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What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East

What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East

3.5 12
by Bernard Lewis

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For centuries, the world of Islam was in the forefront of human achievement — the foremost military and economic power in the world, the leader in the arts and sciences of civilization. Christian Europe was seen as an outer darkness of barbarism and unbelief from which there was nothing to learn or to fear. And then everything changed. The West won victory


For centuries, the world of Islam was in the forefront of human achievement — the foremost military and economic power in the world, the leader in the arts and sciences of civilization. Christian Europe was seen as an outer darkness of barbarism and unbelief from which there was nothing to learn or to fear. And then everything changed. The West won victory after victory, first on the battlefield and then in the marketplace.

In this elegantly written volume, Bernard Lewis, a renowned authority an Islamic affairs, examines the anguished reaction of the Islamic world as it tried to make sense of how it had been overtaken, overshadowed, and dominated by the West. In a fascinating portrait of a culture in turmoil, Lewis shows how the Middle East turned its attention to understanding European weaponry, industry, government, education, and culture. He also describes how some Middle Easterners fastened blame on a series of scapegoats, while others asked not "Who did this to us?" but rather "Where did we go wrong?"

With a new Afterword that addresses September 11 and its aftermath, What Went Wrong? is an urgent, accessible book that no one who is concerned with contemporary affairs will want to miss.

Editorial Reviews

Will there ever be peace in the Middle East? Why has it been so difficult to end the conflict there, a conflict that has gone on for centuries? How will the recent rise of Islamic extremism affect the prospects for peace in this most unsettled of regions? Renowned Middle East expert Bernard Lewis weighs in with his perspective on the problem, examining how and why things changed when the diplomatic and industrial victories of the Western world were suddenly eclipsed by a culture of fervent religiosity.
Publishers Weekly
In the fields of Islamic and Middle Eastern history, few people are as prominent and prolific as Lewis, emeritus professor at Princeton. This time around, however, he has written a book with an inconsistent argument and an erratic narrative consisting of recycled themes from his earlier books, a work that sheds no new light on Middle Eastern history or on the events of September 11. His general argument is that Islamic civilization, once flourishing and tolerant, has in modern times become stagnant. This, he contends, has led to considerable soul-searching among Muslims, who ask themselves, "What went wrong?" But while sometimes the author states that there is a critical inquiry into the source of economic weakness in Muslim civilizations, other times he says that, instead of looking into the mirror, Muslims have blamed their problems on Europeans or Jews and thus fed their sense of victimhood. In medieval times, Lewis notes, Muslim civilization transmitted scientific ideas into Europe. But after offering intriguing examples of Muslim physicians and astronomers on the cutting edge in the 13th to 15th centuries, this chapter abruptly ends by stating that in modern times the roles have reversed, leaving the reader baffled over what between the 15th and the 20th centuries may have contributed to this reversal. Thus, the book raises more questions than it answers. Furthermore, Lewis discounts the effects of various decisions made by European and American colonial powers that negatively impacted the development of a democratic political community and a viable economy in the Middle East. Lewis's earlier books, such as The Muslim Discovery of Europe and The Middle East and the West, are much more useful for anyone seeking to understand the historical dynamic between these two parts of the world. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Since its inception in the seventh century, Islamic civilization has remained a significant force in the world. In fact, the Muslim world was a leader in the humanities, arts, and sciences while Europe was still in relative darkness and mired in internecine wars and religious zealotry. The Muslim world was also largely responsible for preserving and transmitting Greek and other Western scholarship to Christian Europe. However, Islamic civilization was eventually overshadowed by the achievements of European Christendom, and much of the Muslim world came under the direct or indirect domination of the West. In this highly readable book, eminent historian Lewis (Near Eastern studies, emeritus, Princeton Univ.) explains Islam's encounter with the West and the Middle East's varied responses to the West's sociocultural and political hegemony in the Muslim world. Like many of Lewis's previous writings on this subject (The Arabs in History), this book will undoubtedly generate significant debate and disagreement among scholars regarding the author's analysis of Islamic responses to modernity and Westernization. Recommended for academic and large public libraries. Nader Entessar, Spring Hill Coll., Mobile, AL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
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Product dimensions:
5.18(w) x 7.92(h) x 0.51(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Lessons of the Battlefield

The Treaty of Carlowitz has a special importance in the history of the Ottoman Empire, and even, more broadly, in the history of the Islamic world, as the first peace signed by a defeated Ottoman Empire with victorious Christian adversaries.

