Books Reviewed (all by Bernard Lewis):

The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, (1995)

What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, (2002)

The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, (2003)


The world of radical Islam seemed remote and uninteresting to the West (and in particular, to the United States) until it abruptly intruded upon our collective consciousness on September 11, 2001. On that day, airliners—taken over by radical Islamists—crashed into both the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. Even though we had been exposed to Middle East matters during the Gulf War, these attacks—on US soil—were particularly close to home. Bewildered Americans asked, “How could this happen? What did we do to them?”

In light of 9/11, Americans were motivated to learn more about this mysterious religion called Islam and its radical sectors. We learned terms like jihad (which means “holy war”) Al Qaeda, Sharia law, Wahhabism, and Quran. We learned of madrasas: schools formed in the early 11th century for training Muslims in scholarship, teaching, and research. The classic madrasa was the predecessor (and in some ways the model) for the great medieval European universities (L3, p. 128.) Currently, these schools are viewed negatively because in many of them—and particularly in Saudi Arabia—fundamentalist Islamic doctrines hostile to the West are being taught.

When 9/11 occurred, however, some people had been paying attention. Scholars like Bernard Lewis had written extensively on the history of the Middle East. Although much of Lewis’ material has now become dated, Lewis was well aware of the resentment felt by Muslims toward the West and its imperial conquests. Much of this resentment arose during the decline of Islam that has taken place over the last few centuries as Western nations were simultaneously making great advances in economic growth, education, technology, and power. While many Muslims wondered why their culture was declining, some blamed the West as well as their own people for allowing the decline. The artificial partitioning of the Middle East after World War I also contributed to the animosity of Muslims toward Western nations. Among other factors, the formation of the Israeli State with Western backing in 1948 served to fuel this animosity and was exacerbated by perceived Western imperialism in the 1940s and 1950s, and the 1979 fundamentalist revolution in Iran.

In an effort to improve our understanding of the Middle East—especially in light of the intense confusion concerning Islam in the current political arena—here I have reviewed three books by Bernard Lewis: The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, (1995), denoted by L1; What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, (2002), denoted by L2; and The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, (2003), denoted by L3. L1 is a history, appropriate for basic understanding of Islam; L2 considers the decline of Islamic power; while L3—which discusses the September 11 attacks—treats the rise of terrorism. I have also used four short writings: a lecture by Lewis, “Freedom and Justice in Islam,” denoted by L4; a lecture by Andrew C. McCarthy, “Islam—Facts or Dreams,” denoted by M; a newspaper column by William Hamblin and Daniel Peterson, “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?”, denoted by HP; and a citation from the book by Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl, The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy, denoted by HL. Full bibliographic information for each work is listed in the reference section below.

The Arabic language is the language of Islam. In transliteration of Arabic to Latin script, diacritical marks are usually included. For the sake of simplicity and ease in printing, I will not use them here. All year figures are A. D. (C. E.)

I. Historical Islam

As detailed in the third chapter of L1, the Prophet Muhammed (the founder of Islam) was—according to tradition—born around 571 in Mecca. The call to Prophet-hood came during his fortieth year. He gained followers and eventually made his migration to Medina (a religious migration that is now known as the Hijra). A pilgrimage to Mecca—the hajj—is required of all faithful Muslims (L1, p. 173).

The Islamic movement split into the main Sunni branch and its Shiite offshoot during civil wars in the first century of Islam (L1, pp. 56-67). Despite this division, Islam spread rapidly: often by conquest but also by colonization and assimilation. However, this rapid growth created a widespread Islamic empire that was difficult to govern. Civil wars continued and various dynasties such as the Umayyads—and later the Abbasids—came to power. The caliphate of Harun al Rashid (786-809) was the peak of the Abbasid dynasty. After several centuries of the rise and fall of various ruling factions, the Ottoman Empire arose in Anatolia around the year 1300. This empire endured until 1922, when it was replaced by the Turkish Republic.

Around the year 1500, the Ottoman Empire—covering large parts of Europe—was at its peak of power. Although the Crusades resulted in a brief setback to Muslim power, they did no lasting damage to the Ottoman Empire. Muslim culture and identity even survived the Mongol invasion of Europe in the 13th century. During this time, the Ottoman Empire was the world’s dominant military and economic power, providing a transition from the chaos in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire to the European Renaissance (L2, p. 6) (the only rivaling powers were China and India, though they were both too far away to pose any real threat). Various dynasties—and particularly the Abbasid—made valuable contributions to European culture through their preservation of ancient texts and through their developments in literature, science, mathematics, and medicine. In fact, many words in mathematics (such as algebra and algorithm) and names in astronomy (such as Altair, Aldebaran, Rigel, Betelgeuse, and Algol), were of Arabic origin. Avicenna, famous for his pioneering work in medicine, was an Arab.

