Monday, March 19, 2007

Lewis asked What Went Wrong ?

In his 2002 masterpiece of the same name, Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis (1916 - present) asked the question What Went Wrong ?

By that he meant why did the Muslim world, which dominated military, economic, scientific, and technological affairs during the Golden Age of Islam (750-1250 A.D.) find itself behind other major civilizations in all these areas in the subsequent seven and a half centuries ?

Lewis argues that Muslims have been preoccupied with answering the question -- Who did this to us ? They have, he says, offered a series of outside groups to blame for the overall decline -- from the Mongol hordes, to imperialistic Europeans, to Jews, to Americans.

Lewis rejects this explanation, as well as explanations that offer the dramatic rise of the West while Islam failed to advance at the same pace.

He also rejects the argument that the decline is inherent to the Islamic faith.

The medieval Islamic world offered only limited freedom in comparison with modern ideals and even with modern practice in the more advanced democracies, but if offered vastly more freedom than any of its predecessors, its contemporaries, and most of its successors.

What caused the decline then ?

Some indeed have posed the question in a different form -- not "What has Islam done to the Muslims?" but " What have the Muslims done to Islam ?, " and have answered by laying the blame on specific teachers and doctrines and groups.

For those nowadays known as [Islamic fundamentalists] the failures and shortcomings of the modern Islamic lands afflicted them because they adopted alien notions and practices. They fell away from authentic Islam, and thus lost their former greatness.

Those known as modernists or reformers take the opposite view, and see the cause of this loss not in the abandonment but retention of old ways, and especially in the inflexibility and ubiquity of the Islamic clergy...

A more usual approach to this theme is to discuss not religion in general, but a specific problem: the place of religion and its professional exponents in the political order. For these, a principal cause of Western progress is the separation of church and state and the creation of a civil society governed by secular laws...

To a Western observer, schooled in the theory and practice of Western freedom, it is precisely the lack of freedom--freedom of the mind from constraint and indoctrination, to question and inquire and speak; freedom of the economy from corrupt and pervasive mismanagement; freedom of women from male oppression; freedom of citizens from tyranny--that underlies so many of the troubles of the Muslim world.

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