Seeing Things: Breaking With Etiquette

Since September 11, an unfortunate etiquette has grown up around the subject of Islam. Our political leaders fall all over themselves to make it clear that America is at war with Islamic terrorists, not their religion. In public debates, most American intellectuals bemoan our lack of—what else?—openness and inclusiveness towards other cultures and decry American foreign policy. The baser sort even believe we deserve what we got. Meanwhile, Muslim apologies for the attack have been mostly perfunctory, when they have been offered at all. Muslim and non-Muslim opinion seems to converge on only one point: that the United States needs to examine its role in provoking Islamic rage.

In some ways, the American self-criticism is admirable, After all these years, we still practice the kind of pluralism that George Washington characterized as giving “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” But that necessary tolerance cannot settle the question of whether Islam presents difficulties that should not be papered-over by political expediency or pluralistic etiquette. Islam has had a rocky history in recent centuries in its own traditional territories, as well as in its relations with non-Muslims. And that history warrants careful appraisal for what it may tell us about our enemies and even our friends in the Islamic world.

There are two parts to this appraisal. One is to understand the internal evolution of Islam from its early beginnings in seventh-century Arabia. There are not many good, readable guides to that evolution, but Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History (Modern Library) is not a bad place to start. Armstrong, an ex-Catholic nun, implausibly blames some Muslim shortcomings on the Christian West. Early Muslims, who lived in a male-dominated Middle Eastern culture, did not need the example of the Byzantine Empire (as she claims) to develop repressive attitudes toward women. And it is doubtful that Islam was quite as free of anti-Semitism until modern times as Armstrong wants her Western readers to believe.

But these bows to political correctness aside, Armstrong offers a clear exposition of Islamic belief and practice. And she underscores something that people in the West often misunderstand: Religion and society are united in Islamic thought to an extent that we may find difficult to believe. For Muslims, history is a kind of revelation: “A Muslim would meditate on the current events of his time and upon past history as a Christian would contemplate an icon…. An account of the external history of the Muslim people cannot, therefore, be of secondary interest, since one of the chief characteristics of Islam has been its sacralization of history.”

For this second, external dimension, however, we get a better picture from Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (Oxford). Lewis is probably the preeminent Western historian of Islam, which he has written about in more than a dozen books. Here, he brings his immense learning to bear on a question that bedevils Western historians as well as those pious Muslims who place such a high religious importance on the historical fortunes of Islam.

One of Lewis’s most valuable traits is that he does not have an easy answer to his own question, and he demonstrates that thoughtful Muslims do not either. One approach by Muslims is to ask: “Who did this to us?” The Arab “street” today often blames the United States for the obvious backwardness of Muslim countries and their repressive governments. Sometimes, the European colonizing powers are criticized as precursors to the current American hegemony. But for Lewis and many other scholars, these two modern phases are only the most recent in a long history of turmoil and subjugation.

From its beginning to the 13th century, Islam was the greatest world civilization. It is often claimed that the Mongol invasion destroyed that cultural eminence. But how did the Mongols—basically barbarous nomadic horsemen—conquer such a powerful empire? Clearly, there were already weaknesses in Islam at its very height. Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453. But then started a decline that became irreversible by the late 17th century.

Something internal to the Islamic system seems to have allowed the political, military, and cultural backwardness to occur: “By 1920, it seemed that the triumph of Europe over Islam was complete.” The Anglo-French colonizations that ended more than a half-century ago, Lewis says, have to be thought of as “a consequence, not a cause of the inner weakness of Middle-Eastern states and societies.” So a second large school of analysis seeks the answer for Muslim problems in its own internal failures (“What have we done wrong?”), including infidelity to the faith—one of the war cries of contemporary fundamentalists.

One answer to why Islam fell behind, ‘Lewis suggests, was its arrogance toward Europe and other cultures it viewed as inferior. The West may be woefully ignorant of other cultures, as our homegrown critics claim, but we have had professors of Arabic, Turkish, and Persian, and printed texts available in those languages, for centuries. Islam had a far greater ignorance toward Western history, literature, politics, and religion. (The traditional Islamic view of the Christian Trinity, Lewis says, is that it consists of Father, Son, and Virgin Mary.)

Differences between Islam and Christianity also stem from their earliest histories. Christianity had faced persecution and therefore had developed its own strong institutions and leaders outside the state. Jesus’ own words about rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s had already introduced an unusual point into the New Testament. In the West, through many ups and downs and conflicting crosscurrents, we have a basic sense that politics and religion are two distinct, if not wholly disconnected, things. The later appearance of separation of church and state, though not of religion and politics, is a modern codification of an ancient intuition.

By contrast, Lewis says, no such independent structure as the Church exists in Judaism or Islam: “Christians sometimes speak of ‘The Synagogue’ and ‘The Mosque’ to denote the religious institutions of the Jewish and Muslim faiths. But these are inappropriate terms, the projection of Christian notions onto non-Christian religions. For the Jew or the Muslim, the synagogue or the mosque is a building, a place of worship and study, no more. Until modern times and the spread of Christian norms and influence, neither ever had, for its own worshipers, the institutional sense of the Christian term. The same may be said of the temples of other religions.”

Few Westerners appreciate the fact that a religious hierarchy—priests, bishops, popes—performs a useful social function as a power outside the state. Islam has no clergy as such: “The so-called clergyman is perceived as a teacher, a guide, a scholar in theology and law, but not as a priest.” Muslims have no formal idea of ordination or sacraments, and consequently the distinction between clergy and laity does not exist. The shadowy religious hierarchies that have emerged in places such as Iran or Afghanistan contradict classic Islam and, Lewis says, emerged “under unavowed and no doubt unperceived Christian influences.”

As even this brief sketch indicates, it is difficult to see how Islam can reform itself. Its leaders would have to permit their societies to undergo a profound transformation that would modernize them and keep them Muslim simultaneously. It is often said in the West that Islam needs its own Reformation and Enlightenment. But this is a Western way of viewing things that does not seem to fit within Islamic self-understanding. The West can try to help, but its own presuppositions are too different from Islamic categories to be of much use. The future of Islam lies in the hands of Muslims.

Robert Royal


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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