Bernard Lewis is an eminent scholar of the ancient and contemporary Middle East and a faculty member at Princeton University, with a long list of well-reviewed books and articles to his credit on Islam, the Arabs, and Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. "The Political Language of Islam" is based on his Exxon Foundation Lectures, delivered at the University of Chicago in late 1986. Lewis writes simply and understandably about complex and sometimes esoteric subjects, such as the use of metaphor and allusion in Islamic political discourse, Islamic concepts of politics, Islamic rules of war and peace, and the obligations to one another of Muslim rulers and ruled.
In this new book, Lewis achieves some striking insights but also some that are merely quaint or of doubtful significance. Among the quaint and doubtful: In the late 20th Century, does it much matter that the Arabic word meaning to govern comes from a verb meaning to train a horse ? Among the striking: Lewis' careful description of the limits on Islamic rulers, a useful counter to the widespread Western impression that the Arab political tradition is one of unchecked and benighted despotism.
Lewis writes informatively about Islamic "holy war" or jihad, which has fascinated and repelled so many in the West. In Lewis' view, there is no term in classical Islam for holy war, although the most frequent classical usage of the term jihad was to describe a military obligation. The term literally means "effort, striving," usually followed by the words "in the path of God." Jihad is one of the basic commandments of the faith, "imposed on all Muslims by God through revelation." Therefore, Lewis writes, Muslims must seek to convert or at least to conquer non-believers until all have submitted to the power of the Islamic state. While temporary armistices or truces are permissible, he says, the only just end is the total defeat of non-believers.
The inexorable undoing of Islamic expansion that began in the 9th Century has revealed the implausibility of this view of international relations. Eventually Muslim rulers could no longer avoid accepting polycentrism, the existence of many legitimate centers of law, religion and authority in the world. But acceptance was not granted easily and has never gone unchallenged. It is here, in Lewis' discussion of war and peace, that I found a strong link to the present.
Perhaps the intractability of Middle Eastern conflicts owes something to the ambiguity in Islamic thought about the sinfulness of recognizing competing versions of the truth. Again, truces are permitted, when expediency demands, but not peace. Even though few of today's Arab leaders are Muslim rulers in a classical and religious sense, and certainly the leaders of the PLO are not, it may be that the Islamic conception of war and peace affects contemporary Arab policy-making.
Edward Said, a Palestinian scholar and faculty member at Columbia University, has accused Lewis and all other "Orientalists" (as he calls them, using the older scholarly name for the field of study), of "inventing" Islam and the Arabs in ways that seek "to debunk, to whittle down, and to discredit the Arabs and Islam."
Said's objections must be noted if only because they are persuasive to many Arabs, particularly the young, as I have found during numerous conversations and conferences. By listening to Said, one learns of the agony of spirit that afflicts many in the Arab world and the disgust with which much of the European, American and Israeli involvement in the region is viewed. At the same time, there is little in "The Political Language of Islam" that debunks or whittles down Islam or the Arabs. The book has limitations and dead-ends, but the effect, for example, of Lewis' discussion of political obligations between ruler and ruled is the opposite of what Said charges. The Islamic political tradition emerges as far more complex, diverse, humane and, therefore, worthy of respect than one would have imagined before reading the book.
Far more topical than "The Political Language of Islam" is "Prisoners of God" by British journalist David Smith, who spent the years 1983 to 1986 in Lebanon and Israel as a foreign correspondent for Independent Television News. Prior to this, he worked for ITN in Africa and for Reuters in Spain and Italy. With two other journalists, he has published a rather simplistic and shallow biography, "Mugabe" (Sphere, 1981), of the Zimbabwe leader, Robert Mugabe.
Smith knows, as Walter Lippmann observed, that the first responsibility of journalism is to make a record of what is happening. At this level, there are many moving anecdotes in Smith's book. He is at his best when he allows the participants in the Palestinian-Israeli tragedy to speak through him.