Reading Lewis, Remembering Said

Category: Americas, World Affairs Topics: Oriental Studies Views: 6779

The current vogue of Bernard Lewis is somewhat difficult to fathom. Consider the recent book What Went Wrong?; the book has some very definite conclusions stated with urbane authority. If one asks how these conclusions are grounded in the previous chapters, one finds them to be virtually independent of each other. It is as though the early chapters are there to persuade us that here is someone who really does know something about Islam --- and this suffices to lull us into accepting his conclusions as the product of accumulated wisdom rather than the political propaganda of an interested party. Normally one expects the intelligentsia to ferret out such sloppy thinking. But the accolades received by the book show that the competence of academia is either limited in its critical capabilities or willfully silent when doctrines promise such comfortable political action. Even those who pretend to understand the connections between economic and political power keep quiet about the mediocrity of Lewis on this score. As one goes through his writings one keeps asking oneself " what does he know that is so worthwhile?". Since the answer is not obvious, one looks at the roster of people who praise Lewis and this contains not only journalists and politicians but also historians like Paul Kennedy. And he writes well. The prose is fluid, the literary allusions create an atmosphere of genteel elegance and the smoothness of the composition disguises all difficulties.

What is Bernard Lewis right about? The importance of Islam to Muslims. At a time when social scientists had matured into the post-modern somnolence of secular condescension, Lewis was acutely perceptive about the real forces that move everyday people in the Muslim world. He recognized, and insisted that others do so too, that religion was not a spent force. It had not yet gone the way of witchcraft.

But this means that he understands current events --- that he is a shrewd political observer and perceptive commentator. Why is he considered a scholar? How can a scholar publish at the rate he has? Two books on Islam within a year by someone in his eighties! Is he exceptionally brilliant, exceptionally hard-working or is he just an acute political hack?

There is no necessary opposition in these characterizations --- Bernard Lewis may be a scholar who has turned politician. Having once valued scholarship he may have lately turned into a political agent. The way to test out this hypothesis is by going back to a time, perhaps arbitrarily chosen, when there was some feeling that Bernard Lewis was a scholar. We can then examine the evolution of Bernard Lewis over time and find out just how assiduous he has been --- how many new facts he has uncovered? How many manuscripts has he deciphered? What new connections he has been able to discern? Or are his new publications just a rehash of other people's hard work, selectively arranged to suit certain political objectives?

One would have thought that the Muslim world, the object of Lewis's affection, would have provided the calm and dispassionate evaluations of Lewis's abilities that is called for. So it has remained for someone who is neither Muslim, nor religious --- Edward Said ---to have fired a shot across the bow. But to little avail. Muslims seem to prefer the surly, sullen and sour approach. Let us see if this can be changed. Will Muslims begin to analyze, essay by essay, and become engaged in the process of creating knowledge? Is Bernard Lewis a dispassionate scholar who transmits the results of painstaking research or is he a onetime scholar and now a political opportunist --- who has maintained a dilettante relationship with the world of learning in order to cash in on his earlier reputation and propagate his own politics for the last thirty years.

We need to have some guidelines for each hypothesis. It is well to establish criteria before one actually gets to a text, as one should always try to be fair. A scholar will constantly emphasize the use of primary sources, the uncertainties inherent in scholarship and the open questions. Thus the heterogeneity of the Muslims and the multitude of their cultures will receive prominence. The political hack will emphasize that which is fashionable, most likely to inflame his readers and grab their sympathy; His writings will repeat, and repeat, earlier writings ---  books will pour out which are basically "cut and paste" jobs. To arouse antagonistic feelings in a modern American audience, it will be most effective to write about Christianity and about Women. And when other material runs dry, there is always the appeal to 'freedom'.

One should aspire to establish standards independently of individuals. So let us forget names for the moment. Let us take it for granted that our subject knows 'something scholarly' --- but what? If he is to write on Islam as a political hack, then it is imperative that he do the following

  1. establish his own scholarly credentials on some topic related to Islam --- call it O -- quickly
  2. then he has to persuade us that knowledge about O is sufficient to understand the Muslim mind
  3. this last requires homogenizing the history and beliefs of the Muslims, since any significant variations within the Muslim world will spoil his authority and dilute his propaganda
  4. he then has to persuade us that the history and practices of O actually represent "Islam"
  5. ex hypothesi, our scholar does not know very much about "Islam" --- no more than any well-read dilettante could acquire
  6. so 'Islam' now has also to be found in a frozen category ---  call it Classical Islam
  7. since inquiry into Classical Islam might reveal dissent and fissure, one has to pass quickly over the formation of "Classical Islam" and never revisit this territory
  8. this seems much too cute and convenient a pattern. All scholarship, especially liberal scholarship, becomes dubious if such straight lines are visible.
  9. So it will be convenient to introduce complications when one moves away from the central theses. However, these qualifications will not be allowed to intermingle with the main propositions, since that would of course spoil the entire scholarly program.

