Review of "The Crisis of Islam"
This short book is rich with historical insights that are in short supply in our popular culture’s superficial understanding of the relationship between Islam and the West. In an age of pugnacious pundits, Bernard Lewis—a professor emeritus from Princeton—is a genuine scholar. He writes with eloquence, tact, and measured judgment. After a distinguished career as an historian of the Middle East, he has in recent years been called upon to provide perspective on the animosity between much of Islam and the West. This cannot be done in sound bites, but in 184 pages Professor Lewis succeeds admirably in summarizing and explaining the last 1400 years of Islamic-Western relations. He clears up a number of commonly held confusions and misrepresentations of Islam without sugar coating the dangers the world faces from Islamic terrorism. As such, The Crisis of Islam is a valuable primer for those seeking to make some sense of geopolitical events after September 11.
Lewis states that Muslims have long memories and root their present ambitions in their perceptions of both the recent and the very distant past. In a video from October 7, 2001, Osama bin Ladin spoke of the “humiliation and disgrace” suffered by Islam for “more than eighty years” (xv). While most Americas wondered what this might mean, Lewis points out that bin Ladin’s Muslim listeners “picked up the allusion immediately and appreciated its significance” (xvi). In 1918 the Ottoman Empire, ruled by a Muslim sultan (or caliph), was defeated and its capital, Constantinople, was occupied. The empire’s land was parceled out to the British and French empires. To Muslims, this was an unanticipated and unparalled reversal of their long history of global conquests, since for “Muslims, no piece of land once added to the realm of Islam can ever be finally renounced” (xxviii-xxix). This loss of social and religious influence in the face of the global influence of non-Muslim nations (particularly America) is in large part what constitutes “the crisis of Islam” today.
Muhammad, despite early setbacks in Mecca, was a very successful religious reformer, businessman, statesman, and warrior. The Qur’an proclaims Islam as the culminating manifestation of ancient monotheism that is destined to cover the earth. Lewis notes that “in Muslim tradition, the world is divided into two houses: the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam), in which Muslim governments rule and Muslim law prevails, and the House of War (Dar al-Harb), the rest of the world, still inhabited and, more important, ruled by infidels” (31).
We often hear from Western analysts that “jihad” primarily means an inner struggle for religious purity, but Lewis disagrees. For the majority of Muslim history, Jihad has been interpreted “to mean armed struggle for the defense and advancement of Islam” (31). The “presumption is that the duty of jihad will continue, interrupted only by truces, until all the world either adopts the Muslim faith or submits to Muslim rule” (31-32).
But does the concept of jihad justify the fury let loose against America on September 11, 2001? Lewis thinks not. He cites an hadith (an influential saying of the prophet recorded outside the Qur’an), where suicide is said to be “punished by eternal damnation in the form of the endless repetition of the act by which the [person] killed himself” (153). Modern Islamic terrorists today differ from the traditional Muslim martyr who was “willing to face certain death at the hand of his enemies or captors” (152-153), but not to be the direct cause of his own death. Thus, the September 11 terrorist attacks had “no justification in Islamic doctrine or law and no precedent in Islamic history” (154). One hopes Lewis is right, but how many Muslims worldwide are as knowledgeable of their own tradition as this scholar? Tragically, many seem more willing to heed the violent interpretations and pronouncements of Osama bin Ladin and cohorts.
Lewis is neither an apologist for the West, nor an antagonist of Islam. He is rather a learned and fair-minded scholar whose reflections on these vexing issues are urgently needed today.
· Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and the contributing editor for the Dictionary of Contemporary Religion in the Western World (InterVarsity Press, 2002).