    In a global perspective, this was not entirely new. There had been previous defeats of Islam by Christendom; the loss of Spain and Portugal, the rise of Russia, the growing European presence in South and Southeast Asia. But few observers at that time, Muslim or Western, could command a global perspective. In the perspective of the Muslim heartlands in the Middle East, these events were remote and peripheral, barely affecting the balance of power between the Islamic and Christian worlds in the long struggle that had been going on between them since the advent of Islam in the seventh century and the irruption of the Muslim armies from Arabia into the then Christian lands of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, and, for a while, Southern Europe. The Crusaders had briefly halted the triumphal march of Islam, but they had been held, defeated, and ejected. The Muslim advance had continued with the extinction of Byzantium and the Ottoman entry into Europe. The Empire of Constantinople had fallen; the Holy Roman Empire was next. Ottoman and more broadly Muslim consciousness of the world in which they lived is reflected in the very copious historical literature that they produced and, in greater detail, in the millions of documents preserved in the Ottoman archives, illustrating thefunctioning of the Ottoman state year by year, almost day by day, in its manifold activities. There are occasional references to the loss of Spain, but it appears as a relatively minor issue—far away, not threatening. There is some mention of the arrival of Muslim refugees and of Jewish refugees who came from Spain to the Ottoman lands, but little more.

    The peace signed at Carlowitz drove home two lessons. The first was military, defeat by superior force. The second lesson, more complex, was diplomatic, and was learnt in the process of negotiation. In the early centuries of Ottoman experience, a treaty was a simple matter. The Ottoman government dictated its terms, and the defeated enemy accepted them. After the first siege of Vienna there was, for a while, some sort of negotiation, and even—a startling innovation—a concession to the kaiser of equal status with the sultan, but no conclusive result one way or the other. In negotiating the Treaty of Carlowitz, the Ottomans had, for the first time, to resort to that strange art we call diplomacy, by which they tried, through political means, to modify, or even to reduce the results of the military outcome. For the Ottoman officials this was a new task, one in which they had no experience: how to negotiate the best terms they could after a military defeat.

    In this, they had some assistance, some guidance, from two foreign embassies in Istanbul, those of Britain and of the Netherlands. The Ottomans at first were unwilling to accept what they regarded as Christian interference, but they soon learned to recognize and make use of such help. The Western maritime and commercial states had no interest in the consolidation and extension of Austrian power and influence in Central and Eastern Europe, and thought it would be more to their advantage to have a weakened but surviving Ottoman Empire, in which their merchants could come and go at will. The British and Dutch emissaries managed to provide the Ottomans with some discreet help and advice, and were even able to take part in the negotiation of the peace treaty.

    Western help was not limited to diplomacy. Military help—the supply of weapons, even the financing of purchases, were old and familiar, going back beyond the beginnings of the Ottoman state to the time of the Crusades. What was new was for the Ottomans to seek European help in training and equipping their forces, and to form alliances with European powers against other European powers.

    In the first half of the eighteenth century, the struggle was indecisive, and even brought some gains for the Ottomans. In 1710 and 1711 they won a significant victory over the Russians who, by the Treaty of the Pruth (1711), were obliged to return the peninsula of Azov. But another war against Venice and then against Austria ended with another defeat and further territorial losses, specified in the Treaty of Passarowitz of 1718.

    At about that time, we have an Ottoman document, recording, or to be more accurate purporting to record, a conversation between two officers, one a Christian, (not more precisely described), the other an Ottoman Muslim. The purpose of the document is obviously propagandistic. It is, to my knowledge, the first Muslim document in which Muslim and Christian methods of warfare are compared, to the advantage of the latter, and the previously unthinkable suggestion is advanced that the true believers should follow the infidels in military organization and the conduct of warfare. The document laid great stress in particular on the Christian use of firepower, both cannon and muskets, and on the training and reorganizations of their forces, to make the most effective use of both. "The superior skill of the Austrian lies only in the use of the musket. They cannot face the sword." The thrust of the argument was 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.

