Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong: Reflections on Islam & The West (2)
Following on from yesterday’s post, Lewis offers a very helpful articulation of how the Western and Islamic worlds diverged so drastically over the last 500 years. From a situation of great and proud cultural preeminence, the Middle East seems to have stagnated and even regressed. How did this happen?
Hermetically Sealed Isolation
One factor was the complacent assumption that there was nothing to learn from those who were different from themselves (always a dangerous step). One illustration of this was the culture of learning foreign languages.
A translation requires a translator, and a translator has to know both languages… such knowledge, strange as it may seem, was extremely rare in the Middle East until comparatively late. There were very few Muslims who knew any Christian language; it was considered unnecessary, even to some extent demeaning. (p147)
So as Europe emerged from the medieval world into the flowering of learning we call the Renaissance, with its rediscovery of the texts of the ancients and the cross-fertilisaztion as well as tensions that arose from Europe’s different cultural identities, the Ottoman empire remained blissfully unaware. Very few European publications were ever translated, and the new-fangled printing press was largely absent, and in places even banned. Interestingly enough, this was not mutual. Various Arabic documents were translated into European languages by Renaissance scholars – including an important medical text about blood circulation that highly influenced one Dr Michael Servetus (yes, the very same person, familiar to those aware of some of the darker moments of Geneva’s Reformation history).
But the other way around? There’s hardly anything. And where there are translations into Middle Eastern languages, the reasoning is both obvious and revealing. For instance, medical treatises on the treatment of syphillis (called in the Ottoman world the ‘Frankish pox’) were fine for translation. (p39) After all ‘a European’ disease clearly requires European expertise! And then the only other major imports, acceptable for translation and assimilation, were European military strategy and the accompanying weaponry technology.
As time went on, then, the culture gap inevitably grew. There’s surely a lesson for all those who self-consciously avoid learning foreign languages – and even if people are not linguistically-minded or -gifted, to avoid engaging with other cultures is dangerously narrow.
While on the subject of translation, another revealing moment comes in the underlying assumptions of the Ottoman Sultan, Murad III, as he wrote to his enemy’s enemy, Queen Elizabeth I (a letter which bizarrely enough was the subject of very recent diplomatic niceties):
In the correspondence between the Sultan of Turkey and Queen Elizabeth of England at the end of the sixteenth century, the letters are mostly concerned with commerce, but they do occasionally refer to the common Spanish enemy, a shared concern of London and Istanbul at the time. It would be an exaggeration to call this an alliance, and it was certainly not on equal terms. In the documents, the sultan, addressing the queen, uses language indicating that he expects her to be “… loyal and firm-footed in the path of vassalage and obedience… and to manifest loyalty and subservience” to the Ottoman throne. The contemporary translation into Italian, which served as the medium of communication between Turks and Englishmen, simply renders this as sincera amicizia. This kind of diplomatic mistranslation was for centuries the norm. (p22)
Tolerance & Freedom
I’d often heard the Islamic claim to be a tolerant religion. And I confess that it had always been hard to see beyond the negative image painted by the Taliban, now, of course, a byword for profound intolerance. Yet the truth is that there is clearly some historical validity to this claim, as proven by the way people voted with their feet.
The confrontation between Ottoman Islam and European Christendom has often been likened to the Cold War of the second half of the twentieth century. There are indeed some similarities between the two confrontations, but also significant differences. Perhaps most notable among these is the movement of refugees. In the twentieth century this movement was, overwhelmingly, from East to West; in the fifteenth, sixteenth and even in the seventeenth centuries, it was primarily from West to East. Surely, the Ottomans did not offer equal rights to the subject – a meaningless anachronism in the context of that time and place. They did however offer a degree of tolerance without precedent and parallel in Christian Europe. Each religious community – the Ottoman term was millet – was allowed the free practice of its religion. More remarkably, they had their own communal organizations, subject to the authority of their own religious chiefs, controlling their own education and social life, and even enforcing their own laws, to the extent that they did not conflict with the basic laws of the Empire. While ultimate power – political and military – remained in Muslim hands, non-Muslims controlled much of the economy, and were even able to play a part of some importance in the political process. (p33)
I found this was very striking indeed.
