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The Blind Spots of Bernard Lewis

June 16, 2023
By Bassam Michael Madany

During the 1990s, I taught a course on the History of the Middle East, since the rise of Islam, at a college in suburban Chicago, Illinois, USA.

I used Bernard Lewis’s books, as I appreciated his interpretive approach. I liked most of the books but was disappointed by the flaws that marked his historiography.

Bernard Lewis was born in the United Kingdom. He took his undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of London, in the School of Oriental and African Studies, and specialized in the History of Islam. During World War II, he served at the British Army’s Middle East Command Headquarters in Cairo, Egypt. After the war, he returned to the University of London where he taught Middle Eastern History. He remained there until 1974, when he came to teach at Princeton University in the fall of that year and retired in 1986.

Here is a list of some of his works. The Arabs in History, London 1950; The Emergence of Modern Turkey, London and New York 1961; The Assassins, London 1967; The Muslim Discovery of Europe, New York 1982; The Political Language of Islam, Chicago 1988; Race and Slavery in the Middle East: an Historical Enquiry, New York 1990; Islam and the West, New York, 1993; Islam in History, 2nd edition, Chicago, 1993; The Shaping of the Modern Middle East, New York, 1994; Cultures in Conflict, New York, 1994; The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, New York, 1995; The Future of the Middle East, London, 1997; The Multiple Identities of the Middle East, London, 1998; A Middle East Mosaic: Fragments of life, letters and history, New York, 2000; What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, New York, 2002

What I appreciated in Bernard Lewis

As we attempt to understand other cultures, quite often we see them, consciously or unconsciously, through the prism of our own worldview. In other words, we seek to understand others by comparing them with what we already know, with our ways of thinking and outlook on life. Such a method does not produce a genuine understanding of the other; this is especially the case in our attempt to understand Islam. It’s helpful to seek to understand Islam from within the Muslim point of view.

For example, in one of his earliest works, The Arabs in History, Bernard Lewis cautions us against using Western categories of thought when we study the history of the Arabs, and of Islam.

“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 ways of life can at best be 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 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 religious chief.” Pp. 19, 20

Professor Lewis ended his Introduction with these words:

“Such words as ‘religion’, ‘state’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘democracy’, mean very different things in Islamic context and indeed varying meanings from one part of Europe to another. The use of such words, however, is inevitable in writing in English and for that matter in writing in the modern languages of the Orient, influenced for close on a century by Western modes of thought and classification. In the following pages they are to be always understood in their Islamic context and should not be taken as implying any greater degree of resemblance to corresponding Western institutions than is specifically stated.” P. 20

In “The Muslim Discovery of Europe,” Mr. Lewis explains why Islam failed to take Europe seriously as it was emerging from the Middle Ages and was about to play a major role on the world scene.

“It may well seem strange that classical Islamic civilization which, in its earlier days, was so much affected by Greek and Asian influences should so decisively have rejected the West. But a possible explanation may be suggested. While Islam was expanding and receptive, Western Europe had little or nothing to offer but flattered Muslim pride with the spectacle of a culture that was visibly and palpably inferior. What is more, the very fact that it was Christian discredited it in advance. 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 its final, perfect form, and to discount Christian thought and Christian civilization accordingly. After the initial impact of eastern Christianity on Islam in its 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.” P. 300

Having illustrated the strong points in the writings of Bernard Lewis, several of his books are disappointing. He claims that Islam has been a tolerant religion, especially in its attitude to the People of the Book, i.e., Jews and Christians.

It is true that when Jews and Christians surrendered to the invading Islamic armies, they were given the status of “dhimmis,” an Arabic word that means, “Protected Ones.” But this so-called “protection” while allowing them to maintain their faith, deprived them of most of the rights they had enjoyed prior to their conquest. Severe restrictions were placed on dhimmis. They could not propagate their faith, they had to pay the Jizya tax, and when their houses of worship needed repair, it was extremely difficult to get a permit for such repairs. Some of their churches were confiscated, such as the Church of Saint John the Baptist in Damascus, Syria, that became the historic Umayyad Mosque.

It's a pity, that despite his erudition and knowledge of several Islamic languages, Bernard Lewis ignored the ignominious treatment of Jews and Christians within Daru’l Islami. I can never comprehend that a scholar of his stature ignored the writings of a fellow Jewish scholar, Bat Ye’or, whose works about “Dhimmis” and “Dhimmitude” are well known both in their original French and in their English translations.

