The author of Islam and the West, Bernard Lewis, has an extensive background in the study of Islam. He has both a B.A. And Ph.D. In history from the University of London. His B.A. emphasizes the Near and Middle East, and his Ph.D. focused on the history of Islam. He did additional graduate work at the University of Paris. He taught for many years at the University of London, and since 1986 has taught at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. His long list of other published books include The Arabs in History (1950), The Political Language of Islam (1988), and his most recent work, A Middle East Mosaic: Fragments of life, letters and history (2000).
The entire book looks at the relations between Islamic culture and European/Western culture. The first section, with two essays, involves history encounters between the two cultures and what they believe about each other. He describes the essential natures of European and Islamic cultures, how they differ, and where their histories overlap, and the history of Muslims while living under non-Muslim rule. These two historical essays provide a backdrop for the rest of the book.
The second section, made up of five essays, discuss the perceptions that arise from those encounters. The author points out that the original translations of Arabic works into European languages were religious works, sometimes translated simply so missionaries could refute them as they attempted to convert followers of Islam to Christianity (p. 62). In addition, however, the sources translators may go to contain distorted meanings of Arabic words, and the meanings of Arabic words vary over time (p. 66). Other influences included national interests of European nations, regional trade interests. As well as the current influence of politically correct thinking (pp. 100-103).
The third section, consisting of four essays, details Islamic reactions to events over time, including the role of Islam in international relations and events today.
Throughout his book, Lewis lays out the difficulties of studying a culture that has few roots in the culture of the researcher. He touches on this theme from many angles. As he discusses the different theologies of Islam and European culture, which in earlier times was called "Christendom," he notes difficulties on both sides, and points out that both cultures tend to do the same thing: criticize the other from a view that might be called chauvinism or xenophobia, often based on religious differences. Throughout the book, he provides numerous examples of this from both sides. What becomes clear as he addresses this theme over and over, is that neither side seems to really understand the other. He also demonstrates with clear examples from the literature that these misunderstandings often go back many centuries, and that early errors in translation, regional self-interests and distortions affect what we know about each other to this day.
For instance, he notes that both groups have referred to the other as "infidels," or people who do not follow God's true religion (p. 6). Islam evolved out of Christianity, rejecting the concept of Jesus as the Son of God, and viewing Christianity as a lower-evolved religion. They viewed Christians as people who had not yet seen the wisdom of embracing Islam as "God's final word" (p. 7). Christians likewise viewed Islam as heresy (p. 7). Both groups took rigid positions and focused on their differences rather than their many similarities, each viewing their core religious beliefs as the only "right" one.
The book gives demonstrations of how each religion attempted to use military might to either conquer other lands or return converted lands to the "true" religion. In this, the author points out, that those practicing Islam were more successful. Europe was constricted geographically, while the Islamic movement had many opportunities for expansion. Islamic countries shared one language, while Europe was a patchwork of differing tongues. Christian religions had split into subgroups. As a result, Islam spread so rapidly that during his lifetime Mohammed presided over a large empire united in language and theology (p. 9).
The fact that Islam's triumphs included the acquisition of what Christians considered "their" Holy Lands created another layer of friction between the two groups (p. 180), exacerbated by each side's firm conviction that they, and they alone, followed the one true faith that all others should follow.
Lewis's book contains multiple examples of misunderstanding, along with their roots. The causes of these misunderstandings vary, but all have one common thread: the people recording the history and interpreting events, or doing the translations, either do not sufficiently understand the underlying culture or have a vested interest in portraying their own culture, experiences, history and religion as superior to the other. A chauvinistic view that European culture and beliefs were inherently superior to Islamic ones affected translation in particular, as literal translations of words were made without regard to multiple and subtle meanings of the words, and of ignorance of or disregard for how the meanings of words can change over time.
The author notes that in modern times, some Near-Eastern and Middle-Eastern countries have incorporated some concept of a secular government into their operations, but that this approach is not comfortable to Islamic cultures, where they have a long history of weaving religion and government together, sometimes resulting in great success. Western secularist government is often viewed by some in Islam to reflect a Godless culture that pays inadequate attention to moral issues. While Turkey has managed to establish a secular government, most other Islamic countries have only done this within specific guidelines, and these efforts are sometimes strongly resisted by Muslims who believe it to be contrary to Islamic teachings.
At the end of the seventh essay, Lewis notes: "We live in a time when great efforts have been made, and continue to be made, to falsify the record of the past and to make history a tool of propaganda; when governments, religious movements, political parties, and sectional groups of every kind are busy rewriting history as they would wish it to have been, as they would like their followers to believe it was. All this is very dangerous indeed, to ourselves and to others, however we may define otherness -- dangerous to our common humanity. Because, make no mistake, those who are unwilling to confront the past will be unable to understand the present and unfit to face the future." The implications of such a situation in today's time are serious indeed.
Historians know that events are open to multiple interpretations, and that the victors typically write the historical account that most will read. Historical researcher know the importance of going back to primary sources, but know the difficulty of working with primary sources as well. They give first hand accounts, but may be biased. They may leave out important details, recording what was important to one person at the time without benefit of a larger perspective or dispassionate approach to the event. While people not schooled in historical methods may take accounts printed in textbooks as incontrovertible facts, historians know that events can get recorded incorrectly very early, and that this incorrect record can then be regarded as a reliable primary source.
Lewis's book awakens the reader and reminds us not to make unwarranted assumptions that the versions we have heard regarding past events may not be accurate. They may be wrong by accident, by poor translation, or by intent. For the most part, Lewis attempts to provide impartial reports of how the Islamic world views Western culture and vice-versa. He does a good job of demonstrating where the records are wrong and how those incorrect versions came to be. The revelations about how Western beliefs regarding Islam cam about is as revealing as the misinformation itself.
Lewis writes, "Historians in free countries have a moral and professional obligation not to shirk the difficult issues and subjects that some people would place under a sort of taboo; not to submit to voluntary censorship, but to deal with these matters fairly, honestly, without apologetics, without polemic, and of course, competently." (p. 130. This emphasis on the need for mutual understanding infuses his book.
Islam and the West is an important book that should be part of high school and college studies in world history. It should be studied at the high school level because high school students are, or are soon to become, our adult citizens. We now live in a global world where the events in faraway countries often have profound effects on our own lives. For centuries, what happened in Islamic countries often did not carry global impact, but this is no longer true. Some of the most serious events of the past 20 years have their roots in conflicts, misunderstandings and lack of knowledge, between the two cultures, Islamic and Western.
It should be noted that even this book occasionally slips into a posture suggesting Western superiority. Lewis also writes on p. 130, "Those who enjoy freedom have a moral obligation to use that…