Posts Tagged Bernard Lewis

Me and My MESA

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on November 23.

MESA 2014Over the coming days, I’ll be attending the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) annual conference in Washington. It’s time for me to catch up on the zeitgeist in my field, and there’s no better place to do that than at MESA. It’s been a long time—to be precise, sixteen years—since my last attendance at a MESA conference. MESA veterans might remember the occasion: Edward Said was being feted for his contribution (such as it was) to Middle Eastern studies. He was on the plenary podium, and I was in the audience. The British historian Robert Irwin hasn’t forgotten:

I well remember the 1998 Middle East studies association meeting held in the Chicago Hilton to mark the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Orientalism. Said appeared on a platform that was packed with his supporters. Critics from the floor were shouted down. I can still see and hear Homi Bhabha on the platform contemptuously booming out “Who are you? Who are you?” to one hapless member of the audience who was trying to make a point from the floor.

That “hapless member” was me. Irwin is accurate, except that there weren’t any other “critics from the floor” aside from me. Said, knowing I was in the audience, specifically invited me to stand up and challenge him, as though he were interested in a debate. That turned out to be a set-up. (Homi Bhabha, Said’s chivalrous defender on that occasion, is now alleged by the keepers of Said’s flame to have betrayed him by criticizing the departed Said through “Zionist argumentation.” Bhabha furthermore stands accused of being “popular in some leftist Israeli academic circles.” A falling out among post-colonialism’s thieves.)

The next time I figured in a MESA plenary, I wasn’t even there. It was in San Francisco in 2001, shortly after 9/11 and the publication of my book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Franklin Foer went out to cover the conference for The New Republic, and in his report I read this: “There was one universally acknowledged villain at the conference—it just wasn’t Osama bin Laden. No, the man everyone loved to hate was Martin Kramer.” When my name was mentioned by someone in the plenary, “some in the audience actually hissed.” I suppose that was better than “Who are you?”

So now I’m back, not as a participant but as an observer. I’ve registered for the conference as a non-member, and that non-membership is principled. Its specific origin is the failure of MESA to overcome its political instincts and confer on Bernard Lewis the title of honorary fellow, reserved for a select few who’ve made exceptional contributions to the field. Whatever one thinks of Lewis’s politics, only an ignoramus or hack would deny his massive contribution to the field. Writing of Lewis, one former MESA president has testified to

the extraordinary range of his scholarship, his capacity to command the totality of Islamic and Middle Eastern history from Muhammad down to the present day. This is not merely a matter of erudition; rather, it reflects an almost unparalleled ability to fit things together into a detailed and comprehensive synthesis. In this regard, it is hard to imagine that Lewis will have any true successors.

Yet not only did MESA deign not to confer the honor upon Lewis, it bestowed it upon Edward Said, who brought Middle Eastern studies to the brink of ruin. Lewis never needed any honors from MESA: it was MESA that needed to honor him, and MESA’s failure to do so is evidence that it isn’t a scholarly association in the pure sense. So why join it?

That brings me to this year’s conference. MESA meets once every three years in Washington, to demonstrate its relevance to the powers that be. University-based Middle East centers feed at the taxpayers’ trough, and so it’s important to show up every few years at the doorstep of Congress, in an effort to prove that academe is “relevant” to the national interest. Some aspect of the program is pitched just for that purpose. (This year, it’s a panel on ISIS.)

The problem is that the radicals’ hormones are raging in the wake the Israel-Hamas war, and many of the rank-and-file would like to add MESA to the list of associations that have passed resolutions calling for an academic boycott of Israel. This isn’t such a smart thing to propose in Washington, and MESA’s president, Nathan Brown, has already reminded the members that MESA is “a non-political association.” But some MESA members think otherwise, and they’re always looking for ways to shove MESA even deeper into politics than it already is. In short, the conference is bound to be contentious.

In my next post, I’ll share my impressions of the triumphal reception accorded by MESAns to Steven Salaita, the anti-Israel tweet artist who got canned at the University of Illinois, and who’s become a jobless martyr.

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    Six (make that seven) greatest stories ever told about the Middle East

    On Facebook, I ran a series listing the most influential modern books on the Middle East (in the English language). I selected each not on the basis of quality, but my rough assessment of a book’s impact on readers and politics, short-term and long. It’s rather rare for a book on the Middle East to have much of an influence in America and Britain; at most times, it’s a marginal region. But events have propelled a few books into the limelight, and these six, for better or worse, had an impact, influenced perceptions, and may have changed history.

