Bernard Lewis

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Bernard Lewis (born 31 May 1916) is a British-American historian specializing in oriental studies.


The Return of Islam (1976)[edit]

Lewis, Bernard (January 1, 1976). "The Return of Islam". Commentary. 

  • As medieval Christian man could only conceive of religion in terms of a trinity, so his modern descendant can only conceive of politics in terms of a theology or, as we now say, ideology, of left-wing and right-wing forces and factions.
  • To the modern Western mind, it is not conceivable that men would fight and die in such numbers over mere differences of religion; there have to be some other “genuine” reasons underneath the religious veil. We are prepared to allow religiously defined conflicts to accredited eccentrics like the Northern Irish, but to admit that an entire civilization can have religion as its primary loyalty is too much. Even to suggest such a thing is regarded as offensive by liberal opinion, always ready to take protective umbrage on behalf of those whom it regards as its wards. This is reflected in the present inability, political, journalistic, and scholarly alike, to recognize the importance of the factor of religion in the current affairs of the Muslim world and in the consequent recourse to the language of left-wing and right-wing, progressive and conservative, and the rest of the Western terminology, the use of which in explaining Muslim political phenomena is about as accurate and as enlightening as an account of a cricket match by a baseball correspondent.
  • The three major Middle Eastern religions are significantly different in their relations with the state and their attitudes to political power. Judaism was associated with the state and was then disentangled from it; its new encounter with the state at the present time raises problems which are still unresolved. Christianity, during the first formative centuries of its existence, was separate from and indeed antagonistic to the state with which it only later became involved. Islam from the lifetime of its founder was the state, and the identity of religion and government is indelibly stamped on the memories and awareness of the faithful from their own sacred writings, history, and experience.
  • In classical Arabic and in the other classical languages of Islam there are no pairs of terms corresponding to lay and ecclesiastical, spiritual and temporal, secular and religious, because these pairs of words express a Christian dichotomy which has no equivalent in the world of Islam.
  • For the Muslim, religion traditionally was not only universal but also central in the sense that it constituted the essential basis and focus of identity and loyalty. It was religion which distinguished those who belonged to the group and marked them off from those outside the group. A Muslim Iraqi would feel far closer bonds with a non-Iraqi Muslim than with a non-Muslim Iraqi. Muslims of different countries, speaking different languages, share the same memories of a common and sacred past, the same awareness of corporate identity, the same sense of a common predicament and destiny. It is not nation or country which, as in the West, forms the historic basis of identity, but the religio-political community, and the imported Western idea of ethnic and territorial nationhood remains, like secularism, alien and incompletely assimilated.
  • Islam is a very powerful but still an undirected force in politics. As a possible factor in international politics, the present prognosis is not very favorable. There have been many attempts at a pan-Islamic policy, none of which has made much progress. One reason for their lack of success is that those who have made the attempt have been so unconvincing. This still leaves the possibility of a more convincing leadership, and there is ample evidence in virtually all Muslim countries of the deep yearning for such a leadership and a readiness to respond to it. The lack of an educated modern leadership has so far restricted the scope of Islam and inhibited religious movements from being serious contenders for power. But it is already very effective as a limiting factor and may yet become a powerful domestic political force if the right kind of leadership emerges.
  • The current fascination among Muslims with the history of the Crusades, the vast literature on the subject, both academic and popular, and the repeated inferences drawn from the final extinction of the Crusading principalities throw some light on attitudes in this matter. Islam from its inception is a religion of power, and in the Muslim world view it is right and proper that power should be wielded by Muslims and Muslims alone. Others may receive the tolerance, even the benevolence, of the Muslim state, provided that they clearly recognize Muslim supremacy. That Muslims should rule over non-Muslims is right and normal. That non-Muslims should rule over Muslims is an offense against the laws of God and nature, and this is true whether in Kashmir, Palestine, Lebanon, or Cyprus. Here again, it must be recalled that Islam is not conceived as a religion in the limited Western sense but as a community, a loyalty, and a way of life—and that the Islamic community is still recovering from the traumatic era when Muslim governments and empires were overthrown and Muslim peoples forcibly subjected to alien, infidel rule.

The Roots of Muslim Rage (1990)[edit]

Lewis, Bernard (September, 1990). "The Roots of Muslim Rage". The Atlantic. 