    That was bad enough; even worse was that this adoption by the Ottomans—and later the Persians and other Muslim armies—did not produce the desired result. The military confrontation revealed in a dramatic form the root cause of the new imbalance. The problem was not, as was once argued, one of decline. The Ottoman state and armed forces were as effective as they had ever been, in traditional terms. In this as in much else, it was European invention and experiment that changed the balance of power between the two sides.

    The course of modernization even in this limited sense was by no means easy. It was denounced, it was resisted, it was interrupted. The case for modernization was considerably weakened by one of the many wars between Turkey and Iran that ended in 1730 with a victory for the even less modernized Persians. This did not strengthen the case of the modernizers in Turkey.

    For a while things went rather better in Europe. The growing rivalry between their two main enemies in the north, Austria and Russia, helped the Ottomans to recover some ground. But then a new disaster struck. Between 1768 and 1774 the Ottomans suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the Russians. The result was registered in the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca of 1774, which gave the Russians rights of navigation and indirectly of intervention within the Ottoman Empire. Of more immediate importance was the clause concerning the Crimea, previously an Ottoman dependency inhabited by Turkish-speaking Muslims. The sultan was now compelled to recognize the "independence" of the khans of the Crimea. As it soon became clear, this was a preliminary to the annexation of the Crimea by Russia, in 1783.

    This was a bitter blow. The loss of Ottoman territories in Europe was hard but could be borne. These lands were relatively recent conquests, with predominantly Christian native populations, ruled by a minority of Ottoman soldiers and administrators. The Crimea was another matter; it was old Turkish Muslim territory dating back to the Middle Ages, and its loss was felt as part of the homeland. This was the first—but by no means the last—loss of Muslim lands and populations to Christian rule. It also marked the conclusive establishment of Russia as a major Black Sea power, posing a threat to the Ottoman and more broadly the Islamic lands, both on the European and the Caucasian shores.

    Clearly, new measures were needed to meet these new threats, and some of them violated accepted Islamic norms. The leaders of the ulema, the doctors of the Holy Law, were therefore asked, and agreed, to authorize two basic changes. The first was to accept infidel teachers and give them Muslim pupils, an innovation of staggering magnitude in a civilization that for more than a millennium had been accustomed to despise the outer infidels and barbarians as having nothing of any value to contribute, except perhaps themselves as raw material for incorporation in the domains of Islam and conversion to the faith of Islam.

    The second change was to accept infidel allies in their wars against other infidels. The Ottomans were used to employing locally recruited Christian auxiliaries in their wars, and even contingents, whom they could treat as auxiliaries, from Christian powers with which they shared a common Christian enemy. The Ottoman records show that in addition to those of their Balkan subjects who embraced Islam, there were some who remained Christian and nevertheless served in auxiliary units attached to the Ottoman forces.

    There were even gestures toward sovereign Christian states, who helped as what we would nowadays call allies, though neither side would have used such a term at the time. For example, in the correspondence between the Sultan of Turkey and Queen Elizabeth of England at the end of the sixteenth century, the letters are mostly concerned with commerce, but they do occasionally refer to the common Spanish enemy, a shared concern of London and Istanbul at the time. It would be an exaggeration to call this an alliance, and it was certainly not on equal terms. In the documents, the sultan, addressing the queen, uses language indicating that he expects her to be: "... loyal and firm-footed in the path of vassalage and obedience ... and to manifest loyalty and subservience" to the Ottoman throne. The contemporary translation into Italian, which served as the medium of communication between Turks and Englishmen, simply renders this as sincera amicizia. This kind of diplomatic mistranslation was for centuries the norm.

    But the new relationship between the Ottoman state and its European friends as well as its European enemies was something quite different. By now it was clear that something was going wrong, and more and more people in the governing elite, and even outside the governing elite, were becoming aware of it. Even worse, they were beginning to be aware that Europe was doing better and that they were consequently weaker and more endangered.