    Arabia of Lawrence

    Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence
    Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence (1926). I rather like Charles Hill’s depiction of Lawrence as someone “who wrote himself into history as a fictional character leading Arab tribes in revolt against the Ottoman Turks.” (Hill calls the book ” a novel traveling under the cover of autobiography.”) But the book lives, and is even said to have inspired U.S. counter-insurgency theorists in Iraq.

    Arise, ye Arabs!

    The Arab Awakening by George Antonius
    The Arab Awakening by George Antonius (1938). This purported exposé of British double-dealing provided all the pretext that Britain needed to retreat from its support for the Jewish National Home in Palestine, culminating in the 1939 White Paper. The British commander of forces in Palestine in 1946 said he kept the book “on my bedside table.” It also became the bible of American sympathizers of Arab nationalism. “We had our revered texts,” wrote the American Arabist Malcolm Kerr, “such as The Arab Awakening.” It has been refuted on many grounds, but while its influence doesn’t endure, it lingers.

    God Gave This Land…

    Exodus by Leon Uris
    Exodus by Leon Uris (1958). Recently I asked a class of grad students in Mideast studies whether they’d heard of it, and I didn’t get a single nod. But this fictionalized account of Israel’s founding was said to have been the biggest seller since Gone with the Wind, propelled by a blockbuster motion picture starring Paul Newman. The novel, confessed journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, “set me, and many others, on a course for aliyah, and it made American Jews proud of Israel’s achievements. On the other hand, it created the impression that all Arabs are savages.” Arabs have been searching for their equivalent of Exodus ever since.

    Snake Charmer

    Orientalism by Edward Said
    Orientalism by Edward Said (1978). Sigh… I suppose “baneful” is the best adjective. No book has done more to obscure the Middle East, and impart a sense of guilt to anyone who has had the audacity to represent it. The French scholar Jacques Berque (praised by Said) put it succinctly: Said had done “a disservice to his countrymen in allowing them to believe in a Western intelligence coalition against them.” But the book gave rise to a cottage industry in Western academe, and helped tilt the scales in academic appointments. Its influence may be waning, but it’s still on syllabi everywhere.

    Fit to Print and Reprint

    From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman
    From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman (1989). It spent nearly twelve months on the New York Times bestseller list and won the 1989 National Book Award for nonfiction. Coming in the wake of the 1982 Lebanon war and the 1987 intifada, it captured the “falling-out-of-love-with-Israel” mood, although it cut no slack for the Arabs either. Friedman has said he keeps threatening to bring out a new edition with this one-line introduction: “Nothing has changed.”

    How the East Was Lost

    What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis
    What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis (2002). The book appeared in the aftermath of 9/11, and it rocketed to the New York Times bestseller list, where it spent 18 weeks. Lewis used his broad historical repertoire to explain “why they hate us.” (In a word: resentment, at failed modernization and an absence of freedom.) Lewis later summarized his view thus: “Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us.” Some in Washington took him literally.

    Nakba Validation

    Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem by Benny Morris
    At a reader’s suggestion, I’m adding a seventh book to my list. It’s The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-49 (1988) by Benny Morris. Drawing on Israeli archives, Morris did what no Palestinian Arab historian had managed to do: (partially) validate the Nakba narrative. The book confirmed Israel’s “original sin” in the eyes of the Israeli left, and persuaded Palestinians (wrongly) that Israel might compromise on the “right of return.” Neither the criticism by Efraim Karsh, nor the political swerves of Morris himself, could mitigate the book’s political impact.

    This doesn’t exhaust the list of books about the Middle East that made the New York Times bestseller list or won the admiration of scholars. That bibliography would be much longer (and some years ago, I myself put together a different list, of choice scholarly works). But for sheer influence in the longer term, I don’t see another book that deserves inclusion in this club. If you have other ideas, share them at this link on Facebook.

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      A scholar’s library at Shalem College

      Opinions are divided over the future of the printed book. Many believe it is destined to disappear. Already anyone with an iPad in a coffee shop has instant access to several million volumes—a massive library at one’s fingertips. It isn’t hard to imagine the printed book going the way of the cuneiform tablet.

