131 Islam: Past & Present

A widespread scholarly consensus exists concerning the Middle East:  to historically understand it one must read the works of Bernard Lewis, Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton University.  Having written over two dozen scholarly studies, he is well qualified to explain, in his most recent publication, What Went Wrong?  Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (New York:  Oxford University Press, c. 2002).  For three centuries, he says, Muslims have asked this question, and it underlies much of the anger and envy now evident in the terrorism that now haunts the West.  Indeed, “In the course of the twentieth century it became abundantly clear in the Middle East and indeed all over the lands of Islam that things had indeed gone badly wrong.  Compared with its millennial rival, Christendom, the world of Islam had become poor, weak, and ignorant” (p. 151).

This reversed the conditions of the world Muslims once ruled.  Following Mohammed’s death in 632 A.D., his followers rapidly conquered much of the formerly Christian world–Syria, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, Spain, Sicily.  By 732 they were in central France, and in 846 “a naval expedition even sacked Ostia and Rome” (p. 4).  In 1453 Muslims conquered Constantinople, finally burying the last remnants of the once powerful Byzantine Empire, and added the Balkans to their hegemony.  By 1529, as Luther was orchestrating his Reformation in Wittenberg, Muslim armies threatened Vienna, only to be repelled by Charles V.  Indeed, “Islam represented the greatest military power on earth,” Lewis says, and sustained it with a sophisticated (albeit exploitative) economic system (p. 6).

Then, abruptly, things changed.  Europeans, after a millennia defending themselves against Islam, took the offensive and rapidly overwhelmed their oppressors.  Incubated by the Renaissance and Enlightenment, new technologies provided Europeans the means with which to outmaneuver and overwhelm their foes.  Portuguese and Spanish explorers bequeathed colonies to their monarchs, encircling the Muslims and disrupting their trade monopolies, funneling gold and silver and agricultural products into Europe.  Whereas a Muslim army had merely been repulsed at Vienna in 1529, the second siege of Vienna, in 1683, resulted in a disastrous defeat, followed by a rout.  In the words of an Ottoman chronicler:  “This was a calamitous defeat, so great that there has never been its like since the first appearance of the Ottoman state” (p. 16).  Further east, Russia’s tsars, recovering lands lost during the Mongol invasions and occupation, began pushing south and east, challenging Muslim dominance.  By 1696, Peter the Great had occupied Azov, providing Russia a port on the Black Sea.

For the next three centuries, Muslims struggled to cope with their new, largely inferior status vis a vis Europe, trying to understand “what went wrong.”  One thing they learned, Lewis says, was learned on the battlefield.  Once almost omnipotent in battle, Muslims found themselves shocked by Europe’s military superiority.  Technically, whether considering naval vessels or soldiers’ arms, the West had advanced in military equipment whereas Muslims still tended to rely upon their swords and personal valor.  By 1798, when Napoleon and a small corps of French soldiers invaded and occupied Egypt, the disparity was clear, and during the 20th century most Arab lands were reduced to the humiliating status of European colonies.

Muslim inferiority was similarly evident in trade and commerce.  During the Renaissance and Enlightenment, Europeans began to study other languages and understand other cultures, whereas Muslims (elitists who disdained lesser cultures) rarely bothered to learn about their Christian foes.  To travel outside Muslim realms, to study under infidels, to acknowledge the achievements of non-Muslim peoples, was discouraged.  Though certain Western technologies were coveted and appropriated, the widespread resistance to everything associated with the Christian world prevented Muslims from assimilating many of the “modern” developments that transformed the world.  Illustrating the outcome of this process, Lewis says that today:   “the total exports of the Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, a country of five million inhabitants.  Nor is much coming into the region by way of capital investment.  On the contrary, wealthy Middle Easterners prefer to invest their capital abroad, in the developed world” (p. 47).