After the peak of the Ottoman Empire, border incursions that developed over a period of centuries resulted in gradual losses of territory. Coupled with the loss of territory and its associated power was a decline in learning and technology within the empire. After the 1699 Treaty of Carlowitz, (the empire’s first major defeat) Ottoman rulers realized they were losing wars and asked themselves what they could do to remedy their own decline (L1, p. 306; L2, p. 3). Alternatively, they also asked, “Who did this to us?” (L2, pp. 159-160, L3, p. 52). Many hypothetical reasons have been proposed for this decline, such as the Mongol invasion, the rise of nationalism among the Turks, Western imperialism, the Jews, etc. Nevertheless, Lewis makes it clear it was probably the weakness of the Middle East itself that led to this decline, rather than the influence of others. So how had Islam been so successful for so long? Probably because it hadn’t faced much competition and was unprepared for it.

During the centuries of Ottoman decline, there was also a gradual—if reluctant—accommodation to various aspects of Western culture. This came about not so much because Middle Easterners were visiting the West, but because Westerners were visiting Muslim countries (L2, p. 35). Contact occurred mostly through diplomacy, commerce, and war. As a result, many changes took place in Middle East culture over a period of centuries but especially so in the 19th century. These included changes in business practices, dress, government practices, etc. Changes in dress occurred in civilian life as well as in military life, although women’s dress changed more slowly than men’s. Governmental changes included written constitutions and legislative assemblies, which were only accepted reluctantly (L2, pp. 58-60). Printing and newspapers also came to the Middle East during this time, though well after they had come to Western nations. Changes in medicine occurred slowly, since Avicenna was regarded as the authority. The occurrence of syphilis—which originated in Azerbaijan before making its way to Europe—within the Ottoman Empire around 1500 was a shock, because it was unknown before. Its introduction required the adaptation of foreign medicine to treat it (L2, p. 39). Originally, infidels (nonbelievers in Islam) were not allowed in Islamic countries, but they were eventually permitted residence. In the 19th century, conversion to another religion was not countenanced since it was (and remains in many places) a capital offence (L1 p. 295; L2, p. 51), which is a fact of relevance to Latter-day Saints as noted below. Non-Muslim teachers were not permitted to teach at first, but this restriction was nuanced due to colonial policies in each country (L2, pp. 21, 44).

Lewis makes a cogent comment about the efforts within the Ottoman Empire to modernize (L2, p. 39). He says (referring to the acquisition of a collection of European writings in 1655 by the sultan), “Knowledge was something to be acquired, if necessary bought, rather than grown or developed.” Such an attitude, though it may have been modified later, indicates a reason for the stagnation of the Islamic culture. But also of great importance was the manipulation of the Ottoman Empire by opportunist European nations and Ottoman concessions to these nations which gave them superior status and commercial and economic dominance.

Remedial efforts were doomed to failure. In 1798, Napoleon invaded and occupied Egypt with impunity. The French were later forced to leave, not by the Egyptians but by the British. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Russian tsar could remark that the Ottoman Empire was a “sick man” (L1, p. 331), and thereafter continued to be regarded as the “sick man of Europe.” It became increasingly impoverished intellectually, militarily, and economically until its demise.

In the 18th century, a Saudi Arabian sect named Wahhabi arose (L1, pp. 302, 310, 333; 343; L3, pp. 120-131). Adherents to Wahhabism were appalled by the decline of Islamic society and believed that only through a return to original pure Islamic principles could their religion be saved. The Saud family of the Arabian peninsula became converted to Wahhabism, which has consequently become very powerful not only because Saudi Arabia includes the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, but also because of Saudia Arabia’s wealth acquired from oil. The main perpetrators in the September 11 attacks were Wahhabi adherents.

II. Islam in the 20th Century.

After World War I, the British and French carved the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East into mandates (L1, pp. 343-344) (The Arabian peninsula and the House of Saud were left untouched). What the British and French did not realize, however—or what they ignored—was the strong nationalist sentiment present in Muslim countries and a belief in the supremacy of Islam. By contrast, the Western view of the Middle East was that the states were supreme and that religions existed within the separate countries (L3, p. xx). Thus this partition—and the consequent division of Islamic culture into separate, arbitrarily constructed pieces—was an insult to Islam. Although many other factors were at play, the partition contributed to frustration that resulted in such violent responses as the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center (see Osama bin Laden’s remarks (L3, p. xv-xvi)).

In L3 (from Chapter 3 on), Lewis provides considerable detail about these historical matters, beginning with British and French colonialism after the end of World War I (p. 59) When Hitler came to power, the Mufti of Jerusalem aligned with the Nazis as an enemy to the British. After the Munich Agreement and the failure of a potential alliance with Britain, Hitler accepted the offer. When Germany lost World War II and Israel was created in 1948, however, the Arabs turned to the Soviet Union as a patron. In turn, the USSR collapsed and America remained the sole superpower.

