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The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror
Book Review
Nida Gohar Sheikh


Book Name: The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror

Author: Bernard Lewis

Year: 2003

Publisher: Modern Library, the USA


Over the past two decades, the academic, left in this country held it as a tenet of quasi-theological faith that Western discussions of Middle Eastern problems were inherently biased or flawed. The 9/11 scenario destroyed whatever currency that notion once had. Moreover, in some quarters of the Arab world today, there is refreshing evidence of self-examination about what went wrong. The dearth of freedom, the lack of civil society, the widespread illiteracy and the dismal status of women in the Arab world is the answer. These social problems have economic consequences.

So how did the Arab world get to this point? In The Crisis of Islam, Bernard Lewis sets out to answer this question. The kernel of the argument is offered in the beginning the book: “During the past three centuries, the Islamic world has lost its dominance and its leadership, and has fallen behind both the modern West and the rapidly modernizing Orient. This widening gap poses increasingly acute problems, both practical and emotional, for which the rulers, thinkers, and rebels of Islam have not yet found effective answers.” The Muslim world, convinced of its inherent superiority, largely ignored the spectacular epistemological and technological advances that were being made in Europe between the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution until it was too late. Suddenly, Napoleon’s armies were in Egypt, beginning a long story of decline that ended with the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire following World War I.

It is with this defeat that The Crisis of Islam opens or more specifically, it is with bin Lādin’s commentary on that defeat. Lewis quotes him after 9/11 fulminating about the “humiliation and disgrace” that the Muslim world has suffered for the past 80 years. As Lewis points out that reference would be almost entirely lost on a Western audience, but for many in the Middle East the Sykes-Picot Agreement that carved up the Ottoman empire between the British and French after 1918 still rankles. Indeed, much of The Crisis of Islam is about the nature of historical memory. Lewis points out that for Arabs the Crusades came to be seen as “an early prototype of the expansion of European imperialism into the Islamic world.” It is hardly an accident that when bin Lādin declared his war against the West, he framed it in part as a war against “the Crusaders.”

Chapter 1: Defining Islam

In this chapter, Lewis gives the gist of his ideas as to what he will be talking about in his book. He starts by defining Islam as “a religion, a system of belief and worship” and also “the civilization that grew up and flourished under the aegis of that religion”. He defines the differences between Islam and Christianity regarding the Holy Book, place of communal worship and the religious scholars.

He then goes on to show the importance of politics for Islam. Lewis tells the reader about the dual character of Islam. He explains that it became a state and an empire due to its political organization and it was also a religious community. Lewis briefly explains the life of the Prophet (sws) by talking about the difference in his life in Makkah, where he was oppressed and in Madīnah, where he was the head of the state. Lewis comments that Islam provided “the only universally acceptable set of rules and principles for the regulation of public and social life.” Lewis explains that the concept of regular meetings is and was present in Islamic nations. The Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC) was formed in 1969 to help poor Muslim countries. Lewis examines that OIC was not politically successful but performs cultural and social activities.

Lewis also explains the views of the fundamentalists in this chapter and gives various reasons for the stance of the Muslim fundamentalists. The fundamentalists say that Islam is following the wrong path. They view the West as their enemy because due to them Islam is corroding away. Lewis comments on the fundamentalists that they have abrogated the Holy Law. He surmises that despite some cultural, diplomatic and economic similarities, the hatred of the Muslims alarms the West. Lewis says that the West views the Muslims as either a threat to them or as peace loving people who have been treated badly by the West.

Chapter 2: The House of War

In this chapter Lewis explains jihād. He uses a quotation from the Qur’ān “striving in the path of God” to explain jihād. He talks about the two distinct meanings of jihād, that of moral striving and of armed struggle. He explains the Islamic law regarding jihād. He says that some jurists distinguish between offensive and defensive war. The first being an obligation of the Muslim community and the latter being an obligation of every able bodied person. Lewis comments that Usāma uses the defensive war explanation in his declaration of war against the US. Lewis has cited many examples showing that “the word jihād has lost its holiness and retained only its military connotation.” Lewis has equated jihād to the Christian crusaders. Then he goes on to explain various rules for jihād.

