Global Context (International): The Crisis of Islam

This series of posts deals with the global context in its historical, social, cultural, political, economic, demographic, and religious dimensions in particular. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in an increasingly complex and hyper-connected world.

Bernard Lewis is the doyen of Middle Eastern studies. In this slim little volume, he provides the reader with a concise, level-headed, and very reasonable overview of the crisis within Islam. He gives a brief history of the rise and development of Islam, the Crusades, and of the conflict between Islam, Christianity, and modern western culture.

Lewis traces the rise and development of Islam, showing how medieval Islamic civilization was the most advanced in the world, as well as one of the most militant. Muslims overthrew Persia, and then in short succession conquered the Christian provinces of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa. By the 8th century, they had advanced as far as the Pyrenees. They launched several waves of crusades, conquering the birthplace of Christ and attempting to conquer Europe.

He refuses to lay most (or even much) of the blame for the Crusades at the feet of the Christian world. For him, “The Crusade is a late development in Christian history, and, in a sense, marks a radical departure from basic Christian values as expressed in the gospels. But jihad is a Muslim essential, present from the beginning, in Muhammad himself.” It is for this reason that Lewis finds it ironic that Muslims like to blame the West for the Crusades, particularly for the purpose of making them a prototype of European expansionism.

As Lewis tells it, European countries (“Christian” countries) did expand, as they expelled the Tatars from Russia and the Moors from Spain. Napoleon struck at the heart of the Islamic world as he raided Egypt. Muslims thought it was dandy for Muslims to conquer and rule Europe, but not vice-versa. The same goes for religious conversion. By the early 20th century, nearly all Muslims were ruled by European countries, and even worse, the Jews set up the state of Israel in 1948. This humiliated the Muslim world.

The late 20th century brought a bipolar world, ruled by two mighty powers, the USA and the USSR. Then the USSR collapsed, leaving the US as the lone world power. Muslim “freedom fighters” were central to the overthrow of the USSR in Afghanistan; indeed, Osama bin Ladin repeatedly has pointed out that Muslims defeated the mighty USSR. Bin Laden and others thought that the US would be an easier foe. “In their view,” Lewis writes, “the United States had become morally corrupt, socially degenerate, and in consequence, politically and militarily enfeebled.”

In fact, bin Ladin speaks to this theme in his November 2002 “Letter to America.” He accuses America of being an oppressive, deceitful country, full of debauchery, and without principles or manners. He argues that America should pack her bags and get out of Muslim lands so that he is not forced to send Americans “back as cargo in coffins.” The letter ends with bin Ladin saying that if Americans do not take his advice, “their fate will be that of the Soviets who fled from Afghanistan to deal with their military defeat, political breakup, ideological downfall, and economic bankruptcy.

All of this brings us to the heart of Lewis’ book, which is his answer to the question: What is happening in the world of Islam to bring about the “revolutionary” Islam we have seen in recent years? As Lewis sees it, there are four major components of revolutionary Islam: (1) Humiliation: Muslims see themselves as the sole guardians of God’s truth, and believe that they will subjugate the world for Allah’s sake, but at present they clearly are not able to subdue the infidels; (2) Frustration: Muslims have tried to remedy this humiliation in various ways, but have failed; (3) Confidence: The economic power of oil, and the words of the Qur’an, have given Muslims a new confidence and sense of empowerment; and (4) Contempt: Muslims see the moral decadence, and therefore the weakness, of the Western world.

Perhaps the one thing that Lewis should have included in his discussion of the major components of revolutionary Islam (although mentioned elsewhere in the book) is an extensive discussion of a fifth component which might be called “Mission.” Muhammad made clear to his followers that there are only two ways to live: One can live in submission to Allah, or in the way of ignorance. Those who live in submission to Allah live in Dar al-Islam, meaning “the territory of Islam.” Those who live in ignorance live in Dar al-harb, meaning “the territory of war.” The missionary program of Muhammad and early Muslims was to extend the territory of Islam over the territory of war by any means necessary, including military jihad.

This can be seen in numerous passages in the Qur’an. Take, for example, Surah 2:244: “Then fight in the cause of Allah…” Or Surah 9:5: “Then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them.”Or Surah 47:4: “When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield, strike off their heads and, when you have laid them low, bind your captives firmly.” Furthermore, those who do fight for Allah are rewarded with Paradise. In Surah 9:111, we see that “Allah hath purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the garden (of Paradise): they fight in His cause, and slay and are slain: a promise binding on Him in truth.” But perhaps the most enlightening thing to read is Guillame’s The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Rasul Allah (Oxford University Press, 1995). This translation of the classic biography of Muhammad, written by a pious Muslim, makes clear on every page that Muhammad was not a peaceful man.

In spite of this and other minor issues, The Crisis of Islam is a very helpful book for those who are seeking to understand the complex and significant issues surrounding contemporary Islam.

Book: The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (2003)
Author: Bernard Lewis
Region: The Middle East
Length: 184 pp.
Difficulty: Intermediate