Of course, the Arabs’ Nazi German allies were anti-American, and so were their new allies, the Soviets. This contributed to post-war anti-American sentiment among some Arabs, although most supported the Allies despite their disdain for Churchill and the British, who were regarded as imperialists. It is also true that we had good relations with the Islamic world before then.

In 1953, the US and Britain engineered the overthrow of the Iranian Mossadegh government, which had nationalized the oil industry. The Shah—who had been outside the country—returned to power. This suggested to radical Islamists that he was a puppet heavily controlled by Britian and the United States. He was later overthrown during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. During this time, the US and Britain provided no support for the Shah. Anti-Americanism in Nazi Germany and the USSR was not the most important cause of the rise of hatred of the United States. We did it ourselves. Much of it centered on oil.

In 1948 to 1950, an Egyptian named Sayyid Qutb visited the United States. He was shocked by the level of American popular support for Israel, but also was absolutely appalled by what he saw as American sinfulness, degeneracy, and sexual promiscuity. He noted that churches in America operated like businesses in competing for clients and publicity. Furthermore “… church recreation halls, with the blessing of the priesthood, hold dances where people of both sexes meet, mix, and touch. The ministers even go so far as to dim the lights in order to facilitate the fury of the dance.” After visiting the States, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood.

Qutb’s written reflections on his experiences clearly affected Muslim attitudes toward the United States. Now, there is a standard list of perceived American sins, including our ill treatment of Native Americans, blacks and immigrants as well as our crimes against Japan in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and our crimes against Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, etc. This list also includes our imperialist aggressions in Lebanon, Khartoum, Libya, Iraq, Palestine, Iran, and Ethiopia. Our greatest sin to Qutb was our debauchery. Over time—and for reasons listed above—Iran began to view the United States as the Great Satan.

Initially, official American support for Israel was lukewarm. But as Soviet power grew, America tried to wield a heavy hand in the Middle East to limit that power. This backfired. Nasser in Egypt became pro-Soviet. As our support of Israel grew, Arab animosity toward the US also grew. Nevertheless, our intentions to keep the area pro-West worked for a time. Despite tensions in the area, there have been no conflicts on the same level as what happened in Vietnam, Cuba and Nicaragua. US-Shah relations in 1979 were quite good—the US furnished weapons, although there was conflict over human rights violations—until fundamentalist elements intervened to overthrow the Shah.

To this day, the US has tried to maintain a presence in the Middle East, largely to maintain the security of Israel and the Mediterranean but also to protect the Middle Eastern oil supply that fuels Europe. Unfortunately, US efforts to maintain a presence have sometimes backfired. For example, our embracing the Shah led in part to his being overthrown. Our support for Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran War also came back to bite us. Changing our minds in 1991, we called on the Iraqi people to revolt against Saddam and then stood by as he slaughtered his own people. In 1982, we stood by while Syrian president Hafiz al-Assad ruthlessly suppressed a revolt in the Syrian city of Hama (L3, pp. 107-109), and we continued to overlook his human rights problems afterwards. Now, we are dealing with the consequences. Although the dynamics of Middle Eastern politics are terribly confusing, you’d think we could’ve managed our involvement a bit better.

For instance, our role in trying to help Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in 1979-1980 was a terrible mistake (L3, pp. 91-92). The USSR brazenly invaded Afghanistan and set up a puppet government. Trying to help, the US organized an Islamic counterattack. Due to the heavy costs of the war, the Soviets finally withdrew. Notwithstanding their withdrawal, the US had—as Robert Gates put it—already made a “deal with the devil.” The war attracted Saudi jihadists—including Osama bin Laden—who brought with them Wahhabi Islam, which later became the foundation of the Taliban movement (HL, pp. 235-236). Not content with thus unwittingly shooting itself in one foot, the US shot itself in the other foot by introducing into Afghan schools books filled with violent imagery, militant Islamic teachings, and talk of jihad, which have since served as the Afghan school system’s core curriculum in Taliban-held areas.

This record of US missteps in the Middle East has simultaneously led to the region’s decline. To show how drastic this is, I cite a few statistics from a 1987 table provided by Lewis (L3, p. 116). The table gives information on scholarly works in several countries. In the US, the number of research scientists at that time was 466,211; in Egypt, the number was 3,782 and in Saudi Arabia it was 1,915. In the US, the number of articles with 40 or more citations was 10,481; in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the number was 1 each. These statistics are now available for the entire world to see and serve as an embarrassment to the Middle East.

