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.
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,
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.
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?
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.
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)
High School for Legal Studies