THE CRISIS OF ISLAM: Holy War and Unholy Terror. By Bernard Lewis. 184 pp. New York: The Modern Library. $19.95.
The Crisis of Islam is an economical read for the unfamiliar Westerner desiring an entry-level understanding of the Muslim World and its history, its struggles and triumphs, its relationship with the West, and its extremists’ claims to scripture.
Winning the Home-Run Derby three years after awkwardly shuffling around at prom—that’s about as equivalent a metaphor I can find for how pleasantly surprised I was to find a commentary on the current state of Islam that was devoid of both bigoted vitriol and ill-conceived obscurantism. Of course, I have regrettably neglected, until now, to look legitimately into the details of the religion and its concurrent culture and sphere of influence. But it’s time to learn. In fact, it’s much past time to learn. Thank goodness, then, for Bernard Lewis and his 2003 book, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror.
Concise and utterly worthwhile, The Crisis of Islam offers a history, reasoning, and scriptural basis for the most-mentioned (but often not discussed), controversial aspects of Islam. Lewis, an incredibly influential scholar of the Middle East as well as a centenarian born 1916, makes haste to cover such topics as jihad, the influence and scope of corrupted Muslim ideologies, and the Muslim world’s fraught relationship with the West. He does so eloquently and taps into a remarkably vast wealth of knowledge only when he deems it directly necessary.
Though Lewis has come under fire for some of his political positions in recent years, namely for his support of Iraqi invasion, The Crisis of Islam toes no political periphery. Indeed, he addresses the question of why much of the Islamic world’s views of The West are as they are with as little condescension and generalization as possible. Never does Lewis incite distrust in his authority about the religion. Rather, he approaches each aspect of Islam soberly and with its due respect. All the while, his erudite and admirably articulate writing never employs three words when it can get by with one.
Lewis starts with a history of the Islamic World and an explanation of some unique norms thereof. For instance, he touches on the political nature of Islam and the unusual bloc and (relative) cooperation between Muslim leaders of 57 countries around the world to protect the religion. “Religious truth and political power were indissolubly associated. The first sanctified the second, the second sustained the first,” Lewis notes about the inherent position of religion in politics in Islam. Such is the simple, yet oft-unheard insight that would be so very useful to blind proponents of this or that intervention in the Middle East.
The First Chapter serves as a sort of Cliff’s Notes in the history of the Muslim World, wonderfully swerving into analysis of an era in bringing about some significant change in culture, norm, or doctrine when appropriate. Here and throughout the book, Lewis foreshadows and documents the rising and changing tensions between the Muslim world and Colonial Imperialism, Soviet Socialism, and then with the West in general.
He then moves forward immediately into the oft-misunderstood realm of jihad in the second chapter, citing scholars and scripture in his quest to clarify the term. The word, Lewis notes, is generally cited in the Koran within the phrase “striving [jihad] in the path of God.” What follows in Lewis’s discussion of the term epitomizes the refreshing nature of The Crisis of Islam:
Bypassing both a wholly positive or a wholly negative view of jihad, Lewis selects the wholly truthful route. The truth, on which Lewis spends about a fifth of the book, is that the term is meant both as “moral striving” and “armed struggle.” The latter is employed knowingly, albeit to the discontent of most modern Muslim jurists to say the very least, by extremists in the West and much more often in the Arab World. The following is a translation of the Prophet Muhammed by Yusuf Ali on the armed struggle:
“Not equal are those believers who sit (at home) and receive no hurt, and those who strive and fight in the cause of Allah with their goods and their persons. Allah hath granted a grade higher to those who strive and fight with their goods and persons than to those who sit (at home). Unto all (in Faith) Hath Allah promised good: But those who strive and fight Hath He distinguished above those who sit (at home) by a special reward” ~Verse 4:95
Too often are distinctions made with the primary intent to misdirect from the more militant version of jihad, which Lewis notes can be found in chapter 8, verse 72, chapter 9, Verses 41, 81, and 88, chapter 66, verse 9, and others. They exist, and they are being given undue emphasis by extremists. He stresses that, though jihad is a religious obligation, the term in its militaristic understanding has come to embody a much more self-defensive sort of “fight” or “struggle.” He likens the much earlier efforts to spread Islam under jihad to the Crusades, as many do, but draws important distinctions between the two.