To this day, the Middle East’s anger toward the US grows. The anger is actually strongly toward foreign enemies and internal rulers who are seen as frirendly to the West. The terrorists of the September 11 attacks came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, countries who Al Qaeda adherents considered Western allies. A majority of today’s terrorists come from ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

III. Our knowledge of Islam

The September 11 WTC attacks helped many US citizens realize we didn’t know much about the religion of Islam. Although we have learned a lot more over the past 15 years, we still do not know very much. For example, the holy book of Muslims is the Quran, which contains revelations given to the Prophet Muhammed by the angel Gabriel. At the time of 9/11, many in the United States had heard of the book, but very few had looked into it. Fewer still had read it, and of those a still smaller number could quote it. Thus, they were ill prepared to try to explain the attacks by reference to the Quran.

In 2001, our knowledge of Muslim customs, practices, and terminology was limited. We may have run across the names of various types of officials, such as (in rough order of importance) caliph, sultan, pasha, bey, emir, and effendi. Unfortunately, such contact may have been limited to finding one of these words in a crossword puzzle or hearing them in movies (“The Sheik”, for example). Most people know that Muslims have dietary laws similar to Jews (they do not eat pork). Whereas the Jewish term kosher (meaning clean), is likely familiar to most of us, the corresponding Muslim term halal is probably not so familiar. The opposite term—meaning prohibited or taboo—is haram. Blood is not to be eaten while alcohol and drugs are discouraged. Tobacco is used frequently among Muslims, although there was a time it was prohibited. Women’s articles of clothing—such as hijab, abaya, burka, niqab, and chador—were largely unfamiliar in the past but have become more familiar to us due to the feminist movement of the last fifty years. Several other lesser-known cultural differences are discussed in section VII below.

In Islam there are well-defined statuses of persons, as noted below in Section IV. Westerners may look down on Muslims because of this classification, but Lewis notes (perhaps wryly) that Westerners have had the same classes themselves. I defer discussion of this to a later section.

Because of its relevance to world politics, I raise the question: does the Quran encourage violence? I mention it specifically in view of the violence of the attacks in 1993 and 2001 on the World Trade Center and on subsequent targets in the West. Let us consider our sources in chronological order. Bernard Lewis’ books are copyrighted 1995, 2002, and 2003. He is concerned with the decline of military and economic power in the Middle East and its impact on Muslims and the world at large. Of course, he is aware of the violence committed in the name of Islam in these attacks, but he does not discuss them except briefly in L3. L1 was published before the 2001 attacks while L2 was in page proof when they occurred. Lewis discusses various interpretations of the Quran, but addresses the violence question only briefly (L3, pp. 142 ff). Of course, there is much violence in the Old Testament, but this discussion is concerned only with that attributed to the Quran.

Andrew McCarthy, in M, states unequivocally that the Quran does promote violence. As evidence, he cites the Blind Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the architect of the 1993 Trade Center bombing attempt. McCarthy was the federal prosecutor assigned to that case, and as such, he studied Islamic scripture. He says, “ …whenever he [Rahman] quoted the Koran (sic) or other sources of Islamic scripture, he quoted them accurately.” McCarthy goes on to say that when Rahman said that “Allah enjoined all Muslims to wage jihad until Islamic law was established throughout the world, the scriptures backed him up…The fact that there are multiple ways of construing Islam hardly makes the Blind Sheikh’s literal construction wrong.” Rahman quotes the Quran: “Fight those who believe not in Allah” (this appears to be the same verse quoted by Hamblin and Peterson in the following paragraph). Finally, McCarthy notes that when character witnesses who testified for the defense were asked about Islamic doctrine, these moderate, peaceful Muslims explained that they were not competent to say, thus leaving the interpretation of scripture to people like Rahman.

In discussing the same question, Hamblin and Peterson (in HP) speak of the “verses of the sword,” and especially 9:5, which says, “Kill the polytheists wherever you find them.” Most scholars think this verse applies to a war between polytheist Arabs of Mecca and Muslim Arabs of Medina that took place around the year 631. On the other hand, extreme jihadists think the verse applies universally and in all circumstances. While there are central authorities in the various Christian religions who declare official interpretations for their scriptures, there is no such person or body in Islam, hence there is no restriction on extremists to interpret scripture how they like. Hamblin and Peterson conclude by asking, first, whether or not Islam is a peaceful religion, noting that the answer is yes—there are many peace-loving Muslims. Second, they ask whether Islam is a violent religion. The answer to this question is also yes. Nevertheless, it is clear there is confusion among Muslims concerning the meaning of their scriptures, as with the character witnesses mentioned above and as in a comment by a Muslim woman in response to the Belgian terror attacks. This woman said her scriptures do not condone violence while other Muslims say the Quran is full of violence. Furthermore, Muslim fundamentalists put their own interpretations on their scriptures. Lewis notes (L3, p. 138) that some even consider some verses in the Quran to be “revoked.”

