According to Bernard Lewis, one of the kindest compliments of his work was paid by the translator of one of his books that was published by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood: “I don’t know who this man is, but one thing is clear: He is either a candid friend or an honest enemy who refuses to deal in falsehood.” Whatever the views of the translator, he was a shrewd judge of the book’s author. Bernard Lewis (b. 1916) is one of the most distinguished scholars of the Middle East of the past century. In a field where so much verbiage is driven by ideology, Lewis’s work has always stood out for its uncompromising commitment to truth and disinterested historical inquiry.
Now in his 94th year, and with twenty-four books behind him, Lewis has co-written, with Buntzie Ellis Churchill (former president of the Philadelphia World Affairs Council) an introduction on the religion and culture of Islam. Islam: The Religion and the People is written for a general audience looking for an authoritative voice among all the claims and counterclaims about Islam. Take for example, the very name of the faith. Former President George Bush on several occasions stated that the word Islam means peace, for which he was roundly criticized by critics of the religion. But what is the truth of the matter? As Lewis and Churchill explain, “Like so many other things being said about Islam at the present time, this statement contains an element of truth, but no more than that…It [Islam] is rarely used in the context of peace and war, but rather in the sense of tranquility, safety, and surrender…It is in this sense, of total surrender to the will of God, that the terms Islam and Muslim have always been understood in the Islamic lands and communities.”
The other Arabic term for which the public arena has no shortage of definitions, is jihad, which, according to the speaker, means either moral struggle with oneself or armed struggle against the infidel. Which view is correct as understood by Islamic scripture and tradition? As Lewis and Churchill discerningly explain, “In the early chapters of the Koran, dating from the time when the Prophet was still the leader of a minority struggling against the dominant oligarchy in Mecca, the word is often used in the moral sense. In the later chapters of the Koran, dating from the time when the Prophet was a head of state and commander of armies in Medina, it usually has a more practical, even specifically military meaning.”
While Islam: The Religion and the People is aimed principally at readers needing a reliable primer on Islam, even experienced students of the religion will find their knowledge deepened by the authors’ carefully selected insights. Lewis never condescends to his readers, and even includes an introduction to the Arabic language and a helpful glossary of Islamic terms and topics. A true scholar and teacher, Lewis also aims at provoking his readers to think for themselves. To this end, he and Churchill include a number of traditional Islamic jokes through out the book as means of suggesting some of the traditional mentalities and tendencies in Islamic societies:
The Caliph al-Mansur, addressing, the rebellious population of Damascus said to them: “You should praise God that he has given you me as your ruler. Since I started to rule, God has removed the plague which had been afflicting you.”
A Bedouin who was present replied: “Allah indeed is merciful. He would not inflict both you and the plague upon us at the same time.”
The graceful writing and easy erudition that characterizes all of Lewis’s work make Islam: The Religion and the People a pleasure to read. It will likely become for some years the standard reference for global leaders in need of an authoritative understanding of Islam.