Monday, May 21, 2018

Bernard Lewis, giant of Middle East scholarship, dies

The death of Bernard Lewis just short of his 102nd birthday is a great blow to Middle East scholarship. Speaking and reading twelve languages including Arabic, Turkish and Hebrew, he had a remarkable grasp of Muslim history and politics, and was uniquely insightful and lucid in his prodigious writings.

Martin Kramer, an expert analyst of Middle East politics, and one of Lewis's disciples, writes: It will be a long time, perhaps generations, before the study of Islam and the Middle East will invite and admit another genius of his caliber."

The author of many books, Lewis turned his attention to the status of Jews in Jews in Islam and explored the impact of Nazism in Semites and Anti-Semites. He  wrote this passage in the 1970s, well before the emergence of the Taliban and ISIS:

"Is a resurgent Islam prepared to tolerate a non-Islamic enclave, whether Jewish in Israel or Christian in Lebanon, in the heart of the Islamic world?’

"Islam from its inception is a religion of power, and in the Muslim world view it is right and proper that power should be wielded by Muslims and Muslims alone. Others may receive the tolerance, even the benevolence, of the Muslim state, provided that they clearly recognize Muslim supremacy. That Muslims should rule over non- Muslims is right and normal. That non-Muslims should rule over Muslims is an offense against the laws of God and nature, and this is true whether in Kashmir, Palestine, Lebanon, or Cyprus. Here again, it must be recalled that Islam is not conceived as a religion in the limited Western sense but as a community, a loyalty, and a way of life— and that the Islamic community is still recovering from the traumatic era when Muslim governments and empires were overthrown and Muslim peoples forcibly subjected to alien, infidel rule. Both the Saturday people and the Sunday people are now suffering the consequences."

Bernard Lewis, a giant of Middle Eastern scholarship
 
 The Wall St Journal reports: 

Once upon a time Western scholars of Middle Eastern culture and history were known as Orientalists. That label is now considered politically incorrect, like so much else, but we can safely say that the last of the great Orientalists was Bernard Lewis, who died Saturday at age 101.

Lewis taught at the University of London but moved to Princeton University in 1974. His fame grew beyond academia as his deep learning helped him to foresee and explain the turmoil that has dominated the Middle East in recent decades. His books were especially valuable after 9/11 in explaining what animated radical jihadists.

 In “What Went Wrong?” in 2001 and other works, he distinguished between Turkey under Kemal Atatürk, who attempted to adopt some Western practices, and Arabs who blamed the West as the cause of their own technological and economic backwardness. Yet by 2010 he was predicting that Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan would turn to Islamic rule while Iranians would tire of political Islam and embrace secular nationalism. So far he’s been right about Turkey.

Though Jewish and a friend to Israel, Lewis was also deeply sympathetic to Arabs who had to live under fanatic or dictatorial rule. He liked to note that pro-American regimes that were dictatorial often had anti-American populations, but anti-American regimes like Iran had pro-American populations.

Read article in full (Subscription required) 

Guardian obituary 

The conflicted legacy of Bernard Lewis (Foreign Affairs - Martin Kramer)

7 comments:

Sammish said...

This death was expected. However, when one of his academic caliber passes away, it is hard to imagine any successor, in any ivory towers out there, be it in the western world or elsewhere who can even come inches close to his academic brilliance and analytical power of historical processes as well as his famed oratory capabilities.

It is, indeed,a sad day to see Mr. Lewis depart from this world. May he rest in peace and Hashem accept his soul.

by Davsil said...

Everything written in this article, I agree 100%. However, according to wikipedia, prof. Lewis was among the foremost deniers of the (armenian) holocaust. If this is true, I'm sure many Armenians are dancing in the streets right now and wishing him a speedy trip to hell.

bataween said...

Yes that's true. It's because he was such a Turkophile.

Sammish said...

Wait a minute. Just hold your Wikipedia type conclusions please..(wikipedia??? that's the source??. I am impressed. This conclusion is without deep understanding of scholarship and research and what one has to do to attain it. Let me explain the context of your false premises.

As brilliant academic from Oxford College, he had to walk a fine line regarding this issue of him being a pro-Turkish or pro-Ottoman. I do not believe it is the case. It might appear to that way but it is not as straight as one might think. I do not believe he supported in anyway imaginable the Young Turks movement which was responsible for the Armenian.

The main reason for Bernard Lewis for not being clear about his opinion of the Armenian genocide was his ascending academic career for which he would have never been as an erudite and an expert in Islamic studies without access to the large and only archives of early, medieval and past-late Islamic records found in Istanbul famous Islamic libraries. One is famous and is closed to the public (I forget its name).

One has to keep in mind (or learn rather) that the Ottomans took all early and medieval archives for all the territories they conquered, including Mecca and Medina as well the Levant, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and North Africa. We are talking about the greatest theft of all Islamic written sources. All this was usurped and transfer to the capital. Even the supposed Jellaba (kaftan) worn by the Prophet M was taken, it is now displayed in one museum of Istanbul.

In order for Bernard Lewis to have access to all this wealth of information, he needed to take a weighted stand regarding the Armenian genocide, because as you guys know, being denied access could be just hinting that it was not genocide.

How many times have you guys encountered cases (or read about) Jews who had to choose under threat to forgo their beliefs or expect death or banishment. Bernard Lewis knew the game, and understood the dilemma. He did not denied the massacre but avoided labeling it genocide because of him being a scholar who looked beyond the naive moral stand that some people tend to uphold so naively as the deciding rod of what is decent.

(I am no longer going to contribute to this blog if I see naive one-liner judgment of individual or event without elaboration)

bataween said...

Thank you Sammish for your considered comment - always profound and well-informed.
I once heard Bernard Lewis give a memorable lecture on how dragomans deliberately mistranslated words for Ottoman caliphs if the truth was unpalatable ( and sometimes by so doing changed the course of history). This example is no different and reminds me of the fact that the Israeli government always fails to call the Armenian genocide by its proper name, because they did not wish to offend the Turks. Likewise Lewis did not wish to jeopardise his career and access to the Ottoman archives by calling a genocide by its proper name. We know his motives, but the result is the same. He sacrificed truth to short-term interest.

Sammish said...

No. Not short term individual interest but long term scholarship and better understanding of the Orient for all humanity.

Emile Cohen said...

Well said bataween. This makes me wonder if a historian is prepared to twist the truth or pervert history, should he still be considered a great historian???