Lewis throws additional light on this matter (L3, pp. 29-33) by elaborating on the word jihad. He first notes that this word can either mean “moral striving” or “armed struggle.” The latter, more militaristic connotation, is the meaning usually ascribed to the word today. Much of Chapter 2 is devoted to discussing the term, but I want to highlight the fact that there are prescribed rules of warfare for the conduct of jihad. Two of them are: 1) Be advised to treat prisoners well and 2) God has forbidden the killing of women and children. There are also rules for declaring jihad, which were followed scrupulously by Osama Bin Laden before the September 11 attacks.

It will be immediately obvious to the reader that these rules have been egregiously violated in the terror attacks by radical Muslims. They have gone beyond jihad to hatred and sadism. Lewis comes back to this point at the end of the chapter (L3, p. 39), where he says, “At no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and murder. At no point—as far as I am aware—do they even consider the random slaughter of uninvolved bystanders.” This is explored further in Lewis’ discussion of suicide bombers (L3, pp. 151-154). He cites the unequivocal Islamic teaching that suicide is forbidden, and that those who commit suicide face eternal damnation. In fact, according to Islamic teaching, suicide bombing is blasphemy in that it purports to be done in the name of God. Martyrs, however, are promised wonderful things in the afterlife. Recent opinions say that suicide bombing—such as that done to defend Palestine— qualifies one for martyrdom.

In M, McCarthy says the Blind Sheik’s summons to jihad may have been rooted in a “coherent”—or supposedly valid—interpretation of Muslim doctrine. This comment sounds like a disagreement with Lewis; it isn’t clear whether Lewis believes suicide bombing comes from such a view of the doctrine, though I doubt it. McCarthy goes on to say that this summons is proof that Islam needs to be reformed. Lewis would agree (L3, 167-169) (see the discussion of the Amman message in the last section of this paper).

Are there Muslim immigrants who are not a threat to the US? Yes. Are there Muslim immigrants who are a threat? Yes. Some people claim that we should allow Muslims into the US. Others, however, claim (despite the dangers of isolationism) that we should not allow Muslim immigrants into the US. A bar on Muslim immigration may solve the problem, however, because of the threat posed by home-grown terrorists within our borders.

Despite our opinions on immigration, we cannot ignore our moral obligations. There are many refugees—a good portion of them Muslim—who clamor for asylum due to turmoil in their native lands. The LDS Church has pled for help and increased consideration for refugees. Those in favor of admitting Muslims into our nation point out that given the extensive vetting process required, the likelihood of admitting a terrorist is very small. As noted in the last paragraph, there are plenty of home-grown terrorists here anyway. The issue is certainly complex and it is imperative that we consider both sides.

As a final comment for this section, I mention an interesting device used by McCarthy. He says he finds it helpful to differentiate Islam from Muslims. Islam—alongside the Quran—is the religion that allows for and encourages killing unbelievers. Individual Muslims, however, and usually kind and caring people.

Lewis also comments on the difference between Islam and Muslim, saying that while Islam is not an enemy to the West, there is a subgroup of fundamentalists who see us as an enemy because they need one and we happen to make for an attractive target (L3, pp. 27-28).

IV. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity

Though it is home to considerably sized populations of Jews and Muslims, the US is typically referred to as a Christian country. Of course, there are similarities between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. All of these religions have a shared heritage and all use the Old Testament. Christians and Jews are “people of the Book,” and that fosters a kinship with Islam. All three of these religions accept the story of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice his son, though for Muslims the son is Ishmael, not Isaac (Ishmael is considered to be the ancestor of Islam). Judaism and Islam have similar dietary laws and honesty and clean living are practiced among all three. This makes sense when you consider that all three groups have the Ten Commandments. There are, however, some differences in their creeds (i.e., the five pillars of Islam: testimony, prayer, charity, fasting, and the Hajj; the Jewish Torah; the Roman Catholic catechism; and the LDS Articles of Faith)

A basic difference amongst Islam, Judaism, and Christianity is the concept of the Divine. Latter-day Saints, for example, worship a Godhead of three separate beings. Traditional Christians worship a God who is three-in-one. Judaism and Islam are monotheistic. The Old Testament speaks of a Messiah (a Redeemer in some places), and while Jews expect one to come eventually, Muslims see no need for one.

Having migrated extensively, Jews have mingled with various groups of people around the world and have lived without a home. In contrast, Muslims have had large areas of land they could call home. Muslims saw no need for mingling with other religions, although coupled with the decline of the Ottoman Empire came an influx of unbelieving foreigners. Thus, Jews are well known by peoples worldwide, while Muslims are often seen as strangers in non-Muslim countries.

