Sunday, August 21, 2005

Review of "The Crisis of Islam"

Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. New York: The Modern Library, 2003. 184 pages, hardback. $19.95. This review was first published in The Rocky Mountain News.

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).


Ted M. Gossard said...

I need to read my translation of the Qur'an. Thanks for sharing about and reviewing this book.

Weekend Fisher said...

My interest in Islam went back well before 9/11/2001, and I've read as much of the early Islamic literature in translation as I can manage, plus a few more modern works.

I've read Lewis' book and he made some valid points. However, he also missed a few to the point where I think he can be legitimately charged with a mistake here and there. It's perfectly true, if you follow the preciseness of Lewis' language, that the 9/11 attacks in the sense of being suicide attacks had no precedent in early Islamic history and so forth, since the early Islamic attacks on other people were decidedly not suicide attacks, and bombs just weren't the modus operandi in the 600's CE. But the debate Lewis picks up on is largely a debate over suicide: the part that has no precedent is whether the Muslim is allowed to deliberately kill himself. It is not questioned that the Muslim is allowed to deliberately kill other people, only whether he is allowed to kill himself. Mohammed ordered enough assassinations, raids, surprise attacks, etc. -- and some of them on no more pretext than that the other person or tribe had spoken against him, said he wasn't a prophet, or laughed at what he considered to be his prophecies -- that there is no debate at all in Muslim circles whether assassinations, sneak attacks without declared intent and so forth are justified. They are universally regarded as sanctioned in at least certain circumstances by the example of Mohammed. The "certain circumstances" required for an attack need not involve more than the fact that someone spoke against Mohammed or the Qur'an.

Lewis also makes the naive mistake of thinking the militant Islamists are innovating when they say the old Meccan verse "There is no compulsion in religion" is an abrogated verse; Lewis speaks as if the idea of an abrogated verse is a shock. In reality, Mohammed discussed some verses abrogating others in the Qur'an itself; the history of tracing which Qur'anic verses are abrogated by others is a long-standing Islamic tradition; and the "no compulsion" verse was universally held (in Islamic antiquity) to have been either modified or completely abrogated by later pro-compulsion texts.

Lewis does make the good and worthwhile point that the Crusades were not actually unprovoked Christian aggression on peaceful Muslims, but were (long story short) a response to the jihad by which the Muslims had conquered ... er, well, every scrap of land that is in Muslim hands, much of which used to be Christian.

nancy said...

I've been a fan of Lewis for quite some time. Unfortunately "The Crisis of Islam" has accumulated quite a layer of dust on my shelf - guess I better read it soon. Read anything by Lewis. As Doug demonstrates, Lewis diligently provides facts and anecdotes that help one begin to grasp the psyche of both the average and the militant follower of Islam. Interestingly, the WSJ Editorial page documented the significant influence that Lewis has exerted on current US policy. (You should be able to search WSJ Online, unfortunately I could not find it on the free

From Lewis I learned about the insatiable interest the West had in Islam in the 1700's. This inquisitiveness was not reciprocated as Muslims determined that Islamic culture was complete and in no need of information or ideas from the west ("What Went Wrong").

Additionally, (as Doug mentions above) Lewis reminds us patriotic Americans that the notion of a "state" was foreign to Muslims. Their allegiance was to the local tribe and then more globally to the Arab/Muslim empire. The post WWI division of the Arab empire into smaller nation-states humiliated many.

Most importantly, some influential Arabs vividly remember the golden age that existed many centuries ago. In contrast, Americans can’t remember the last winner of “American Idol.” I seem to recall that OBL declared jihad on the US in 1994 (someone please correct me if I’m wrong on the year). But the big attack did not materialize until 7 years later… Many Americans seem to have forgotten the devastation that terrorism wrought on our nation only 4 years ago.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Weedend Fisher makes some solid points. Lewis is perhaps too charitable at times.

Islam grows principally in these ways:

1. Procreation (very high birth rates worldvide).
2. Immigration (part of their stated strategy).
3. Intimidation (Islams must not convert to other faiths, on pain of death in some countries).

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Nancy is right: Americans lack a sense of history. They are generally ahistorical idiots. Therefore, they do not know who they are or what they should do.

American Christians also lack a global and long-term perspective. We want things instantly, and if it can't happen with a snap of the fingers (or click of the mouse), we move on to something else. And when is the next "Left Behind" book coming out?

This must change if we are to be faithful to the Eternal One who calls us to better things for His glory. God is the Lord of history, God incarnated in space-time actuality, and continues to work in the matrix of the cosmos he created and sustains and which he will bring to judgment and completion on that Great Day. We are part of this cosmic drama. We are participants, not spectators. "Right now counts forever," as RC Sproul likes to say.