"What Went Wrong?"; Perennial - Harper Collins, 2002
"The Crisis of Islam" ; Modern Library 2003
Both books by Bernard Lewis
Two book reviews by Rev. John Price
Bernard Lewis is Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He is the author of dozens of books on the Middle East, including "What Went Wrong?" and his latest book, "The Crisis of Islam," published in 2003, delves deeper into the frustration and anger in some Islamic minds against the West and its modern ways.
The title, "What Went Wrong?", is stated from the Islamic point of view, responding to the long sad decline of Islamic culture since the apex of Islamic hegemony in 1200 A.D. At that point, the Spanish forces drove the "Moors" out of Toledo and Western scholars gained access to the Arab library which contained the works of the Greek philosophers and the Arab mathematicians. The Greek philosophy in this collection which struck the greatest chord in the West was that of Aristotle, whose consideration of things material alone eventually led to the scientific and industrial revolution in the West. The "Arab" numeral system with its concept of zero, enabled higher mathematics, which was impossible with Roman numerals. The scientific approach which resulted from these two epiphanies was the unique contribution the West assembled as the result of the opening of that library in Toledo.
Islam, for its part, was hindered from a more extensively scientific approach to the Cosmos by the fear of doing something of which Allah, in the divinely dictated Quran, would have disapproved. This set up the long sad decline of Islamic culture relative to the West's growing modernization. In things military, industrial, and technological, the West became slowly and greatly superior to Islam. In the Islamic mind, they were far superior to the Christian West and became resentful of "infidel" superiority. However, they became increasingly dependant upon it but unable to comprehend it, further strengthening the resentment which fuels the frustration and anger on the Arab street today.
Professor Lewis clearly and expertly explores the many individual encroachments upon Islam by the West. Some were adaptations from Christianity, accomplished by Muslims, including the Iranian clerical hierarchy, something utterly foreign to Islam prior to 1920. This was true both in the concept of a clergy as distinct from the people of Allah and in the concept of a hierarchical structure of these clerics. In mimicking the West, Muslims are resisting it yet dependant upon it, provoking a neurosis of heightened hatred of "infidels." Add to this the Arabic phrase, "inshallah" (whatever Allah wills), and the frustration is intensified, for clearly if Allah is omnipotent, and the West is far more powerful than Islamic lands, then What Went Wrong? indeed. The results are the Iranian revolution and Al-Qaida
Lewis explores further in The Crisis of Islam the extent of the chasm between Islam and all modernization everywhere, including in Islamic lands themselves. There are several main line branches of Islam, all suspicious of one another: Sunni, Shi'ite, and Sufi. The dominant branch in Saudi Arabia is Wahhabism, named for its founder, Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th Century theologian in Arabia who preached a return to the "pure and authentic Islam" of Mohammed in response to the gradual shrinking of Islamic influence and the extension of European power into lands perceived to be Islamic by the traditionalists. His cause was taken up by the still-ruling Saud family, and Mecca and Medina were "cleansed" militarily of developments of which Wahhabi disapproved.
The Saudis, still dominated by al-Wahhab's fervor, saw their power alternately surge and recede, but the Saudi family skillfully played the British and Ottoman empires off against each other and managed to regain and expand their power. Later, in 1933, they officially brought aboard the Americans in the form of Standard Oil of California, so the link between Wahhabi fervor and enormous Saudi wealth was forged. Additionally, the Saudis are seen by their own people as tyrants in power because of American complicity and encroachment.
As Lewis describes the educational system Wahhabists developed with Saudi money, he gives a startling - and fictitious - comparison: it is as if the KKK took over Texas and its oil wealth and used it to teach their rabid views to children and young adults in schools funded by their ever-expanding wealth.
He points out that the analogy breaks down in that there is a good educational system in the West, but there is not a good educational system in many Islamic lands, so the Wahhabist point of view is taught widely, particularly in Saudi Arabia and even in some Muslim centers in Europe and the USA. Thus we see the growing seeds of religious discontent with western modernization among Saudis, all the while enjoying the fruits of their underground wealth being brought to the surface by the Americans and British. This is the stuff of intense frustration, even neurosis. From this we can understand why the largest number of terrorists on the four hijacked airplanes on September 11, 2001, were from Saudi Arabia.
Dr. Lewis then explores the deepening crisis of Islam in the Wahhabist devotion to the pure Islam of Mohammed on the one hand and the distinctly un-Islamic acts of suicide and slaughter of innocents and Muslims that took place that day and in the bombings so common in Israel today. If one is going to preach the purity of the early days of Islam and yet so thoroughly revise the teachings as to allow suicide bombings and more to be widely used, the frustration levels rise and the West is declared to be the culprit.
The Iranian clerics do not share the devotion to Wahhabism, but they also preach a return to a pure Islam while making startling deviations from it. The notion of an all-powerful Ayatollah who rules the government with a hierarchical structure of clerics is, as we have seen earlier, adapted from their observation of Christianity and is foreign to Islam. A further example of Iranian departure from pure Islam is seen in the famous fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against the Islamic author, Salman Rushdie, calling for his murder and offering a large bounty to the killer. This makes us Westerners think of a fatwa as being like a Mafia "contract" issued on a rival, but Lewis points out energetically it is absurd for this understanding to come to pass. A fatwa is a judicial statement to be issued after a fair trial with the accused present to confront his accusers or if the person was actually heard to make derogatory statements about Mohammed. Even then, the punishment would generally be flogging and prison, not a general order of assassination by bounty hunters.
Lewis has no solution either to the internal or international crisis or the frustration on the Arab street which fuels it. There are perhaps other authors who have a more positive message with solutions, but Lewis is a describer, not a proposer.