Middle East Resources

My Appreciation and Critique of Bernard Lewis

My Appreciation and Critique of Bernard Lewis

By Rev. Bassam M. Madany

I got acquainted with the writings of the British scholar, Bernard Lewis, when in the 1970’s I taught a semester course on the History of the Middle East, at Trinity Christian College, in Palos Heights, a suburb of Chicago. When I undertook this challenge, I used a textbook written by a professor from an American state university. Having studied this subject when I was living in the Middle East, I became disappointed with this textbook, as it paid little attention to the religious motifs that are basic for a proper understanding of Islam. I was glad to discover Bernard Lewis’ “The Arabs in History.” Instantly, I was attracted to his interpretive approach for the study of the Middle East. In his Introduction to this book, he wrote:

“The European writer on Islamic history labours under a special disability. Writing in a Western language, he necessarily uses Western terms. But these terms are based on Western categories of thought and analysis, themselves deriving in the main from Western history. Their application to the conditions of another society formed by different influences and living in different way of life can at best be only an analogy and may be dangerously misleading. To take an example: such pairs of words as Church and State, spiritual and temporal, ecclesiastical and lay, had no real equivalents in Arabic until modern times, when they were created --- or borrowed from the Arab Christians --- to translate modern ideas; for the dichotomy which they express was unknown to mediaeval Muslim society and unarticulated in the mediaeval Muslim mind. The community of Islam was Church and State in one, with the two indistinguishably interwoven; its titular head, the Caliph, was at once a secular and a religious chief.”*

As mentioned above, an important feature of Lewis’ historiography is his paying due attention to the religious factors that are the predominant characteristics of the Arab and Muslim peoples and which help us to understand their history. For example, in accounting for Islam’s lack of interest in the world of Christendom, Professor Lewis offered two principal explanations, one historical, and the other theological. I will discuss the theological reason for such disinterest. It derives from the politico-religious character of Islam. For the followers of Muhammad, Islam is the final dispensation of a revealed truth. As such it engenders among its followers a sense of ultimate fulfillment in being chosen to receive Allah’s final revelation through his Messenger, the Prophet Muhammad. As Professor Lewis suggested:

“The Muslim doctrine of successive revelations culminating in the final mission of Muhammad led the Muslim to reject Christianity as an earlier and imperfect form of something which he, himself, possessed in the final, perfect form, and to discount Christian thought and Christian civilization accordingly. After the initial impact of eastern Christianity on Islam in the earliest period, Christian influences, even from the high civilization of Byzantium, were reduced to a minimum. Later, by the time that the advance of Christendom and, the retreat of Islam had created a new relationship, Islam was crystallized in its ways of thought and behavior and had become impervious to external stimuli, especially those coming from the millennial adversary in the West. Walled off by the military might of the Ottoman Empire, still a formidable barrier even in its decline, the peoples of Islam continued until the dawn of the modern age to cherish --- as some of us in the West still do today --- the conviction of the immeasurable and immutable superiority of their own civilization to all others. For the medieval Muslim, from Andalusia to Persia, Europe was a backward land of ignorant infidels. It was a point of view which might perhaps have been justified at one time; by the end of the Middle Ages it was becoming dangerously obsolete.” **

I could go on and on and mention some other books of Professor Lewis that have been of great help to me in my teaching and writing on Islam and the Middle East. To mention only a few: “What Went Wrong?” “Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response” “The Political Language of Islam” and “The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years.” I remain grateful and indebted to his interpretive method of teaching history.

Why then, would I want to critique this great historian? My reason is that Professor Lewis tends to draw moral and religious equivalence between Christianity and Islam. Let me explain.

The online version of Foreign Policy Magazine of Tuesday, September 9, 2008, published an article with this title: “Seven Questions: Bernard Lewis on the Two Biggest Myths About Islam.” http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4455

First, he responded to the question “What do you see as the biggest misperception about Islam?” The next question was: “Do you believe in the ‘clash of civilizations’ theory of Samuel P. Huntington*** that the Islamic world and the West are destined to butt heads?
Bernard Lewis answered:

“Well, I don’t go into destiny; I’m a historian and I deal with the past. But I certainly think there is something in the ‘clash of civilizations.’ What brought Islam and Christendom into conflict was not so much their differences as their resemblances. There are many religions in the world, but almost all of them are regional, local, ethnic, or whatever you choose to call it. Christianity and Islam are the only religions that claim universal truth. Christians and Muslims are the only people who claim they are the fortunate recipients of God’s final message to humanity, which it is their duty not to keep selfishly to themselves—like the Jews or the Hindus or the Buddhists—but to bring to the rest of mankind, removing whatever obstacles there may be in the way. So, we have two religions with a similar self-perception, a similar historical background, living side by side, and conflict becomes inevitable.”