    When things go wrong in a society, in a way and to a degree that can no longer be denied or concealed, there are various questions that one can ask. A common one, particularly in continental Europe yesterday and in the Middle East today, is: "Who did this to us?" The answer to a question thus formulated is usually to place the blame on external or domestic scapegoats—foreigners abroad or minorities at home. The Ottomans, faced with the major crisis in their history, asked a different question: "What did we do wrong?" The debate on these two questions began in Turkey immediately after the signing of the Treaty of Carlowitz; it resumed with a new urgency after Küçük Kaynarca. In a sense it is still going on today.

    Debates about what is wrong were not new. There was a long tradition of Ottoman memorialists, most of them members of the official bureaucracy, discussing the various domestic problems of the Ottoman state and society, suggesting causes, and proposing remedies. One such was a little book written by Lûtfi Pasha, grand vizier of Süleyman the Magnificent, after his dismissal from office in 1541. In it he offered some acute diagnoses of flaws in the Ottoman structure and remedies that he thought should be adopted. Another was by a civil servant of Balkan origin called Koçu Bey, who in 1630 drew attention to weaknesses in both the civilian and the military services of the state, and proposed reforms to deal with them. The basic fault, according to most of these memoranda, was falling away from the good old ways, Islamic and Ottoman; the basic remedy was a return to them. This diagnosis and prescription still command wide acceptance in the Middle East.

    But these memoranda were relatively calm in tone and primarily domestic in content. They do occasionally refer to the outside world. Lûtfi Pasha, for example, drew attention to the importance of sea power. The Ottomans, he says, are everywhere triumphant on the land, but the infidels are superior at sea, and this could be dangerous. He was right of course in this. It was European ships, built to weather the Atlantic gales, that enabled the west Europeans to overcome local resistance and establish naval supremacy in the Arabian and Indian Seas. By the eighteenth century, even Muslim pilgrims going from India and Indonesia to the holy cities in Arabia would often book passage on English, Dutch, and Portuguese ships, because it was quicker, cheaper, and safer.

    But the rise of Europe was marginal to the concerns of Lûtfi Pasha and the other early memorialists, primarily concerned with domestic and, in the main, administrative and financial matters. The new memoranda, after Carlowitz, are more specific, more practical, more urgent, and more explicitly military. Also, for the first time, they make comparisons between the Islamic Ottoman Empire and its Christian enemies to the advantage of the latter. In other words, the question now was not only "what are we doing wrong?" but also "what are they doing right?" And of course, the essential question: "How do we catch up with them, and resume our rightful primacy?"

    An important factor in the development of these new perceptions and in the literature in which they are expressed was travel—the reports and recommendations of travelers between the two worlds of Islam and Christendom. There had always been Western travelers in the East. They came as pilgrims visiting the Christian holy places; as merchants profiting, by permission of the Sultans, from the rich Eastern trade; as diplomats, serving in the embassies and consulates established by the European powers in Muslim capitals and provincial cities. There were also captives taken on the battlefield or at sea. Some of these Western visitors entered the service of Muslim governments. In the Western perspective they were adventurers and renegades; for the Muslims they were muhtadi, those who have found and followed the true path.

    The eighteenth century brought an entirely new category of Western visitors, whom we might describe in modern parlance as "experts." Some came as individuals to offer their services to Ottoman employers. Later, some were even seconded by their governments, as part of an increasingly popular type of arrangement between a Christian or post-Christian country on the one hand and the Ottoman or some other Muslim state on the other. Such arrangements continue to the present day. For Muslims, first in Turkey and later elsewhere, this brought a shocking new idea—that one might learn from the previously despised infidel.

    An even more shocking innovation was travel from East to West. Previously only captives and a very limited number of special diplomatic envoys had gone that way. Muslims had no holy places in Europe to visit as pilgrims, as Christians visited the Holy Land. There was not much to attract merchants in a Europe that, for many centuries, was still a relatively primitive place with little to offer. The most valued commodity brought from Europe to the East was slaves, and these were usually supplied by Muslim raiders or European merchants.

