The Master Historian of the Middle East

May 22, 2018 | Martin Kramer
About the author: Martin Kramer is a historian at Tel Aviv University and the Walter P. Stern fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as founding president at Shalem College in Jerusalem.

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.

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