Until a Hundred Twenty

By Hillel Fradkin
Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Bernard Lewis has published many books and still more articles on the history of the Middle East and Islam.  On these subjects he is, simply, the pre-eminent authority.  At 96, he has now published yet another book, a memoir titled Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian.  It provides a fascinating account of the varied, extraordinary, unexpected life he has led; it also points beyond the personal to questions of history and the vocation of the historian.

As those familiar with Lewis’s work know, he is a master of the telling anecdote, story, or citation—telling because with these devices, he immediately illuminates subjects that he also discusses in more typical scholarly fashion.  The same is true of his memoir, which recounts not just his scholarship but his vast travels in the Muslim world and experiences with his many Muslim friends and acquaintances, all facilitated by his extraordinary command of many languages.  He is, he says, a man who “relishes” language; but his command of his native English is especially complete and gives this book the graceful charm characteristic of his writings.

The theme of the historian’s responsibility is in part expressed, with Lewis’s characteristic modesty, by the book’s subtitle, Reflections of a Middle East Historian—but only in part, because Lewis is not “a” Middle East historian: He was one of the very first modern, professional European historians of the Middle East in the contemporary sense.  Surprising as it now seems, when Lewis was appointed in 1938 as lecturer in the history of the Near and Middle East at the University of London, he was the first individual in Britain to hold such a position.

It is not that Lewis was the first scholar of the Muslim Middle East: He was a student of great British predecessors, especially Hamilton Gibb.  But Gibb and his peers were, like their European counterparts, first and foremost students of language and literature.  They sometimes wrote about the history of Muslim lands; but their primary work, often heavily philological, remained focused on religious, legal, and poetic literary texts.

Lewis certainly drew upon this work; he acknowledges it with gratitude and has enriched it through thematic discussions of certain types of literature and their terminology and translations of important texts of prose and poetry.  But the guiding focus of Lewis’s work has been the study and writing of history in the broadest sense: the history of Middle Eastern polities, the region’s often-intertwined religious and political movements, and social and economic developments.  This focus often required the study of texts very different from those explored by his teachers.  For example, the archives of the Ottoman Empire bureaucracy produced one of Lewis’s great works, The Emergence of Modern Turkey.

Why these particular texts?  How should one study them?  Lewis gives specific answers, some of them in a chapter of his book titled, “Why Study History?”  More generally, Lewis observes that those who will not confront the past “will be unable to understand the present and unfit to face the future.  A great responsibility, therefore, falls on historians,” he says, “whose moral and professional duty it is to seek out the truth concerning the past, and to present and explain it as they see it.  I have endeavored to fulfill this responsibility.”

This duty and responsibility fall on all historians, even those who study the most remote antiquity.  But it is fair to say, as Lewis does, that today the duty and responsibility fall with special weight on historians of the Middle East and Islam.  For one thing, Muslims and people of the Middle East themselves generally place far more emphasis on the past than their non-Muslim contemporaries typically do.  Therefore, interpretation of the past plays a particularly important role in Middle Eastern and Muslim affairs.  Second, there is a multitude of contemporary contentions and disputes about history between Muslims and non-Muslims and among Muslims themselves.

Lewis thinks the historian’s duty and responsibility in these matters are owed to both Muslims and non-Muslims, and in attempting to fulfill this combined duty he has found two principles especially salient: to “follow the evidence wherever it leads” and to apply an “empathy” through which one may enter into the perspective of history’s participants—to see things, at least provisionally, as they did or do.  This latter requirement is the reason for Lewis’s frequent stress on the importance of knowing the relevant languages and their distinctive terminology (though, in fairness to other historians, Lewis is blessed with idiosyncratic gifts in this area).  Lewis’s empathy finds special expression in two books, The Muslim Discovery of Europe and Islam and the West, in which he attempted to articulate the ways in which Muslims and non-Muslims have understood and misunderstood one another.

And how does fulfilling the historian’s duty help us “face” the present and future?  It is, of course, too soon to tell in any simple sense; but, although historians cannot predict the future, “there are certain things that the historian can and should do.  He can look at what has been happening and what is happening and see change developing.”  By doing so, Lewis says, “he can formulate, I will not say predictions, but possibilities, alternative possibilities, things that may happen.”

This is exactly what Lewis has done for his non-Muslim readers on many occasions over the years.  Here, one occasion must suffice: In a 1976 article titled “The Return of Islam,” Lewis announced the end of post-colonial secular nationalism and the revival of religio-political movements in the Middle East.  His judgment reflected his honest observation of the contemporary scene and his deep understanding of the Muslim past and its abiding and unresolved questions.  Lewis’s conclusion, for those who could grasp and credit it—there were many, including colleagues, who could not—laid a foundation for facing the future that would soon be dramatically upon the region with the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

But what of Muslim readers—of whom Lewis has had many, through translations (some unauthorized) of his works into many Muslim languages?  The preface to Lewis’s The Middle East and the West, published by the Muslim Brotherhood, includes these remarks by the book’s Arabic translator: “I do not know who this person is, but one thing is clear.  He is, from our point of view, either a candid friend or an honest enemy, and in any case one who disdains to distort the truth.”  Lewis is rightly proud of this assessment.

But it would be hard to say that Lewis has succeeded—yet—in persuading many Muslims to pursue his sort of historical study and reflection.  He knows this from his own experience, including instances of Middle Eastern scholars he trained, and discusses it with great regret.  As well he might: Deeply attached to the Middle East and its people, he knows that their prospects for a happy future, not to mention those of others, depend on the honesty and clarity that his kind of history fosters.

Lewis also knows the Jewish custom of wishing that another person will live “until a hundred twenty”; many would bestow that wish on Lewis himself.  If it is fulfilled, perhaps he will also see the fulfillment of his hopes for the benefits of historical understanding.  Many others, not least in the Middle East, should share those wishes and hopes as well.

Hillel Fradkin is director of the Center on Islam, Democracy, and the Future of the Muslim World at the Hudson Institute.


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