Book Review: “What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East” (Bernard Lewis)
Scholarship or Sophistry?
by M. Shahid Alam
It would appear from the fulsome praise heaped by mainstream reviewers on Bernard Lewis’s most recent and well-timed book, What Went Wrong? : The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2002), that the demand for Orientalism has reached a new peak. America’s search for new enemies that began soon after the end of the Cold War very quickly resurrected the ghost of an old, though now decrepit, enemy, Islam. Slowly but surely, this revived the sagging fort1unes of Orientalism, so that it speaks again with the treble voice of authority.
The mainstream reviewers describe Bernard Lewis as “the doyen of Middle Eastern studies,” the “father” of Islamic studies, “[a]rguably the West’s most distinguished scholar on the Middle East,” and “[a] Sage for the Age.” It would appear that Lewis is still the reigning monarch of Orientalism, as he was some twenty-five years back when Edward Said, in his Orientalism, dissected and exposed the intentions, modalities, deceptions, and imperialist connections of this ideological enterprise. This Orientalist tiger has not changed his stripes over the fifty-odd years that he has been honing his skills. Now at the end of his long career—only coincidentally, also the peak—he presents the summation, the quintessence of his scholarship and wisdom on Islam and the Middle East, gathered, compressed in the pages of this slim book that sets out to explain what went wrong with Islamic history, and that has so mesmerized reviewers on the right.
Who Is Bernard Lewis?
We will return to the book in a moment, but before that, we need to step back some twenty-five years and examine how Edward Said, in Orientalism, has described this Orientalist tiger’s stripes and his cunning ploys at concealment. Edward Said gets to the nub of Lewis’s Orientalist project when he writes that his “work purports to be liberal objective scholarship but is in reality very close to being propaganda against his subject material.” Lewis’s work is “aggressively ideological.” He has dedicated his entire career, spanning more than five decades, to a “project to debunk, to whittle down, and to discredit the Arabs and Islam.” Said writes:
The core of Lewis’s ideology about Islam is that it never changes, and his whole mission is to inform conservative segments of the Jewish reading public, and anyone else who cares to listen, that any political, historical, and scholarly account of Muslims must begin and end with the fact that Muslims are Muslims.
Although Lewis’s objectives are ominous, his methods are quite subtle; he prefers to work “by suggestion and insinuation.” In order to disarm his readers and win their trust and admiration, he delivers frequent “sermons on the objectivity, the fairness, the impartiality of a real historian.” This is only a cover, a camouflage, for his political propaganda. Once he is seated on his high Orientalist perch, he goes about cleverly insinuating how Islam is deficient in and opposed to universal values, which, of course, always originate in the West. It is because of this deficiency in values that Arabs have trouble accepting a democratic Israel—it is always “democratic” Israel. Lewis can write “objectively” about the Arab’s “ingrained” opposition to Israel without ever telling his readers that Israel is an imperialist creation, and an expansionist, colonial-settler state that was founded on terror, wars, and ethnic cleansing. Lewis’s work on Islam represents the “culmination of Orientalism as a dogma that not only degrades its subject matter but also blinds its practitioners.”
Lewis’s scholarly mask slips off rather abruptly when he appears on television, a feat that he accomplishes with predictable regularity. Once he is on the air, his polemical self, the Orientalist crouching tiger, takes over, all his sermons about objectivity forgotten, and then he does not shrink from displaying his sneering contempt for the Arabs and Muslims more generally, his blind partisanship for Israel, or his bristling hostility toward Iran. One recent example will suffice here. In a PBS interview broadcast on 16 April 2002, hosted by Charlie Rose, he offered this gem: “Asking Arafat to give up terrorism would be like asking Tiger to give up golf.” That is a statement whose malicious intent and vindictive meanness might have been excusable if it came from an official Israeli spokesman.
After this background check, do we really want to hear from this “sage” about “what went wrong” with Islamic societies; why, after nearly a thousand years of expansive power and world leadership in many branches of the arts and sciences, they began to lose their élan, their military advantage, and their creativity and, starting in the nineteenth century, capitulated to their historical adversary, the West? And, though Islamic societies have regained their political independence, why has their economic and cultural decline proved so difficult to reverse? Yet, although our stomachs turn at the prospect, we must sample the gruel Lewis offers, taste it, and analyze it, if only to identify the toxins that it contains and that have poisoned far too many Western minds for more than fifty years.
Where Is the Context?
