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Reviews of Political Words and Ideas in Islam

“This is a slim volume in an attractive cover containing [11] short articles published by Bernard Lewis over his long career in a number of different journals and countries. The articles are undated and in apparently random order with some overlaps in their subject matter. There is no index, but the book has a clear list of titles and is short enough for the reader to find a point of interest without too much trouble. Bernard Lewis draws on predominantly Arab and Turkish sources, amply annotated at the end of the book. The articles reflect his widely admired academic research into the writings of Muslim bureaucrats, theologians, and others. If there is a common theme it is what Lewis terms the ‘political language of Islam — perhaps the most political of all religious cultures.’ This is territory Lewis covered more fully in his 1988 book, The Political Language of Islam, in drawing conclusions about the Muslim world after the Iranian revolution.

“This miscellany is one to be dipped into rather than read from cover to cover. It is a handy and illuminating guide for the student of modern literary Arabic in search of deeper understanding of terms used in current political discourse in the Arab world. Lewis covers familiar words found in most beginners’ vocabularies and word lists, such as hukuma (government), malik (king), and diwan (high government body). The discussion of their development since early Islamic times helps explain the resonances these words carry today, something that cannot easily be gleaned from dictionaries and yet is familiar to a modern Arab audience watching Al Jazeera television, reading the daily press, or reacting to Friday sermons and political speeches. A couple of articles similarly address Turkish words: serbestiyet (freedom) and mesveret (consultation).

“Lewis also shows how certain political concepts have changed and evolved over the centuries from early Islam onwards. On consultation between ruler and ruled, for example, he cites references in pre-Islamic Arabic, verses in the Qur’an, and terms used at the Ottoman court in the 1820s to show that the concept of consultation remained alive and evolved over the centuries, even if often eclipsed by authoritarian government.

“Such scholarly shafts of light will also be of interest to a wider Western readership seeking a better understanding of contemporary Middle Eastern politics. As Lewis has stressed elsewhere, the past is far more deeply ingrained in Muslim culture than in most modern Western societies. But at this point there should perhaps be a note of caution. Lewis is a controversial figure, since the 1960s an outspoken and opinionated commentator on the politics of the region and since the 1980s about the role of Islam. In this collection his agenda is most visible in the final article, entitled ‘On Modern Arabic Political Terms.’ Here he argues that modern political institutions in the Arab world are alien to Arab traditions and imported from outside, that Arab history has offered no precedents for such new facts and ideas, and that the vocabulary of modern Arab politics has therefore had to rely on newly created or adapted words. This reflects Lewis’s wider argument made in many forums: that the contemporary Arab world has suffered a self-inflicted decline and has proved unable from its own resources to reconcile itself with the modern world as represented by Western Christendom.

“The only solution now, according to Lewis, is for the Arabs to get back to the limited, contractual, consensual government that was a living part of the Islamic tradition he has studied so carefully, before the process of modernization came and destroyed everything.

“That is a view strongly contested by many in the Arab world and elsewhere — most famously by Edward Said in Orientalism — and indeed seems at variance with some of the analysis of earlier chapters of this book, which show an Arab capacity over the centuries to develop language and ideas. If you approach this collection of articles aware of the controversy, and discount accordingly, much of it remains valuable; used with caution it can and should inform Western policy-making in the region. But it is not hard to see how some members of the recent Bush administration chose to read Lewis in a very different way in shaping their approach to the Middle East.” — Asian Affairs