The rhetorical strategy of the political hack will then be as follows: portray Islam --- or 'classical Islam' ---  in its harshest possible mode as the ideal; then to claim that its historical features are best seen through the history of O; then to claim those who do not 'know' Arabic or other relevant languages are in no position to criticize this hard-won expertise. It is an elegant strategy for defining someone with talent for languages and a scholarly past as the premier authority on Islam in the world today.

Does any of this apply to someone like Bernard Lewis? One will not know unless one peruses the writings of Lewis and collects the points to substantiate this thesis from, say, The Muslim discovery of Europe, Islam in History, Islam and the West, and What went Wrong. It is only by facing up to the delicate but venomous insinuation that one can be prepared to defend oneself. Unfortunately, this will require that Muslims actually do some reading.

But if they can be prevailed upon to do so, there is the further complication that they will need to know how to read. Edward Said has a marvelous account of how clever writing prefers to insinuate rather than state. If a message can be induced through subliminal suggestion, we will not even know how to refute it because we cannot quite pinpoint what it is that is affecting us. Perhaps the best way to go about this process is by engaging in a close reading of some of the essays Bernard Lewis has written --- to engage with his rhetorical style and familiarize oneself with the varieties of insinuation. Then to go back and look at the scholarly works for the sins of omission --- this is hard because we will need to know what he could have said but did not--- as well as his sins of commission --- where we see how he has presented those facts he does report.

Nor is it true that one can be misled only by lies. Facts can be arranged so as mislead in worse manner than any lie ever could. It is said that the Somalis once wanted to understand the mentality of the Americans. So they sent their brightest student to the USA and asked him to "understand the American mind". The diligent student set to work and pored over volumes after volumes to see who might be a representative figure. Every individual seemed to have several critics. Eventually, an enormously erudite opinion was reached. The only individual who was universally liked was the circus clown. Having found his subject, the Somali went on to study the clown in seven European languages (in addition to English) and utilized many rare manuscripts in completing his doctoral thesis. Today, whenever the Somalis are at a loss to explain US foreign policy the clown doctor is promptly called for...(I made this up to illustrate a point --- with apologies to all!)

One has to remember that it is the issues that are really important and it is these that should be real substance of our discussions. Bernard Lewis is only there to focus our thoughts. If the evidence so indicates, it will no doubt be of interest to ask, Why does Bernard Lewis do what he does? But this is really a secondary question. It is of more importance to ask --- how did such an individual get to head the program in Middle Eastern Studies at Princeton? Who supported his credentials? How did he stay in that position for so long? Who did he promote during his stay ? Where are his students, and how have they been using their time? How did he try to ensure the continuance of his mission? If the suspicions be accurate, then why has Princeton been asleep for so long? Why Bernard Lewis has chosen to live as he has is an interesting query, but what is important is to find out why Princeton has chosen to exude a slow poison for so long.

Muslims claim that there are 1.2 billion of them. It is scarcely plausible that so many people would allow such scholarship to pass as knowledge for so long. One's imagination does strain at the thought. Perhaps Bernard Lewis does not really exist. Perhaps he is just an invention of Muslim rage.

Salim Rashid is Professor of Economics at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

  Category: Americas, World Affairs
  Topics: Oriental Studies
Views: 6779

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Older Comments:
Its quite simple Tariq. Lewis is well known polemicist who has never made statement of merit regarding the Middle East. He's nothing but a glorified zionist shill hiding within academia. The reason hindu fanatic Chander is so smitten by Lewis is clearly due to common hatred of Muslims. It pretty much shows how petty and desperate jewish and hindu charlatans have become when they regurjitate each others primitive fairy tales.
The late and great Edward Said simply spoke the truth and effortlessly exposed and shattered the shallow base on which orientalism's house of cards stood on.
So make an effort to get to know the players before heaping ignorant condemnation Tariq.

Tariq and Romesh:
I am awaiting to see your articles on a website arguing the problems within the Muslim world, and to see your criticisms of Bernard Lewis's book, since you both seem to be God given authorities in these matters. Just send the link and i'll see what you're made of.