What went wrong with the Islamic societies? When this question is asked by our “doyen of Middle Eastern studies,” especially when it is asked right after the attacks of 11 September, it is hard not to notice that this manner of framing the problem of the eclipse of Islamic societies by the West is loaded with biases, value judgments, and preconceptions, and even contains its own answer. There are two sets of “wrongs” in What Went Wrong? The first consists of “wrongs,” deviations from what is just and good, that we confront in contemporary Islamic societies. Lewis undoubtedly has in mind a whole slew of problems, including the political, economic, and cultural failings of the Islamic world. In addition, this question seeks to discover deeper “wrongs,” deviations from what is just and good that are prior to and at the root of the present “wrongs.” Lewis is concerned primarily with this second set of “wrongs.”
The first problem one encounters in Lewis’s narrative of Middle Eastern decline is the absence of any context. He seeks to create the impression that the failure of Islam to catch up with the accelerating pace of changes in Western Europe is a problem specific to this region; there is no attempt to locate this problem in a global context. This exclusive Middle Eastern focus reveals to all but the blinkered the mala fides of What Went Wrong? Lewis cannot hide behind pious claims that a historian’s “loyalties may well influence his choice of subject of research; they should not influence his treatment of it.” His exclusive focus on the decline of the Middle East is not legitimate precisely because it is designed to—and it unavoidably must—“influence his treatment of it.”
Once Western Europe began to make the transition from a feudal-agrarian to a capitalist-industrial society, starting in the sixteenth century, the millennial balance of power among the world’s major civilizations shifted inexorably in favor of Western Europe. A society that was shifting to a capitalist-industrial base, capable of cumulative growth, commanded greater social power than slow-growing societies still operating on feudal-agrarian foundations. Under the circumstances, it was unlikely that non-Western societies could simultaneously alter the foundations of their societies while also fending off attacks from Western states whose social power was expanding at an ever-increasing rate. Even as these feudal-agrarian societies sought to reorganize their economies and institutions, Western onslaughts against them deepened, and this made their reorganization increasingly difficult. It is scarcely surprising that the growing asymmetry between the two sides eventually led to the eclipse, decline, or subjugation of nearly all non-Western societies.
While Lewis studiously avoids any reference to this disequalizing dynamic, another Western historian of Islam not driven by a compulsion “to debunk, to whittle down, and to discredit the Arabs and Islam” understood this tendency quite well. I am referring here to Marshall Hodgson, whose The Venture of Islam shows a deep and, for its time, rare understanding of the interconnectedness, across space and time, amongst all societies in the Eastern hemisphere. He understood very clearly that the epochal changes under way in parts of Western Europe between 1600 and 1800 were creating an altogether new order based on markets, capital accumulation, and technological changes, which acted upon each other to produce cumulative growth. Moreover, this endowed the most powerful Western states with a degree of social power that no one could resist. In his Venture of Islam, Marshall Hodgson writes,
Hence, the Western Transmutation, once it got well under way, could neither be paralleled independently nor be borrowed wholesale. Yet it could not, in most cases, be escaped. The millennial parity of social power broke down, with results that were disastrous everywhere.
Clearly, Lewis’s presentation of his narrative of Middle Eastern decline without any context is a ploy. His objective is to whittle down world history, to reduce it to a primordial contest between two historical adversaries, the West and Islam. This is historiography in the crusading mode, one that purports to resume the Crusades—interrupted in the thirteenth century—and carry them to their unfinished conclusion, the triumph of the West or, conversely, the humiliation and defeat of Middle Eastern Islam. Once this framework has been established, with its exclusive focus on a failing Islamic civilization, it is quite easy to cast the narrative of this decay as a uniquely Islamic phenomenon, which must then be explained in terms of specifically Islamic failures. Thus Lewis’s agenda in What Went Wrong? is to discover all that was and is “wrong” with Islamic societies and to explain their decline and present troubles in terms of these “wrongs.”
If Lewis had an interest in exploring the decline of the Middle East, he would be asking why the new, more dynamic historical system that lay behind the rise of the West had not emerged in the Middle East, India, China, Italy, or Africa. If he had asked this question, it may have directed him to the source and origins of Western hegemony. But Lewis ducks this issue altogether. Instead, he takes the growing power of the West—its advances in science and technology—as the starting point of his narrative and concentrates on demonstrating why the efforts of Islamic societies to catch up with the West were both too little and too late. In other words, he seeks to explain a generic phenomenon—the overthrow of agrarian societies before the rise of a new historical system, based on capital, markets, and technological change—as one that is specific to Islam and is due to specifically Islamic “wrongs.”