Unlike Samuel Huntington who dealt with the possible “clash” between several civilizations, Professor Lewis singled out only two, Christianity and Islam, as the ones that are uniquely bent on provoking and maintaining “a clash of civilizations.”

As a historian who excels in his interpretive methodology, Mr. Lewis should have distinguished between the methodological reasons between Christianity and Islam in spreading their own versions of what constitutes “universal truth.” The Christian religion propagated its message by peaceful means. On the other hand, Islam spread by the sword.

Arabs and Muslims revel in telling the accounts of the Futuhat, i.e. the conquests of the Levant, Persia, Egypt, North Africa, and the Andalus (Spain.) The Turks continued the expansion of Islam by destroying the Byzantine Empire, and conquering Eastern and Central Europe. Twelve years after Martin Luther began the Reformation; the Ottomans besieged Vienna, in 1529, but failed to conquer it.

It is not enough to point to the fact that both Christianity and Islam make universal claims for their truth systems, as Bernard Lewis did. He should also have pointed out the fact that Christians seek converts to what they believe is the only true religion, through persuasion, while Muslims compel belief in their system by the sword.

I may be accused of reacting too strongly to the response of Professor Lewis to the question put forth by FP. I don’t think so. Professor Lewis seems to be impatient with these two theistic religions because of their universal claims. At the end of my quotation above, he said: “So, we have two religions with a similar self-perception, a similar historical background, living side by side, and conflict becomes inevitable.”

But the fact is that the “self-perception,” which Professor Lewis considers to be similar in both Islam and Christianity, is not at all identical. Other than both religions claiming that their religion is the only universal truth, nothing else about them is the same. Their perception of themselves is neither morally, theologically, or practically the same. While in Islam “church” and state are inextricably interwoven, there is no such thing at present within Christendom.

As for conflict, it is true that any religion that claims to be the only true one will, ipso facto, be in conflict with all other religions who do not agree. But this need not cause havoc, domination and destruction, if the religion claiming to be the only true one seeks to gain adherents through persuasion and not compulsion. Even though history has shown that some Christian leaders did attempt to enforce orthodoxy through force. That was a departure from the Scriptural norms. The same cannot be said for Islam, which brooks no opposition, and seeks to bring the entire world under its domination, through any means possible, especially by the sword. Professor Lewis should have delineated these differences when talking about “conflict.” Christianity and the Western nations where it is predominantly practiced, are not seeking any conflict with Islam. Proof of this is that millions of Muslims, who have moved to Western Europe and the Americas since the middle of the twentieth century, enjoy complete freedom of worship and expression. But this is not so for Christians living in Muslim lands. The original Christian populations of the Middle East are still being persecuted in lands under Islamic domination, and many have been forced to migrate to Europe, Australia, and North and South America.

I am writing these lines on the seventh anniversary of the Islamist terrorist attack on the United States, usually called, Nine-One-One. This murderous attack on America is proof positive that the conflict is completely one-sided and stems from religious principles in Islam itself. The perpetrators of this evil claimed to be true believers in the Islamic faith.
Another reason for my being very “sensitive” to the thesis of Bernard Lewis stems from his tendency to repeat his “impatience” with any faith that makes universal claims. It seems apparent that he would like to see relativism reign supreme because he thinks that peace, harmony, and tolerance could be ultimately achieved. Religions making universal claims and seeking converts prevent this outcome.

As soon as I read the Q & A in the Foreign Policy Magazine, it reminded me of a lengthy article Mr. Lewis wrote for the May, 2003 issue of The Atlantic Monthly magazine, which attempted to further his thesis that relativism promotes tolerance, and universal religious claims cause endless intolerance, and often, bloody conflict. Its title was, “I'm Right, You're Wrong, Go To Hell: Religions and the Meeting of Civilization.”

I would like to quote excerpts from an article I wrote five years ago, in response to the thesis of Professor Lewis. The URL for the full text of my article is: http://www.unashamedofthegospel.org/bernard_lewis_triumphalis.cfm

“In the Atlantic Monthly article, Bernard Lewis reminds us that, ‘only two civilizations have been defined by religion. Others have had religions but are identified primarily by region and ethnicity. These two religions are Christianity and Islam, they ‘are the two religions that define civilizations, and they have much in common, along with some differences.’

