Islam And The West, by Bernard Lewis
It is rare when one reads a book like this one that contains some genuinely fierce discussion about the issue of research. To what extent can outsiders speak knowledgeably about groups? I happen to know that when I look at what outsiders think of my own religious traditions, what is said often bears little relationship to what goes on. I suspect this is a common phenomenon when people only notice a group to show hostility to it. Yet even if many of us, myself included, do not necessarily have a great deal of fondness for Islam, it is of the utmost importance to understand it accurately, and this book does a good job at pointing out why this is done, and what is it that makes the West as a whole a curious culture about others in a way that is not reciprocated in kind. And why is it that Westerners are given a particular double standard that others are not when it comes to curiosity. No one thinks that people of the Arab street have no ability to form opinions and come to judgments about the United States, after all. Why is this so?
This book consists of eleven essays that together make up a bit less than 200 pages of material. The first two essays look at encounters, and include an essay about the long relationship between Europe and Islam and the general one-sided nature of investigation for a long time between them (1). After this there is a thoughtful essay on the history and position of Muslim populations under non-Muslim rule (2). The next five essays contain studies and perceptions on the study of the Near East, including essays on translation from Arabic (3), the Ottoman obsession of many writers (4), Gibbon’s biased and anti-Christian thoughts on Muhammad (5), and two essays that deal pointedly with the problem of orientalism (6,7). In particular, the author shows himself to be a fierce critic of Edward Said and his thoughts about Western scholars who study the Middle East, and those of his ilk. The book then concludes with four essays that deal with the Islamic response and reaction to the power of the West, including essays on the return of Islam (8), the history of the Shi’a in Islam (9), the relationship between country and freedom in the Muslim world (10), and the question of religious coexistence and secularism in the Middle East and Europe (11).
Why is there such an asymmetry between the West and Islam. The West is far more knowledgeable about Islam than is the case vice versa. In some ways, this relationship came about because of fear, because the West wanted to know a dangerous enemy and understand it, while the Islamic world has long been complacent about its greatness and strength, and has resorted to cosmic explanation to explain its malaise and its current state with regards to economics and military power. Yet the west in general is pretty curious about the ways of others, and most of the world is not as curious about the West in response. And that intense curiosity about the world and others tends to make others feel a bit irritated, as if there is somehow something malign in the curiosity of the West and in the interest of the people of the West into other cultures and other ways. The author, fortunately, is not having any of the hypocritical arguments that would keep him from being considered a legitimate scholar of the Middle East, and he is definitely critical of those whose interest in Islam, like Gibbons, is done in order to attack the moral legitimacy of Christendom. This book has a lot of spice, and it is certainly a worthwhile and enjoyable volume, if a sometimes contentious one.