If one focuses only on the Middle Eastern response to the Western challenge, it does appear to be too little and too late. The Ottoman Empire, once the most powerful in the Islamic world, had lost nearly all its European territories by the end of the nineteenth century, and the remnants of its Arab territories were lost after its defeat in the First World War. At this point, the Ottoman Empire had been reduced to a rump state in northern Anatolia, with the British and French occupying Istanbul, the Greeks pushing to occupy central Anatolia, the Armenians extending their boundaries in eastern Anatolia, and the French pushing north in Silesia. Yet, after defeating the Greeks, the French, and the Armenians, the victorious Turks managed to establish in 1922 a new and modern Turkish nation-state over Istanbul, Thrace, and all of Anatolia. The Iranians were more successful in preserving their territories, though, like the Ottomans, they too had lost control over their economic policies in the first decades of the nineteenth century. However, if one compares these outcomes with the fate suffered by other regions—barring Japan, China, and Thailand, nearly all of Asia and Africa was directly colonized by the Europeans—one has to conclude that the results for the Middle East could have been worse.
There is even less substance to Lewis’s claims about Middle Eastern inertia in the face of Western threats, especially when we compare their responses to these threats with the record of East Asian societies.
First, consider Lewis’s charge that the Muslims showed little curiosity about the West. He attributes this failing to Muslim bigotry that frowned upon contacts with the infidels. This is a curious charge against “a world civilization” that Lewis admits was “polyethnic, multiracial, international, one might even say intercontinental.” It also seems strange that the Ottomans, and other Middle Eastern states before them, were quite happy to employ their Christian and Jewish subjects—as high officials, diplomats, physicians, and bankers—traded with the Europeans themselves, bought arms and borrowed money from them, and yet, somehow, loathed learning anything from the same infidels. In addition, Muslim philosophers, historians and travelers have left several very valuable accounts of non-Islamic societies. One of these, Al-Biruni’s monumental study of India, still remains without a rival for its encyclopedic coverage, objectivity, and sympathy for its subject. Clearly, Lewis has fallen prey to the Orientalist temptation: when something demands a carefully researched explanation, an understanding of material and social conditions, better pin it on some cultural propensity.
Lewis is little aware how his book is littered with contradictions. If the Muslims were not a little curious about developments in the West, it is odd that the oldest map of the Americas—which dates from 1513 and is the most accurate map from the sixteenth century—was prepared by Piri Reis, a Turkish admiral and cartographer. It would also appear that the number of Muslims who had left accounts of their observations on Europe were not such a rarity either. Lewis himself mentions no fewer than ten names, nearly all of them Ottomans, spanning the period from 1665 to 1840; and this is far an from exhaustive list. One of them, Ratib Effendi, who was in Vienna from 1791 to 1792, left a report that “ran to 245 manuscript folios, ten times or more than ten times those of his predecessors, and it goes into immense detail, primarily on military matters, but also, to quite a considerable extent, on civil affairs.” Diplomatic contacts provide another indicator of the early growth of Ottoman interest and involvement in the affairs of European states. Between 1703 and 1774, the Ottomans signed sixty-eight treaties or agreements with sovereign, mostly European states. Since each treaty must have involved at least one diplomatic exchange, the Ottomans could hardly be accused of neglecting diplomatic contacts with Europe.
According to Lewis, the Ottoman decision not to challenge the Portuguese hegemony in the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth century was a failure of vision. Despite some early warnings from elder statesmen, the Ottomans did not anticipate that the Portuguese incursion would translate some 250 years later into a broader and more serious European challenge to their power. As a result, they chose to concentrate their war efforts on acquiring territory in Europe, which, Lewis claims, they saw as “the principal battleground between Islam and Europe, the rival faiths competing for enlightenment—and mastery—of the world.” It is of no interest to Lewis that the Ottomans, departing from their own tradition of land warfare, had built a powerful navy starting in the fifteenth century and created a seaborne empire in the eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the Red Sea. If the Ottomans chose to concentrate their resources on land wars in Central Europe rather than challenge Portuguese hegemony in the Indian Ocean, this was not the result of religious zealotry. It reflected the balance of class interests in the Ottoman political structure. In an empire that had traditionally been land-based, the interests of the landowning classes prevailed against commercial interests that looked to the Indian Ocean for their livelihood. Although the decision not to contest the Portuguese presence in the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth century was fateful, that policy was rational for the Ottomans.
A Military Decline?
Several Orientalists—Lewis amongst them—have argued that the military decline of the Ottoman Empire became irreversible after its second failed siege of Vienna in 1683, or perhaps earlier, after its naval defeat at Lepanto in 1571. In an earlier work, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, Lewis declared that “[t]he Ottomans found it more and more difficult to keep up with the rapidly advancing Western technological innovations, and in the course of the eighteenth century the Ottoman Empire, itself far ahead of the Islamic world, fell decisively behind Europe in virtually all arts of war.”