Turning to “social and cultural barriers,” Lewis focuses on three oppressed groups within Islam:  unbelievers, slaves, and women.  Though unbelievers enjoyed a degree of “tolerance,” economic restrictions and social pressures severely reduced their standing.  While Europeans largely outlawed slavery in the 19th century, the institution still persists in Muslim circles.  And virtually every Westerner visiting Muslim lands immediately notices the subordinate status of women under Islam.  Resurgent Islam, directed by radicals like the Ayatollah Khomeini, insist that “the emancipation of women–specifically, allowing them to reveal their faces, their arms, and their legs, and to mingle socially in the school or the workplace with men–is an incitement to immorality and promiscuity, and a deadly blow to the very heart of Islamic society, the Muslim family and home” (p. 70).

However embedded in Muslim traditions, such social and cultural factors contributed to the isolation and progressive impoverishment of their nations.  So they fell victim to European superiority.  Yet while Europeans–and now Americans–flexed their muscles in Arab countries, an abiding resentment boiled within Arab hearts.  So too, as Israel attained statehood–and developed a flourishing society in an area long reduced to a desert under Arab rule–a virulent anti-Semitism boiled to the surface.  Prophetically, writing this book in 1999, Lewis noted:   “If the peoples of the middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression, culminating sooner or later in yet another alien domination; perhaps from a new Europe reverting to old ways, perhaps from a resurgent Russia, perhaps from some new, expanding superpower in the East” (pp. 159-160).


For anyone interested in a more detailed history, Bernard Lewis’s The Middle East:  A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years (New York:  Simon & Schuster, c. 1995) is probably the best available.  Accurate, analytical, up-to-date, readable, it deserves the accolades such as “masterpiece” routinely given it.

After sketching the pre-Christian societies in the Middle East, explaining the various peoples living therein, Lewis charts Christianity’s the effective expansion and establishment–from Ethiopia to Persia, from Macedon to Arabia–during the first six centuries of the Christian Era.  Then came Mohammed!  His teachings inspired devotees to conquer much of the world in the seventh century.  More importantly, Lewis says:  “It is the Arabization and Islamization of the peoples of the conquered provinces, rather than the actual military conquest itself, that is the true wonder of the Arab empire” (p. 58).  Amidst the success of Arab armies, however, the empire developed internal tensions.  Mohammed’s immediate successors, the “caliphs,” quarreled among themselves.  Indeed, during the “golden age” of Islam three of the four caliphs were assassinated.  Mohammed’s blood relatives struggled against those who claimed to better represent the prophet.  So factions developed– Shi’ite battling and Sunni–that still divide the Muslim world.

Despite internal turmoil, however, the Arab Empire prevailed, dominating much of the globe for 1,000 years.  Providing accurate information, without getting buried in the details, Lewis gives a cogent overview of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate, then charts the “steppe people’s” invasions from the north and east, including the conquests of Jenghiz Khan’s Mongol warriors.  First absorbing the blows of the invaders, then slowly converting them to Islam, Muslims preserved the essential character of Islam, though the center of power constantly as the dominance of one group (i.e. Egypt or Persia) dictated its trajectory.

Following a chronological overview, Lewis discusses various aspects of Muslim culture, explaining such things as the politics, economics, the elites, religion and law.  To Muslims, he explains, there is no clear distinction between politics and religion.  In accord with Mohammed’s teaching and example, “the choice between God and Caesar, that snare in which not Christ but so many Christians were to be entangled, did not arise.  In Muslim teaching and experience, there was no Caesar.  God was the head of the state, and Muhammad his Prophet taught and ruled on his behalf” (p. 138).  Since Muhammad himself was a trader and warrior, and his Arab followers were nomadic herdsmen and warriors, they tended to have little interest in agriculture.  Consequently, as the great Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun noted in the 14th century, under Islam “‘ruin and devastation prevail’ in North Africa, where in the past there was ‘a flourishing civilization, as the remains of buildings and statues, and the ruins of towns and villages attest'” (p. 166).  Warriors from the Arabian desert generally made deserts wherever they settled!

