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Review: "What Went Wrong," by Bernard Lewis

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The Book:What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response
Author: Bernard lewis
Specs: Oxford University Press (2002), 180 pp.
Synopsis: A readable, quick attempt at explaining why Islamic civilization, once dominant in the world, declined and regressed so rapidly. Lewis' treatment is uneven.

What Islamic Civilization Once Was

For almost a millennium before the European Renaissance, China and the Islamic empire boasted the planet’s only two civilizations worthy of the name. China’s coincided roughly with its boundaries today. Islam, after its birth in 622 c.e., expanded so rapidly that in less than 100 years, its caliphate ruled as far east as India, southern Russia, Turkey, North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula up to the Pyrenees mountains that separate present-day Spain and France.

Muslim invaders were finally defeated in at Poitiers, in France, in 732, but as Karen Armstrong wrote in Islam: A Short History (Modern Library), “this was not regarded by Muslims as a great disaster…. Europe seemed remarkably unattractive to them: there were few opportunities for trade in that primitive backwater, little booty to be had, and the climate was terrible.” Muslims were content to regroup further south, dominate what they’d conquered and expand east--objectives they met with remarkable success, enabling them to rule unrivaled until the European Enlightenment in the 17th century.

But as European civilization was rising, Islamic civilization was declining. Or rather, it was proving incapable of keeping up with its European rivals. Europeans explored the world, developed a scientific method, established legal, economic and political systems derived from enlightened philosophy. Modernism, however, was a European invention for which Islam had no answer. Why not?

Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong? asks the provocative question and proposes to answer it in seven too-brief, too general chapters.

Islam's Journey from Superiority to Insularity

Lewis doesn’t mince words or ideas. The Middle East is the relative backwoods that it is today because at its height, Islamic civilization reveled in a superiority complex. Muslim culture took it on faith (in itself, in this case) that there was nothing the non-Islamic world could teach it, nothing in the non-Islamic world worthy of study, nothing in the non-Islamic world worthy of adaptation, let alone assimilation. Until the late 18th century, Lewis points out, “only one medical book was translated into a Middle Eastern language”—a book on syphilis. The irony wasn’t lost on Muslims: European influence was closely associated with something diseased.

Hardly any books on European history, biography or science were translated, and if they were, they weren’t made available to the general public for fear of “infidel” contamination. That’s not to say that some foreign inventions didn’t make it into the Islamic heartland. “The Turks in particular,” Lewis writes, “adopted such European inventions as handguns and artillery and used them to great effect, without thereby modifying their view of the barbarian infidel from whom they acquired these weapons.” But there was a usefulness to adapting weaponry to Islam’s conquering culture. There was no usefulness to adapting ideas, least of all ideas that could potentially questioned the order of things long ago settled Islamic norms.

Europe's Approach to Tolerance, and Islam's

Take the idea of tolerance. Islam historically has tolerated other faiths better than Christendom, but adherents to other religions were second-class citizens who paid a steep (and, to governments, often profitable) head tax. Until the European Enlightenment, that was still a far more civilized arrangement than the open and bloody prejudices minority faiths and sects suffered in Europe. But tolerance in Islam did not (and still doesn’t, in most Islamic countries) mean being allowed to convert to other faiths. That’s still a capital crime in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. And tolerance absolutely did not mean (as it came to mean in Europe and North America after the Enlightenment) enabling either an equality of faiths under the law or the secularization of government.

The consequence was a form of civilizational arrested development. Not only did Islam prohibit conversion. It feared the influence of “infidels” and discouraged its own from traveling abroad for fear that they, too, would be converted. The insularity that had been Islam’s greatest strength rapidly became its biggest weakness.

Lewis’ argument is convincing so long as he is focused on the sharp intellectual and systemic differences between Islam and the Europe of the Enlightenment. Lewis’ argument begins to shred when he takes it into the colonial era of the 19th century, and it falls apart entirely when he applies it to the 20th century.

Where Lewis Falters

For Lewis, Islam’s weakness was proven by how easily Napoleon’s armies conquered Egypt in 1798, and by Egypt’s “liberation” a few years later—not by Egyptians themselves, but by the British army. Arabs were humiliated on both accounts, as they would be again and again through subsequent European colonial conquests and hegemony from North Africa to Iran. But that doesn’t answer Lewis’ fundamental question of what went wrong.

It raises questions: Didn’t subjugation to European conquest retard the development of the Middle East? Didn’t it encourage the rise of authoritarian regimes established to further Western interests? Didn’t broken western promises (of autonomy, democracy, development) encourage reaction and retrenchment, whether in the form of Arab nationalism or the more recent phenomenon of Muslim fundamentalism?

Lewis blames the last two centuries’ stagnation in the Middle East on a culture of victimhood and, since the mid-20th century, anti-Semitism. But he doesn’t answer the question his book raises. His focus on various advances under Ottoman Turkish rule—and the willingness of Turks to question their decline and look beyond their borders for answers—raise a further question: If Ottomans (then Turkey) were able to make the leap to a secular, more modern society, why not the rest of the Middle East? It might have been more helpful to readers to attempt an answer than to devote almost an entire chapter to how the Muslim world understood the meaning of clocks and time differently than Europe.

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