Bernard Lewis’ The Middle East

The Middle EastApproaching his centenary, historian and Princeton professor Bernard Lewis remains one of the world’s foremost scholars of the Middle East and its history from antiquity to the present; he is the author of dozens of books on the region, covering its culture, its history and its conflicts, and his advice and insight has been sought by politicians and policymakers alike. His The Middle East: A Brief History Of The Last 2,000 Years, as its subtitle suggests, undertakes the difficult task of condensing two millennia of history into a single volume, which obviously necessitates a great deal of summary and excision, but I was drawn to it both as an introductory text for someone with only a passing familiarity with the region and for the fact that it was published in 1996, prior to the events of September 11th, 2001, that have forced the world to take interest in an otherwise neglected region of the globe. It would be a disservice to reduce the entire history of the Middle East to nothing more than a path to that fateful day, but nor can any present reader avoid noticing some of the historical developments that seemed to incline towards it.

Lewis rather cleverly approaches his topic chronologically at first, beginning with the advent of Christianity and subsequent rise of Islam, and maintaining this linear history through the Mongol invasions and the perpetual struggles with the Christian nations of Europe. Beginning this way permits him to give his greatest attention to Islam’s rise to prominence, when its adherents had every reason to believe, as their religion compelled them to believe, that they were the recipients of god’s final revelation, and Islamic society, relative to its rivals, was dynamic, vibrant and expansive. Lewis asks us to consider, for example, the construction of Islam’s first great religious buildings, the shrine of the Dome on the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, both built by the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik, as not merely testaments to the Islamic faith but physical embodiments of Islam’s superiority to its predecessor faiths. The first clue to this, and one that surprised me, is the location of the buildings: Abd al-Malik chose Jerusalem, “the most sacred city on earth to both the predecessor religions, Judaism and Christianity,” and yet a city that is “never mentioned in the Qu’ran,” at least not by its holy name. The particular verses within the shrine also reinforce its “polemical purpose,” taking aim at the Christian doctrine of the Trinity:

Praise be to God, who begets no son, and has no partner in [his] dominion: nor [needs] he any to protect him from humiliation: yes, magnify him for his greatness and glory!

And more explicitly:

O people of the book! Commit no excesses in your religion; and say nothing of God but the truth. Jesus Christ, the son of Mary, was indeed an apostle of God… Therefore believe in God and his apostles, and do not say “Three.” Desist, and it will be better for you, for indeed God is one God, exalted above having a son…

Lewis sees in the temple & shrine’s construction, and the verses contained within, a rebuke to the older, outdated faiths, as well as a strong political message:

The meaning of all this is at once political and religious. Only religion can justify empire. Only empire can sustain religion. Through his apostle Muhammad and his viceregent the caliph, God has given a new dispensation and a new order to the world. In this first great religious structure dedicated to the new faith, its worldly head, the caliph Abd al-Malik, asserted Islam’s connection with the precursor religions, and at the same time made clear that the new dispensation had come to correct their errors and to supersede them.

He will go on to develop this connection between religion and empire for the first half of the book, up until the moment that the Islamic world finds itself increasingly on the losing side in its battles against the Christian powers. At this point, when a crisis of faith is forced upon the region by the overwhelming military might of their rivals, Lewis divides his focus into chapters, or “Cross-Sections,” on the state, the economy, the culture and the ruling elite, breaking with the chronological narrative to better cover each of his subtopics.

One aspect of Muslim culture I would like to touch on, not least because of its continued relevance, is the status of other religions within Islam. Though, in theory, the existence of stubborn Christian and Jewish worshippers should represent an affront to the truths of Islam, these infidels can aspire to the status of a dhimmi, or “tolerated unbeliever,” which confers on them basic rights and freedoms, including freedom of worship and protection of life & property, provided they accept a subordinate social status and a special tax, known as the jizya. Today, with our secular notion of a separation between church and state, this practice seems barbaric, but Lewis is careful to point out that, at its inception, it constituted nothing less than a revolution in tolerance, and helped increase the prosperity of Muslim society, first by attracting talented Jewish and pagan merchants fleeing persecution in Christian lands, and second by incentivizing a conversion to Islam.

Another notable aspect of Muslim culture Lewis touches on is the separation of church and state, in theory and in practice. In theory, no such separation exists:

For the Prophet and his companions, […] the choice between God and Caesar, that snare in which not Christ but so many Christians were to be entangled, did not arise. In Muslim teaching and experience, there was no Caesar. God was the head of the state, and Muhammad his Prophet taught and ruled on his behalf. As supreme sovereign of the religio-political community of Islam, he was succeeded by a long line of caliphs.

Unlike within Christianity, where lines like “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” were interpreted to allow for two hierarchies, imperium and sacerdotium, dealing with the practical and the sacred respectively, Islam permits no distinction. The caliph is empowered “neither to expound nor to interpret the faith, but to uphold and to protect it.” To accomplish this, “he had to maintain the God-given Holy Law within the frontiers of the Islamic state, and to defend and, where possible, extend those frontiers, until in the fullness of time the whole world was opened to the light of Islam. In Muslim historiography, the early conquests are designated by an Arabic word, futūh, literally, ‘openings.'” In practice, of course, those seeking power and those able to wield it are not always beholden to holy scripture, and the Middle East would prove every bit as vulnerable to military uprisings as Europe.

The book’s final hundred pages fall under the chapter heading “The Challenge of Modernity,” and these are unquestionably of the greatest interest to most readers. Here Lewis traces, for example, the influence of the French Revolution on the countries of the Middle East, leading up to the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Consider this seeming contradiction: “The Islamic Republic of Iran claims to be restoring true Islamic government but it does so in the form of a written constitution and an elected parliament – neither with any precedent in Islamic doctrine or history.” This would, perhaps, confound an outside observer, but hundreds of pages earlier, in the book’s earliest chapters, Lewis had already provided the explanation: “It is a striking testimony to the universalist appeal and the continuing revolutionary power of the Islamic idea that the great radical movements in the Islamic empire were all movements within Islam and not against it.” Islam has shown a remarkably resiliency and adaptability, evident in Iran’s claim to be conserving the past while adopting profound political changes, or in the Ayatollah Khomeini’s sermonizing against the West and modernity while on a telephone or broadcasting over a radio. “Islam,” Lewis continues, “provided more than symbols and slogans. As interpreted by the revolutionary leaders and spokesmen, it formulated the objectives to be attained and, no less important, it defined the enemies to be opposed.”

The Middle East was published in 1996, when Lewis could justifiably argue that the West was prepared to play only a passive role in the region. Subsequent events, up to and including the recent waves of migration into Europe (legal and illegal), have made this passivity untenable and an understanding of the region, its history and culture, invaluable. The introduction Lewis provides is both sweeping and thorough, and worthwhile not only for the questions it answers but for the questions it raises.