In The Dhimmi, Bat Ye’or wrote about the book’s purpose:

“Its aim is much more modest. It has grown out of an independent reflection on the relationship between conqueror and conquered, established as a result of a special code of warfare, the jihad, for in the “drama” acted out by humanity on the stage of history, it is clear that the dhimmi peoples bore the role of victim, vanquished by force; and indeed, it is after a war, a jihad, and after a defeat, that a nation becomes a dhimmi people. “Tolerated” in its homeland, from which it has been dispossessed, this people lives thereafter as if it were merely suspended in time, throughout history. For the pragmatic political factor that decides the fate of a dhimmi people is essentially a territorial dispossession.”ii

The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam (Introduction)

The late Professor Jacques Ellul, of the University of Bordeaux, France, having taken a special interest in the history of the peoples conquered by Islam, made these comments in the Preface of The Dhimmi.iii

“It is within this context that Bat Ye'or's book The Dhimmi should be placed: and it is an exemplary contribution to this crucial discussion that concerns us all. Here I shall neither give an account of the book nor praise its merits but shall simply indicate its importance. The dhimmi is someone who lives in a Muslim society without being a Muslim (Jews, Christians, and occasionally "animists"). He has a particular social, political, and economic status, and it is essential for us to know how this "refractory" person has been treated. But first, one ought to realize the dimensions of this subject: it is much more than the study of one "social condition" among others. The reader will see that in many ways the dhimmi was comparable to the European serf of the Middle Ages. The condition of serfdom, however, was the result of certain historical changes such as the transformation of slavery, the end of the State, the emergence of the feudal system, and the like, and thus, when these historical conditions altered, the situation of the serf also evolved until his status finally disappeared.

“The same, however, does not apply to the dhimmi: his status was not the product of historical accident but was that which ought to be from the religious point of view, and according to the Muslim conception of the world. In other words, it was the expression of the absolute, unchanging, theologically grounded Muslim conception of the relationship between Islam and non-Islam. It is not a historical accident of retrospective interest, but a necessary condition of existence. Consequently, it is both a subject for historical research (involving an examination of the historical sources and a study of their application in the past) and a contemporary subject, most topical in relation to the present-day expansion of Islam. Bat Ye'or's book ought to be read as a work of current interest. One must know as exactly as possible what the Muslims did with these unconverted peoples because that is what they will do in the future (and are doing right now). It is possible that my opinion on this question will not entirely convince the reader.”

Another point of history that Bernard Lewis failed to remember or to mention is the Devshirme, the practice of the Ottoman Turkish conquerors in Eastern Europe whereby they forcibly took young Christian boys from their parents and made them adopt Islam. As they grew up, they were formed into an elite army corps known as the Janissary. These soldiers participated in the further Ottoman conquests in Central and Eastern Europe. It is not easy to calculate the number of Christian boys from the Balkans who were taken away from their families over the several centuries that this institution lasted. But one can imagine the deep hurts that were left in the societies of the countries affected by this evil system. It is not too much to speculate that the collective memory of the people of Eastern and Central Europe regarding the years of Ottoman oppression must have played a role in the serious troubles that erupted between Serbians and Bosnians in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation.

So, I can’t help asking myself: what motivated Bernard Lewis to persist in his silence about the Devshirme?

It is with great sorrow that I write these critical words about Bernard Lewis.iv But for a historian who enjoyed such an international reputation, as the dean of Middle Eastern and Islamic scholars, and an authority whose wisdom is sought by various governmental agencies, to have remained silent on subjects of great importance, is both unexplainable and incomprehensible!

On the legacy of Professor Bernard Lewis, read:

The Legacy of Bernard Lewis.pdf (

i Daru’l-Islam, an Arabic term for the Household of Islam, the entire Islamic world.

ii The quotations are taken from Bat Ye’or’s book, The Dhimmi. The complete text is available on

iii Jacques Ellul died in 1994 at 82. A jurist, historian, theologian, and sociologist, he published more than 600 articles and 48 books, many of which were translated into a dozen languages (more than 20 into English). From 1950-70 he was a member of the National Council of the Protestant Reformed Church of France. Professor at the University of Bordeaux, his oeuvre includes studies on medieval European institutions, the effect of modern technology on contemporary society, and moral theology. In American academic circles, he was widely known for "The Technological Society" written in the 1950's (English edition, 1964) and recognized as one of the most prominent of contemporary thinkers.

iv Bernard Lewis bibliography. Bernard Lewis (31 May 1916 – 19 May 2018) was a British-American historian, public intellectual, and political commentator. Lewis' expertise was in the history of Islam and the interaction between Islam and the West. His advice was frequently sought by policymakers, including the Bush administration.

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