Bernard Lewis: An Appreciation

by R. Stephen Humphreys

Humanities, vol. 11, no. 3 (May/June 1990), pp. 17-20.


 WHEN BERNARD LEWIS published his first scholarly article in 1937 (at the precocious age of twenty-one), the scientific study of the Islamic world by the Europeans was still very recent.

A series of landmark works published between 1880 and World War I had laid the foundations for our modern understanding of the religion, society, and politics of Islam. Lewis thus entered the field of Islamic studies during its second generation, in an era when younger scholars such as Louis Massignon, H.A.R. Gibb, Jean Sauvaget, and Joseph Schacht were emerging as the dominant figures. The work of this generation differed from that of its predecessors in important ways, as we shall see, but it continued to share their methods, their areas of interest, much even of their frame of mind. Lewis was entering a field of study which was still new, but one which had already succeeded in defining itself as a distinctive form of inquiry, a discipline in its own right.

The earlier generation had inevitably put much of its effort into the study of culture and religion, but it had also produced some splendid historians, as that term was defined in late nineteenth-century Europe: that is, scholars who tried to reconstruct the political events and institutions of the past through the critical analysis of archival documents and other original sources. After World War I, however, history and Islamic studies tended to drift apart. Islamists now stressed the religious and cultural side of their field, perhaps because they perceived that history as then practiced, with its narrow concern for politics and power, could not uncover the underlying structures and values of Islamic life. On the other hand, there was a cost to this move away from history, expressed in a tendency to envision Islam as an entity divorced from time and space. The Islamists of this generation unquestionably displayed a growing acceptance of the spiritual validity of Islam as a religion, but they also tried increasingly to identify an enduring "essence" of Islam, an inner quality which had persisted through the vicissitudes of politics and surface changes in doctrine. This reification of Islam, and more broadly of Islamic culture, is epitomized in the work of H. A. R. Gibb, the most influential figure in the English-speaking world in the field of Islamic studies between the mid-1930s and the 1960s.

History in the meantime was changing; historians of the interwar era continued to give a privileged place to political events and institutions, but they were rapidly broadening their scope to include society as a whole. There was another shift in perspective as well: Most historians of the early twentieth century restricted their attention entirely to Europe and North America, rejecting Asia and Africa as subjects amenable to historical understanding. But by World War II the more farsighted historians had begun to recognize that their understanding of human experience would always be shallow and incomplete until they turned their attention to the other two-thirds of the globe. Whatever their intentions, however, they could achieve very little, because none of them possessed the linguistic tools and the cultural understanding to confront Asian and African societies directly. These skills were the monopoly of Orientalists, who (in the Islamic field at least) had largely turned away from a historical analysis of their subject.

Lewis was trained both in modern (i.e., post-Roman) history and in Islamic studies, and his achievement, both simple and profoundly important, was to bring back together the two streams of inquiry. His first article, on the guilds of medieval Islam, incorporated the immense erudition and cultural awareness of modern Islamic studies (in particular, the work of Louis Massignon), and at the same time demonstrated that Islamic history need not be an exotic subject, that it was open to exactly the same kind of analysis and interpretation as European history. His work represented history as Europeanists and Americanists knew and practiced it; far from searching for the essence of Islamic culture and society, Lewis presented an analysis of competing interests and classes and, always, a world in change. That first article also demonstrated an unusual talent for synthesis and clarity of exposition: The remotest periods, the most convoluted topics, the most outlandish names were made remarkably accessible. Unlike the work of almost any other Islamist of that era, then, Lewis's could readily be integrated into general historical discourse and assimilated by anyone with a broad and serious interest in the past.

Lewis's first article was widely regarded as the most authoritative statement on its topic for nearly three decades. The virtues of this piece, including its remarkable longevity, were repeated in his published dissertation (The Origins of Ismailism, 1940), and then in the book that probably did more than any other to make his reputation, The Arabs in History (first published in 1950, and almost continuously in print since). This latter was explicitly intended as an introductory survey of the subject, but its clarity, precision, and erudition made it for two decades the standard interpretation of early Islamic history.

