Thursday, May 26, 2016

Bernard Lewis Turns 100

Bernard Lewis will turn 100 on May 31. I knew it was in May so I googled and found the Weekly Standard article below. 

Here are several quotes from his books: 

The Assassins, page 26

The decisive split between extremists and moderates occurred after the death in 765 of Ja’far al-Sadiq, the sixth Imam after Ali.  Ja’far’s   eldest son was Isma’il. For reasons which hare not quite clear, and probably because of his association with extremist elements, Isma’il was disinherited, and a large apart of the Shi’a recognized his younger brother Musa al-Kazim as seventh Imam. The line of Musa continued until the twelfth Imam, who disappeared in about 873, and is still the “awaited Imam” or Mahdi of the great majority ofthe Shi’a at the present day. The followers of the twelve Imam’s, known as the Ithna ‘ashari or Twelver Shi’a, represent the more moderate branch of the sect. Their differences from the main body of Sunni  Islam are limited to a certain number of points of doctrine, which in recent years have become even less significant. Since the sixteenth century, Twelver Shi’ism has become the official religion of Iran.

Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry, page 114:

The literature and folklore of the Middle East reveal a sadly normal range of traditional and stereotypical accusations against people seen as alien, and more specifically, inferior. The most frequent are those commonly directed against slaves and hence against the races from which slaves are drawn – that they are stupid; that they are vicious, untruthful and dishonest; that they are dirty in their personal habits and emit an evil smell. The black’s physical appearance is described as ugly, distorted or monstrous. The point is made in an anecdote about an Arab poet known as al-Sayyid al-Himyari – the South Arabian Himyarite Sayyid ( 723-89)

The Sayyid was my neighbor, and he was very dark. He used to carouse with the young men of the camp, one of whom was dark as he was, with a thick nose and lips, and a Negroid [muzannaj] appearance. The Sayyid had the foulest smelling armpits of anybody. 

Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian, page 342: 

I am mistrustful and view with apprehension a genuine free election - assuming that such a thing could happen - because the religious parties have an immediate advantage. First, they have a network of communication through the preacher and mosque which no other political group can hope to equal. Second, they use, familiar, indigenous, language. The language of Western democracy is for the most part newly translated and the concepts are not readily intelligible to the general population. A dash towards Western-style elections, far from representing a solution to the region's difficulties, constitutes a dangerous aggravation of the problem and I fear that radical Islamic movements are ready to exploit so misguided a move. In genuine fair and free elections, the Muslim parties are very likely to win. A much better course would be a gradual development of democracy, not through general elections, but rather through civil society and the strengthening of local institutions. For that, there is a real tradition in the region.

And of course, the quote that started this blog five years ago, which you will still hardly ever see  mentioned in the media 

Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian, page 333:

Particular importance should be attached to the policies, and perhaps still more the attitudes, of the present rulers of Iran, who seem to be preparing for a final apocalyptic battle between the forces of God [themselves] and of the Devil [ the Great Satan--the United States].  They see this as the final struggle of the End of Time and are therefore undeterred by any level of slaughter and destruction even among their own people . "Allah will know his own" is the phase commonly used, meaning that among the multiple victims God will recognize the Muslims and give them a quick pass to heaven.

                In this context, the deterrent that worked so well during the Cold War, namely M.A.D. (Mutual Assured Destruction) , would have no meaning.  At the End of Time, there will be general destruction  anyway.  What will matter is the final destination of the dead-- hell for the infidels, and the delights of heaven for the believers. For people with this mindset, M.A.D. is not a constraint; it is an inducement...

The Weekly Standard

Twenty years ago, Bernard Lewis and I were walking along the Thames. We’d just seen a dreary English take on naughty French theater, which provoked remembrances of Paris in the 1930s when Lewis was a student of Louis Massignon, the great Catholic orientalist born in 1883, 33 years before my friend and teacher. A thoroughly secular English Jew, Lewis wryly remembered Massignon, a serious antisemite for whom Lewis could nevertheless express considerable scholarly admiration

Cataloging Massignon's plusses and minuses provoked another question, omnipresent among Lewis's students who couldn't avoid comparing their intellectual inadequacy with their professor's astounding erudition: "When you look back to when you were young, when you'd started studying Islam, what drove your curiosity?" Lewis's opening surprised me: "My profound sense of inferiority."

One of the greatest scholars of the 20th century, Lewis was in awe of the generation of orientalists who'd come before him, the accomplished men who drank deeply of 19th-century European progress, pride, and discovery before World War I blew it all to hell. Lewis became a greater scholar than his famous Scottish mentor, Hamilton A. R. Gibb, who asked Lewis to write The Arabs in History, a compendious little book, published in 1950, that first revealed Lewis's gift for rendering wide swaths of Islamic history into elegant English prose. The work remains a classic. I asked my old teacher to assess Gibb, who is often exempted from the dubious orientalist list because of his Arabist pedigree, his anti-Zionist sympathies, and his enmity for certain Israel-friendly scholars who were Lewis's friends. Lewis remained affectionate and respectful.

Anyone who has tried to tackle the great classical Islamic languages—Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish—and the European languages necessary for the proper study of Islamic scholarship knows that students don't do this because of patriotism, the will to conquer, or even lust. They do it for knowledge, the deeply human yearning for truth, to explore unknown realms, and to see the "other" as he sees himself. Scholars of foreign lands who hate—and there certainly have been academics who've approached their subjects with enmity—rarely can sustain sufficient interest to do trailblazing work. If any great fault lies with the orientalists, it is that they were sometimes too sympathetic. The same can be said for their less-accomplished successors.

Lewis is ever conscious of the debt he owes others—the scholars before him and the contemporaries who helped him. I've always thought Lewis's generosity—and there is an army of men and women, in a wide range of professions, to whom he has shown life-changing consideration—in part springs from his sense of place, that he is a link in a long line. He also is generous because he is just so sublimely inquisitive. Lewis wrote one novel, an expression of his love for a Danish woman. He wrote the published work in her native language—as one would expect from a romantic polyglot. Since he was unsure of the result, he wrote under a pseudonym. Lewis should have written many novels in many languages: He has the fiction writer's eye for details and the fascination for people in all their glorious messiness. He is also considerably shy, which people who don't know him often mistake for aloofness. But this shyness fuels his curiosity and kindness.

It is right that Lewis has lasted 100 years: He has taken in millennia. None of his former students would disagree: We will not see another like him. He grew up in the terrible storm of the 20th century—a child of a dying British Empire and a Europe coming apart. He knew firsthand a Middle East still living off the traditions of the Ottoman and Qajar empires, when the elites still spoke French and the secularizers had the upper hand on the religious. He also knew firsthand the other Middle East, the one falling apart under native tyrannies and a surging militant faith.

Lewis voyaged often and widely, from Morocco to Pakistan, and farther into Asia wherever Muslims were to be found. He is as likely to relay stories of Afghan peasants, aging, impoverished odalisques, and fundamentalist imams as he is of Arab princes, Turkish and Iranian generals, and Pakistani prime ministers. With all, Lewis looked for the unexpected, the little twist that might bring illumination. Not long after 9/11, Lewis and I spoke, wanting to compare notes about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. His opening line didn't surprise: He thought bin Laden to be "a man of integrity and sincerity." That wouldn't have played well on American television. But for those of us who've had the incredible good fortune to be in Lewis's company, it's why we love him.

Happy birthday, Bernard.