  • Islam is one of the world's great religions. Let me be explicit about what I, as a historian of Islam who is not a Muslim, mean by that. Islam has brought comfort and peace of mind to countless millions of men and women. It has given dignity and meaning to drab and impoverished lives. It has taught people of different races to live in brotherhood and people of different creeds to live side by side in reasonable tolerance. It inspired a great civilization in which others besides Muslims lived creative and useful lives and which, by its achievement, enriched the whole world. But Islam, like other religions, has also known periods when it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence. It is our misfortune that part, though by no means all or even most, of the Muslim world is now going through such a period, and that much, though again not all, of that hatred is directed against us.
  • For a long time now there has been a rising tide of rebellion against this Western paramountcy, and a desire to reassert Muslim values and restore Muslim greatness. The Muslim has suffered successive stages of defeat. The first was his loss of domination in the world, to the advancing power of Russia and the West. The second was the undermining of his authority in his own country, through an invasion of foreign ideas and laws and ways of life and sometimes even foreign rulers or settlers, and the enfranchisement of native non-Muslim elements. The third—the last straw—was the challenge to his mastery in his own house, from emancipated women and rebellious children. It was too much to endure, and the outbreak of rage against these alien, infidel, and incomprehensible forces that had subverted his dominance, disrupted his society, and finally violated the sanctuary of his home was inevitable. It was also natural that this rage should be directed primarily against the millennial enemy and should draw its strength from ancient beliefs and loyalties.
  • Of all these offenses the one that is most widely, frequently, and vehemently denounced is undoubtedly imperialism—sometimes just Western, sometimes Eastern (that is, Soviet) and Western alike. But the way this term is used in the literature of Islamic fundamentalists often suggests that it may not carry quite the same meaning for them as for its Western critics. In many of these writings the term "imperialist" is given a distinctly religious significance, being used in association, and sometimes interchangeably, with "missionary," and denoting a form of attack that includes the Crusades as well as the modern colonial empires. One also sometimes gets the impression that the offense of imperialism is not—as for Western critics—the domination by one people over another but rather the allocation of roles in this relationship. What is truly evil and unacceptable is the domination of infidels over true believers. For true believers to rule misbelievers is proper and natural, since this provides for the maintenance of the holy law, and gives the misbelievers both the opportunity and the incentive to embrace the true faith. But for misbelievers to rule over true believers is blasphemous and unnatural, since it leads to the corruption of religion and morality in society, and to the flouting or even the abrogation of God's law. This may help us to understand the current troubles in such diverse places as Ethiopian Eritrea, Indian Kashmir, Chinese Sinkiang, and Yugoslav Kossovo, in all of which Muslim populations are ruled by non-Muslim governments. It may also explain why spokesmen for the new Muslim minorities in Western Europe demand for Islam a degree of legal protection which those countries no longer give to Christianity and have never given to Judaism. Nor, of course, did the governments of the countries of origin of these Muslim spokesmen ever accord such protection to religions other than their own. In their perception, there is no contradiction in these attitudes. The true faith, based on God's final revelation, must be protected from insult and abuse; other faiths, being either false or incomplete, have no right to any such protection.
  • There are other difficulties in the way of accepting imperialism as an explanation of Muslim hostility, even if we define imperialism narrowly and specifically, as the invasion and domination of Muslim countries by non-Muslims. If the hostility is directed against imperialism in that sense, why has it been so much stronger against Western Europe, which has relinquished all its Muslim possessions and dependencies, than against Russia, which still rules, with no light hand, over many millions of reluctant Muslim subjects and over ancient Muslim cities and countries? And why should it include the United States, which, apart from a brief interlude in the Muslim-minority area of the Philippines, has never ruled any Muslim population? The last surviving European empire with Muslim subjects, that of the Soviet Union, far from being the target of criticism and attack, has been almost exempt. Even the most recent repressions of Muslim revolts in the southern and central Asian republics of the USSR incurred no more than relatively mild words of expostulation, coupled with a disclaimer of any desire to interfere in what are quaintly called the "internal affairs" of the USSR and a request for the preservation of order and tranquillity on the frontier.