Lewis clearly explains Islam’s core elements, such as its “five pillars.”  Given the current world scene, his discussion of “jihad” (holy war) clarifies the perennially militant stance Muslims assume, for they embrace a sacred obligation to conquer the world and bring all peoples into submission to Islamic law (and thence, encourage conversion to the Islamic faith).  Consequently, “the Christian crusade, often compared with the Muslim jihad, was itself a delayed and limited response to the jihad and in part also an imitation.  But unlike the jihad it was concerned primarily with the defense or re-conquest of threatened or lost Christian territory” (p. 233).  Muslims, Lewis shows, were preoccupied with internal controversies and paid little attention to the Christian crusades.  And they certainly did not condemn them as do modern Westerners who wield the Crusades as a bludgeon with which batter Christianity.


Far more critical of Islam, Bat Ye’or, an Egyptian-born scholar living in France, recounts what Christians suffered under Muslim rule in The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam:  From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Cranbury, NJ:  Associated University Presses, c. 1996).  In an enlightening foreword to the book, Jacques Ellul notes that there exists in the West a “current of favorable predispositions to Islam,” notably evident in the many euphemistic discussions of jihad.  By setting forth the historical facts, Bat Ye’or dares to contradict the prevailing assumptions regarding Islam.  “Historians,” Bat Ye’or says, “professionally or economically connected to the Arab-Muslim world, published historical interpretations relating to the dhimmis, which were either tendentious or combined with facts with apologetics and fantasy.  After World War II, the predominance of a left-wing intelligentsia and the emergence of Arab regimes which were “socialist’ or allied to Moscow consolidated an Arabophile revolutionary internationalism” that remains strong is much of the contemporary world (pp. 212-213).

Jihad, in fact, helps constitute Islam, Ellul says, for it is a sacred duty for the faithful.  Indeed “it is Islam’s normal path to expansion.”  Unlike the “spiritual” combat imagined by some pro-Islamic writers, jihad  advocates “a real military war of conquest” followed by an iron-handed “dhimmitude,” the reduction of conquered peoples to Islamic law (p. 19).  Muslims divide the world into two–and only two–realms:  the “domain of Islam” and “the domain of war” (p. 19).  At times, strategy dictates tactical concessions and “peaceful” interludes.  But ultimately, Muslims are committed to conquer and control as much of the globe as possible.  Ellul stresses this “because there is so much talk nowadays of the tolerance and fundamental pacifism of Islam that it is necessary to recall its nature, which is fundamentally warlike!” (p. 20).  Writing presciently, in 1991, Ellul declared:  “Hostage-taking, terrorism, the destruction of Lebanese Christianity, the weakening of the Eastern Churches (not to mention the wish to destroy Israel) . . . all this recalls precisely the resurgence of the traditional policy of Islam” (p. 21).

Turning from Ellul’s remarks to Bat Ye’or’s treatise, we enter into a carefully crafted description of what happened to non-Muslim peoples under the yoke of Islam in the Mediterranean basin, Turkey, Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Iran, a subject heretofore distinguished by a paucity of reliable studies.  She meticulously defines jihad, noting that it may be waged through both overt war and more covert means:  “proselytism, propaganda, and corruption” (p. 40).  Whatever means necessary for Muslims to conquer and control lands and non-Muslim peoples find justification as jihad.  Thus motivated, Muslims established an enormous empire by the time of Charlemagne (ca. 800 A.D.), though in truth Muslim warriors were often brutal and booty-hungry pillagers, driven more by greed than holy zeal.

So too, when Muslims ruled a region, reducing all non-Muslims to dhimmitude, they exploited and oppressed (especially through onerous, discriminatory taxation) their subjects.  Forcibly occupying highly-civilized realms such as Egypt, Muslim rulers slowly and surely reduced them to wastelands, economically and culturally depressed shadows of ancient glory.  Everywhere the Muslims went, there resulted “the agricultural decline, the abandonment of villages and fields, and the gradual desertification of provinces–densely populated and fertile during the pre-Islamic period” (p. 102).   All the land under Muslim rule was “administered by Islamic law for the benefit of Muslims and their descendents” (p. 70).  More systematically and thoroughly than Europeans appropriating American Indian lands, the Muslims impoverished conquered peoples.  Even the much-vaunted “Islamic civilization” was derived, sucked out of dying corpses, not created.  “Islamic literature, science, art, philosophy, and jurisprudence,” Bat Ye’or says, “were born and developed not in Arabia, within an exclusively Arab and Muslim population, but in the midst of conquered peoples, feeding off their vigor and on the dying, bloodless body of dhimmitude” (p. 128).

