By Bernard Lewis
Oxford University Press, 180 pp, 2002
In this sleek and informative book, noted
Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis examines the interaction between the
Islamic world and the West. It's a fascinating and illuminating book.
At one time, the Muslim world was the
richest, most powerful, and culturally advanced civilization on the
planet. The Muslim empire encouraged education and learning, treated its
minorities reasonably well, traded with its neighbors, and conquered every
army it faced.
Because of its obvious superiority, the
Muslim world felt that no other culture or nation - Christian Europe,
India, China - offered anything of value. Muslims paid little attention to
what was going on inside those countries, beyond what immediately affected
So when Europe advanced through the
Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment, the Muslims missed it.
Suddenly, their armies were losing. Suddenly, they were losing previously
won territories to backward nations like Russia. Even Napoleon himself
successfully invaded Egypt.
But it went beyond the military. Europe and
other regions were catching up to Islamic knowledge and surpassing it.
Many Muslims belatedly realized they had better keep a closer eye on the
Western world, and maybe even learn from it. But not enough Muslims
agreed, and though Muslim embassies were established in western capitols,
and many Muslim ambassadors wrote alarming books about the rapid
advancement of the West, the Islamic world fell further behind, in
military and economic terms. It is still trying to catch up.
In the meantime, the Western world was
having its own effect on the Muslim world. Some influences were eagerly
adopted, others resisted, others adopted grudgingly. So when you hear
Muslims today bemoaning the corrosive Western influence of their culture,
they have a point. It's been going on for centuries, though, and Muslim
nations haven't always handled it well.
Lewis examines every aspect of Western
influence - art, music, time, technology, and more. It's a surprisingly
exhaustive account for such a slim book. Short or not, the book is a vital
tool for gaining an understanding of the Muslim world today.