Lewis goes on to explain the “considerable risk” that suicide bombers take by invoking even extremely selective forms of jihad. Suicide is a ticket to Hell in Islam, and the killing of women, children, and the aged is strictly prohibited unless attacked directly. This, of course, disregards the other perverse ideas suicide bombers and other terrorists have about their religion.
The author moves on to discuss another sticky issue in Islam: the treatment of apostates. Law states that apostasy, the abandonment or renunciation of Islam, is punishable by death for men and by flogging and jail for women. Here, he misses an opportunity to explore in satisfying detail the sayings of Muslim jurists on the matter, which is easily the one most anathema to Western norms. Ex-Muslims in the Western World who are confident enough to speak out about their apostasy tell of death threats from their own family members as well as from around the Muslim community. For more on the topic, I suggest Sam Harris’s (insightful) “Waking Up with Sam Harris” podcast with ex-Muslim Sarah Heider.
Again, refreshingly, Lewis is clearly not in the camp that obscurantism about Islam’s past is necessary to discuss the religion in the West. He speaks often about warring interpretations of controversial verses by Muslim scholars and jurists. Such a discussion of ideas is essential to the direction of any culture and/or community. Some, mostly those on the Left, prefer a coddled discussion of the issues if a discussion is permitted at all. For more on this topic, see Fareed Zakaria and Sam Harris’s discussion on the “Waking Up …” podcast.
The same issue plagues America in its quest to find common ground in the political sphere. Islam is different, however, in that there are those significant factions that call for death to those people they deem to have left the religion and also those who subscribe to a different version of it. Along these lines, Lewis rightly makes note of the intolerance and terrorism existent within Islam against differing interpretations of scripture. Wahhabism is of the most widespread forms of intolerance based in Islam, and Lewis characterizes it as a great threat to the region and the religion.
Lewis’s discussion of Wahhabism, an illiberal and intolerant sect of Islam peddled by an oil-rich Saudi empire, is indeed enlightening. Speaking about the sect’s influence on Muslims-abroad, noting that, while some Arab governments keep a watchful eye on the presence of extremism in their territories, some allow for the totally free practice of all forms of Islam. Included in this camp are most Western nations as well as some less-stable Arab ones. Lewis makes a claim about this environment:
“This situation clearly favors those with the fewest scruples, the strongest convictions, and the most money. The result can perhaps be depicted through an imaginary parallel: Imagine that the Ku Klux Klan or some similar group obtains total control of the state of Texas, of its oil, and therefore of its oil revenues. And having done so uses this money to establish a network of well-endowed schools and colleges, all over Christendom, peddling their peculiar brand of Christianity. This parallel is somewhat less dire than the reality since most Christian countries have functioning public schools of their own. In some Muslim countries, this is not so. And the Wahhabi-sponsored schools and colleges represent, for many young Muslims, the only education available … The custodianship of the holy places and the revenues of oil have given worldwide impact to what would have otherwise been an extremist fringe in a marginal country.”
Perhaps the book’s major flaw is its mention of the stagnation in regard to education, economic development, and so on. Examples are plentiful; the Arab world notably struggles in ownership of computers per hundred people, book sales, life expectancy, industrial output, comparative purchasing power, job creation, education, and technology. Lewis does well to cite the numbers but does little to explain why they exist. He mentions colonization and conflicting views on modernization within the Muslim world but fails to spend enough time dispensing valuable insight.
As my bookshelf remains for the moment rather meager—especially in regard to Islam, I am unable to offer much criticism of Lewis’s work past this. However, I can assure you, dear reader, that this brief book will serve you well. After only 184 pages or about four hours of listening to the audiobook, the attentive reader will have gained insight from a true and dedicated scholar of the region. Lewis crafts The Crisis of Islam with respect, admiration, and, above all, hope for the Muslim community. He wields his wealth of knowledge and years of insight into a concise and removed explanation of the state of Islam today. If you have an interest in learning about Islam, its history, its deviants, and its relation to the West, allow Lewis to get you up to speed.
— Nick Geeslin is Editor-in-Chief of The Arch Conservative.
Author’s Note: I am in the process of learning about Islam, please excuse any negligent oversights on my part. I did my best to be concise and complete while the book itself was not comprehensive in its coverage of the religion and, in fact, focused mostly on the controversial aspects of the religion. I speak with little authority but great curiosity. On that note, please reach out to me or comment below if you have something worthwhile to add to this review.