    One reason for this somewhat surprising restraint is to be found in the nature of events in Soviet Azerbaijan. Islam is obviously an important and potentially a growing element in the Azerbaijani sense of identity, but it is not at present a dominant element, and the Azerbaijani movement has more in common with the liberal patriotism of Europe than with Islamic fundamentalism. Such a movement would not arouse the sympathy of the rulers of the Islamic Republic. It might even alarm them, since a genuinely democratic national state run by the people of Soviet Azerbaijan would exercise a powerful attraction on their kinsmen immediately to the south, in Iranian Azerbaijan.
    Another reason for this relative lack of concern for the 50 million or more Muslims under Soviet rule may be a calculation of risk and advantage. The Soviet Union is near, along the northern frontiers of Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan; America and even Western Europe are far away. More to the point, it has not hitherto been the practice of the Soviets to quell disturbances with water cannon and rubber bullets, with TV cameras in attendance, or to release arrested persons on bail and allow them access to domestic and foreign media. The Soviets do not interview their harshest critics on prime time, or tempt them with teaching, lecturing, and writing engagements. On the contrary, their ways of indicating displeasure with criticism can often be quite disagreeable.
  • The origins of secularism in the west may be found in two circumstances—in early Christian teachings and, still more, experience, which created two institutions, Church and State; and in later Christian conflicts, which drove the two apart. Muslims, too, had their religious disagreements, but there was nothing remotely approaching the ferocity of the Christian struggles between Protestants and Catholics, which devastated Christian Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and finally drove Christians in desperation to evolve a doctrine of the separation of religion from the state. Only by depriving religious institutions of coercive power, it seemed, could Christendom restrain the murderous intolerance and persecution that Christians had visited on followers of other religions and, most of all, on those who professed other forms of their own.
    Muslims experienced no such need and evolved no such doctrine. There was no need for secularism in Islam, and even its pluralism was very different from that of the pagan Roman Empire, so vividly described by Edward Gibbon when he remarked that "the various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful." Islam was never prepared, either in theory or in practice, to accord full equality to those who held other beliefs and practiced other forms of worship. It did, however, accord to the holders of partial truth a degree of practical as well as theoretical tolerance rarely paralleled in the Christian world until the West adopted a measure of secularism in the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
  • Ultimately, the struggle of the fundamentalists is against two enemies, secularism and modernism. The war against secularism is conscious and explicit, and there is by now a whole literature denouncing secularism as an evil neo-pagan force in the modern world and attributing it variously to the Jews, the West, and the United States. The war against modernity is for the most part neither conscious nor explicit, and is directed against the whole process of change that has taken place in the Islamic world in the past century or more and has transformed the political, economic, social, and even cultural structures of Muslim countries. Islamic fundamentalism has given an aim and a form to the otherwise aimless and formless resentment and anger of the Muslim masses at the forces that have devalued their traditional values and loyalties and, in the final analysis, robbed them of their beliefs, their aspirations, their dignity, and to an increasing extent even their livelihood.
  • The movement nowadays called fundamentalism is not the only Islamic tradition. There are others, more tolerant, more open, that helped to inspire the great achievements of Islamic civilization in the past, and we may hope that these other traditions will in time prevail. But before this issue is decided there will be a hard struggle, in which we of the West can do little or nothing. Even the attempt might do harm, for these are issues that Muslims must decide among themselves. And in the meantime we must take great care on all sides to avoid the danger of a new era of religious wars, arising from the exacerbation of differences and the revival of ancient prejudices.
    To this end we must strive to achieve a better appreciation of other religious and political cultures, through the study of their history, their literature, and their achievements. At the same time, we may hope that they will try to achieve a better understanding of ours, and especially that they will understand and respect, even if they do not choose to adopt for themselves, our Western perception of the proper relationship between religion and politics.