This thesis of an early and inexorable decline has now been convincingly questioned. Jonathan Grant has shown that the Ottomans occupied the third tier in the hierarchy of military technology, behind innovators and exporters, at the beginning of the fifteenth century; they could reproduce the latest military technology with the help of foreign expertise but they never graduated into export or introduced any significant innovations. The Ottomans succeeded in maintaining this relative position, through two waves of technology diffusion, until the early nineteenth century. However, they failed to keep up with the third wave of technology diffusion, based upon the technology of the industrial revolution, that began in the mid-nineteenth century. The Ottomans fell below their third-tier status only toward the end of the nineteenth century, when they became totally dependent on imported weaponry.
If we put together the evidence made available by Lewis, it becomes clear that the Ottomans were not slow in recognizing the institutional superiority enjoyed by Europe’s military. A debate about the causes of Ottoman weakness began after the Treaty of Carlowitz in 1699, growing more intense over time. A document from the early seventeenth century recognized that “it was no longer sufficient, as in the past, to adopt Western weapons. It was also necessary to adopt Western training, structures, and tactics for their effective use.” The Ottomans began to dispatch special envoys to European capitals “with instructions to observe and to learn and, more particularly, to report on anything that might be useful to the Muslim state in coping with its difficulties and confronting its enemies.” Several of these envoys wrote reports, occasionally quite extensive and detailed, on their European visits, and these reports had an important impact on thinking in Ottoman circles. The first mathematical school for the military was founded in 1734, and a second one followed in the 1770s.
While Ottoman military technology generally kept pace with the advances in Europe, at least into the first decades of the nineteenth century, it took the Ottomans longer to introduce organizational changes in the military since they ran into powerful social obstacles. As a result, the first serious attempts at modernizing the army did not begin until the late eighteenth century, during the reign of Selim III, who sought to bypass the problems of reforming the existing military corps by recruiting and training a new European-style army. Although, by 1806, he had raised a modern army of nearly twenty-five thousand, he had to abandon his efforts in the face of resistance from the ulama and a Janissary rebellion. The task of modernizing the Ottoman army was taken up again in 1826 after the Janissary corps was disbanded, and in two years, the new Ottoman army included seventy-five thousand regular troops. Simultaneously, the Ottomans introduced reforms in the bureaucracy and also reformed land-tenure policies with the objective of raising revenues.
And yet these efforts at modernizing the Ottoman military—quite early by most standards—failed to avert the progressive fragmentation and eventual demise of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. One might join Hodgson in thinking that this was inevitable, that agrarian societies in Asia and Africa could not modernize fast enough in the face of the ever increasing economic and military power of the modern Western nation-states. But, perhaps, this assessment is too fatalistic; and it is contradicted by the case of—among others—Russia, which was spared colonization or subjection to open-door treaties. A comparison of the two quickly reveals that the Ottomans’ efforts at modernization were undermined by several extraneous factors. The Ottoman Empire, which straddled three continents, lacked the compactness that might have made its territories more defensible. What proved more fatal to the Ottoman Empire was the fact that the Ottoman Turks, though they constituted its ethnic core, made up less than a third of its population and occupied an even smaller part of its territories. Once nationalism reared its head in the nineteenth century, the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire was well-nigh unavoidable. The Ottomans faced one insurrection after another in the Balkans, each backed by some European power, until the last of these territories had broken free in the early decades of the twentieth century. Not only did these insurrections reduce the revenues of the empire, but by diverting its attention and resources to war, they delayed the modernization of the military and economy. Eventually, during World War I, the Arab territories of the empire were wrested away by the British and French, with support from Arab nationalists.
The Egyptian program to modernize its military, started in 1815 under the leadership of Muhammad Ali, was more ambitious and more successful. It was part of an integrated program of modernization and industrial development financed through state ownership of lands, development of new export crops, and state-owned monopolies over the marketing of the major agricultural products. In 1831, Egypt’s Europeanized army consisted of one hundred thousand officers and men, and in 1833, having conquered Syria, it was penetrating deep into Anatolia when its march was halted by Russian naval intervention. When the Ottomans resumed the Syrian war in 1839, the Egyptians routed the Ottoman forces and were rapidly marching westward, poised to capture Istanbul for Muhammad Ali. At this point, all the great European powers, except France, intervened, forcing the Egyptians to withdraw, give up their acquisitions in Syria and Arabia, reduce their military force to eighteen thousand, and enforce the Anglo-Ottoman Commercial Convention, which required the lowering of tariffs to 3 percent and the dismantling of all state monopolies. By depriving Egypt of its revenues and dramatically reducing the military’s demand for its manufactures, these measures abruptly terminated the career of the earliest and most ambitious program to build a modern, industrial society in the Periphery.