Chapter 3: From Crusaders to Imperialists

This chapter tells us that the crusaders in the Middle East nations were not taken too seriously as opposed to those taken now by Osāma bin Lādin. The Crusaders over Muslims and Jews caused rivalries among the Muslims and Christians, leading to The Crusades. Lewis gives a brief description of the battles. The leaders of the Christian regime mainly attacked the Muslims for material gains and this was seen by the Muslims as being against their religion and towards their holy place, which lead to jihād. Lewis explains the Muslims great rule until 1683 when Turkish siege over Vienna ended. This left the Muslims with two questions: why had the victorious Ottoman armies been vanquished and how could they restore their previous dominance. They also failed to recognize and adopt the strong and powerful influence of economic expansion, competition and co-operation which marked success in Europe. When the Middle East adopted these, it led towards growth of their products in the West.

The European rule over Islamic lands maintained various phases of commercial expansion and armed invasions leading to conquests. The effects of imperialism were considered more harmful than the developments made in terms of state independence and social gaps. From the 20th century onwards Muslims started making agreements with various countries in the hope that they would be aided in winning their place back in the World.

Chapter 4: Discovering America

This chapter emphasizes on what the Islamic world knew about America throughout history. Lewis examined that in the late 19th and early 20th century more attention was given to America in the text books as compared to the previous centuries. He tries to view history and see when a relationship between the Americans and Muslims was established. After the civil war, some Americans found jobs in the service of Muslim rulers to modernize their armies. After the Second World War, many Americans came to the Islamic land and vice versa as teachers, businessmen, visitors or immigrants. Many American products were imported by Islamic nations and the media was used to portray the American way of life. Lewis questions the sudden change in attitude when religious leaders started portraying the Americans as enemies.

Chapter 5: Satan and the Soviets

This chapter basically deals with the perception of the Islamic World towards the West – primarily the USA and their tendency to ignore the actions of its eastern counterpart, the Soviet-Union, now known as Russia.

America is widely perceived by the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim World as being “the Great Satan” and working against Islamic interests in collaboration with Israel. The incident involving the takeover of the US embassy in 1979 provides sufficient evidence to the statement. At a time when there was a glimpse of better relations between Iran and the US, the radicals in Tehran took control of the US embassy and held several Americans hostage. This effectively brought the dialogue process to a crashing halt. Additionally, one can gauge the extent of hatred for the Americans in the Muslim ummah by the outcome of the Iranian Revolution. Khomeini succeeded in over-throwing his more liberal and pro-western counterpart on the basis of his anti-American ideology.

On the other hand, the Soviet Union which had control over many Muslim territories in Central Asia committed horrible atrocities against their subjects but the Muslims choose to turn a blind-eye to these events as they did to those committed by the Chinese against the Muslims in Sinkiang or the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. In contrast, the Muslims give no credit to the Americans for saving the lives of thousands in Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo or their assistance during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Israel is the root-cause for the Muslims hatred for the US. What most people in the Islamic world don’t realize is that the Nazis and Russia had a major part to play in its creation along with Britain. America was for a long time wary of befriending Israel and had imposed an arms embargo on it. One reason why the Israel-Palestinian conflict receives so much attention in contrast to other conflicts involving Muslims is that Israel is a democratic state because of which it’s easier to reports events as they occur, whether it concerns the settlers or the Palestinians. Also, there exists a strict state control over the media in many Muslim states and any news about the Palestinian conflict is encouraged and often exaggerated to entice public sentiments.

The American policy in the Middle East has been quite a success when compared to its policies in other regions such as Vietnam, Cuba or for that matter El Salvador. Military intervention was only required during the Gulf War, and that was when two Muslim States were at odds with Israel having to play no role in its proceedings.

Hence, Lewis concludes, it can be rightly suggested that the USA is to a certain extent a victim of bias and its contribution to the Muslim World does not receive the its due credit.

Chapter 6: Double Standards

Lewis takes a look at the grievance expressed by the Middle Eastern countries against American policy. The Middle Easterners see the Americans as corrupt tyrants who rule over them. Lewis tells the readers that this complaint does not appear in public but it is discussed privately. He then justifies one charge levied against the United States that the West judges the Middle Easterners by lower standards as compared to the Europeans. He indirectly says that the Muslims are inferior and that the West is just concerned with establishing friendly relationships. He comments that many Middle Easterners see the West as being very selfish. They believe that the West is just concerned with their own interests being met and not bothered about their people or their interests.

Chapter 7: A Failure of Modernity

Lewis explains that the entire Muslim world is engulfed by poor economic conditions marked by poverty and low productivity levels. Widespread “globalization” is taking place, coinciding with the submission of the Arab nations to America. High birth rates, growing population, illiteracy, unemployment, further aggravate the situation. The middle easterners fall way behind in these respects as compared to the West, and in comparison to their more modern counterparts e.g., Koreans and Taiwanese.