By the way, if you haven't realized already, Bernard Lewis doesn't state the clash between Muslims and Modernity, he says there is a clash between ISLAM and Modernity. Tariq...this book is nothing but a rehash of his thoughts and suggestions in his other writings. And I know that he openly blames Islamic passages, not the actions of Muslim leaders or individuals...there is no need to post his idiotic opinions about "why Islam is suffering"...i'm sorry to burst your BUBBLES but this is not a site where we promote Political Merceneries who insult Islam with lies just because he is a big shot at Princeton? Who says a scholar at Princeton is an authority on Islam? THIS IS THE QUESTION Mr.Rashid is asking YOU?? Can you get over your self-righteousness and try to understand that...God knows.

So since you both seem to be "scholars" in your own rights, I'll be waiting for your reviews of Mr. Lewis's book...since you are such critics of Muslim author's lets see what you can accomplish? You talk so big, let's see what your made of since you feel so strongly...I want to see if you can do a better job. Presuming that you do not have the skills to write an article lke Mr. Rashid's on hte web, on any Internet news site, then just humble yourselves and write one here...i'll be prompt to respond, to your "commentary."

ROMESH CHANDER FROM [email protected] said:
Comment on Tariq Ash:

What amazes me is that he not only cared to refute any of Prof Lewis arguments, he never even cared to analyse What is Wrong with the Muslim World! Probably, he thinks that muslim world is perfect and hence does not deserve any criticism; it is the non-muslim world (especially jewish society) which is all screwed up (and probably the cause of all muslim problems, if any). And that too from a professor at a top school; it is immaterial that he is a professor Economics and not Islamic History; anybody with less knowledge would have done a better job. He did add anything to the understanding of the problem.

I find it amazing that one could write such a long-winded article condemning a book without ever actually refuting any of its arguments. I understand how repugnant it is for some Muslims to have a non-Muslim's criticism of Islamic culture put on a pedestal. So why doesn't Dr. Rashid criticise his actual criticisms? Attempting to undermine an author instead of his arguments with conjecture, inflammatory open-ended questions, and invented analogies seems to me a poor substitute for a well reasoned critique of why that author should be pushed off that pedestal.

Folks, why is you continue to indulge the hindu troll ? Its obvious that he has nothing of merit to add, he simply regurjitates the diet of manure he was raised on whether from his parents or from CNN, FOX etc. The Brahmin bufoon wants attention and you're giving it to him. Ignore the ignorant.

H.A. strongly believes that SIR CHANDER is EXTREMELY JEALOUS of Islam. He has been posting comments at this site regularly for months now...and hasn't even said a SINGLE POSITIVE thing about Islam.

Come on Mr. Chander!!! Lets us talk the real stuffs...WHAT EXACTLY IS GOING ON???



Please Romesh open your eyes! Don't talk about what you do not know. Muslims have been aware of the problems facing us; Muslim scholars have been blaming the Muslim Ummah to nauseum. There are hadiths that have predicted what is going on today with the Muslim world and who is at fault, and that is the Muslim ummah. So please spare us with your ignorant arrogance.


Good Points Shuja! Look, Romesh refuses to accept that his assumptions about Islam might be wrong, b/c obviously he has all the answers already and everyone else who says otherwise is wrong! That's fine that's what he thinks, b/c of his bukhl(avarice), tafakhur(boasting) and su' Al-khuluq (bad character).

"Let not the present life delude you, and let not the deluder delude you of God." (Qur'an, 31:33)

No such thing as "old Islam"...I don't need to go any further or explain details, all one has to do is know, that Qur'an Al-Kareem is intact and has not been altered, ever. It's human interpretations are not comparable to the falsification, addition, and deletion of writings in other holy religious books.

You can talk and talk about "modern interpretation," but I would like to tell you Mr. Chandar, there have been some issues that Islamic scholars have debated for centuries with each other. This does not mean that everything that is modern will provide answers. And you do not have a monopoly over modernity, either. So my point to you Chandar, Islam is for the New AND the Old. Extreme ulta-modernity or ignorace (backwardness as you may see it) are not Islam's message. We will learn the balance, not you.

You suggest that Islam goes through the same phases of denomination that the Christian Protestants went through. Muslims cannot alter Islam, try to UNDERSTAND this already. What did it bring Protestants other than division within 'Christendom?' I don't think it did much to further the so called unified cause of Christianity. Muslims will not monkey the actions of others to attain vague hopes of success as you suggest...btw, Modernity has NOTHING to do with the creation of the Protestant Church.