Lewis faults the Ottomans and Egyptians of the nineteenth century for seeking to build an effective military response on the foundations of a modern industrial economy. He thinks it odd that these countries “tried to catch up with Europe by building factories, principally to equip and clothe their armies.” Apparently, Lewis is unaware that the Ottomans—and especially Egypt—were breaking new ground in their efforts to modernize their manufactures, a road that would soon be taken by most European countries. Nearly every country that lagged behind in the nineteenth century and was forced to catch up with Britain, built its strategy around industrialization, and the military in many of these countries formed an important initial market for their nascent industries. Of course, Lewis had no choice but to demean the military and industrial responses to the Western threat. As we will see, he believes that the Ottomans should have been working harder to remedy their cultural deficiencies, such as their less-than-enthusiastic appreciation for European harmonies.
Industrial Failure—But Why?
Lewis declares that the industrialization programs launched by the Ottomans and Egypt “failed, and most of the early factories became derelict.” These programs were doomed from the outset because their promoters lacked a proper regard for time, measurement, harmonies, secularism, and women’s rights—values upon which Western industrial success was founded.
We must correct these jaundiced observations. Far from being a failure, the Egyptian “program of industrialization and military expansion,” according to Immanuel Wallerstein (Unthinking Social Science), “seriously undermined the Ottoman Empire and almost established a powerful state in the Middle East capable eventually of playing a major role in the interstate system.” Muhammad Ali’s fiscal and economic reforms, between 1805 and 1847, brought about a more than ninefold increase in government revenues. At their height in the 1830s, Egypt’s state monopolies had made investments worth $12 million and employed thirty thousand workers in a broad range of industries that included foundries, textiles, paper, chemicals, shipyards, glassware, and arsenals. By the early 1830s, Egyptian arsenals and naval yards had acquired the ability to “produce appreciable amounts of warships, guns and munitions,” elevating Egypt “to a major regional power.” Naturally, these developments in Egypt were raising concerns in British government circles. A report submitted to the British foreign office in 1837 sounded the right note: “A manufacturing country Egypt never can become—or at least for ages.” Three years later, when Istanbul was within the grasp of Muhammad Ali’s forces, a coalition of European powers intervened to roll back his gains, downsize his military, and dismantle his state monopolies. These measures successfully reversed the Periphery’s first industrial revolution.
The Ottomans launched an ambitious program of industrialization in the early 1840s, but it had little chance of success and was abandoned within a few years of its inauguration. Since the early nineteenth century, the unequal treaties limited the Ottomans to import tariffs under 3 percent, severely limiting their ability to protect their manufactures or raise revenues for investments in development projects. In 1838, the Anglo-Turkish Commercial Convention forced them to dismantle all state monopolies, dealing another blow to their fiscal autonomy. It speaks to the determination of the Ottomans that they sought to launch an industrial revolution despite their adverse fiscal circumstances. In the decade starting in 1841, the Ottomans had set up, to the west of Istanbul, a complex of state-owned industries that included spinning and weaving mills, a foundry, steam-operated machine works, and a boatyard for the construction of small steamships. In the words of Edward Clark (International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 1974): “In variety as well as in number, in planning, in investment, and in attention given to internal sources of raw materials these manufacturing enterprises far surpassed the scope of all previous efforts and mark this period as unique in Ottoman history.” Several foreign observers saw in the Istanbul industrial complex the potential to evolve into “a Turkish Manchester and Leeds, a Turkish Birmingham and Sheffield,” all wrapped in one. In addition, other modern industrial, mining, and agricultural projects were initiated during the same period in several other parts of the Ottoman Empire. But these grand projects could not be sustained for long. Once the Crimean War started, the Ottomans were forced to borrow heavily from foreign banks, and, strapped for funds, they abandoned most of these industrial projects. Thus ended another bold experiment in industrialization, early even by European standards, but whose failure was linked to the loss of Ottoman fiscal sovereignty.
It’s in Their Culture
The real culprit behind the political, economic, and military failures of the Middle East over the past half a millennium was their culture. Lewis identifies a whole slew of problematic cultural traits, but two are singled out for special attention: the mixing of religion and politics and the unequal treatment of women, unbelievers, and slaves. Both, according to Lewis, are Islamic flaws.