      But a book-filled library is fundamental to a college. To be surrounded by books is to feel part of the scholarly chain of transmission that links us to generations past. And it’s not just a matter of nostalgic ambience. There are vast numbers of books that aren’t yet freely available electronically, and that aren’t yet out of copyright. Between the older books in the Internet Archive, and the more recent offerings available through Amazon and other digital publishers, there are decades worth of books that just can’t be had without going to a library. Google Books will change that too, but it hasn’t yet. And when it comes to books in non-European languages, print still reigns.

      So from the outset, my colleagues and I resolved that the new Shalem College in Jerusalem would have a respectable library on opening day, October 6, 2013. The core of that library has been provided to us thanks to the generosity of the great historian of Islam, Bernard Lewis.

      Bernard Lewis needs no introduction to my readers. In addition to his own prodigious output of authored books on Islamic and Middle Eastern history, Bernard was an avid collector. His personal library, at the time he moved out of his Princeton home two years ago, came to 18,000 volumes. It was then that he sent his library to Tel Aviv University, to which he had promised it many years ago.

      But he did so with a proviso: any book in his collection already possessed by Tel Aviv University’s library was to be passed on to the library of the fledgling Shalem College. And so the new college library has come into possession of many thousands of volumes, most dealing with the history of Islam and the Middle East, but also with many other aspects of medieval and modern history. It’s a splendid start for the library, especially as one of the first accredited degree programs in the new college is in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies.

      For me, the arrival in Jerusalem of so large a part of Bernard’s library closes a circle. I was his student in Princeton in the late 1970s, when he held a dual appointment at the university and the Institute for Advanced Study. He had one of the largest offices at the Institute, and it was packed tight with his books. A few months after we met, Bernard invited me to the Institute, and proposed that I catalogue incoming offprints for a per-hour wage. (In the pre-internet age, scholars would send printed copies of their articles to one another, a method of dissemination that now seems as remote from us as the carrier pigeon.) He gave me the key to his office, and on evenings and weekends I would enter Aladdin’s cave, seat myself at his desk, and ponder what it must be like to be the most renowned historian of Islam in the world.

      I also came to know his library quite well. I much preferred his office to the deepest basement floor of Firestone Library, where the university’s own Middle East collection resided, so I would bring my own work to his desk. And once every week or so, we would have lunch or tea, followed by a stroll in the Institute’s woods. We would then repair to his office, where he would select a shelf and begin a running commentary on the books it held—their relative place in the field, a bit of lore about the authors, and his take on the dedications. In those days, everyone sent everything to Bernard, and practically all of the books carried handwritten dedications. I recall some of his comments to this day. He once took in hand a book by his contemporary, the French Marxist (and rabidly anti-Israel) scholar Maxime Rodinson (who also happened to be Jewish). The dedication was quite admiring, which surprised me, given his politics. Bernard smiled with satisfaction: “He’s a scoundrel,” he said of Rodinson, “but I like him.”

      When Bernard retired in 1986, he transformed the master bedroom of his home into a magnificent, light-filled library. His desk faced a wall of glass overlooking the grounds, and massive wooden bookshelves stood perpendicular to the walls. Even this addition didn’t suffice to contain the entire library, and the basement of the house was outfitted with shelves to handle the overflow. In a few of the bedrooms, every flat surface was likewise occupied by still more books. (Some sense of the library at his Princeton home is preserved by BookTV, which interviewed him there ten years ago.)

      I feel privileged to have known Bernard’s library in both of its Princeton settings, but its two Israeli settings also do it justice. In January, Bernard visited Shalem College at my invitation, so that he could see the campus and especially the library: a two-tiered structure, featuring a large atrium-like gallery that provides ample room for books and for study. He selected the design of an ex libris plate to be placed in each volume, and I said some grateful words about his remarkable gift.

      Now that we are deep into the digital age, few scholars will ever build so large a personal library. Bernard amassed his collection during the explosion of scholarly publishing that followed the Second World War, and before the advent of the Internet and ebook. Scholars in future won’t leave great collections behind, and in the libraries we do have, shelves will gradually yield to screens.

      But scholars and students will always find inspiration in the physical book, for as the word “volume” suggests, the full appreciation of a scholarly achievement is much enhanced by an encounter with its heft. Book design is also evidence for past conventions that provide context for text, and the elegance of a well-designed book will always evoke pleasure. Bernard Lewis has given Shalem College a voluminous gift. When it is combined with the immense contribution represented by his scholarship, it secures his place in the pantheon of those who have nurtured the life of the mind in Jerusalem.

