Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Middle East: a brief history of the last 2,000 years by Bernard Lewis

Mr. Lewis proves himself to be the master historian of the Middle East in this sweeping history. What makes him standout is his superb understanding, sensitivity to his subject and objective tone without invective.  This is a guide through a civilization for which one from the West is woefully ill-informed.

One understands the success of Islam from its beginning.  Unlike the other great religions, Judaism and Christianity, Islam's mission is completed with the death of Muhammad.  In other words, Moses is kept from entering the Promised Land, and Jesus is crucified on the cross, however, Muhammad gains a following, grows into a large successful community and state and dies as a successful king. For the believer, this becomes a persuasive argument in Islam's favor.

In discussing the methods of the critical historian, Mr. Lewis cites believing Muslim scholars' difficulties in determining the truth about the founder's life.  There is difficulty sifting through embellishments.  As a dispassionate critical historian, even more questions rise to the historicity of the events that surround the founder.

Nevertheless, the contours of the this vast civilization come out in the different languages of the region: Arabic, Turkish and Farsi.  One can almost trace the history of Islam by the different languages which dominate the civilization.  Arabic is the mother tongue of the prophet and remains the intellectual vehicle for all of Islam but the non Arabic peoples, the Persians who speak Farsi rival the tradition with their brand of Islam, the Shi'ah and the Turks originally converts begin to dominate the Islamic community for hundreds of years capping a dynasty with Suleyman the Magnificent.  The steppe peoples, Tatars make strong converts too and display the absolute diversity and universality of Islam.

The rivalry, however, with Christendom is ever present.  In the Middle ages, the Iberian peninsula is conquered, but entering Central Europe is stopped by the French and the peninsula is taken back by the Catholic monarchs. The modern period is, however, really the only serious time that Western civilization confronts and enters Islamic civilization.  The late 17th century marks the stop of the Ottoman empire when they begin their withdraw from Vienna.  WWI marks the downfall of the Ottomans [since they chose the wrong side to support] and the West's entry into and domination of the Middle East.  Islamic civilization finds itself woefully ill-prepared for the advancements of the West.  A proud civilization that precludes being dominated but always dominates has to adjust.  The West, the victorious allies, the UK and France carve out new states with monarchies that did not exist during the Ottoman empire.  The late nineteenth century nationalism that swept the world after the Napoleonic wars grabs also the Jewish people and Zionism is born finding its home through war in ancient Palestine to the chagrin of the Arabic speaking people of the region.

With fall of the Soviet Union, the Islamic engine of conquest has seemed to turn over and engage. The struggle to regain control of the region and evict the non-Muslim peoples and even enter the West to control and conquer them is ongoing.

Mr. Lewis' contribution is a very worthwhile read.