Lewis argues that secularism constitutes a great divide between Islam and the West: the West always had it and Islamic societies never did. Secularism, as the separation of church and state, “is, in a profound sense, Christian.” Its origins go back to Jesus—his injunction to give God and Caesar, each, their due—and to the early history of the Christians when, as a minority persecuted by the Roman state, they developed the institutions of the Church with its “own laws and courts, its own hierarchy and chain of authority.” This was quite unique, setting Europe apart from anything that went before and from its competitors. In particular, the Muslims never created an “institution corresponding to, or even remotely resembling, the Church in Christendom.”
These claims about a secular Christendom—an oxymoron in itself—and a theocratic Islam are problematic. Lewis rests his case upon two propositions. First, he contrasts the presence of the Church in Christendom against its absence in Islamic societies. Second, he works on the presumption that the existence of a Church, a hierarchical religious organization different from the state, necessarily implies a separation between religion and political authority. For the most part, these claims are contestable.
The existence of a Church in Christendom is not in dispute, but the contention that there existed nothing like it in Islamic societies is contradicted by history. The Prophet and the first four Caliphs combined religious and mundane authority in their persons. In addition, most Islamic thinkers have maintained that the ideal Islamic state, modeled after the state in Medina, must be guided by the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah. The Islamic practice in the centuries following the pious Caliphs, however, departed quite sharply from the canonical model as well as the theory.
In one of his numerous attempts at distortion, Lewis asserts that the “pietists” retreated into “radical opposition or quietist withdrawal” when they failed to impose “ecclesiastical constraints on political and military authority.” This is only part of the picture. In the bigger picture, we find that the pietists turned vigorously to scholarship. Starting from a scratch, and independently of state authority and without state funding, the early pietists developed the Islamic sciences, which included the Traditions of the Prophet, biographies of the Prophet and his companions, Arabic grammar, and theology. Most significantly, these pious scholars elaborated several competing systems of Islamic laws—regulating every aspect of individual, social, and business life—on the premise that legislative authority was vested in the consensus of the pious scholars—or, in the case of Shi’ites, in the rulings of the imams. The state had executive powers but it possessed no legislative authority. In effect, Islam had evolved not only separate political and religious institutions, but separate executive and legislative powers as well. It was the pious scholars—with their competing schools of jurisprudence—who constituted the informal legislatures of Islam, long before these institutions had evolved in Europe.
Lewis’s second proposition—that separation between religion and political authority flows from the presence of a Church—is equally dubious. There can be no separation between religion and political authority if religion is organized into a Church with power over the lives of people. If the Church itself commands power, ipso facto, it becomes a rival of the state. It follows that the Church can and will exercise its power directly to regulate the religious, economic, and social affairs of the community, and indirectly by using the state for its own ends. Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman state, the Church progressively increased its power: it used the power of the state to eliminate or marginalize all competing religions; it gained the exclusive right to define all religious dogma and rituals; it acquired properties, privileges, and exclusive control over education; it expanded its legislative control over different spheres of society. In time, since the Church and state recruited their higher personnel from the same classes, they also developed an identity of class interests. In other words, although they remained organizationally distinct, the Church and the state mixed religion and politics.
One expects that a separation of religion and political authority would produce a measure of tolerance. Yet, the adoption of Christianity as its official creed led the Roman state, hitherto tolerant of all religious communities, to inaugurate a regime of growing intolerance toward other religions, and even toward any dissent within Christianity. As Daniel Schowalter (Oxford History of the Biblical World) says, “By the end of the fourth century, both anti-pagan and anti-Jewish legislation would serve as licenses for the increasing number of acts of vandalism and violent destruction directed against pagan and Jewish places of worship carried out by Christian mobs, often at the instigation of the local clergy.” Although the practice of Judaism was not banned, by the end of the fourth century c.e., a variety of decrees prohibited conversion to Judaism, Jewish ownership of non-Jewish slaves, and marriage between Jews and Christians, and Jews were excluded from most imperial offices. In dogma, theology, legislation, and practice, the Church and state crafted a regime that suppressed paganism and marginalized all other non-Christian forms of worship.
According to Lewis, modernization in Islamic societies was set back by a second set of cultural barriers—namely, the inferior status of unbelievers, slaves, and, especially, women. It is not that these groups labored under stricter restraints than their counterparts in Europe, but that their unequal status was “sacrosanct” in that they “were seen as part of the structure of Islam, buttressed by revelation, by the precept and practice of the Prophet, and by the classical and scriptural history of the Islamic community.” As a result, these three inequalities have endured; they were not challenged even by the radical Islamic movements that arose from time to time to protest social and economic inequalities.