Lewis points out (L1, pp. 205a ff), that in theory, all persons are equal in all three religions. He also gives scriptures supporting this statement (Galatians 3:28, 1 Corinthians 12:13, Colossians 3:11, Job 31:15, Quran 49:13, to which I add 2 Nephi 26:33). Despite inherent equality, there are nevertheless basic differences amongst human beings. Lewis notes that the Galatians passage merely asserts that differences confer no religious privilege. The three religions all agree on the value and autonomy of the individual, that piety and good works outrank wealth, power, and noble birth. But in practice (as noted above) the free adult male believer has higher status, while children, women, slaves, and non-Muslims are subordinate. In three of these groups, the status can be changed. Slaves can be freed; children grow up; non-Muslims can convert. Women, however, cannot change their gender.

There are also intermediate groups. A slave may become a freedman but may still owe some sort of allegiance to his former master. Children are adolescents before adulthood. Evidently, believers occur in a wide variety.

Slavery in Muslim lands is discussed extensively in L2, pp. 85-94. Here, I note solely that the practice was gradually done away with over a period of time during the nineteenth century. Because women’s concerns merit more attention, they are discussed in the following section.

V. The Status of Women in Islam.

The status of women in Islam is a complex issue. Lewis mentions Muslim astonishment concerning Western regard for women (L2, pp. 64-67). (He has a wry footnote about the opera Aida in which the protagonist is torn because of his love for two women, Amneris and Aida. In the West, we regard this as a tragedy. In Islam, there would be no problem because he could marry them both!). Lewis cites two 19th century sources available to Muslims that favor women’s rights, an newspaper article from 1867 and an book published in 1899 (L2, pp. 70-71) which continue to be read in Islamic countries.

Despite general struggles, Muslim women have made progress in economic matters. Historically, Muslim women have always had rights in commerce—these rights originate before the advent of Islam and are reflected in the prophet’s wife Khadija, who ran a business and employed Mohammed before marrying him.Muslim women may also hold property and obtain education. These particular rights resulted largely from the need for women in the workforce, especially during the Ottoman wars of 1911-1922. There were magazines for women with material written by women. Muslim women may hold prominent positions in society, even as attorneys and judges. Largely for financial reasons, Muslim polygamy has declined nearly everywhere except in the Arabian peninsula. Even still, the full emancipation of women nevertheless remains discouraged. Educating girls is also discouraged in some Islamic nations, such as in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia. In Saudi Arabia, even if women hold positions of importance, they are not allowed to drive. Furthermore, Westerners are usually appalled at Muslim women’s dress, but some Muslim women say they prefer to wear it because it is modest and provides protection.

Lewis makes an interesting remark on women’s status that warrants some attention (L2, p. 73). He says, “Westerners tend naturally to assume that the emancipation of women is part of liberalization, and that women will consequently be better off in liberal than autocratic regimes. Such an assumption would be false, and often the reverse is true.” In Iraq, for example, the legal emancipation of women made the most progress even though the government was repressive. Women’s emancipation in Egypt, on the other hand—which is considered to be a much more open and tolerant nation—has suffered. The emancipation of women is seen by fundamentalists as one of the most egregious results of Westernization.

Women in Persia made considerable progress in obtaining rights during much of the twentieth century. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, however, that changed dramatically (L2, 94-95).

VI. Secularization: Church and State

Secularism is defined by Lewis as the idea that “religion and political authority, church and state are different, and can or should be separated” (L2, p. 96). As seen in Matthew 22:21, this is a fundamentally Christian idea. The combination of church and state has been the underlying factor in religious wars throughout the ages. US founders had these disastrous conflicts in mind when they instituted the separation of church and state within the first amendment to the U. S. Constitution. In Islam, however, there is no such separation. Islam nations function as theocracies and the words of Muhammed—enshrined in the Quran—came directly from Allah. In the late Ottoman period, Muslims who encountered Western laws and jurisprudence were amazed and dismayed that Western peoples did not have a set of divine rules to guide them.These differences are addressed in L2, Chapter 5, and in L3, pp. 6-11.

In Islam, there is no priestly structure. Similarly to Judaism, scholars explain and interpret the Quran and other sources of Islamic practice and belief. Leaders—such as the ulema—guide Muslims in interpreting the Quran. Within Islam, there is only a single law known as the sharia, but different Muslims interpret it in many different ways. Thus, there are no schisms like those which exist within Christianity.

To Islamic radicals and militants, the primary enemy is the native (or internal) secularizer (L2, p. 107), meaning even Muslims themselves can be considered infidels (or takfir). According to radical Muslim belief, this enemy would change and weaken Islam by introducing schools and universities, secular laws, and courts. Those considered secularizers have included Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, King Faruq and Presidents Nasser and Sadat of Egypt, the Shah of Iran, and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Lewis quotes a statement by the group that murdered Sadat, which says: “Fighting the near enemy is more important than fighting the distant enemy. In jihad the blood of the Muslims must flow until victory is achieved,” and—speaking of unrighteous rulers—“The cause of the existence of imperialism in the lands of Islam lies in these self-same rulers.”