Lewis does note, however, that many of the more aggressive propagators of Islam today would have little time for such attitudes. And furthermore, this tolerance and equality was by no means uniform (nor, to be fair, was it anywhere else). This is clear from the prevailing status of 3 groups of people, who, down the centuries, have suffered wherever they have lived: foreigners (or in an Islamic context, infidels), slaves and women. Lewis goes to some length to analyse their respective situations (and though he doesn’t draw the parallel, it reminded me of that old Jewish, Pharisaic prayer “Lord I thank you that I was not born a Gentile, a slave and woman.”) and makes this observation:
According to Islamic law and tradition, there were three groups of people who did not benefit from the general Muslim principle of legal and religious quality – unbelievers, slaves and women. The woman was obviously in one significant respect the worst-placed of the three. The slave could be freed by his master; the unbeliever could at any time become a believer by his own choice, and thus end his inferiority. Only the woman was doomed forever to remain what she was – or so it seemed at the time. (p67)
And therein lies a strange tension that is current in the Middle East. Lewis nicely articulates this as the difference between Westernisation and Modernisation. Thus:
[Western dress has] become powerful emotive symbols of cultural choice. They are especially so in Turkey and Iran, the two countries that most clearly formulate the alternative choices and alternative futures that confront the Muslim – and not only the Muslim – Middle East. For men to wear Western clothes, it would seem is modernisation; for women to wear them is Westernization, to be welcomed or punished accordingly. (p76)
But this is where the biggest difference with gospel equality truly lies. And for me, this was the most revealing thing of the book…
But no grace…
It is often said that Islam is an egalitarian religion. There is much truth in this assertion. If we compare Islam at the time of its advent with the societies that surrounded it – the stratified feudalism of Iran and the caste system of India to the east, the privileged aristocracies of both Byzantine and Latin Europe to the West – the Islamic dispensation does indeed bring a message of equality. Not only does Islam not endorse such systems of social differentiation; it explicitly and resolutely rejects them. The actions and utterances of the Prophet, the honoured precedents of the early rulers of Islam as preserved by tradition, are overwhelmingly against privilege by descent, by birth, by status, by wealth, or even by race, and insist that rank and honour are determined only by piety and merit in Islam. (my highlights)
The realities of conquest and empire, however, inevitably created new elites and in the natural course of events these sought to perpetuate for their descendants the advantages that they had gained. From early until modern times there has been a recurring tendency in Islamic states for aristocracies to emerge. These are differently defined and arise from varying circumstances at different times and in different places. What is significant is that the emergence of elites or casts or aristocracies happens in spite of Islam and not as part of it. Again and again through Islamic history the establishment of privilege was seen and denounced by both severely traditional conservatives and dubiously orthodox radicals as a non-Islamic or even an anti-Islamic innovation….
… none of these movements ever questioned the three sacrosanct distinctions establishing the subordinate status of the slave, the woman and the unbeliever. (p82)
So therein lies the problem. There will always be a clear set of distinctions in the community – and I don’t just mean slaves, women and infidels. I mean an even more profound and alarming distinction. That formed by personal merit. For in the Christian gospel (as Galatians, for one, is at pains to make clear) the true reason why there is no status distinction whatsoever between Slave & Free, Jew & Gentile, Male & Female is the double whammy of our creation in the divine image, and the wonder of divine grace. (Galatians 3:28-29) In other words, a religion of grace alone can bring true equality, in a way that a religion of merit and works never can.
Not on our watch…
This is certainly a fascinating book and I learned much. I don’t think I’m much the wiser in answering the specific question of the title, though. Perhaps the book is too short (at only 160 pp) and the issue is so deep and complex. Or perhaps the question is not quite the right one. As a description of how (as opposed to why) the shifts in balances of power happened, this is a helpful analysis. What’s certainly clear is that history is messy, that the Christians in history certainly didn’t get it all sorted, and that there were many aspects of Islamic culture and history from which there is much to learn. This thought did cross my mind though: ‘Christian’ societies fared little better, and were often much worse, than other cultures as soon as they lost their moorings in the gospel of grace.
Pray that we never allow that to happen under our watch.