    Muslims were no strangers to travel. The pilgrimage to Mecca was one of the five basic obligations of the faith, and required Muslims, at least once in a lifetime, to make the necessary journey however long it might be. Muslims also traveled extensively in the countries to the south and to the east of the realms of Islam, in search of merchandise or knowledge. The lands and peoples beyond the northwestern frontier of Islam had little to offer of either, and such travel was in fact actively discouraged by the doctors of the Holy Law. Western captives in the East who escaped or were ransomed and returned home produced a considerable literature telling of their adventures, of the lands they had seen and the people they had met in the mysterious Orient. Middle Eastern captives in the West who found their way home for the most part remained silent, nor was there any great interest in the few accounts that survived. The Occident remained even more mysterious than the Orient, and it aroused no equivalent curiosity. The different mutual perceptions were vividly expressed in their attitudes to each other's languages. The study of Eastern languages was intensively pursued in the European universities and elsewhere by scholars who came to be known as Orientalists, on the analogy of Hellenists and Latinists. Until a comparatively recent date, there were no Occidentalists in the Orient.

    The European powers had long followed the practice of maintaining permanent resident embassies and consulates, in the Islamic lands as elsewhere. The Islamic governments did not. It was the normal practice of Muslim sovereigns to send an ambassador to a foreign ruler when there was something to say, and to bring him home when he had said it. This eminently sensible and economical practice was maintained for centuries. Until the eighteenth century, there were very few such missions, and very few indications survive of what they reported.

    In the eighteenth century the situation changed dramatically. Great numbers of such special envoys were now sent, 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 the Ottoman ambassadors wrote reports, which clearly had a considerable impact at the time. Among them were Mehmet Efendi who went to Paris in 1721; Resmi Efendi who went to Vienna in 1757 and to Berlin in 1773; Vasif Efendi who was in Madrid from 1787 to 1789; Azmi Efendi who was in Berlin from 1790 to 1792 and wrote an interesting memorandum on how a well-ordered state is governed and administered; and in many ways most important of all, Ebu Bekir Ratib Efendi, who was in Vienna from 1791 to 1792 and described the system of civil and military government in the Austrian Empire in great detail, with specific recommendations concerning those practices that might usefully be copied.

    The mission of Ratib Efendi differs from those of his predecessors both in quantity and in quality. The staff who accompanied him to Vienna consisted of more than one hundred military and civil officials; he stayed in Vienna for 153 days; his report 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. Ratib Efendi also took the trouble to provide himself with much needed help on the language side. In his report he mentions two people who had been particularly helpful to him. One was the son of "the Jewish financier Camondo," one of the small group of Ottoman sephardic Jews who were living in Austria; the other was the famous Mouradgea d'Ohsson, an Ottoman Armenian who had long served as translator to the Swedish embassy in Istanbul. In his retirement he had gone to live in Paris, but because of the Revolution had moved to Vienna. These two provided much more than simple translation. Ratib Efendi, in his report, tells of Mouradgea d'Ohsson's visits and long conversations with him, and notes that the Armenian's zeal for the Ottoman state was at least as great as his own.

    The recourse to Vienna was less surprising than it might at first appear. Events in France were bringing an important change. For almost three centuries, the Ottoman sultans had seen the Hapsburgs as their main enemies, and had looked to France and to a lesser extent to England for help against them. But the revolution in France created a new situation. The new sultan, Selim III (reigned 1789-1807), was clearly reluctant to drop the French connection, but the events in Paris obliged him to explore other possibilities—even the traditional enemy.

    As well as embassy reports, there were also military memoranda. One of the earliest pieces of evidence, mentioned above, records an imaginary conversation between an Ottoman officer and a Christian officer, comparing their armies to the great disadvantage of the Ottomans. The purpose clearly was to prepare the Ottoman governing elite for drastic changes. This was bad enough in itself. That the changes should take the form of following Western practice was even more shocking. A major role in this process was played by European experts. Some of these came as individuals and threw in their lot completely with the Ottomans, to the point of embracing Islam and entering the Ottoman service. One such was a French nobleman, Claude-Alexandre, Comte de Bonneval, who arrived in about 1729, reorganized the bombardier force, and founded a "mathematical school" for the armed forces in 1734. He converted to Islam—allegedly to escape extradition on certain charges pending against him at home—and died in 1747. He is known in Turkish annals as Bombardier Ahmed (Humbaraci Ahmed).