TO THIS POINT Lewis had been a student of medieval Islamic history, and particularly of the Arabs. But in 1949 he was invited by the Turkish authorities to visit the Ottoman archives in Istanbul, which were just being opened to Western researchers. Over the next several years he published a series of articles which foreshadowed no less than a revolution in Middle Eastern history since the sixteenth century. The Ottoman archives, he showed, could at last provide students of the Middle East with a fund of documentary material fully equal to that available for modern European history—at least for those few who were unfazed by the terrifying demands of the Ottoman language and chancery script, not to mention chaotic organization and somewhat unpredictable procedures for gaining research permits. For the first time, historians could hope to penetrate a premodern Islamic society in depth, to produce not only properly documented political studies, but also serious analyses of governmental structure, economic change, and demography. Moreover, the Ottoman archives were as valuable for the Arab and Balkan possessions of the Empire as for its Turkish core. Turkish scholars, notably Omer Lutfi Barkan and Halil Inalcik, had begun after World War II to make serious use of these treasures, but it is Lewis who revealed them to European and American scholars. In so doing he opened up what still remains the most dynamic and creative field in Middle Eastern history.

Lewis had conceived an ambitious program of studies on the Arab lands under Ottoman rule, but for a variety of reasons he put aside this work for more than a decade after the early 1960s. This decision permitted him to lay the foundations for yet another field, that of the Ottoman reform period and the origins of modern Turkey. The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961, rev. ed. 1968) built heavily on the publications of modern Turkish scholars. It marked a watershed: For the first time the historical development of a contemporary Middle Eastern state was portrayed not merely (or even primarily) as something created by European intervention, but as an internal process generated by the changing goals and needs of Middle Easterners over a period of two centuries. Lewis's decision to focus on the Istanbul statesmen who initiated and tried to control this process, rather than on the machinations of European embassies, was in itself a radical change of perspective, and one which has underlain all serious research on this topic ever since. The Emergence of Modern Turkey is, in addition, a work of great density; almost every paragraph suggests a subject for a substantial monograph. It has been superseded in parts, as any important pioneering venture must be, but even now it is arguably the most satisfying overview we have of the transformation of the Ottoman Empire into a modern nation-state. And as he had so often done before, he demystified the complexities of a seemingly alien society—in this case, ironically, by ripping late Ottoman history out of the Eurocentric "Eastern Question" in which it had always been embedded and placing it firmly within the context of Middle Eastern values and concerns.

Lewis's recent scholarship—that published during the last decade or so—has not been less significant in either quantity or quality. Particularly noteworthy is The Muslim Discovery of Europe, published in 1982, which gives us our first clear overview of Muslim interpretations of European culture and society before the nineteenth century. If it has attracted less attention than his earlier work, that is because it extends and deepens ideas which he had already sketched in a host of concise but superbly crafted articles and essays. Apart from the intrinsic interest of his newer writings, they confirm what has been apparent throughout his long career: 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.

BY THE MID-1960s, Lewis had begun to lay emphasis on a different role for himself, that of commentator on trends and problems in the contemporary Middle East. This was, to be sure, an interest that he had previously pursued from time to time, and contemporary concerns had always been latent in his scholarly publications for those who cared to read between the lines. The modern Middle East inspires strong feelings, and so it is not surprising that Lewis's writing on such topics as the Arab-Israeli conflict and the resurgence of militant Islam soon catapulted him into notoriety—lionized by some, excoriated by others.

The opening salvo in the attack against him was fired by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978), a book which took Said, like Lewis himself, from the decent obscurity of a respected academic to the notoriety of a public intellectual. Orientalism is a polemic and means to take no prisoners; nevertheless, its general argument deserves attention, even if one rejects it in the end. If read critically and with due reserve, it compels a second look at aspects of Lewis's work that may have been taken too much for granted.

A first point should be mentioned. By the 1970s, Lewis's stature as the ranking scholar of Islamic and Middle Eastern history was so high that his policy-oriented statements were automatically invested with the authority of his scholarship, at least among nonspecialists. Such a situation inevitably provoked resentment among those whose positions could not gain a similar hearing. But fairness requires that we look at the other side of the coin: Lewis's authority meant that those who shared his outlook did not give his arguments the dispassionate critical scrutiny they required.

