The Master Historian of the Middle East

Bernard Lewis, the preeminent scholar of Islam and the Middle East, has died two weeks shy of his 102nd birthday. Author of erudite works in the history of Arab and Islamic societies, Lewis was also a man of the world and a versatile writer for general audiences who married a commanding voice with an engaging and graceful style. In the aftermath of 9/11, he won great influence with best-selling works like What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam. Born and educated in England, in the 1970s Lewis moved to the U.S. where he lived (apart from winters in Tel Aviv) until his death. To mark his centenary in 2016, the historian Martin Kramer, a friend and former student, published in Mosaic a retrospective analysis and assessment of Lewis’s career and achievement:

When [Lewis’s article] “The Return of Islam” appeared [in Commentary magazine] in 1976, the notion that Islamists might one day seize the Grand Mosque in Mecca, overthrow the monarchy in Iran, assassinate Anwar Sadat, kill 241 U.S. Marines in Beirut, fly planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and reestablish a caliphate ruling over an Islamic state in Syria and Iraq, would have seemed like pulp-novel scenarios with probabilities of zero. In fact, nothing of what we regard today as the infrastructure of Islamism was visible at all.

So how did [Lewis] discern the “return”? “From the 1970s onward,” he would later write, “to anyone following events in the Muslim world and reading or listening to what Muslims were saying in their own languages, the surge in religious passion was increasingly obvious.” In fact, he was practically the only one to whom this was obvious.

In a reply to published comments on his essay (by Robert Irwin, Itamar Rabinovich, Eric Ormsby, and Amir Taheri), Kramer includes a personal note from his days as Lewis’s student and office assistant:

Every few weeks, Bernard would invite me to lunch at the Institute [for Advanced Study], followed by a vigorous walk in its surrounding woods. Then would come the high point. Choosing a shelf in his massive library, he would go through it one book at a time, estimating each tome’s significance to scholarship, sharing some lore (or was it gossip?) about its author, and parsing the dedication.  . . .  Such gifts of precious time were hardly mine alone. . . . His generosity to students and younger scholars assured him a devoted personal following over the course of several generations. . . .

Kramer sums up:

An entire syllabus on the history of the Middle East since the advent of Islam could be compiled exclusively from the writings of Bernard Lewis. . . . In this respect, he towers above all of his contemporaries and successors and arguably also over his famed Orientalist predecessors, none of whom was trained as a historian. 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.

In the meantime, we have his classic works to guide us through this dark age of obfuscation.

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories free

Register Now

Already a subscriber? Sign in now

Read more at Mosaic

More about: Bernard Lewis, History & Ideas, Islam, Middle East

Don’t Expect the Jerusalem Summit to Drive a Wedge between Russia and Iran

June 14 2019

Later this month, an unprecedented meeting will take place in Jerusalem among the top national-security officials of the U.S., Israel, and Russia to discuss the situation in Syria. Moscow is likely to seek financial aid for the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country, or at the very least an easing of sanctions on Bashar al-Assad. Washington and Jerusalem are likely to pressure the Russian government to reduce the presence of Iranian forces and Iran-backed militias in Syria, or at the very least to keep them away from the Israeli border. But to Anna Borshchevskaya, any promises made by Vladimir Putin’s representatives are not to be trusted:

Sign up to read more

You've read all your free articles for this month

Register

Sign up now for unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Syrian civil war