    Another famous convert was a Hungarian seminarist, probably Unitarian, known in Turkish annals as Ibrahim Müteferrika. Ibrahim's original family name is unknown; Müteferrika is a title, indicating membership of a kind of elite guard corps attached to the sultan's person. He seems to have arrived in the late seventeenth century and died in 1745. His major achievement was to establish a Turkish printing press in 1729. One of the books he printed was a short treatise of his own, in which he explains the successes of Christian arms against the Ottomans in Europe and urges the need to reform Ottoman administrative and military procedures along European lines.

    As well as converts to Islam, there were a number of refugees who came from Europe, bringing useful skills. These included Christians whose beliefs were deemed heretical or schismatic in their countries of origin, and of course Jews. For a while in the late fifteenth and more especially in the sixteenth centuries, Jewish refugees from Europe played a minor but not unimportant role in Ottoman society—bringing European economic, technical, and medical skills, and occasionally serving in diplomatic missions. But with the cessation of Jewish immigration from Europe this virtually came to an end. Those who came from Europe had brought useful skills and knowledge; their locally-born descendants lacked these advantages, and their role was correspondingly diminished.

    Of vastly greater importance were the Greeks. In the early years of Ottoman rule in the former Byzantine lands there was great bitterness among the orthodox Greeks at their treatment by the Catholic West, and the patriarch of Constantinople was famously quoted as saying: "Rather the turban of the Turk than the tiara of the Pope." But attitudes changed, and from the late seventeenth century it became customary for wealthy Greek families in the Turkish lands to send their sons to Europe, usually to Italy, for education. They particularly favored medical studies but also began to play an influential role as translators for the Ottoman government.

    The office of interpreter to the Ottoman authorities was of course important in dealings with Europe. In earlier times it was held mostly by renegades and adventurers from the countries bordering the Ottoman Empire; Germans, Hungarians, Italians, and others. Later it was monopolized by Greek subjects of the Ottoman state who held the office and title of Grand Dragoman. The role of the Grand Dragoman Alexander Mavrokordato in the negotiation of the Treaty of Carlowitz was an important but by no means exceptional example. At this time, when the Ottomans sent an ambassador abroad he was invariably accompanied by a dragoman who was almost invariably Greek.


Excerpted from What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis. Copyright © 2002 by Bernard Lewis. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Bernard Lewis is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton University. An eminent authority on Middle Eastern history, he is the author of over two dozen books, most notably The Arabs in History, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, The Political Language of Islam, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, and The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. What Went Wrong? has been translated into more than a dozen languages, including Arabic and Turkish. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Brief Biography

Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:
May 31, 1916
Place of Birth:
London, England
B.A., University of London, 1936; Diplome des Etudes Semitiques, University of Paris, 1937; Ph.D., University of London,