“Having set Christianity and Islam apart from the rest of world religions such as Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, professor Lewis classifies the latter as relativist religions, while the former two as triumphalist religions.

“‘For some religions, just as civilization means us, and the rest are barbarians, so religion means ours, and the rest are infidels. Other religions, such as Judaism and most of the religions of Asia, concede that human beings may use different religions to speak to God, as they use different languages to speak to one another. God understands them all… The relativist view was condemned and rejected by both Christians and Muslims, who shared the conviction that there was only one true faith, theirs, which it was their duty to bring to all humankind. The triumphalist view is increasingly under attack in Christendom, and is disavowed by significant numbers of Christian clerics. There is little sign as yet of a parallel development in Islam.’”

“Professor Lewis regards Islam and Christianity as triumphalist religions. Both faiths consider all ‘others’ as infidels. While, according to him, some Christian leaders are nowadays ‘disavowing’ the triumphalism that has marked Christianity throughout history, there is no such parallel movement among Muslim leaders. In our globalized world, triumphalism (whether Christian or Muslim) is not conducive to world peace. In order to put across his thesis in the clearest way, Bernard Lewis sums up his disapproval of triumphalism, both in Islam and Christianity, with these words:

“‘For those taking the triumphalist approach (classically summed up in the formula ‘I'm right, you're wrong, go to hell), tolerance is a problem. Because the triumphalist’s is the only true and complete religion, all other religions are at best incomplete and more probably false and evil; and since he is the privileged recipient of God’s final message to humankind, it is surely his duty to bring it to others rather than keep it selfishly for himself.’”

“The first point I would like to make is that, great as the scholarship of Bernard Lewis is, his lumping together of the ‘triumphalism’ of the two religions is neither proper, nor objective. An author of the caliber of Mr. Lewis should have been more careful in categorizing the faith of others. As a Christian, I find the title of his article very offensive. It is a caricature of Christianity to sum up its attitude to the ‘other’ as being, ‘I'm Right, You're Wrong. Go to Hell.’

“Throughout history, Christians, beginning with the apostolic age, sought to win converts through preaching and witnessing. It was none other than the Risen Lord that gave his church its marching orders: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.’
Matthew 28:18b-20 (NIV)

“The greatest missionary of the First Century was Paul. After his conversion, his life was dedicated entirely to the spread of the faith and the organization of churches in the Mediterranean world. He described his mandate in the opening words of his Letter to the Romans: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.’
Romans 1:16 (NIV)

“In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, ‘For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.’
1 Corinthians 1:21 (NIV)

“In contrast with this peaceful spread of Christianity, Islam spread primarily through conquest.”

“The second point in my criticism of the article of Bernard Lewis is that he fails to see the great contrast between what he calls the "triumphalism" of the two religions. Yes, Christians do believe in the ultimate triumph of the Gospel. Their faith is summarized in these great words of Revelation 11:15b ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.’ (NIV) And in one of the most familiar passages of this NT book, we hear the heavenly choir sing these triumphant words: ‘Hallelujah! For Lord God Almighty reigns.’ 19:6b (NIV)

“Islam has always been a triumphalist faith. Notwithstanding its many setbacks throughout the last century, especially after the founder of the Turkish Republic Kemal Ataturk, abolished the age-long caliphate, Muslims have not ceased to believe in the final triumph of their faith. Today this is the core belief of the radical Islamists. They do not hesitate to use any means, including violence, to reach their ultimate goal; even if that meant a confrontation with the rest of the world.
“On the other hand, when Christianity is described as a triumphalist faith, its triumphalism is related to an eschatological event****. While the gospel has many implications and applications for the here and now, its complete fulfillment takes place beyond the horizon of the present world order.” [End of my quotation from my 2003 article]

It is not my intention to “quarrel” with the dean of Middle East historians. But I must take issue with him when he misrepresents the true nature of historic Christianity, and points to some superficial similarities between Islam and Christianity. I would still recommend the study of his books, but with the caution that his attitude vis-à-vis the Christian faith is marked by a pluralistic motif which would deny the uniqueness, finality, and superiority of the Lord Jesus Christ.

*The Arabs in History, by Bernard Lewis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993 p.13

**The Muslim Discovery of Europe, By Bernard Lewis. New York: W. W. Norton, 1982 pp. 300, 301

***The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, By Samuel P. Huntington. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996

****Eschatological, a term that points to the End Times; to the final epoch that follows the Second Advent of Jesus Christ.