Author: Bernard Lewis
Title: Cultures in Conflict: Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Age of Discovery
Publisher/Date: Oxford University Press, 1995
Bernard Lewis, one of the leading scholars of Islam and the Middle East, has been very visible during the past two and a half years. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 he has published two monographs What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East and The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror and any number of articles and op-ed pieces in various magazines and newspapers. Consequently, many who had never heard of him prior to 9/11 now hang on his every word. For example, this article from The Wall Street Journal discusses his influence on White House thinking about the Middle East and the question of terrorism.
I read Cultures in Conflict when it first appeared and a second time a few years later. Now that I've had a chance to read it a third time, I would highly recommend it to anyone who has read the two more recent books mentioned in the previous paragraph and happens to be looking for another of Lewis's many books to read. The text not counting the notes and the index is roughly 75 pages long.
The book is divided into three chapters entitled "Conquest," "Expulsion," and "Discovery," each of which revolves around the year 1492. Lewis reminds us that Columbus's discovery of America wasn't the only major historical event of 1492, although it is surely the most well-known one. 1492 was also the year that Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, was conquered. Furthermore, it was also the year that the Jews were expelled from Spain.
Chapter 1 (pp. 5-26) mostly deals with the long military struggle between Islam and Christianity. The conquest of Granada was one aspect of the reconquista, i.e., the partially successful effort of Christian Europe to recover lands lost centuries earlier to invading Islamic armies. The Crusades had some initial successes, but the Crusader states along the Levant were eventually destroyed. The Tatars were defeated in 1480 by Ivan the Great, and the Turkish advance into the Balkans was stopped at Vienna in 1683. But the Turks had captured Constantinople in 1453, thereby destroying what little remained of the Byzantine Empire.
For several centuries, according to Lewis, Islamic civilization was clearly superior to Christendom in most respects. Yet the tide slowly turned against the Islamic world. The power of Western Europe grew, whereas that of the Islamic world diminished. Why the balance of power shifted so dramatically, says Lewis, isn't clear. The final pages of chapter 1 briefly take up this issue, but Lewis offers no definitive reasons for the waning of Islamic power. He briefly discusses some of the more important ways, especially as regards military matters, in which the Islamic world failed to keep up with Christian Europe. (Lewis takes up this issue at greater length in What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam.) After roughly a thousand years, the Islamic world, not Christian Europe, found itself on the defensive.
In chapter 2 (pp. 29-53) Lewis discusses the different types of danger that Muslims and Jews represented in the minds of Christians. After 1492 there were concerns about a Muslim counterattack, especially from the powerful Turkish armies. Theologically, however, Islam was not a threat: "In a theological calculation, it could, so to speak, be discounted. Being subsequent to the Christian dispensation, it was in Christian terms necessarily false and could be dismissed as a heresy or an aberration. It could even be incorporated in a Christian eschatology as the 'beast' of Revelation" (p. 33). Furthermore, as Islam retreated, it attracted fewer converts than before.
Jews, of course, were no military threat at all. But they did pose a theological threat:
The tacit religious challenge that Judaism offered to Christianity was another matter, however. Being pre-Christian and not post-Christian, it could not be dismissed as a heresy or an aberration. The Hebrew Bible, renamed the Old Testament, had been adopted by the Christians, who added a new testament to it, explaining how Christ had come to complete the revelation and to fulfill the promises that God had given to the Jews. By this logic, the Jews should have been the first to welcome and the accept the new dispensation and to merge their identity in the Christian church as the new beneficiary of God's choice. (pp. 33-34)
Some Jews welcomed the new religion, but, of course, most of them did not. Christians, says Lewis, could not easily be indifferent to this refusal:
Jews, unlike Muslims, could not be accused of not knowing the Old Testament or of being unaware of the Choice and the Promise. Their unwillingness to accept the Christian interpretation of these books and of these doctrines thus challenged Christianity in a most sensitive area. (p. 34)
This challenge, as the Christians viewed it, gave them grounds for expelling the Jews. After they were expelled from Spain in 1492 (and from Portugal in 1496), many Jews settled in the Ottoman Empire, where they enjoyed a fair measure of toleration.