Lewis’s claims are problematic for several reasons. The first problem is their lack of historicity. Implicitly, Lewis bases his case on a reading of European history that inverts causation between economic development and social equality. He would have us believe that Europeans developed because their flexible legal systems moved faster to create a more egalitarian society, a necessary basis for rapid progress. This shows a curious indifference to chronology. While Europe was establishing its global capitalist empire it was conducting the Inquisition, expelling the Moors and Jews from Spain, waging unending religious wars, burning witches at the stake, and granted few legal rights to women. In addition, they were creating in the Americas economic systems based on slavery that would be abolished only after the 1860s. In Russia, serfdom remained the basis of the economy at least until the 1860s. The equality Lewis speaks of began to arrive in slow increments at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and it was a byproduct of economic development, not its precursor.
Lewis’s claims about inequalities in Muslim societies lack historicity on another score. It is a bit surprising that “the doyen of Middle Eastern studies,” who has spent more than fifty years studying the history of the region, is unaware of at least a few challenges to the alleged inferior status of women or unbelievers. In the early centuries of Islam, there were at least three groups—the Kharijis, the Qarmatians and the Sufis—that did not accept the legal interpretations of the four traditional schools of Islamic law as sacrosanct. Instead, they looked for inspiration to the Qur’anic precepts on the moral and spiritual equality of men and women, claiming that the early applications of these precepts were time-bound. The Kharijis and Qarmatians rejected concubinage and child marriage, and the Qarmatians went further in rejecting polygamy and the veil. In a similar spirit, the Sufis welcomed women travelers on the spiritual path, permitting women “to give a central place in their lives to their spiritual vocation.” In sixteenth-century India, the Mughal emperor Akbar abolished the jizyah (the poll tax imposed by Islamic law on all non-Muslims), banned child marriage, and repealed a law that forced Islam on prisoners of war.
The “most profound single difference” between Islam and the West, however, concerns the status of women. In particular, Lewis argues that Islam permits polygamy and concubinage and that the Christian Churches prohibit it. Once again, Lewis is exaggerating the differences. In nearly all societies, not excluding the Western, men of wealth and power have always had access to multiple sexual partners, although within different legal frameworks. Islam gave equal rights to all the free sexual partners of men as well as to their children. The West, driven by a concern for primogeniture, adopted an opposite solution by vesting all the rights in a man’s primary sexual partner and her offspring. All the other sexual partners—a man’s mistresses—and their children had no legal rights. Arguably, Europe’s mistresses might think that the Islamic practice favored women.
It would appear from Lewis’s emphasis on polygamy and concubinage that they were very common in Islamic societies. In fact, both were quite rare outside the ruling class. Among others, this is attested by European visitors to eighteenth-century Aleppo and nineteenth-century Cairo. A study of documents relating to two thousands estates in seventeenth-century Turkey could identify only twenty cases of polygamy. Keeping concubines was most likely even rarer.
Lewis quotes from the reports of Muslim visitors who were startled to see European men curtsying to women in public places; this is supposed to validate the “striking contrasts” in women’s status in Europe and Islam. Once the bowing and curtsying are done, we need to compare the property rights enjoyed by women in Europe and Islam, a quite reliable index of the social power of women inside the household and outside. In this matter, too, it is the Muslim women who had the advantage until quite recently. Unlike her European counterpart, a married Muslim woman could own property, and she enjoyed exclusive rights to income from her property as well as the wages she earned. In Britain, the most advanced country in Europe, married women did not acquire the right to own property until 1882.
The ownership of property gave Muslim women a measure of social power that was not available to women in Europe. A Muslim woman of independent means had a stronger hand in marriage: she could initiate a divorce or craft a marriage contract that prevented her husband from taking another wife. Muslim women often engaged in trading activities, buying and selling property, lending money, or renting out stores. They created waqfs, charitable foundations financed by earnings from property, which they also administered. A small number of women distinguished themselves as scholars of the religious sciences. According to one report from the early nineteenth century, women attended al-Azhar, the leading university in the Islamic world. Ahmed concludes, on the basis of such evidence, that Muslim “women were not, after all, the passive creatures, wholly without material resources or legal rights, that the Western world once imagined them to be.”
What Went Wrong?