Islam and the West: A Conversation with Bernard Lewis (2006)[edit]

Bernand Lewis. "Islam and the West: A Conversation with Bernard Lewis." The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Thursday, April 27, 2006 Hay-Adams Hotel Washington, DC.

  • In talking of the Christian world, in English and, I suppose, in all the other languages of the Christian world we use two terms: Christianity and Christendom. Christianity means a religion, in the strict sense of that word, a system of belief and worship and some clerical or ecclesiastical organization to go with it. If we say Christendom, we mean the entire civilization that grew up under the aegis of that religion, but also contains many elements that are not part of that religion, many elements that are even hostile to that religion. Let me give one simple example. No one could seriously assert that Hitler and the Nazis came out of Christianity. No one could seriously dispute that they came out of Christendom. In talking of Islam, we use the same word in both senses, and this gives rise to considerable confusion and misunderstanding. There are many things that are described as part of Islam, which are indeed part of Islam, if we take the word as the equivalent of Christendom, but are very much not part of Islam are even alien or hostile to Islam if we take the word Islam as the equivalent of Christianity. I think this is a very important point, which one should bear in mind.
  • We are accustomed to talking of church and state, and a whole series of pairs of words that go with them lay and ecclesiastical, secular and religious, spiritual and temporal, and so on. These pairs of words simply do not exist in classical Islamic terminology, because the dichotomy that these words express is unknown. They are used in the modern languages. In Arabic, they borrow the terminology used by Christian Arabs. They are fortunate in having a substantial Christian population using Arabic, and they therefore have a good part of the modern terminology at their disposal, in their own language. In Turkish, Persian, Urdu and other languages of Islam, they had to invent new words.
  • In the Islamic world, from the beginning, Islam was the primary basis of both identity and loyalty. We think of a nation subdivided into religions. They think, rather, of a religion subdivided into nations. It is the ultimate definition, the prime definition and the one that determines, as I said, not only identity, but also basic loyalty. And this is quite independent of religious belief. In Islam, there isn't or rather, there wasn't until recently any such thing as the church, in the Christian sense of that word. The mosque is a place of worship. It's a building, a place of worship and study. And in that sense, it is the equivalent of the church. But in the sense of an institution with a hierarchy and its own laws and usages, there was no such thing in Islam until very recently. And one of the achievements of the Islamic Revolution in Iran has been to endow an Islamic country for the first time with the equivalents of a pope, a college of cardinals, a bench of bishops and, above all, an inquisition. All these were previously unknown and nonexistent in the Islamic world.
  • What is never discussed at all it is never considered is an offense committed by a non-Muslim in a non-Muslim country. That, according to the unanimous opinion of all of the doctors of the holy law is no concern of Islamic law, which brings us back to the case of Denmark. Does this mean that Denmark, along with the rest of Europe is now considered part of the Islamic lands, and that the Danes, like the rest, are therefore dhimmis, non-Muslim subjects of the Muslim state? I think this is an interesting question, which can lead to several possible lines of inquiry.
  • Insulting the Prophet is something that has been going on in Europe for a very long time. In Dante's Inferno, if you're interested in the 28th Canto, where Dante is being taken on his conducted tour of hell and guided by Virgil, he comes across the Prophet Mohammed in the course of his eternal damnation. He is punished I quote Dante's words, as a seminator di scandalo e di scisma, a sower of scandal and of schism. Now, this is very insulting. In the great Cathedral of Bologna there is a wonderful set of pictures painted, if I remember rightly, in the 15th century depicting scenes from Dante's Inferno, including some very graphic pictures of Mohammed being tortured in hell by the devil very graphic.
    Nobody did anything about this. A couple of years ago, the leaders of the Italian-Muslim community sent a polite request to the cathedral saying these are insulting to Muslims; would they mind covering those pictures. The cathedral administration said they would consider it. Nothing happened. The pictures are still in view.
  • We think of the defeat and collapse of the Soviet Union as a Western victory in the Cold War, and some of us credit President Reagan more particularly with that victory. For Osama bin Laden and his followers, this was a Muslim victory in the jihad. And if one looks at what actually happened, this is not an implausible interpretation. It was, after all, the Taliban in Afghanistan that drove the Red Army to defeat and collapse. And, as he put it, "We have now dealt successfully with the more deadly, the more dangerous of the two infidel powers. Dealing with the soft, pampered, and degenerate Americans will be easy."
  • The Iranian revolution was a real revolution, not just a coup d'etat or a putsch or whatever. It was a genuine revolution in the sense that the French and the Russian revolutions were revolutions. It brought a massive change, social, economic, ideological not just a change of regime. Like for the French and Russian revolutions in their day, Khomeini had had a tremendous impact everywhere they had a shared universe of discourse, that is to say, the Muslim world. Just as the French and Russian revolutions in their day, and for some time after, had such an impact, so did the Iranian revolution, and it was not limited to the Shi'a world.
  • I am inclined to believe in the sincerity of Ahmadinejad. I think that he really believes the apocalyptic language that he is using. Remember that Muslims, like Christians and Jews, have a sort of end-of-time scenario in which a Messianic figure will appear. In their case, in the case of the Shiites, the hidden imam who will emerge from hiding, who will fight against the powers of evil, the anti-Christ in Christianity, Gog and Magog in Judaism, and the Dajjal in Islam, a role in which we are being cast now. And he really seems to believe that the apocalyptic age has come, that this is the final struggle that will lead to the final victory and the establishment of the kingdom of heaven on earth.