      Martin Kramer accepts books from Bernard Lewis,
      Shalem College, January 14, 2013.


        Bernard Lewis

        Martin Kramer, “Bernard Lewis,” Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing (London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999), vol. 1, pp. 719-20.

        Lewis, Bernard 1916-
        US (British-born) historian of Islam, the Ottoman Empire, and the modern Middle East

        Over a 60-year career, Bernard Lewis emerged as the most influential postwar historian of Islam and the Middle East. His elegant syntheses made Islamic history accessible to a broad public in Europe and America. In his more specialized studies, he pioneered social and economic history and the use of the vast Ottoman archives. His work on the premodern Muslim world conveyed both its splendid richness and its smug self-satisfaction. His studies in modern history rendered intelligible the inner dialogues of Muslim peoples in their encounter with the values and power of the West. While Lewis’ work demonstrated a remarkable capacity for empathy across time and place, he stood firm against the Third Worldism that came to exercise a broad influence over the historiography of the Middle East. In Lewis’ work, the liberal tradition in Islamic historical studies reached its apex.

        Lewis drew upon the reservoir of Orientalism, with its emphasis on philology, culture, and religion. But while Lewis possessed all the tools of Orientalist scholarship—his work displayed an astonishing mastery of languages—he was a historian by training and discipline, intimately familiar with new trends in historical writing. He was one of the very first historians (along with the Frenchman Claude Cahen) to apply new approaches in economic and social history to the Islamic world. While a student in Paris, Lewis had a brief encounter with the Annales school, which inspired an early and influential article on guilds in Islamic history. A youthful Marxism colored his first book, The Origins of Ismailism (1940; his doctorate for the University of London, where he taught for thirty years). He subsequently jettisoned this approach, refusing the straightjacket of any overarching theory. But his studies of dissident Muslim sects, slaves, and Jews in Muslim societies broke new ground by expanding the scope of history beyond the palace and the mosque.

        Lewis’ early work centered on medieval Arab-Islamic history, especially in what is now Syria. However, after the creation of Israel, it became impossible for scholars of Jewish origin to conduct archival and field research in most Arab countries. Lewis turned his efforts to the study of Arab lands through Ottoman archives available in Istanbul, and to the study of the Ottoman empire itself. The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961) examined the history of modernizing reform not through the European lens of the “Eastern Question,” but through the eyes of the Ottoman reformers themselves. Lewis relied almost entirely on Turkish sources, and his history from within became a model for many other studies of 19th-century reform in the Middle East. It also signaled his own deepening interest in the history of ideas and attitudes in Islam’s relationship to the West.

        Lewis regarded the “challenge” or “impact” of the West as the watershed between the premodern and modern Middle East. Over the last two decades, some historians have sought to establish that the Ottoman empire remained vital through the 18th century and even began to regenerate—a process nipped in the bud by Europe’s economic and military expansion. Lewis, however, insisted that Ottoman decline was both real and self-inflicted. It resulted not only from the West’s material superiority, but from a Muslim attitude of cultural superiority, which impeded borrowing. The importance of creative borrowing, and the costs of Muslim insularity, were major themes in his Muslim Discovery of Europe (1982).

        Twentieth-century Turkey’s eagerness to belong to the West accorded it a privileged place in Lewis’ vision of the Middle East. From the early 1950s, Lewis became alarmed by the expansion of Soviet influence in the region, and he consistently advocated close Western ties with Turkey. Soviet support for the Arabs from the 1960s likewise led him to emphasize the importance of Western relations with Israel. In 1974, Lewis relocated from London to Princeton, where he became a public intellectual. His long-standing critique of the Soviet Union was reinforced by his revulsion at the combined Soviet and Arab effort to delegitimize Israel as racist. He expressed his views in several articles, and later in a book, Semites and Anti-Semites (1986).

        His engagement in these controversies set the scene for his confrontation with the Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said. In 1978, Said published Orientalism, which argued that the modern study of Islam in the West had evolved as a tool of imperialist domination, and that the West’s pursuit of knowledge had conspired with its pursuit of power. Orientalism, effectively a form of racism, had misrepresented Islam as static, irrational, and in permanent opposition to the West.