In an earlier era, before the Zionists developed a proprietary interest in Palestine, the least bigoted voices in the field of Oriental studies were often those of European Jews. Ironically, Lewis himself has written that these pro-Islamic Jews “were among the first who attempted to present Islam to European readers as Muslims themselves see it and to stress, to recognize, and indeed sometimes to romanticize the merits and achievements of Muslim civilization in its great days.” At a time when most Orientalists took Muhammad for a scheming imposter, equated Islam with fanaticism, thought that the Qur’an was a crude and incoherent text, and believed that the Arabs were incapable of abstract thought, a growing number of Jewish scholars often took opposite positions. They accepted the sincerity of Muhammad’s mission, described Arabs as “Jews on horseback” and Islam as an evolving faith that was more democratic than other religions, and debunked Orientalist claims about a static Islam and a dynamic West. It would appear that these Jews were anti-Orientalists long before Edward Said.
These contrarian positions had a variety of motives behind them. Even as the Jews began to enter the European mainstream, starting in the nineteenth century, they were still outsiders, having only recently emerged from the confinement of ghettos, and it would be scarcely surprising if they were seeking to maintain their distinctiveness by emphasizing and identifying with the achievements of another Semitic people, the Arabs. In celebrating Arab civilization, these Jewish scholars were perhaps sending a non-too-subtle message to the Europeans that their civilization was not unique, that Arab achievements often excelled theirs, and that Europeans were building upon Islamic achievements in science and philosophy. In addition, Jewish scholars’ discussions of religious and racial tolerance in Islamic societies, toward Jews in particular, may have offered hope that such tolerance was attainable in Europe too. The discussions may also have been an invitation to Europeans to incorporate religious and racial tolerance in their standards of civilization.
Yet the vigor of this early anti-Orientalism of Jewish scholars would not last; it would not survive the logic of the Zionist movement as it sought to create a Jewish state in Palestine. Such a state could only emerge as a child of Western imperialist powers, and it could only come into existence by displacing the greater part of the Palestinian population, by incorporating them into an apartheid state, or through some combination of the two. In addition, once created, Israel could only survive as a military, expansionist, and hegemonic state, constantly at war with its neighbors. In other words, as the Zionist project gathered momentum it was inevitable that the European Jews’ attraction for Islam was not going to endure. In fact, it would be replaced by a bitter contest, one in which the Jews, as junior partners of the imperialist powers, would seek to deepen the Orientalist project in the service of Western power. Bernard Lewis played a leading part in this Jewish reorientation. In the words of Martin Kramer, Bernard Lewis “came to personify the post-war shift from a sympathetic to a critical posture.”
Ironically, this shift occurred when many Orientalists had begun to shed their Christian prejudice against Islam, even making amends for the excesses of their forebears. Another factor aiding this shift toward a less polemical Orientalism was the entry of a growing number of Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, into the field of Middle Eastern studies. The most visible upshot of these divergent trends was a polarization of the field of Middle Eastern studies into two opposing camps. One camp, consisting mostly of Christians and Muslims, has sought to bring greater objectivity to their study of Islam and Islamic societies. They make an effort to locate Islamic societies in their historical context, arguing that Islamic responses to Western challenges have been diverse and evolving over time, and they do not derive from an innate hostility to the West or some unchanging Islamic mindset. The second camp, now led mostly by Jews, has reverted to Orientalism’s original mission of subordinating knowledge to Western power, now filtered through the prism of Zionist interests. This Zionist Orientalism has assiduously sought to paint Islam and Islamic societies as innately hostile to the West, modernism, democracy, tolerance, scientific advance, and women’s rights.
This Zionist camp has been led for more than fifty years by Bernard Lewis, who has enjoyed an intimate relationship with power that would be the envy of the most distinguished Orientalists of an earlier generation. He has been strongly supported by a contingent of able lieutenants, whose ranks have included the likes of Elie Kedourie, David Pryce-Jones, Raphael Patai, Daniel Pipes, and Martin Kramer. There are many foot soldiers, too, who have provided distinguished service to this new Orientalism. And no compendium of these foot soldiers would be complete without the names of Thomas Friedman, Martin Peretz, Norman Podhoretz, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, and Judith Miller.
In my mind’s eye, I try to visualize an encounter between this distinguished crowd and some of their eminent predecessors, like Hienrich Heine, Abraham Geiger, Gustav Weil, Franz Rosenthal, and the great Ignaz Goldziher. What would these pro-Islamic Jews have to say to their descendants, whose scholarship demeans and denigrates the societies they study? Would Geiger and Goldziher embrace Lewis and Kedourie, or would they be repelled by the latter’s new brand of Zionist Orientalism?
M. Shahid Alam (http://www.msalam.net) is Professor of Economics at Northeastern University. His last book, “Poverty from the Wealth of Nations,” was published by Palgrave in 2000. A more complete version of this essay, with footnotes and references, has appeared in Studies in Contemporary Islam 4 (2002), 1:51-78.