For most countries in the Middle East, Islam is the state religion. Donna Lee Bowen (BYU political science professor and expert on Islam and the Middle East) does note that the governing religion for a particular nation is typically a specific variety of Islam, such as with ISIS. The exceptions to this are Lebanon, Turkey, and Israel. Indeed, there exist religious leaders—Lewis uses the admittedly Christian word clergy—in Islamic states. An example are the ayatollahs of Iran, comprising in some sense the analogue of a pontiff, a college of cardinals, a bench of bishops, and an inquisition.

Lewis also includes an interesting section on civil society and toleration (L2, pp. 109-116). After noting that the primary meaning of “civil” in the Middle East is the opposite of “military,” he says that the more general view of civil society is the part of society that exists between the family and the state, such as the business corporation, the trade union, the professional association, or the political party. By definition, one’s church would also fall into this category. Such groups do not occur in Islam, though there are entities like the kin group, the faith group, the craft group, and trade unions, which do exist in Middle Eastern states.

Up to the 19th century, the concept of civil rights was largely foreign to Islam. Some Muslims, however, were influenced by the American, French and (later) Russian Revolutions. A test of civility—in one of its varied but related definitions—is that of tolerance. Islamic tolerance of other religions is poor in comparison with Western democracies but stronger in comparison with most Christian societies and their tolerance of different religions. Throughout history, Islam has been quite tolerant of most other religions. As Islam began to feel threatened by the modern world, however, its tolerance diminished. Now, non-Muslim minorities may experience much more danger than before. Islamic tolerance is discussed extensively in L2, pp. 33-34 and 113-15.

VII. Cultural Differences Between Islam and Western Society

Lewis devotes Chapters 6 and 7 in L2 to cultural differences between Islam and the West. For example, timekeeping within Islam has been historically imprecise. Clocks and watches were not used until the eighteenth century. The careful determination of time and distance so useful in astronomy did not affect everyday life. The term “hour” was not widely used, although eventually, the day was divided into 24 hour segments (probably after the Babylonians.) The main interest in time-keeping was to determine the five times for prayer during the day. There were calendar difficulties and eventually, the Gregorian calendar of the Western world was adopted.

Within Islamic culture, weights and measures were also variable. Even in 19th century Egypt, for example, boundaries of states were not fixed lines, but regarded as zones (one can see this on older maps of the Arabian peninsula). Music was—and is still—considered mostly alien.

We often think of Islamic art as nonrepresentational, consisting of elaborate designs based on the Arabic alphabet. Apparently, however, some portraits were completed occasionally. This was one of the first signs of modernization. A second example is the Nuruosmaniye mosque in Istanbul: an 18th century Ottoman imperial mosque with exterior decoration in the Italian Baroque style (L2, p. 137.) Iranian miniature art from the 19th century also shows European influences. Western influence is also made manfiest in architecture, coinage, postage stamps, and clothing. Over time, the translation of Western books became an accepted practice, as was acquiring knowledge about Western countries. Printing—discouraged at first because it would destroy the sacredness of the Quran—also became acceptable, allowing for the initial appearance of newspapers within Islamic communities.

VIII. Islam and Mormonism

Among Christians who have moved into predominantly Muslim nations within the last few decades are Latter-day Saints. Although a very small percentage of Christians live in Muslim nations and an even smaller percentage of Christians are Mormons, some Mormons are found living in predominantly Muslim nations.

Mormon missionary work among Muslims is deterred by the threat of execution of any convert to Christianity in some areas (though this conversion is largely a question of family permission). Likewise, missionaries are counseled not to baptize Muslims. Nevertheless, the scriptures tell us that the gospel is to be preached to all nations before the Second Coming of the Savior (Matt. 28:19, D. & C. 39:15 and 84:61.) How is this to be accomplished? For many years I’ve thought this would take a long time because of the difficulty of making the message of Christianity important to Muslims and also because of threats posed to Muslims who convert to Christianity. Despite these previous assumptions, I have realized that while the scriptures say the gospel is to be preached to all nations, they don’t say to who it will be preached in those nations. Christians living in Muslim nations are candidates for LDS conversion without the problems associated with preaching to Muslims. In addition, there are Muslims who have converted to Mormonism while living in less restrictive countries. Such conversions have been seen in India, where there is a similar threat to Hindus who convert, but where there are—nevertheless—two LDS missions. India has large numbers of Christian residents. A similar thing is happening in China. While there is not the threat of outright execution in China, religious groups are greatly discouraged. Situations as experienced by missionaries like my grandson—who served a Mandarin-speaking mission in Melbourne where there are large numbers of Chinese students—who convert Chinese people who later return to China as Mormons.

