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The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror by Bernard Lewis


Rating: (Recommended)


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Readers looking for a basic understanding of Islam, as well as an understanding of the root causes of current terrorism, will enjoy Bernard Lewis’ book, The Crisis of Islam. Lewis is a lifelong expert in this area, and distills his knowledge, making it easy for novices to understand and appreciate the trends and issues he describes. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 1, “Defining Islam,” pp. 3-11


It is difficult to generalize about Islam. To begin with, the word itself is commonly used with two related but distinct meanings, as the equivalents both of Christianity and of Christendom. In the one sense it denotes a religion, a sys­tem of belief and worship; in the other, the civilization that grew up and flourished under the aegis of that religion. The word Islam thus denotes more than fourteen centuries of history, a billion and a third people, and a religious and cultural tradition of enormous diversity. Christianity and Christendom represent a greater number and a longer pe­riod—more than 2 billion people, more than twenty cen­turies, and even greater diversity. Nevertheless, certain generalizations can be and are made about what is vari­ously called Christian, Judeo-Christian, post-Christian, and—more simply—Western civilization. While generalizing about Islamic civilization may be difficult and at times in a sense dangerous, it is not impossible and may in some ways be useful.

In space, the realm of Islam extends from Morocco to Indonesia, from Kazakhstan to Senegal. In time it goes back more than fourteen centuries, to the advent and mission of the Prophet Muhammad in Arabia in the seventh century C.E. and the creation under him of the Islamic community and state. In the period which European historians see as a dark interlude between the decline of ancient civiliza­tion—Greece and Rome—and the rise of modern civiliza­tion—Europe, Islam was the leading civilization in the world, marked as such by its great and powerful kingdoms, its rich and varied industry and commerce, its original and creative sciences and letters. Islam, fan more than Christen­dom, was the intermediate stage between the ancient East and the modern West, to which it contributed significantly. But during the past three centuries, the Islamic world has lost its dominance and its leadership, and has fallen behind both the modern West and the rapidly modernizing Orient. This widening gap poses increasingly acute problems, both practical and emotional, for which the rulers, thinkers, and rebels of Islam have not yet found effective answers.


Islam as a religion is in every respect far closer to the Judeo-Christian tradition than to any of the great religions of Asia, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, or Confucianism. Judaism and Islam share the belief in a divine law that regu­lates all aspects of human activity, including even food and drink. Christians and Muslims share a common triumphal­ism. In contrast to the other religions of humanity, includ­ing Judaism, they believe that they alone are the fortunate recipients and custodians of God’s final message to hu­manity, which it is their duty to bring to the rest of the world. Compared with the remoter religions of the East, all three Middle Eastern religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are closely related and indeed appear as vari­ants of the same religious tradition.


Christendom and Islam are in many ways sister civiliza­tions, both drawing on the shared heritage of Jewish reve­lation and prophecy and Greek philosophy and science, and both nourished by the immemorial traditions of Mid­dle Eastern antiquity. For most of their joint history, they have been locked in combat, but even in struggle and polemic they reveal their essential kinship and the com­mon features that link them to each other and set them apart from the remoter civilizations of Asia.

But as well as resemblances, there are profound dispari­ties between the two, and these go beyond the obvious dif­ferences in dogma and worship. Nowhere are these differences more profound—and more obvious—than in the attitudes of these two religions, and of their authorized exponents, to the relations between government, religion, and society. The Founder of Christianity bade his followers “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things which are God’s” (Matt. XXII:21)— and for centuries Christianity grew and developed as a re­ligion of the downtrodden, until with the conversion to Christianity of the emperor Constantine, Caesar himself became a Christian and inaugurated a series of changes by which the new faith captured the Roman Empire and transformed its civilization. The Founder of Islam was his own Constantine, and founded his own state and empire. He did not therefore create—or need to create—a church. The dichotomy of regnum and sacerdotium, so crucial in the history of Western Christendom, had no equivalent in Islam. During Muhammad’s lifetime, the Muslims became at once a political and a religious community, with the Prophet as head of state. As such, he governed a place and a people, dispensed justice, collected taxes, commanded armies, waged war and made peace. For the formative first generation of Muslims, whose adventures are the sacred history of Islam, there was no protracted testing by perse­cution, no tradition of resistance to a hostile state power. On the contrary, the state that ruled them was that of Islam, and God’s approval of their cause was made clear to them in the form of victory and empire in this world.

In pagan Rome, Caesar was God. For Christians, there is a choice between God and Caesar, and endless generations of Christians have been ensnared in that choice. In Islam, there was no such painful choice. In the universal Islamic polity as conceived by Muslims, there is no Caesar but only God, who is the sole sovereign and the sole source of law Muhammad was His Prophet, who during his lifetime both taught and ruled on God’s behalf. When Muhammad died in 632 C.E., his spiritual and prophetic mission, to bring God’s book to mankind, was completed. What remained was the religious task of spreading God’s revelation until finally all the world accepted it. This was to be achieved by extending the authority and thus also the membership of the community which embraced the true faith and upheld God’s law. To provide the necessary cohesion and leader­ship for this task, a deputy on successor of the Prophet was required. The Arabic word khalifà was the title adopted by the Prophet’s father-in-law and first successor Abu Bakr, whose accession to the headship of the Islamic community marked the foundation of the great historic institution of the caliphate.

