’” (96-7)


“For three centuries, Christianity was a persecuted religion—different from, sometimes opposed to, and often oppressed by the state authority.  In the course of their long struggle, Christians developed a distinctive institution—the church, with its own laws and courts, its own hierarchy and chain of authority.”  “Their relationships (Christianity and the state) may be one of cooperation, of confrontation, or of conflict.”  (97-8)


“Muhammad was, so to speak, his own Constantine.”  “There is, for example, no distinction between canon law and civil law, between the law of the church and the law of the state, crucial in Christian history.  There is only a single law, the shari’a, accepted by Muslims as of divine origin and regulating all aspects of human life….”  (100)


“Muhammad achieved victory and triumph in his own lifetime.  He conquered his promised land, and created his own state, of which he himself was supreme sovereign.  As such, he promulgated laws, dispensed justice, levied taxes, raised armies, made war, and made peace.  In a word, he ruled, and the story of his decisions and actions as ruler is sanctified in Muslim scripture and amplified in Muslim tradition.”  “The state was the church and the church was the state, and God was head of both…”  (101)


“It is only in comparatively recent times that Muslim religious thinkers of stature have looked at secularism, understood its threat to what they regard as the highest values of religion, and responded with a decisive rejection.”  (104)


“In the secularization of the West, God was twice dethroned and replaced—as the source of sovereignty by the people, as the object of worship by the nation.”  (106)


“A whole series of Islamic radical and militant movements…share the objective of undoing the secularizing reforms of the last century…  In Three countries, Iran, Afghanistan, and Sudan, these forces have gained power.  In several others they exercise growing influence, and a number of governments have begun to reintroduce shari’a law….”  (106)


“But their primary enemies, and the most immediate object of their campaigns and attacks, are the native secularizers—those who have tried to weaken or modify the Islamic basis of the state….  The arch-enemy for most of them is Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and the first great secularizing reformer in the Muslim world.”  (107)


“In modern times, Islamic tolerance has been somewhat diminished.”  Since 1683 Islam has been a retreating force in the world and Muslims have been threatened by the rise and expansion of the great Christian empires of Europe.  The threat was no longer merely military and political; “it was beginning to shake the very structure of Muslim society.”  “Muslim majorities, feeling morally threatened, became unwilling to accord even the traditional measure of tolerance.”  (114-15) 


Ch. 6.  Time, Space, and Modernity

Middle-Eastern technology and science ceased to develop when Western Europe was most rapidly advancing.  (125)


Ch. 7.  Aspects of Cultural Change

“Cultural change is Westernization; part of modernization, no doubt, but not, according to a widely held view, an essential part of it.”  (135)


In the medieval movement, what was useful was translated, that is to say primarily medicine, astronomy, chemistry, etc.  No literature.  No philosophy.  That was not regarded as useful.  Everything worth having was had.  (139)



In the 19th and 20th century, the West was dominant, invading the Muslim in every aspect of public and private life.  (151)


As the Arab world asked what went wrong, the new scapegoat was Western imperialism.  (153)


Anti-Semitism from Nazi Germany had taken root in the Arab world.  Hostile stereotypes of the Jew made the events of 1948, the failure of 5 Arab states and armies to prevent half a million Jews from establishing a state, a tremendous shock and intolerable humiliation.  Some were led to “blame all evil in the Middle East and indeed in the world on secret Jewish plots.  This interpretation has pervaded much of the public discourse in the region, including education, the media, and even entertainment.”  (154)


For the Islamists, the failures of modern Islamic lands “afflicted them because they adopted alien notions and practices.  They fell away from authentic Islam, and thus lost their former greatness.  Those known as modernists or reformers take the opposite view, and see the cause of this loss not in the abandonment but in the retention of old ways, and especially in the inflexibility and ubiquity of the Islamic clergy.”  (157)


“For the governments, at once oppressive and ineffectual, that rule much of the Middle East this (blame) game serves a useful, indeed an essential purpose—to explain the poverty that they have failed to alleviate and to justify the tyranny that they have intensified.”  (159)