Chandar, please continue to visit, as I do, you're welcome. Shuja he obviously loves talking to Muslims or else he wouldn't be returning here all the time, right Romesh?...maybe he thinks he's doing "Jihad?" lol wassalaa

Aslamu Alikum Brothers and Sisters in Islam,
The Book called "The Universal History of Numbers. From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer(Volume I)By Georges Ifrah Translated from the French by David Bellos, E. F. Harding, Sophie Wood, and Ian Monk John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1999 xxii + 633 pages" orginally this book was worte in fench by world renowned mathematician scholar Georges Ifrah. He is a French Jew. Indirectly he passed some negative comment about Islam; however he can't deny the truth so he admitted that the universal science came to exists after the birth of Islam. So it does'nt matter what kind of dress a Muslim men or woman wears. Most muslims wear their dress according to Islimic code. I mean "Islamic code" covering their body very decently without exposing which is not likable by Allah(The High, The Above). What my Point is every Human have the rights to understand the Secrets of Allah(SWT), which Allah(SWT) Revealed in the Noble Qur'an. People who have the scincer heart and mind with understand it on the side people who are arrogent will Criticize. Salam.

To Shuja:
So it is the Turkish muslims who invented Jacket/neck-noose. If that is the case, then why don't all muslims wear it? Did Turkish muslims wear during the Ottoman's days? I cannot find any pictures of any of the ottman rulers with this kind of dress. And this kind of dress has been around for a long time. Strange, you are trying to defend which is indefensible. Don't tell me that it is the christian Europe who copied the Turkish dress?

You don't like criticism of Islam. Well, that may be the problem. Old Islam cannot serve muslims in the modern world; they need to re-interpret it, which is of course not acceptable to muslims. Well, Christians went through their Protestant phase; muslims may have to for survival; otherwise infidel world will take advantage of muslims till they are so damn weak as to become irrelevent. The muslims have been losing for the last 500 years and they don't even realise it. So don't read B Lewis; who is going to lose; not the Jews. Regarding criticism of Jews, there are plenty of other jewish scholars who criticise judaism/Zionism fervently, both in the west and Israel; they are not obscrutantists like you.

Mr. Romesh Chander:

I will explain you. First of all, Mahathir does not wear western suit. The present coat and pant or suit is not western but designed and presented by the Turks to the world. West has taken the modern dress from Muslims. Sorry, I have to correct that false notion.

Seconldy, Mahathir is right, while B. Lewis would have been right had he ever spoken a single word good about Islam. Bernard Lewis is furthering the agenda of Zionisim. If a person continuously and persistently lying and criticising Hinduism, then that person should not be trusted. It is a politically motivated book. Not a single word is coming bad about Jews from this beast. Mahathir has criticised Muslims not Islam, while Bernard Lewis has criticised Islamic religion itself, which is not acceptable to us. Muslims are good and bad, but coming after Islam is something else. I hope you must have understand the difference. Khushwant Singh has blamed Muslims for their situation in India, which I will accept without hesitation without discounting the Hindu barbarism for more than 50 years now.


Dr. Rashid unearths an extremely valid and generally overlooked point: with propaganda and media constantly against Muslims and Islam in the US and abroad, why do the supposed 1.2 billion Muslims of the world sit back and watch the degradation? It is highly unlikely that such criticism of Islam, sometimes completely baseless, is met with outrage or opposition. Nowadays it seems so easy for one to make rash generalizations and incorrect assumptions about the Muslim population and actually get away with it, thus leaving non-Muslims to believe the information to be true. There is no doubt that Muslims are totally disunited, but can we not even save face for Islam, at least with counter-attacks in the form of literature if nothing else?

To R Chander. I only read the book review by Paul L. Whalen and I don't feel the need to criticize it when I disagree on some aspects like social for eg. because he is after all a non-Muslim and he would have different views from Muslims. I guess the book is intended for non-Muslim consumption. I do however, have a problem with Lewis's credential as an Orientalist expert.

As for Mahathir, there is nothing false or morally wrong about his statements. When he say Jews have been killing with US's approval and Mahathir ask for a more peaceful and well-thought retaliation, doesnt he deserve a standing oviation? So why should we be upset? Its all facts. Or should we object to his western suit and tie when he should be wearing his traditional baju kurung for his UMNO (his party) meeting? Is it important? Similarly, when Lewis say that Muslims are so backward in the field of science, I am not upset because its a fact and I thank Lewis for bringing it up.

Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the outgoing Prime Minister of Malyasia (who wears western business suits with christian neck-noose and speaks fluent English) recently made his speech at OIC conference, the text of which was published on this website a few days ago. He criticised muslims heavily for outdated ideas, and essentially saying "What is wrong" with muslims. Well, if you read Bernard Lewis's "What went Wrong", it is almost exactly the same things he is talking about. Now one person (a muslim) gets tremendous applause at a conference of muslims (dictators) and the other one (a Jew) gets heavy criticism. Why? They are saying the same thing. Could somebody explain to me?

