In the Middle Ages, in the sweep of human history extending into the sixteenth century, the Islamic world was, arguably, the world’s most advanced civilization. Only the rich culture of China was an approximate equal, with India perhaps ranking second. This superiority was highly visible in the material realm, where Islam revived old classical sciences and expanded upon them. It developed industrial skills and controlled vast trade and wealth. It was also superior in the more abstract areas of philosophy, law, the arts and even standards of social behavior and manners.
Europe was regarded, with considerable justification, as a semi-barbaric backwater. Yet long before the Industrial Revolution, Europe began to surge ahead of Islam eventually becoming vastly more powerful, scientifically advanced and successful. It could become successfully aggressive in its relations with the Islamic world and dominate it. Because Muslims are well educated in the history of their culture and are sensitive about it, the relative success of the West and the inferiority of Islam in the modern world is a source of irritation. This helps explain the hostility many Muslims have felt towards the West, which, at present, is focused on the United States, the most powerful and leading Western nation. In its most extreme form, this hostility has generated suicidal terrorism. In his relatively short book, Professor Bernard Lewis, a prolific authority on the history and culture of Islam, examines the roots of this inferiority.
In the time that Europe surged ahead, two great empires dominated the Islamic world. More remote from Europe was the Shi’ite shahdom of Persian. Much more proximal to Europe was the Ottoman Empire. In the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was not only a Middle Eastern Islamic state. It was, simultaneously, a formidable European power and could provoke fear among Europeans. Yet it began to seriously decline after the unsuccessful Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683 and lose territory to European powers, beginning with Austria and Russia. By the nineteenth century, even ancient core areas such as Egypt, Mesopotamia and Constantinople itself were threatened by European advances not only of Austria and Russia, but England and France.
Professor Lewis identifies interactions between the West and the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century as one fertile area in which to investigate ‘what went wrong.’ He points out that Turkish rulers tended to adopt European methods only at a superficial level. Rather than try to develop an industrial base that could sustain modern military power, they did such things as copy European-style uniforms and purchase weapons that had been manufactured in European factories. At a deeper level, it was an amazingly long time before Islamic society under Turkish rule even had printing presses, even though it did perpetuate traditional systems of education such as the madrassas, the religious schools that taught the Quran to boys.
In Constantinople and Anatolia, geographically close to Europe, the Turks had a long tradition of European contacts, which perhaps is one fundamental reason why modern Turkey has been the only established Islamic democracy and the most ‘western’ of all Muslim states. In the more ‘sleepy,’ remote areas of the Ottoman Empire, such as the Nile Valley, Mesopotamia, the holy cities of Arabia and even the Levant, direct contact with modern Europeans had lagged behind. When contact did occur, beginning with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1799, there was a kind of shock experience. The shock experience was even greater when contacts began with Persia. Is there a connection between such things as democracy, social equality, parity between the sexes and public education with economic prowess? Most authorities think so, and Lewis is no exception. The reason why the Islamic world has lagged behind the West in these fundamental areas is complex, has a long painful history and is perhaps difficuult to explaiin, because the Quran does not specifically promote inequality, either among classes or between the sexes.
When the Islamic world became free of European imperialism after World War II, and new states sought ways to establish parity and respect in the modern world, Muslims experienced more frustrations than successes. Many of the governments that took hold in the new independent states were brutal and corrupt dictatorships, objects of hate in the eyes of devout Muslims. Yet alternatives have been difficult to find. One of the critical areas of frustration has been the defeats inflicted by tiny Israel, viewed as basically a western incursion in their world, upon its Arab neighbors. This and many other things have prompted thinking Muslims to seek out historic reasons why there is so much apparent inferiority. The search has been frustrating.
To explain why an entire civilization has become inferior to another is an extremely formidable undertaking. Some readers of Professor Lewis’ book may be left with the impression that he has discussed a number of historic features of Islamic inferiority to the West but has not really ‘gotten to the bottom of things’ in a systematic explanation of why this inferiority has developed. It is, however, an extremely interesting book that examines specific facts only a well- seasoned scholar with vast knowledge could possibly know, and is a help in understanding a timely and very important subject.