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What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Was very satisfied reading from one of the world's foremost historians about the Middle East and Islam. The clash between Islam and "Modernity" is a struggle that reoccurs over and over again throughout world history.
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Tunguz More than 1 year ago
As many other readers have suggested, this is not Bernard Lewes' best work, and it is a bit of a failure in one important respect: it doesn't answer the rhetorical question from the title. Lewis is much better at describing historic events and finding out insightful and important tidbits of information than he is at deeper analysis. This is quite understandable, since he is a historian of the old school and neither political nor social scientist. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating and interesting book, and anyone who is not familiar with the history of the Middle East, especially compared to the history of Europe, would benefit from reading it. The book was completed shortly before 9/11 attacks on the US, but in its themes it proved extremely prescient and relevant. Lewis is very sympathetic towards his subject matter, the peoples and cultures of the Middle East, and is fair minded and balanced when presenting historical facts. His is not the goal of condemning and denigrating Middle Eastern peoples and the Islamic word, but a genuine concern for explaining that part of the world, and through explaining aiding in its understanding. This is an admirable book that goes a long way towards achieving that goal.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
The book is very basic, and not an indepth look at 'What went wrong?' A good book for beginner but breaks no new ground. All in all -- so - so
Guest More than 1 year ago
The most dissappointing thing about this book is that, after reading it, the reader is left still asking him/herself the same question: so what went wrong? The author gives a long list of unconnected facts mostly related not to the Arab world, but to the Turkish empire, without any clear line of argument. The erudition of Lewis is not questioned, but he fails to answer the question that makes the title of his book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book with an open mind to try and understand this kind of perspective. This book honestly (as the title may give it away) is not a book on true history, but mainly to deconstruct the region, and a poor one at that. The basic premise that is understood is that the Arab Muslim will always be a 'thing' to be analyzed and studied for demonization, hence the term Oriental. This man has written and dedicated his entire Orientalist study on the region and yet has never set foot in the Middle East heartland with the exception of Turkey. What is wrong is his historical perspective fits the theory of the 'us versus them'. This has been the position of Orietalist scholars from the West since the 18th century, and today he is the most widely regarded on the subject as outlined in Edward Said's monumental work, Orientalism. He does make few valid points, but overall I felt at odds with the book. The Arabs are a people whom have their own culture, history, language, religion and society irrespective of what anybody in the West may say or feel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Bernard Lewis first clearly explains how Islam was not only a conduit for spreading ideas between the East and Medieval Europe, but perhaps more importantly a knowledge society that preserved and built on the legacy of Antiquity (pg. 6-7). The Islamic world developed several centers of excellence that innovated and took over the leadership in most artistic and scientific disciplines for centuries (pg. 7, 78-79, 119, 139-140). Muslims rightly perceived Medieval Europe as an area that had not much use to them, except in terms of slaves and raw materials (pg. 4). However, this complacent, condescending attitude of Islam towards other barbarian, infidel civilizations and a loss of interest in new learning progressively sapped the leadership of the Islamic world at a time that the Europeans started innovating again on a large scale, even before the Renaissance (pg. 7, 79, 81, 125). This attitude is not so surprising when one knows that Christianity and Judaism have been perceived as imperfect precursors of Islam (pg. 36). By that time, China stopped exploring the world behind its borders and entered a period of stagnation that lasted until the 20th century CE. Although the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries CE slowed down the loss of influence of Islam in arts and sciences, the writing was on the wall (pg. 4-21). Not only was the West progressively recovering more and more territories lost to Islamic rulers in the previous centuries, but more ominously regained its prominence in the marketplace (pg. 8, 15). The Western trading companies and their subsequent colonial offspring des-intermediated the Islamic world and started their conquest of Islamic lands (pg. 31). However, the weak Ottoman Empire was kept alive for centuries behind its useful time span. It was not until the 19th century that the West started slicing and dicing the Empire thoroughly (pg. 33). Western powers previously had no interest in the emergence of a Hapsburgs¿ superpower in Central and Eastern Europe. Furthermore, these Western powers wanted and obtained from the Ottomans that the Western merchants could do business as they saw fit in this part of the Islamic world (pg. 19, 35). The Renaissance, the Reformation and the technological revolution went largely unnoticed in Islamic territories due to a prevalent attitude that