Islam and the West

Islam and the West

by Bernard Lewis

Hailed in The New York Times Book Review as "the doyen of Middle Eastern studies," Bernard Lewis has been for half a century one of the West's foremost scholars of Islamic history and culture, the author of over two dozen books, most notably The Arabs in History, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, The Political Language of

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Hailed in The New York Times Book Review as "the doyen of Middle Eastern studies," Bernard Lewis has been for half a century one of the West's foremost scholars of Islamic history and culture, the author of over two dozen books, most notably The Arabs in History, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, The Political Language of Islam, and The Muslim Discovery of Europe. Eminent French historian Robert Mantran has written of Lewis's work: "How could one resist being attracted to the books of an author who opens for you the doors of an unknown or misunderstood universe, who leads you within to its innermost domains: religion, ways of thinking, conceptions of power, culture—an author who upsets notions too often fixed, fallacious, or partisan."
In Islam and the West, Bernard Lewis brings together in one volume eleven essays that indeed open doors to the innermost domains of Islam. Lewis ranges far and wide in these essays. He includes long pieces, such as his capsule history of the interaction—in war and peace, in commerce and culture—between Europe and its Islamic neighbors, and shorter ones, such as his deft study of the Arabic word watan and what its linguistic history reveals about the introduction of the idea of patriotism from the West. Lewis offers a revealing look at Edward Gibbon's portrait of Muhammad in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (unlike previous writers, Gibbon saw the rise of Islam not as something separate and isolated, nor as a regrettable aberration from the onward march of the church, but simply as a part of human history); he offers a devastating critique of Edward Said's controversial book, Orientalism; and he gives an account of the impediments to translating from classic Arabic to other languages (the old dictionaries, for one, are packed with scribal errors, misreadings, false analogies, and etymological deductions that pay little attention to the evolution of the language). And he concludes with an astute commentary on the Islamic world today, examining revivalism, fundamentalism, the role of the Shi'a, and the larger question of religious co-existence between Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
A matchless guide to the background of Middle East conflicts today, Islam and the West presents the seasoned reflections of an eminent authority on one of the most intriguing and little understood regions in the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Gilbert Taylor
The reading public is likely to encounter Lewis on op/ed pages when it seeks an interpretation of a Middle East crisis. Here, in a less urgent mode, it can select among 11 eclectic essays concerning the 1,400-year-long rivalry between Christendom and Islam. The concise overview article covers the high tides of the two faiths' territorial struggles, pegged to events such as the Battle of Tours (739), the fall of Constantinople (1456), the expulsion of the Moors (1492), and the seige of Vienna (1683). Having summarized what moderns would call geopolitics (but for which the combatants felt they had divine sanction), Lewis plunges into intriguing aspects of the Muslim outlook. As Arabic is a difficult language, he devotes two articles to problems of translation and philology. The word "shi'a," for example, means "faction" and goes a distance toward explaining why Shiites, conceiving themselves to have been the downtrodden, tend to be more militant believers in the faith than Sunnis. In the temporal realm of academe, Lewis takes on Edward Said and others who criticize the state of oriental studies. Lewis is a deceptively clear writer and renowned scholar with a half-century of published books behind him, and these essays will square with libraries holding his standards, such as "The Muslim Discovery of Europe" (1985).
Kirkus Reviews
Eleven superb essays on the culture clash between the Islamic nations of the Middle East and the more secularized West; from distinguished Orientalist Lewis (Near Eastern Studies/Princeton; Semites and Anti-Semites, 1986, etc.). Scholarly but not pedantic, writing without fear or favor, Lewis makes an ideal guide through the political, religious, and cultural thickets of Islam. As the range of subjects demonstrates, his reach is as wide as his touch is sure. His tone is objective throughout, except for two pieces: a searing critique of Edward Said and other critics of Orientalism for their "science-fiction history and...lexical Humpty-Dumptyism"; and an impassioned defense of non-Western studies against adversaries who employ contradictory rhetoric to mask a hidden agenda ("If we don't study and teach other cultures we are called arrogant and ethnocentric and if we do we are accused of spoliation and exploitation"). Lewis begins with a capsule history that outlines the odd affinities and tensions between Europe and the Islamic nations—a struggle in which each side has called the other "infidel" and has swapped commercial and military supremacy. He also considers medieval Islamic debates on worship in lands where the teachings of Mohammed did not hold sway—and the implications of this today amid the Arab diaspora to Europe and America. Lewis is equally comfortable with more specialized topics, including Edward Gibbon's influence on the Western image of Mohammed; the difficulties of translating from Arabic; and the Ottoman threat to Europe until the Turkish defeat at Vienna in 1683. The author concludes with four meditations on the contemporary Islamic response to Westernmight, discussing resurgent Islamic fundamentalism as a unifying factor in Mideast politics; the split between the Shi'a and Sunni sects; the passage of the concept of "country" into Islamic lands; and why few Islamic countries have traditions of religious coexistence and secularism. A learned, forceful analysis that treats Islam with respect, not condescension. (Photos)

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