Muslims were initially encouraged to depart Granada voluntarily; however, as time passed, harsher measures were used against Muslims throughout Spain. They were offered the same options, viz., baptism, exile, or death, that had been imposed on the Jews.
In various places in chapter 2 Lewis discusses those Jews and Muslims who converted but continued to practice their original faith in secret, as well as the many details of the different phases of their expulsion. All of this is very interesting, but I'll pass over these topics in order to move on to chapter 3.
Of the three chapters, I consider chapter 3 (pp. 57-79) the most interesting. Much of what Lewis writes about the European explorers will be familiar to most of his readers. One thing, though, that intrigued me, since I wasn't really aware of it, is that one of the motives for this exploration was to outflank the Islamic world:
When the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, arriving in India a few years after Columbus had sailed, remarked that he had come "in search of Christians and spices," he was expressing perfectly this double aspect of the voyages of discovery. On the one hand, it was a strategic move in a religious war of global dimensions; on the other, it was a commercial ploy designed to cut out the middleman and go straight to the producer. (p.58)
Notice that Christians come before spices in the order of da Gama's priorities! I don't recall being taught this in my history classes.
It was only to be expected, Lewis argues, that victorious Europeans pursued their retreating opponents and searched for new ways to press them even further:
For Russians and Iberians alike, Europe was Christendom, and its frontier, in the east as in the south, was Islam. And naturally, the frontier between two rival, universal religions and civilizations had no geographical fixity, but would move with the tide of battle until in the common conviction of both it ended with a final victory of the true faith. (pp. 62-63)
The rest of the chapter discusses how the concepts of Europe, Africa, Asia, America changed as the years went on, and as European influence increased and came to dominate much of the world. Here Lewis reflects on the impact of Europe on the rest of the world during the past five centuries, which leads him to make his most provocative claims.
What he says is very interesting and, at least to my mind, correct and worth repeating again and again. I'll quote several long passages in their entirety:
Why, then, did the peoples of Europe embark on this vast expansion, and, by means of conquest, conversion, and colonization, attempt to create a Eurocentric world? Was it, as some believe, because of some deep-seated, perhaps hereditary vice some profound moral flaw? The question is unanswerable because it is wrongly posed. In setting out to conquer, subjugate, and despoil other peoples, the Europeans were merely following the example set them by their neighbors and predecessors and, indeed, conforming to the common practice of mankind. In particular, their attack on the neighboring lands of Islam in Africa and Asia was a clear case of be-done-by-as-you-did. The interesting questions are not why they tried, but why they succeeded and why, having succeeded, they repented of their success as of a sin. The success was unique in modern times; the repentance, in all of recorded history. (pp. 73-74)
A word that is much heard nowadays is multiculturalism, expressing the idea that what is described as the exclusively Eurocentric character of our education and culture should be ended and replaced by one based in many cultures. The idea of multiculturalism is in itself excellent and very much in the great tradition of Europe and the West. It was, after all, the West that first, and for long alone, undertook the scholarly study of alien cultures with curiosity, interest, and respect and even by exhuming buried civilizations and deciphering forgotten scripts made a substantial contribution to their recognition and understanding of themselves. (p. 76)
By the mid-twentieth century, the New World, whose new history began in 1492, had become the unquestioned leader of Western civilization and its principal defender against those enemies, both internal and external, that had sought to destroy it. Even today, though that leadership is criticized by some, challenged by others, denounced and rejected by others again, it sill faces no serious competitor, no viable alternative. (p. 77)
The book ends with these two paragraphs:
Imperialism, sexism, and racism are words of Western coinage, not because the West invented these evils, which are alas universal, but because the West recognized and named and condemned them as evils and struggled mightily and not entirely in vain to weaken their hold and to help their victims. If, to borrow a phrase, Western culture does indeed "go," imperialism, sexism, and racism will not go with it. More likely casualties will be the freedom to denounce them and the effort to end them.
It may be that Western culture will indeed go: The lack of conviction of many of those who should be its defenders and the passionate intensity of its accusers may well join to complete its destruction. But if it does go, the men and women of all the continents will thereby be impoverished and endangered. (p. 79)
I find myself in agreement with these closing sentiments. Those who disagree, however, will still find that Cultures in Conflict merits their attention.