Bernard Lewis claims his scholarly background and education makes him worthy of passing judgement on an entire people and dares to refute any opposition based on his affiliation with Princeton University's Middle Eastern programs. Unfortunately, the general public does not realize that Mr. Lewis can not possibly be qualified to label the entire Muslim world. Shame on him and anyone who actually supports the essentially baseless conclusions he has drawn. Dr. Rashid has done and excellent job in documenting the discrepancies the rest of us are not articulate enough to express. Bravo.

Salam to all Muslim,

I really expected to be more harsh with him, in a deconstructing destructionist style a la Said's Orientalism or Chomsky. Bernas Lewis doesn't deserve such a bland and hesitant, 'insinuous' at best, review. Why be so indirect instead of going at the core of the matter? The conclusion only ends with a slight slap,

"Perhaps Bernard Lewis does not really exist. Perhaps he is just an invention of Muslim rage."

Very disappointing to what could've been a promising article. Actually Prof. Rashid decides not to be so much controversial though he does raise interesting issues but leaves them open with no in-depht analysis. One only has to read Orientalism to dismantle liars dishonests pseudo-intellectuals like Lewis. Orientalist of his turf are nothing else than vermins of Kafka's Metamorphosis. An empty shell that spends his whole life crafting lies, to what end? What is the point of writing so prolific when he will never grasp the truth the 'force' and vitality of Islam? Pitty the invertebrate mindshell of 'Bermin Lewis'. The only way Bermin can be worth is as an object of intellectual excercise for us Muslims in order to dismantle the facade of his writings, which in turn is the fragile facade of the West.

American Shia

Allah Akbar
wa salam

MUTEE' FROM U.S. said:
Thank you for a very informative article. You made me aware of certain tools that writers use to mislead of misinform the reader. You have equipped me with tools to protect myself while gathering information. Just as poison is placed in the food of a pest to kill them, lies, wrong ideas,false statements,and misleading declarations are purposely sprinkled among truth and is taken for truth. So I advise the readers to learn from the valuable contribution of the professor in this writing and others.
There's a hadith that speaks of the pen of the scholar and it's value compared with the blood of a martyr. When we apply the potential for good and the potential for harm in scholarly activity we should all be utilizing the pen more and supporting the efforts of those who do.
Our situation as muslims shows us that we are not using our potential to the fullest. We need to be better organize for one. The enemy is better organize ! The enemy supports its organizations. Allah gives us signs in the organization of the bee and ant ummat (organization). The character of these organizations are known world wide.

OK. Prof Rashid does not like the analysis of Prof Lewis. Does Prof Rashid thinks there is nothing wrong with The House of Islam; if there is something wrong, it is with the House of Infidels.

Where is the analysis from Muslim point of view "What Went Wrong with the muslim world"? May be we will have to wait for a few centuries!

Powerful article, Mr. Rashid speaks expertly, Mr. Lewis can no longer hide behind his scholar veil.


Tazkiya (Self-Development), should be stressed here, Muslims need Islamic historical sources where they can learn on how to reassert themeselves use our time well so that we can be successful people. Time is not money or gold; Time, is this life, and it is limited.

"You should structure your time, arrange your regular devotions and assign to each function a set period of time during which it is given first priority but which it does not overstep. For if you abandon yourself to neglect and purposelessness, as cattle do, and just do anything that may occur to you at any time it happens to occur to you, most of your time will be wasted. Your time is your life, and your life is your capital; it is the basis of your transactions [with God], and the means to attain to everlasting felicity, in the proximity of God, the Exalted. Each of your breaths is a priceless jewel, and when it passes away it never returns."
(Ihya Ulum Ad-Deen, by Imam Al-Ghazali)

I recommend this book to all Muslims who need morale guidance from the great, respected Islamic scholars of the go out and get a copy of "Ihya Ulum Ad-Deen, because within this book, the great Imam talks about soo many different topics in detail, MashAllah, get it...


Very sad article. It seems the author has to stoop so low as to use ad hominem arguments. Since he cannot refute what Lewis is saying, he has to dismiss his arguments by insulting the integrity of Lewis. I am sure the decision makers at Princeton University know what they are doing when they chose Lewis to lead the Middle-East faculty of studies. Very sad article.


I think brother Rashid has made a very important point. In a world where the media is contantly accused of propagating negative images of Islam, why are the Muslims so impotent.

Surely we have the knowledge and capability to challenge wrong information that is put out there. And we better start showing some interest in fighting this negative propaganda and stop whining.

This is an incredable article. Only if everyone (muslim) could understand the point of this article.... INFORMATION IS POWER!!!!!!