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Book Review


Lewis, Bernard. Islam and the West (Oxford University Press, 1993). 186 pp, $19.95.

     Bernard Lewis's account of the encounter between Islam and the West provides a thorough and sophisticated picture of a number of complex events, characters, and issues that are integral to any study of world history. Lewis is a highly regarded historian who is currently a Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Especially since 9/11, Lewis has been recognized by a wide range of the population—from academics to coffee-house philosophers to suburban homemakers—as one of the most insightful commentators on the Middle East. Islam and the West is a collection of Lewis's own essays that describe aspects of Islam not only as the core of a religious and cultural phenomenon, but also as an economic, military, and political civilization. Through careful analysis, Lewis delves deep into Islam's complex histories to reveal its often-overlooked interaction with the rest of the world. 1
     The history of the Ottoman Empire is an area of particular expertise for Lewis, and his acumen on this era is palpable. Going beyond the traditional narrative, Lewis describes certain events that we strive to highlight in a course such as AP World History. For example, at the precise moment in the course (early in the 1450-1750 period) when students have begun to sense the impending shift of world power that coincided with a surge of exploration, trade, and interaction throughout, we can use excerpts from Lewis's first essay, "Europe and Islam." Here is a portrayal of "Christian Europe, weak, divided, and irresolute, [that] seemed helpless before the overwhelming power of the centralized, disciplined Ottoman state." (p. 15) This image is followed by a description of the Siege of Vienna in contrast to an earlier failed attempt by the Ottoman army in 1529 to attack this European city. Lewis then methodically describes the significance of this critical event in relation to the greater history of the world. He says, "The real power of Islam in relation to Europe had, in many respects, declined…the war had shown that the Ottoman armies, once the strongest and best in the world, were falling behind their European adversaries in weaponry, in military science, even in discipline and skill." (p. 19) The 1688-1689 Siege of Vienna concluded with a treaty that, according to Lewis, "marked a crucial turning point, not only in the relations between the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, but, more profoundly, between Europe and Islam." (p. 19) 2
     Lewis's historical analysis is phenomenal and certainly a valuable resource for an AP World History course, but a couple issues are worthy of more critical consideration. For one, the book is a collection of essays (some previously published) that certainly relate to one another. However, the compilation doesn't necessarily flow as a narrative. Also, the question of objectivity arises since an underlying bias seems to color much of Lewis's analysis of Islam's relations with the rest of the world (certainly a sensitive issue today.) He does not, however, make a point to acknowledge or articulate any limitations established by his own point of view and opinion on some, often controversial, issues that are raised. In Lewis's own words, "No one would deny that scholars, like other human beings, are liable to some kind of bias, more often for, rather than against, the subject of their study. The significant difference is between those who recognize their bias and try to correct it and those who give it free rein." (p. 118) But has Lewis adequately recognized and tried to correct any bias here? 3
     Bernard Lewis knows the Middle East. He writes in a way that makes complex historical events clear and understandable by both the best of our students and teachers alike. Lewis's work can definitely serve as a resource for a world history teacher. The highly sophisticated level of reading and analysis required to understand his work would suggest that many of Lewis's essays could be appropriately integrated into an AP or college-level world history course. For my students in AP world history, or for a introductory survey course, I would assign only the first essay, "Europe and Islam." This section directly addresses some of the main AP World History themes in terms of the interaction between Islam and the West, and it is still a manageable read. 4
     In the end, Lewis emphasizes a perspective on Islam and its evolution within the context of world history that mirrors the work of a fellow historian, Edward Gibbon. In Lewis's words, Gibbon viewed the rise of Islam "… not as something separate and isolated, nor as a regrettable aberration from the onward march of the Church, but as a part of human history, to be understood against the background of Rome and Persia, in the light of Judaism and Christianity, and in complex interplay with Byzantium, Asia, and Europe." (98) 5
Allison Freedman
High School for Legal Studies

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