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Bernard Lewis: a legacy of knowledge but not wisdom

10 8 2
14.06.2018

Eminent historian Professor Bernard Lewis, a British born American, passed away on 19 May. He was 12 days short of his 102nd birthday. I was kind of waiting for this news: he was old and living at an assisted living facility near New York and had not been in the press for some time. I was looking forward to the news because I had a certain regard for his learning, I did benefit from his writings but I also developed strong reservations about his scholarship. Some reputed academics had identified him as one who was always interested in finding faults with Arabs and Muslims, and I generally agree with this view.

Lewis began his journey in the field of Muslim history by exploring a splinter Muslim group known as the Isma’ilis. Although the book was published in 1940, it generated very little impact on scholarship in the field. A major breakthrough in his career came with his works on Turkey. He noted the general tendency in countries such as Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Egypt to follow in the footsteps of Europe to “modernise” their economies and societies. Witnessing this trend around the middle of the century, he enthusiastically made a forecast that the idea of nationalism was going to sweep the Muslim world, and Islam as a political force was going to suffer the same fate as that of Christianity in Europe in the 19th century.

By referring to the mission of the Prophet of Islam, he predicted that, “Another such struggle is being fought in our own time – not against Al-Lat and Al-‘Uzza (pre-Islamic objects of worship) – but a new set of idols called states, races, nations; this time it is the idols that seem to be victorious”. However within years he seemed to note the weakness in his sweeping remark and in another article entitled “The Return of Islam” he acknowledged the strength of Islam as a socio-political power and revised his thesis in 1976:

“A Muslim Iraqi would feel far closer bonds with a non-Iraqi Muslim than with a non-Muslim Iraqi. Muslims of different countries, speaking different languages, share the same memories of a common and sacred past, the same awareness of corporate identity, the same sense of a common predicament and destiny. It is not nation or country which, as in the West, forms the historical basis of identity, but the religio-political community, and the imported Western idea of ethnic and territorial nationhood remains, like secularism, alien and incompletely assimilated.”

Read: Controversial Middle East scholar, Bernard Lewis, dies aged 101

Lewis seemed to have been alarmed by the 1973 war (Ramadan/ Yom Kippur) in West Asia which was followed by a successful oil embargo against several pro-Israeli nations. Perhaps more alarming was the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. An intelligent Lewis noted publication of numerous books and articles on a variety of themes such as “fundamentalist Islam”, “militant Islam”, “resurgent Islam”, “political Islam”, “Islamic revivalism”; all indicating renewed interest among Muslims in traditional Islamic ideas and values. A keen observer of international........

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