        Lewis maintained that the development of Orientalism was a facet of Europe’s humanism, which arose independently of, and sometimes in opposition to, imperial interests. Islamic studies, after neutralizing the medieval religious prejudice against Islam, had been an important arena of discovery and achievement. Lewis rejected the view that only Muslims, Arabs, or their political sympathizers could write the region’s history: he called this “intellectual protectionism.” A combination of curiosity, empathy, competence, and self-awareness was the only prerequisite for the writing of “other people’s history.”

        The Said-Lewis exchange prompted a charged debate about the representation of Islam and the Arabs in Western academe. It created a new awareness among Western historians that their readers included Arabs and Muslims. It also exposed ethnic and political differences among historians in their rawest form.

        Lewis’s influence extended far beyond academe. He wrote three major syntheses for general audiences: The Arabs in History (1950), The Middle East and the West (1964), and The Middle East (1995). These books were translated into over twenty languages, and made his name synonymous with Islamic history for educated publics in the West. The leading newspapers often interviewed him on past and present issues. (One such interview, granted to Le Monde in 1993, resulted in a controversial suit against him by opponents of his interpretation of the Armenian tragedy of 1915-16.) Lewis has had an active retirement and his views carry weight in Western capitals, and were sought by prime ministers, presidents, and monarchs in Israel, Turkey, and Jordan.


        Born London, 31 May 1916. Attended Wilson College and The Polytechnic; received BA, University of London, 1936; Diplôme des Études Sémitiques, University of Paris, 1937; PhD, University of London, 1939. Served in Royal Armoured Corps and Intelligence Corps, 1940-41; attached to Foreign Office, 1941-45. Taught (rising to professor), School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1938-39, 1945-74; Princeton University, 1974-86 (also member, Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton); and Cornell University, 1986-90. Naturalized US citizen, 1982. Married Ruth Hélène Oppenhejm, 1947 (marriage dissolved 1974; 1 daughter, 1 son).

        Principal Writings

        The Origins of Ismailism: A Study of the Historical Background of the Fatimid Caliphate, 1940

        The Arabs in History, 1950, revised 1958; 6th edition, 1993

        The Emergence of Modern Turkey, 1961; revised 1968

        Istanbul and the Civilization of the Ottoman Empire, 1963

        The Middle East and the West, 1964; revised as The Shaping of the Middle East, 1994

        The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam, 1967

        Editor, with Peter Malcolm Holt and Ann K.S. Lambton, The Cambridge History of Islam, 2 vols., 1970; revised in 4 vols., 1978

        Race and Color in Islam, 1971; revised and expanded as Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry, 1990

        Islam in History: Ideas, Men and Events in the Middle East, 1973; revised, 1993

        Editor, Islam: From the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople, 2 vols., 1974

        History — Remembered, Recovered, Invented, 1975

        Editor, with Benjamin Braude, Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society, 2 vols., 1982

        The Muslim Discovery of Europe, 1982

        The Jews of Islam, 1984

        Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice, 1986

        The Political Language of Islam, 1988

        Islam and the West, 1993

        The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, 1995; in UK as The Middle East: 2,000 Years of History from the Rise of Christianity to the Present Day, 1995

        Further Reading

        Humphreys, R. Stephen, “Bernard Lewis: An Appreciation,” Humanities 11/3 (May/June 1990), 17-20.

          The Political Language of Islam

          Martin Kramer, “The Political Language of Islam,” Middle East Review, Spring 1989, pp. 63-64. The article is a review of Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam, published by the University of Chicago Press.

          As the title of this book suggests, the politics of Islam are expressed not only in a distinct vocabulary but a distinct language. The grammar and syntax of political discourse in Islam differ fundamentally from those of other political traditions, and have long complicated outside comprehension of Islam’s inner dialogue. Even such widely recognized words as jihad and salam pose problems of understanding, created by the ways they have been uttered in history, Islamic conceptions of war and peace, and the impact of Western ideas upon Islam. Bernard Lewis has brought the breadth of his learning to bear on the ways Muslims have abstracted politics through words.

          Lewis’s method is to take these words of politics, past and present, and imbed them in historical context. Across the expanse of Islamic history, different Arabic, Persian, and Turkish terms have designated the political community and the state, rulers and ruled, varieties of wars and rebellions, and allies and enemies of the established order. All these designations rested ultimately on the idea of the Islamic community as God’s chosen instrument, an affirmation of faith that lies at the core of the political language of Islam.