Under the caliphs, the community of Medina, where the Prophet had held sway, grew in barely a century into a vast empire, and Islam became a world religion. In the experi­ence of the first Muslims, as preserved and recorded for later generations, religious truth and political power were indissolubly associated: the first sanctified the second, the second sustained the first. The Ayatollah Khomeini once remarked that “Islam is politics or it is nothing.” Not all Muslims would go that far, but most would agree that God is concerned with politics, and this belief is confirmed and sustained by the shari’a, the Holy Law, which deals exten­sively with the acquisition and exercise of power, the na­ture of legitimacy and authority, the duties of ruler and subject, in a word, with what we in the West would call constitutional law and political philosophy.

The long interaction between Islam and Christianity and the many resemblances and mutual influences be­tween the two have sometimes led observers to overlook some significant differences. The Qur’an, it is said, is the Muslim Bible; the mosque is the Muslim church; the ulema are the Muslim clergy. All three statements are true, yet all three are seriously misleading. The Old and New Testa­ment both consist of collections of different hooks, extend­ing over a long period of time and seen by the believers as embodying divine revelation. The Qur’an, for Muslims, is a single book promulgated at one time by one man, the Prophet Muhammad. After a lively debate in the first cen­turies of Islam, the doctrine was adopted that the Qur’an itself is uncreated and eternal, divine and immutable. This has become a central tenet of the faith.


The mosque is indeed the Muslim church in the sense that it is a place of communal worship. But one cannot speak of “the Mosque” as one speaks of “the Church”—of an institution with its own hierarchy and laws, in contrast to the state. The ulema (in Iran and in Muslim countries influenced by Persian culture known as mollahs) may he described as a clergy in the sociological sense, in that they are professional men of religion, accredited as such by training and certification. But there is no priesthood in Islam—no priestly mediation between God and the be­liever, no ordination, no sacraments, no rituals that only an ordained clergy can perform. In the past, one would have added that there are no councils or synods, no bishops to define and inquisitors to enforce orthodoxy. At least in Iran, this is no longer entirely true.

The primary function of the ulema—from an Arabic word meaning “knowledge”—is to uphold and interpret the Holy Law. From late medieval times, something like a parish clergy emerged, ministering to the needs of ordinary people in cities and villages, but these were usually separate from and mistrusted by the ulemna, and owed more to mys­tical than to dogmatic Islam. In the later Islamic monar­chies, in Turkey and Iran, a kind of ecclesiastical hierarchy appeared, but this had no roots in the classical Muslim tra­dition, and members of these hierarchies never claimed, still less exercised, the powers of Christian prelates. In modern times there have been many changes, mainly under Western influences, and institutions and professions have developed which bear a suspicious resemblance to the churches and clerics of Christendom. But these represent a departure from classical Islam, not a return to it.


If one may speak of a clergy in a limited sociological sense in the Islamic world, there is no sense at all in which one can speak of a laity. The very notion of something that is separate or even separable from religious authority, ex­pressed in Christian languages by terms such as lay tem­poral, or secular~ is totally alien to Islamic thought and practice. It was not until relatively modern times that equivalents for these terms existed in Arabic. They were borrowed from the usage of Arabic-speaking Christians or newly invented.


From the days of the Prophet, the Islamic society had a dual character. On the one hand, it was a polity—a chief­taincy that successively became a state and an empire. At the same time, on the other hand, it was a religious com­munity, founded by a Prophet and ruled by his deputies, who were also his successors. Christ was crucified, Moses died without entering the promised land, and the beliefs and attitudes of their religious followers are still pro­foundly influenced by the memory of these facts. Muham­mad triumphed during his lifetime, and died a sovereign and a conqueror. The resulting Muslim attitudes can only have been confirmed by the subsequent history of their re­ligion. In Western Europe, barbarian but teachable in­vaders came to an existing state and religion, the Roman Empire and the Christian Church. The invaders recog­nized both, and tried to serve their own aims and needs within the existing structures of Roman polity and Christ­ian religion, both using the Latin language. The Muslim Arab invaders who conquered the Middle East and North Africa brought their own faith, with their own scriptures in their own language; they created their own polity, with a new set of laws, a new imperial language, and a new impe­rial structure, with the caliph as supreme head. This state and polity were defined by Islam, and full membership be­longed, alone, to those who professed the dominant faith.

With images of Islam appearing in the media daily, many observers have unanswered questions, and The Crisis of Islam opens the door to some answers.

Steve Hopkins, June 25, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the July 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Crisis of Islam.htm


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