Historian Bernard Lewis died yesterday at age 101.

The accolades are rolling in.

Jay Nordlinger tweeted:

Bernard Lewis was the dean of Middle East scholars — and one of the greatest scholars of our age. One of the most useful too, frankly. Like countless others, I learned a great deal from him. You might like to spend an hour in his company, via this video.

This 2006 profile at The Weekly Standard also provides good background, The Last Orientalist:

IT IS OFTEN SAID THAT the United States isn’t easy on its scholars and public intellectuals–that they are not accorded the prestige and respect that they are given in the Old World. This complaint, usually made by left-wingers struggling against the tide in the United States, isn’t totally without merit. A good literary scholar or classicist in the United States perhaps doesn’t quite have the same social cachet as would a similarly accomplished scholar at Oxford or the Sorbonne. But when scholars do make it in the United States–and there certainly seem to be vastly more European scholars hoping to make it in America than Americans trying to snag a sinecure in Europe–there is simply no comparison in the eminence, influence, and renown that they can achieve. Since arriving in the United States in 1974, the British historian of the Middle East Bernard Lewis has become one of America’s–and thus the world’s–most famous academics.

For those of us seriously interested in the Middle East–and since 9/11 that has become a rather large crowd–Lewis, who will celebrate his 90th birthday on May 31, has attained a stature in the field and with the general reading public unrivaled by any historian, living or dead, of the Middle East and Islam. His range of writings–from the pre-Islamic period, through Islam’s classical and medieval ages and its premodern “gunpowder” empires, to today’s Muslim nation-states–is simply unparalleled by any other scholar, even from the golden age of Islamic studies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the field’s terrifyingly erudite, multilingual European founding fathers–the much despised “orientalists”–bestrode the earth. Lewis is the last and greatest of the orientalists–an awkward, geographically imprecise name for those who gave birth to the disciplined study of Islamic civilization. To borrow from Shiite Muslim legal scholarship, Bernard Lewis is the marja-e taqlid, “the source of emulation,” the scholar to whom on the great questions one must make reference. He has joined that elite group of academics–the economists Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith come to mind–who have decisively shaped public discourse, if not always government policy, on their subjects.

My own reading of Lewis’ work was rather limited, so I can’t express a personal view on where he fit in in the sweep of history. But there are two articles of his that made a difference to me, and still are required reading.

First is his 1990 article in The Atlantic, The Roots of Muslim Rage:

Islam is one of the world’s great religions. Let me be explicit about what I, as a historian of Islam who is not a Muslim, mean by that. Islam has brought comfort and peace of mind to countless millions of men and women. It has given dignity and meaning to drab and impoverished lives. It has taught people of different races to live in brotherhood and people of different creeds to live side by side in reasonable tolerance. It inspired a great civilization in which others besides Muslims lived creative and useful lives and which, by its achievement, enriched the whole world. But Islam, like other religions, has also known periods when it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence. It is our misfortune that part, though by no means all or even most, of the Muslim world is now going through such a period, and that much, though again not all, of that hatred is directed against us….

In the classical Islamic view, to which many Muslims are beginning to return, the world and all mankind are divided into two: the House of Islam, where the Muslim law and faith prevail, and the rest, known as the House of Unbelief or the House of War, which it is the duty of Muslims ultimately to bring to Islam. But the greater part of the world is still outside Islam, and even inside the Islamic lands, according to the view of the Muslim radicals, the faith of Islam has been undermined and the law of Islam has been abrogated. The obligation of holy war therefore begins at home and continues abroad, against the same infidel enemy….

The movement nowadays called fundamentalism is not the only Islamic tradition. There are others, more tolerant, more open, that helped to inspire the great achievements of Islamic civilization in the past, and we may hope that these other traditions will in time prevail. But before this issue is decided there will be a hard struggle, in which we of the West can do little or nothing. Even the attempt might do harm, for these are issues that Muslims must decide among themselves. And in the meantime we must take great care on all sides to avoid the danger of a new era of religious wars, arising from the exacerbation of differences and the revival of ancient prejudices.

It’s no surprise that this historical and theocratic view of Islam made Lewis hated by western leftists and particularly Israel haters. Ben Norton, a member of the Max Blumenthal crowd, thus tweeted:

Orientalist Bernard Lewis shilled for US empire, helped sell murderous wars, advised neocons on how to better conquer the Middle East, and denied the Armenian Genocide.

Now, after contributing to wars that killed millions, the “eminent historian” is dead

More important to me than 1990 Atlantic article was Lewis’ 1976 article in Commentary, which John Podoretz correctly called a “landmark essay.”

I wrote about that article, The Return of Islam, in my January 2, 2016 post, “First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people”:


I’m surprised I had not heard the phrase in the title of this post before today.

Though I’m certainly familiar with the concept, it’s one we’ve explored here many times when discussing (i) that the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the inability of Muslims to accept any non-Muslim entity in the Middle East, but particularly not a Jewish national entity; (b) the plight of Christians in the Middle East who are on the receiving end of what would happen to the Jews in Israel if Israel ever lost a war; and (c) the Islamist-Leftist anti-Israel coalition, in which useful Western leftists are oblivous (at best, giving them the benefit of the doubt) to the threat they would be under if forced to live under the rule of their coalition partners as they demand of Israeli Jews.