          While Lewis offers the occasional clue to etymology, his principal concern is establishing what political terms have meant to those who coin them and use them at particular points in time. Political language is part and parcel of political change; wars, conquests, and revolutions enhance some terms and devalue others, so that no term has meaning above historical context. One of the many compelling proofs of this principle is found in Lewis’s discussion of the Arabic word for king, malik. In early Islam, malik “was most commonly used to diminish others rather than to aggrandize oneself.” God ruled as king in Islam; the title of malik was usually applied by Muslims only to infidel rulers, to accentuate their infidelity. But in the twentieth century, the growing influence of Europe made many Muslim rulers eager to claim the formerly disreputable title of malik, and it was adopted even by the puritan Saudis. Yet it is now in decline once again, as Muslim rulers show preference for titles associated with Western or revolutionary democracy, or those identified solely with Islamic tradition. Radical shifts in the meaning and value of political terms, while not unique to Islam, are invaluable evidence for the unique experience of Islam.

          It is of course those terms that originate within the Islamic tradition that have caused the most misunderstanding in the West. This is because Muslims were generally reluctant to accord any legitimacy to the gap between Islamic political theory and Muslim political practice – a gap that opened in Islam’s first century and eventually became a chasm. Political theory acknowledged only the division between Muslims and non-Muslims. Muslims constituted a single political community of men equal before God and subordinate to one sacred law. Rulership was essentially a contractual obligation for the enforcement of that law. In practice, however, the community of Islam quickly divided into rival parties, then rival states, while the absolutism of Muslim rulers often trespassed the bounds of the law.

          While even the autocratic exercise of political power could be sanctioned by Islam, the assimilation of absolute power to any one individual could never be grounded in law and language. The political language of Islam thus had the innate tendency to under-represent the power that Muslim rulers actually exercised. The term caliph first meant no more than successor to the Prophet Muhammad, and the title of sultan had its modest origins in the abstract noun for authority. But the caliphs came to exercise powers wider than any enjoyed by the Prophet himself, and there was nothing abstract about the absolute authority wielded by many who bore the title of sultan. The political language of Islam did not readily accommodate this concentration of power. But, as Lewis demonstrates, neither did it produce a word for political freedom. While Islamic theory withheld absolute political power from the ruler, it also denied inviolable political rights to the ruled; the political language of Islam stigmatized kingship, but never provided a word for citizenship. It enshrined an ideal balance of power hardly ever achieved in the history of Islam. This made it still easier for modern Western concepts to undermine the traditional Islamic concepts of power and its limits, so that even Muslims are no longer fluent in the political language of Islam.

          Insightful passages intersect Lewis’s path of words. Some illuminate the relationship between natural environment and political metaphor. The metaphors of leadership in Islam evoked horsemanship rather than seamanship; the Muslim ruler was never at the helm, but very much in the stirrup. He did not radiate authority like the sun, for the withering sun of the Middle East is oppressive. Instead he provided beneficent shade for his subjects, representing himself as “the shadow of God upon Earth.” Particularly interesting is Lewis’s argument that power relationships in Islam were conceived in horizontal rather than vertical terms. In Islam, you were not up or down; you were in or out. “This is a society which always in principle, and often, at least to some extent, in practice, rejects hierarchy and privilege, a society in which power and status depend primarily on nearness to the ruler and the enjoyment of his favor, rather than on birth or rank.” One might add that it was the traditional preference of Middle Eastern rulers to distance rather than degrade their critics who were not actually rebels, to send them out into exile rather than cast them down into dungeons. But that is a preference that is dying: modern distances are too short, and revolutions may be launched even from the remote oases of European exile. Many who might once have been political exiles are today political prisoners. Like the terminology of rule, the terminology of opposition no longer draws upon the traditional categories of Islam.

          As Lewis’s own extensive notes attest, the terms about which he writes have been discussed by historians in scattered sources, and sometimes at length in the solemn columns of the Encyclopedia of Islam. What this book has done is interpret these sources in a synthesis that spans the breadth of Islamic history, from the Qur’an to Khomeini. Lewis’s own style, combining erudition with a simple elegance and subtle humor, continues to inspire. In an era of specialization and narrowing academic vision, he stands alone as one who deserves, without qualification, the title of historian of Islam.

          © Martin Kramer