The Arab human development index which includes per capita income, life expectancy and literacy levels is strikingly low. Example, “the Arab world translates 330 books annually, one-fifth of the number that Greece translates.” These vast differences although have existed since long, are now being further highlighted by the modern media and other means of communications.

 Modernization of politics by following the western style political culture and arrangements was of no help either. Experiments with democracy failed badly resulting in corrupt tyrannies. The only success was seen in the one-party dictatorship following footsteps of the Nazi regime and the Soviet Union.

People have become largely aware of the fact that they are being deprived of the true sense of the free world. The frustration resulting from this repression takes the form of terrorism, an attempt to rise against the tyrannical rulers and hence, all external forces seeking to keep those rulers in power, and extending support in helping them maintain their tyrannical regimes.

Chapter 8: The Marriage of Saudi Power and Wahābī Teaching

In this chapter Lewis examines the effect of the rejection of modernity which has given rise to a number of historic movements; the most prominent being wahābism. Founded by Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahāb in 1744, declared aim was the purification of Islam from all later distortions.

Wahābism was supported by the Saudi rulers of Najd who, by force of arms, spread it to much of Arabia and the Ottoman Empire. The wahābis were strongly opposed to any version of Islam other than their own and exposed their beliefs by wiping out people who did not meet their standards of purity.

Two developments in the early 20th century turned wahābians into a major force in the Islamic world. The first was the consolidation of the Saudi kingdom by Sheikh ‘Abdul ‘Azīz Ibn Sa‘ūd. He entered into agreements with the US oil exploration companies and the corresponding inflow of money had a deep impact on the Saudi kingdom’s influence on the Islamic world. Today organized Muslim public life, worship and education are to a large extent dominated by wahābī principles, which had it not been for the oil revenue and custodianship of the holy places, remained a small extremist sect.

Oil wealth also lead to negative political effects as governments with oil revenue have no need for popular assemblies to collect taxes, and therefore can afford to disregard public opinion. As a result, this discontentment has found expression in religious extremist movements.

Lewis describes Muslim fundamentalists as those who feel that the troubles of the Muslim world are due to excessive modernization. The remedy is to return to authentic Islamic values and the most dangerous enemies are the false Muslim rulers who have imposed infidel ways on Muslim peoples.

Chapter 9: The Rise of Terrorism

The last chapter of this book deals with the subject of terrorism and how this word has come to be associated with Islam in today’s world. Various extremist organizations and regimes, supposedly acting in the name of Allah, are now considered to be the true representatives of Islam even though their ideologies are in direct contradiction to many of the teachings of the Prophet (sws). The chapter starts off by talking about how such radical elements, which include groups like Al Qaeda and regimes like those in Iran and Iraq, twist the word of God to their own benefit and justify their actions by referring to this extremist interpretation of the Qur’ānic text and the Sunnah of the Prophet (sws). In many cases they have even rejected those sacred verses, which do not support their radical positions by deeming them as evoked or abrogated.

Lewis goes on to talk about the evolution of Islamic terrorism and how it is now not aimed at a particular enemy but is a tactic to gain the attention of the world and has thus become a mode of psychological warfare. In the beginning of the twentieth century, Islamic terrorism was associated with a breed of rebels knows as the “Assassins” who targeted Muslims leaders whom they considered to be unworthy or unfit to rule. The Assassins have now been succeeded by the fundamentalist groups of today who identify the western world in general as their enemy. Instead of practicing methods of targeted assassination, these groups target the ordinary civilians with absolutely no connection to their cause. By doing so they have managed to succeed in their purpose, i.e. create psychological terror within the general masses using the rapid development of the media to their advantage.

The newly developed concept of suicide bombers has also been mentioned. Suicide has been very clearly termed in Islam as one of the greatest sins and the fact that Muslim terrorists are using it as a method of fighting their cause clearly proves that they are fighting for their own political purpose; and not in the name of Islam.

The chapter then moves on to talk about the 9/11 attacks and the use of suicide bombers in these attacks. the author also expresses his grief over how this issue was dealt with in most Muslim publications where it received approval instead of condemnation. He goes on to mention Osāma bin Lādin and his Al-Qaeda Group, expressing disapproval of the operations he has undertaken. The chapter concludes with the sentiment of hope that he and his organization along with other Islamic fundamentalists do not succeed in their purpose otherwise a dark future for the Muslims and the world in general is predicted.

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