I got to the phrase in a round-about way. First, I saw Martin Kramer’s Tweet linking to his Facebook post:

Exactly 40 years ago, Commentary published Bernard Lewis’s landmark article, “The Return of Islam.” Remember, in January 1976, the Shah was still firmly on his throne, the Muslim Brothers were nowhere to be seen, and there was no Hamas, Hezbollah, or Al Qaeda. So how did Lewis discern the “return”? He saw that regimes, including secular ones, were beginning to invoke Islam. This, he surmised, must be a reaction to a more profound trend. Perhaps the most prescient article ever written about the Middle East.

Then I read through (skimmed parts) of Lewis’ Commentary article, The Return of Islam (Jan. 1, 1976), which is quite long.

The central thesis of the article is that the West completely misunderstands the nature of the conflict, seeking to put it in the types of “left” and “right” disputes that dominate Western politics….

“…. one finds special correspondents of the New York Times and of other lesser newspapers describing the current conflicts in Lebanon in terms of right-wing and left-wing factions. As medieval Christian man could only conceive of religion in terms of a trinity, so his modern descendant can only conceive of politics in terms of a theology or, as we now say, ideology, of left-wing and right-wing forces and factions.

This recurring unwillingness to recognize the nature of Islam or even the fact of Islam as an independent, different, and autonomous religious phenomenon persists and recurs from medieval to modern times….Modern Western man, being unable for the most part to assign a dominant and central place to religion in his own affairs, found himself unable to conceive that any other peoples in any other place could have done so, and was therefore impelled to devise other explanations of what seemed to him only superficially religious phenomena….

To the modern Western mind, it is not conceivable that men would fight and die in such numbers over mere differences of religion; there have to be some other “genuine” reasons underneath the religious veil….This is reflected in the present inability, political, journalistic, and scholarly alike, to recognize the importance of the factor of religion in the current affairs of the Muslim world and in the consequent recourse to the language of left-wing and right-wing, progressive and conservative, and the rest of the Western terminology…. “

But the portion of the Commentary article that motivated my post was this (emphasis added):

In the period immediately preceding the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, an ominous phrase was sometimes heard, “First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people.” The Saturday people have proved unexpectedly recalcitrant, and recent events in Lebanon indicate that the priorities may have been reversed. Fundamentally, the same issue arises in both Palestine and Lebanon, though the circumstances that complicate the two situations are very different. The basic question is this: Is a resurgent Islam prepared to tolerate a non-Islamic enclave, whether Jewish in Israel or Christian in Lebanon, in the heart of the Islamic world? The current fascination among Muslims with the history of the Crusades, the vast literature on the subject, both academic and popular, and the repeated inferences drawn from the final extinction of the Crusading principalities throw some light on attitudes in this matter. Islam from its inception is a religion of power, and in the Muslim world view it is right and proper that power should be wielded by Muslims and Muslims alone. Others may receive the tolerance, even the benevolence, of the Muslim state, provided that they clearly recognize Muslim supremacy. That Muslims should rule over non-Muslims is right and normal.9 That non-Muslims should rule over Muslims is an offense against the laws of God and nature, and this is true whether in Kashmir, Palestine, Lebanon, or Cyprus. Here again, it must be recalled that Islam is not conceived as a religion in the limited Western sense but as a community, a loyalty, and a way of life—and that the Islamic community is still recovering from the traumatic era when Muslim governments and empires were overthrown and Muslim peoples forcibly subjected to alien, infidel rule. Both the Saturday people and the Sunday people are now suffering the consequences.

This analysis is as true today as it was in 1976, and in 1948 when, as historian Benny Morris has documented, the war against the creation of Israel was viewed as war of Jihad against the infidels occupying Muslim lands (emphasis added):

“What I discovered in the documentation relating to the war, at least from the Arab side, was that the war had a religious character, that the central element in the war was an imperative to launch jihad. There were other imperatives of course, political and others—but the most important from the enemy’s perspective was the element of the infidels who had the nerve to take control over sacred Muslim lands and the need to uproot them from there. The decisive majority in the Arab world saw the war first and foremost as a holy war, but until today historians have not examined the documentation that proves this. In my view, they have also ignored Arab rhetoric of the day, which universally included religious hatred against the Jews, because they thought the Arabs adopted this as normal speech that did not emanate from deep mental resources. They thought this was something superficial, that everyone talked like this. But I am positive the Arab spokesmen in 1948 did go beyond this and clearly and explicitly talked about jihad.”

Lewis’ work is a key to understanding the obsessive Iranian hatred of Israel, as well as that from other Islamists supported by Iran, like Hezbollah and Hamas. It’s not about a few miles of territory here or there.  But it’s not just a war against the Jews, it’s a war against Christians as well that is playing out in the Middle East in an ethnic cleansing of ancient Christian communities.

The western leftists who are equally obsessed against Israel supposedly on “occupation” or “human rights” grounds are part of the Jihad against the Jews and Christian whether they understand their role or not.

I ended my 2016 post as follows:

… I’m glad I found the phrase. It explains a lot.

About how the fates of Jews and Christians are intertwined, and not just in the Middle East.


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