nothing good could come from Barbarians and Infidels as Lewis rightly reminds his readers (pg. 7, 145). However, the technological innovation of the West in the military area caught the attention of Muslims (pg. 12, 20, 39, 133-136, 141-143). The Ottomans were the main adopters of European military know how after receiving the blessing of the leaders of the ulema, the Doctors of Holy Law; necessity knows no law (pg. 13, 25, 43). Unlike Europeans who traveled in increasing numbers through the Islamic world, very few Muslims ever visited the West during this to better appreciate the added value of the Western modus operandi to their respective societies (pg. 25, 40). The ulema actively discouraged such travel except for the infidel minorities living in Islamic lands or Western adventurers offering their know how to Islam (pg. 26-29, 36-37, 44, 48-50, 147). Some dissenting voices stressed the need for broader reforms to modernize the Ottoman Empire, but were largely ignored or eliminated until the 19th century CE when it was basically too late (pg. 13, 28, 56-61, 70-71, 76-78, 95). At best, knowledge was perceived as something to be treasured, not as an asset to leverage and expand (pg. 39). This prevailing attitude was in sharp contrast to the modus operandi of medieval Islamic scientists who rose to worldwide prominence due to their openness to both foreign and domestic influences (pg. 79). Others pushed for a return to the past, Islamic and Ottoman, to reverse the ongoing decline of the Islamic civilization (pg. 23, 164-165). This debate is still raging (pg. 23, 63). T
Guest More than 1 year ago
Occidentalism, a recent New York Review of Books article, is destined to become the landmark counterpoint to Orientalism, Edward Said's dishonest 1976 theory. Avishai Margalit and Ian Buruma define a cluster of anti-Western and anti-American ideas that played a large role in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The haters see 'arrogance, feebleness, greed, depravity, and decadence' as peculiarly Western or American traits, which they believe must be stamped out. Islamist anti-Western ideas, rooted in fascism, mirror those of Hirohito's Japan, and of course, Hitler's Germany. Jorge Semprun's 1997 Literature or Life also notes the similarity between the two ideologies. He doesn't develop that point, but I was reaching the same conclusion when articles by Benjamin Netanyahu, Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes, among others confirmed my thinking. In exploring Islamism's ideological predecessors, Occidentalism serves as a brilliant companion to Bernard Lewis' equally brilliant book. Readers familiar with Efraim and Inari Karsh's superb Empires of the Sand or David Fromkin's Peace to End All Peace may have an easier time absorbing myriad historical events in Lewis' thin but substantive volume. One need not know the history to understand what he says, however. Lewis explains not the Islamists' anti-Western ideas, but the background for them. I would have liked to have seen a good deal more about Islamic theology and dogma in this book. On what basis do classical Islamic jurists call for jihad and the subjugation of non-Mulsims? Still, the history is interesting. Islam's defeats at the hands of the West--in trade, technology, printing, science, philosophy, political development, modernization, diplomacy, war--stretch back 600 years. In 1502 Venice warned the Ottoman Sultans of the threat posed to the spice trade by the sea route Vasco de Gama had opened up between Europe and Asia. The Ottomans ignored the warning, just as they ignored many other problems, and the Muslim East eventually felt the results. To a Westerner this might seem odd. As Lewis has previously pointed out, Muslim peoples are both shaped by their history and keenly aware of it. The Muslim pulpit, schools, and media nourish the people's sense of history. While often slanted and inaccurate, teachings frequently reference events and personalities of the 7th century. But where in the West, historians consider the past partly to avoid repeating it, the Muslim East historically took different lessons from historical study. In Medieval times, Muslims wrote 'vast, rich and varied historical literature,' none of it on non-Muslims or even on pre-Muslim regional history. Lewis reviews both events centuries before the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the cultural incompatibility which colonial powers carried into the region. The British and French constitutional and parliamentary systems for example collapsed in places unable to understand or support them. The fascist ideological and political systems of 1930s Germany and Italy, on the other hand, gained wide support and rooted, even after those countries were defeated in World War II. Lewis covers myriad other cultural gaps as well. These include widely divergent attitudes on everything from women and science to music. Namik Kemal, a leader of the Young Ottomans, in 1867 expounded on the need to liberate and educate women and an Egyptian named Qasim Amin expanded the views in 1899. Concubinage fell by the wayside; Polygomy is now rare except in Arabia. (Slavery is still practiced in several Arab countries.) But Lewis notes that women's rights have become, for traditionalists, a noxious symbol of Westernization which must be barred from Islam, 'and where it has already entered, must be ruthlessly excised.' Profound differences also occur over separation of faith and state. In Islam, the two are inseparable. In the Christian West, they can and must be separated. Even the sense of time and space is differe
Guest More than 1 year ago
An evenhanded treatment of a complex problem. The author is a scholar who writes clearly and succinctly. Extensive footnotes.