A second point, related to the first, may seem merely a matter of form and style, but it is not. As already noted, Lewis is a very skillful writer, and he commands all the nuance and irony of the British historiographic tradition. The surface of his prose is polished, calm, and objective, but the slight ironic smile is always present. His words clearly mean more than they seem to say, and this fact has occasioned some very pointed comments.

One might argue that irony does not mask meaning but enriches it, by pointing to the inevitable ambiguities of human behavior and the unexpected consequences of our actions. Moreover, rigid statements that are calculated to mean just what they say, neither more nor less, dictate the response to a subject and close out alternative interpretations. Irony, in contrast, suggests that an event must be understood in many ways; it demands a rethinking of preconceptions and first impressions. In short, irony creates meaning and, possibly, dialogue.

In the end, however, Lewis became and remains controversial not because of jealousy or literary cunning, but because of his interpretation of Middle Eastern and Islamic society. I have argued that Lewis tried to liberate his writing from the constraints of first- and second-generation Islamic studies, and to a considerable degree he succeeded. Not entirely, however: He struck a new path in political and social history, but he has accepted much of the Orientalist reconstruction of Islamic culture. In particular, he has adhered to the notion that the first four centuries of Islam constituted an era of intense cultural dynamism and creativity, followed by a turning inward until the dynamism of a new Europe in the 1800s compelled Muslims to shake off their stagnation. There were, of course, later periods of prosperity and cultural efflorescence, but no real effort to reevaluate the fundamental concepts inherited from Islam's first generations. This interpretation of Islamic history was almost uncontested in Western scholarship down to the mid-1960s, and it was in fact accepted by many contemporary Muslim critics. However, in new research over the last quarter-century, scholars of the current generation have come to see an unbroken evolution and innovation in Islamic thought, albeit within a well-established cultural tradition.

Finally, there is Lewis's political inheritance. He came of age during a decade that witnessed the near-triumph of totalitarianism in Europe and a murderous persecution of an entire people. It can be argued, as I would, that the Arab people have genuine grievances against Israel and the West which he does not give full due. On the other hand, Lewis's critics would do well to remember the personal experience and hard-won realism that underlie his political writings; surely he has good reason to think expressions of militancy and fanaticism must sometimes be taken at face value.

The crucial thing to know about him is that he is a traditional European liberal—one who looks to the legal and spiritual autonomy of the individual within a secular society as the central value and ultimate goal of politics. The body of his writing has been shaped, in both overt and subtle ways, by this frame of mind. He knows well enough that Europe has periodically betrayed, even monstrously violated, its liberal ideals. Even so, the values and aspirations endure, and these have remained his political compass. Hence Lewis's scholarly writing exhibits a persistent concern for the degree to which political thought and action in the Islamic Middle East have conformed to, or differed from, liberal concepts of toleration, individualism, and secularism. His references to this issue are not anachronistic; he recognizes that no pre-modern society, European or Islamic, could be expected to adhere to a full-blown liberal ideology. But for him liberal values are an objective good, and it is from that perspective that he has consistently viewed the Middle East and the world of Islam.

It is certainly not wrong to apply value judgments of this kind to the past or to other societies; we can hardly avoid it if we mean for history to be morally relevant to our own lives. On the other hand, we must frankly recognize that such value judgments tend to separate us from the concerns and ideals that have actually governed the lives of the people we seek to understand.

Lewis would not be without a response: It is undoubtedly important to understand the perspectives of others, but absolutely crucial—especially in a world as troubled and violent as ours—to be clear about one's own values. Only insofar as a historian knows what he believes can he use the past to illuminate the moral dilemmas of his own age. As to the values he has espoused, Lewis may even feel a certain vindication; that liberalism which a few years ago seemed so archaic, so much a relic of another era, has manifested its old power to challenge and inspire. Under such circumstances, it may be time to evaluate his achievement yet again. Surely no less is owed to the scholar who has done more than any other to bring the Middle East and Islam back into the mainstream of historical discourse.

R. Stephen Humphreys