  • I think that the way that Ahmadinejad is talking now shows quite clearly his contempt for the Western world in general and the United States in particular. They feel they are dealing with, as Osama bin Laden put it, an effete, degenerate, pampered enemy incapable of real resistance. And they are proceeding on that assumption. Remember that they have no understanding or experience of the free debate of an open society. Where we see free debate and criticism, they see fear, weakness and division; they proceed accordingly, and every day brings new evidence of that from Iran.
  • What we have now come to regard as typical of Middle Eastern regimes is not typical of the past. The regime of Saddam Hussein, the regime of Hafiz al Assad, this kind of government, this kind of society, has no roots either in the Arab or in the Islamic past. It is due and let me be quite specific and explicit it is due to an importation from Europe, which comes in two phases.
    Phase one, the 19th century, when they are becoming aware of their falling behind the modern world and need desperately to catch up, so they adopt all kinds of European devices with the best of intentions, which nevertheless have two harmful effects. One, they enormously strengthen the power of the state by placing in the hands of the ruler, weaponry and communication undreamt of in earlier times, so that even the smallest petty tyrant has greater powers over his people than Harun al-Rashid or Suleyman the Magnificent, or any of the legendary rulers of the past.
    Second, even more deadly, in the traditional society there were many, many limits on the autocracy, the ruler. The whole Islamic political tradition is strongly against despotism. Traditional Islamic government is authoritarian, yes, but it is not despotic. On the contrary, there is a quite explicit rejection of despotism. And this wasn't just in theory; it was in practice too because in Islamic society, there were all sorts of established orders in society that acted as a restraining factor. The bazaar merchants, the craft guilds, the country gentry and the scribes, all of these were well organized groups who produced their own leaders from within the group. They were not appointed or dismissed by the governments. And they did operate effectively as a constraint.
  • I feel that while we are indeed engaged in a war against terror, it is inadequate and even misleading. If Churchill had informed the country in 1940, we are engaged in a war against bomber aircraft and submarines, that would have been an accurate statement but not a very helpful one. To say we are engaged in a war against terror is of the same order. Terror is a tactic. It's a method of waging war. It is not a cause, it is not an adversary, it is not anything that one can identify as an opponent, and I think we need to be more specific in fighting a war. It's useful to know who the enemy is. I think you would agree.
  • In the 19th century you had two important events in Europe: the unification of Italy and the unification of Germany, and both of these had a tremendous impact in the Arab world. They saw in this, a model for what they should be able to do, and they tried for a long time to do it. Nasserism is probably the final phase of that movement and, as you know, it failed. Now all the Arab states are independent but no union of Arab states has ever worked. They always fall apart through internal dissension.
  • I have not suggested that we should launch an armed attack on Iran. I don't think that's necessary. I don't think we should do anything that would either offend or tickle Iranian national pride. We're doing both at the present time. We're offending them by saying you mustn't have nuclear weapons, and we're tickling them by allowing their leaders to present themselves as defying the mighty West, standing alone and successfully defying the United States. I think that's the wrong way to do it. There are other things that one can do to indicate displeasure and to help those there who want a big change.
  • Coming back to Iraq, obviously the situation has been getting worse over time, but I think it is still salvageable. We now have a political process going on, and I think if one looks at the place and what's been happening there, one has to marvel at what has been accomplished. There is an old saying, no news is good news, and the media obviously work on the reverse principle: Good news is no news. Most of the good things that have happened have not been reported, but there has been tremendous progress in many respects. Three elections were held three fair elections in which millions of Iraqis stood in line waiting to vote and knowing they were risking their lives every moment that they did so. And all this wrangling that's going on now is part of the democratic process, the fact that they argue, that they negotiate, that they try to find a compromise. This is part of their democratic education.
    So I find all this both annoying and encouraging. I see that more and more people are becoming involved in the political process. And there's one thing in Iraq in particular that I think is encouraging, and that is the role of women. Of all the Arab countries, with the possible exception of Tunisia, Iraq is the one where women have made most progress. I'm not talking about rights, a word that has no meaning in that context. I'm talking about opportunity, access. Women in Iraq had access to education, to higher education, and therefore to the professions, and therefore to the political process to a degree without parallel elsewhere in the Arab world, as I said, with the possible exception of Tunisia. And I think that the participation of women the increasing participation of women is a very encouraging sign for the development of democratic institutions.

Islam: The Religion and the People (2008)[edit]

Lewis, Bernard; Churchill, Buntzie Ellis (2008). Islam: The Religion and the People. Indianaopolis: Wharton Press. ISBN 0-13-223085-2

  • ... generally speaking, Muslim tolerance of unbelievers was far better than anything available in Christendom, until the rise of secularism in the 17th century.
    • p. 146.
  • Muslim fighters are commanded not to kill women, children, or the aged unless they attack first; not to torture or otherwise ill-treat prisoners; to give fair warning of the opening of hostilities or their resumption after a truce; and to honor agreements. ... At no time did the classical jurists offer any approval or legitimacy to what we nowadays call terrorism. Nor indeed is there any evidence of the use of terrorism as it is practiced nowadays.
    • p. 151.

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