IX. Remarks and Conclusions

As exhibited by recent terrorist attacks in both Europe and the US, the threat of terrorism has not diminished since 9/11. These attacks are sobering reminders that despite our efforts to learn more about Islam, the fact remains that Islam can be considered a violent religion as well as a peaceful one. Our efforts to learn more about Islam only partially help us to understand why such horrible attacks occur, the savagery of which indicates much more than just doctrinal difference.

We now believe ISIS is building another center of operations in Libya. ISIS calls itself—quite simply—the Islamic State, possibly as an indication of its plans to extend control beyond the two initial nations of Iraq and Libya. Though in the past, nationhood has been largely obsolete in traditional Islam, the concept of “nation” is now attracting more importance. Nationhood confers authority and attracts serious, global attention. The national state of Iran, for instance, is much stronger than a collection of its people in tribes would be. The fact that the state functions as an Iranian nation commands respect and even facilitates fear. As a state, Iran was able to—along with other nations—approve a pact exchanging nuclear capability for the removal of sanctions. Whether or not Iran will adhere to this pact is another question, though there is no doubt that the Islamic State is a more impressive, fear-provoking entity than just a collection of radical Muslims with no overarching governing body.

President Obama may be correct in not naming the group the Islamic State because this would confer a legitimacy to the group that is otherwise not present. Some disagree with this perspective, saying that the attacks themselves are enough to confer legitimacy. Obama is probably wrong in not calling them Islamic terrorists due to a desire to remain politically correct. It seems perfectly clear that religious belief—arising through a particular interpretation of the Quran—lies at the root of these terrorists’ actions.

Islamic nations are not monolithic. ISIS does have enemies (such as Saudi Arabia) because ISIS poses a threat to various nations and their natural resources.

The hatred felt toward the West by groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS is incredibly deep-seated, arising from envy, distrust, ignorance, and a loss of confidence. That hatred has been taught in the madrasas of Pakistan’s border areas and will continue to be so. While there may be divisions between ISIS and Saudi Arabia, most Middle Eastern nations feel hatred toward the West. After all, al-Qaeda had its roots in the Wahhabism taught in the Arabian madrasas. With this being the case, we can expect terrorist attacks to continue indefinitely.

Another detail of note is that when one ISIS leader is killed, another takes his place. When there is a traditional hierarchy (such as a monarchy), chaos ensues at the death of a leader. The lack of hierarchy in Islam, however, simply means that all men are equal and that leaders can be easily replaced. When we eliminate al-Qaeda leaders like Bin Laden, new ones arise. Of course, we seek to kill these leaders in hopes that their successors will not be as good. Although certainly possible, we cannot count on this.

Despite what appears an eternally dismal situation for Western-Middle Eastern relations, there is still hope. In July 2005, King Abdullah of Jordan held a conference in Amman with 200 of the world’s leading Islamic scholars. The conference’s recommendations have been adopted by large numbers of leaders within the Islamic world. Besides treating important matters such as human rights, women’s rights, and freedom of religion, the conference exposed the illegitimate opinions of radical fundamentalists/terrorists from the perspective of true Islam. [8]

As discussed in this review, when fighting Islamic fundamentalists, it is necessary to explore the basis for their beliefs. Although military responses are necessary in the short term, it is not wise to depend on them. Ultimately, however, we may be powerless in preventing terrorist attacks. The divisions amongst American political parties over how to handle radical Islam may eventually pale when faced with the necessity of actually confronting the threat. All of these matters, however, are testaments to the truthfulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, true peace can only come through this gospel.


The author appreciates and thanks Mary Ellen Bramwell, Louis Midgley, Valerie Hudson, and Donna Lee Bowen for reading the manuscript and for offering both excellent suggestions and corrections.


[1] Bernard Lewis, The Middle East: A History of the Last 2,000 Years (Scribner, New York, 1995.) Denoted by L1.

[2] Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (Perennial, an Imprint of HarperCollins, New York, 2002). Denoted by L2.

[3] Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (Random House, New York, 2003). Denoted by L3.

[4] Bernard Lewis, “Freedom and Justice in Islam”, Hillsdale College lecture, www.hillsdale.edu, 16 July 2006. Denoted by L4.

[5] Andrew C. McCarthy, “Islam—Facts or Dreams?”, Hillsdale College lecture, www.hillsdale.edu, 24 February 2016. Denoted by M.

[6] William Hamblin and Daniel Peterson, “Is Islam a religion of peace?”, Deseret News, December 26, 2015. Denoted by HP.

[7] Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl, The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy (Columbia University Press, New York, 2015.) Denoted by HL.

[8] See, for example, the website http://ammanmessage.com/.

Full Citation for this Article: B. Kent Harrison (2016) "Books on Islam: A Review Essay of Three Tomes by Bernard Lewis," SquareTwo, Vol. 9 No. 3 (Fall 2016), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHarrisonBookReviewIslam.html, accessed <give access date>.

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 100 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.

COMMENTS: 0 Comments