Theoretically, Jews and Christians had religious freedom, but in fact “at no period in history was it respected” (p. 88).  Theoretically, conversions to Islam were to be voluntary.  In fact, massacres, torture, slavery and intimidation punctuated the process.  In Spain, two centuries after occupation, “in 891 Seville and its surrounding areas were drenched in blood by the massacre of thousands of Spaniards–Christian and muwallads.  At Granada in 1066, the whole Jewish community, numbering about three thousand, was annihilated” (p. 89).   To understand the much-maligned Christian Crusades, one must see them as defensive, just wars designed to relieve the suffering of oppressed and enslaved believers.  Centuries later, the 1915 “the genocide of the Armenians was a combination of massacres, deportations, and enslavement.  In the central regions of Armenia, the male population over the age of twelve was wiped out en masse:  shot, drowned, thrown over precipices, or subjected to other forms of torture and execution” (p. 196).

In short, Bat Ye’or says, “irrefutable historical and archaeological sources confirm” that the “process of Islamization” in conquered lands, “was perhaps the greatest plundering enterprise in history” (p. 101).  Reading this book certainly sobers one!  She supports her presentation with extensive footnotes and 175 pages of illustrative documents and finds little admirable in Islamic rule.  The weight of the evidence, the factual refutation of Arabophile histories, persuades one that the terrorists operating in the world today are hardly an aberration of Islam!


For a brief, handy overview of the subject, James L. Garlow’s A Christian’s Response to Islam (Tulsa:  RiverOak Publishing, c. 2002) sets forth a pastor’s response to 9/11, including a clear critique of the gushy universalism that “referred to every deceased person as ‘being in Heaven'” (p. 83).  Such sentimentality was further evident when a “United Church of Christ fellowship announced it would substitute readings from the Koran for Bible readings for eight consecutive Sundays.  The pastor of one of the nation’s largest Methodist churches declared in a magazine article that God is the same one worshipped in ‘mosques, synagogues, and churches'” (p. 72).  Against such Garlow protests, for his concern is not so much with fully understanding Islam as with rightly responding as committed Christians to the contemporary scene.  The book began as a series of ever-expanding e-mailings to friends following the terrorists’ attacks, and, without pretending to be the definitive study of Islam or to provide a scholarly appraisal of its history, “it has one agenda:  to increase love and boldness for Christ with the result that we more effectively share Him with all (including Muslims), rather than simply ‘blending in with our multireligious culture” (p. 6).

Garlow roots his presentation in the ancient biblical account of Ishmael and Isaac, then explains how Mohammed and the Muslims, following the Koran’s message, have impacted the world.  In response, Christians must avoid either “Muslim-bashing” or “the knee-jerk reaction of platforming Muslims in Christian churches, thus implying that ‘We all worship the same God’ or buying into the politically correct line that ‘Islam is a religion of peace'” (p. 85).  There is, for example, a distinctive difference between Jehovah, revealed in the Old Testament, and Allah, highlighted in the Koran.  Jesus, to the Muslim, is merely one of 25 prophets, with Mohammed the last the most important.  To Christians, of course, He is the Eternal Son of God.  Consequently, Christians should take the opportunity to proclaim ever more vigorously that Jesus is the name above all names, the sole Savior of all mankind!  Without compromising their faith, Christians must also extend the hand of friendship to Muslims, building good relationships with them, learning the truth about their faith and their culture.  Having established a position of trust, dealing with them in very personal ways, Christians can bear witness to the faith that is within them, especially emphasizing the centrality of Christ.

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