Based on a recommendation from a blog reader, I picked up “What Went
Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response” by Bernard Lewis.
Given the mixed Amazon reviews, I borrowed the book from the library.
The obvious criticisms of the book’s style are correct — What Went
Wrong is a collection of transcribed lectures, hastily taken to print
after September 11th. The essays are not edited together to support a
thesis, and they do not provide a satisfying answer the question in the
Even so, one might expect that lectures given by one of the world’s
leading experts in Middle Eastern history might contain substantive
information based on primary source research, combined with insightful
interpretations and a powerful, implicit argument driven by the
scholar’s point of view, developed through decades of thought on the
topic. Such a book would be worth reading, though it would require more
work by the reader to assemble the thesis by means of marginal notes.
The book has interesting facts and stories. But Lewis’ interpretations
are badly inadequate, even from the perspective of someone with a
sketchy understanding of Muslim history.
The subject of the book is the response of the “Middle East” to
increasingly evident Western economic and military superiority in modern
times. Lewis is an expert on the Ottoman empire, and the book focuses
primarily on the Ottoman Turks, secondarily on Iran, and very little on
Arab regions (not at all on other Muslim countries which are out of the
After several painful defeats in the late 17th century to European
armies, Ottoman rulers initiated a series of campaigns to study and
integrate Western military, economic, and technological advances.
The trouble is that Lewis seems to take for granted the flaws in Ottoman
culture that he purports to explain. Lewis reports that initiative to
learn from Europeans was a traumatic change. “For Muslims, first in
Turkey and later elsewhere, this brought a shocking new idea that one
might learn from the previously despised infidel.” The Ottoman rulers
turned to the Ulema, the masters of Islamic law, and requested an
exemption from the traditional prohibition against accepting infidel
Yet the intellectual insularity shown by the Ottoman empire was not
typical of earlier Islamic regimes, which embraced and integrated
external cultural influences and non-Muslim expertise. Baghdad, the
capital city of the Abbasid dynasty, was laid out by a Jewish
mathematician and a Persian astronomer. Al-Khwarizmi, the Muslim
mathematician, explained the Indian number system in Arabic, and made
innovative contributions to algebra. Abd al-Rachman III, the ruler of
Muslim Spain at the height of its power and cultural influence, had a
Jewish vizier, Hasdai ibn Shaprut.
Lewis explains the Ottoman ignorance of Western ways as an outcome of
Muslim prohibitions against traveling and settling in foreign lands.
This geographical insularity also was not typical of earlier Muslim
regimes. In the medieval era, the Muslim world was a key link in a world
system of trade that linked Europe and Asia. Muslim merchants spent
their lives in caravans and ships; there were longstanding Muslim
settlements in Southeast Asia and China.
The interesting question is not why the belated efforts of the Ottoman
empire to adopt infidel knowledge failed. With its underlying attitudes
toward “foreign influence” it does not seem so surprising that these
efforts were too little, too late. The question is why the Ottoman
empire was so much more insular and narrow-minded than the Muslim
regimes that came before it.
Lewis does mention the decline in Muslim science since medieval times.
In the medieval era, Muslim scientists sought out Greek, Indian, and
Persian knowledge, and made innovative contributions to mathematics,
astronomy, and medicine. By the Ottoman period, Muslim scientists were
no longer seeking new sources and adding to the world’s store of
knowledge, “they had their own science, handed down by great scientists
of the past.” What happened to the Muslim intellectual tradition in the
mean time that destroyed its ability to learn and innovate?
Lewis writes that Ottoman efforts to jumpstart the economy by importing
factories failed to take root. But he includes no evidence or analysis
of underlying economic structures that might have inhibited or fostered
economic progress. Two points of comparison. Throughout the medieval
era, the Muslim world played a major role in international trade. In the
16th century and later, European ships discovered alternate sea routes
to the Far East, and established permanent colonies, cutting out the
Muslim segment of the trade route. In 1568, the Ottomans drew up a plan
to dig a canal through Suez, to render the Red Sea route competitive
again. The following year, they started to dig a canal between the Don
and the Volga rivers, to improve the northern trade route. But these
plans were abandoned, in favor of head-on war with Russia and Vienna.
Why did the Ottoman military initiatives supersede economic ones; did
they miss the connection between money and power, or did they believe
that territorial conquest would serve them better?
In contemporary era, the Arab regions were graced with oil wealth. They
imported unskilled Chinese laborers to build oil platforms and
refineries. The Chinese workers learned the technology, saved their
money, and within a generation had developed world-leading businesses in
construction and transportation logistics. Why didn’t Arabs take
advantage of their privilege and money to move up the value chain and
dominate the worldwide oil, chemical, and shipping industries?
One might attribute Middle Eastern economic stagnation to flaws in the
Muslim legal and financial systems. Lewis doesn’t make this argument,
but he does make much of the fact that concept idea of secular law comes
from the Christian world, where a separation between church and state
was needed to keep chronic religious wars from wrecking society. Lewis
explains that European colonial and post-colonial regimes imposed
systems of secular, Western law, which were sometimes adopted and often
resisted by Middle Easterners. Anti-Western Muslim governments throw
off the imported systems, and return to the Sharia, the traditional
Muslim law code.
Contemporary Sharia systems in places like Iran and Afghanistan are
often mocked for being medieval and backward, legislating repression of
women and brutal corporal punshment (no, I’m not in favor of the Texas
death penalty, either). But there is no empirical reason that a system
of Muslim jurisprudence needs to be backward. After all, European laws
once featured trial by ordeal, and prevented women from owning property.
A living tradition of Muslim law might be able to adapt to current
economic and social conditions. How did the Sharia change from a system
that had once reflected the standards of justice of its time to one that
insisted on avoiding change?
Lewis writes that Western ideas of equal rights and democracy, which
underlie Western legal systems, likewise caught on slowly in the Middle
East, and were often imposed by outsiders. Colonial and
Western-dominated post-colonial regimes insisted on full rights for
non-Muslims, and the ending of slavery (though they ignored restrictions
on women). Ideas of liberty were sometimes used by internal reformers,
but were often resisted as foreign grafts.
But there is no logical reason that Islam itself could not make these
changes — even without a secular system. Islam is based on ideals of
equality and justice — why could these ideas not be extended to
enfranchise women, free slaves, and institutionalize the rights of
non-Muslims, as they were practiced in the most tolerant Islamic
societies. Likewise, there is a Muslim tradition of consultative
government. Why has this not been developed into a system of government
that takes into account the voices and needs of different sectors of
Lewis’ analysis of the failure of the Middle East to adopt Western
technology is weak and superficial. Lewis provides some interesting
primary-source documentation about the slow adoption of modern clocks
and calendars into Ottoman administration. The resistance to modern
timekeeping is illustrated with anecdotes of the leisurely pace of life,
even today, in Middle Eastern countries. But Lewis doesn’t ask the
interesting questions about why the technology of time was ignored. In
Western society, technologies of time were adopted in government and
business administration, industrial production, and transportation. The
Ottoman empire had a fairly advanced administrative system. What was
missing in Ottoman government and economic institutions that they did
not see the benefit of these technologies, or were unable to implement them?
Norvell De Atkine, the US military trainer, argues that contemporary
Middle Eastern armies failed to successfully assimilate modern weapons,
not because of lack of technology, but because of flaws in
organizational culture. Middle Eastern governments brought in Western
trainers and technology, but the troops were unable to use and maintain
the systems because of their aversion to sharing information. An officer
trained in the use of a weapons system would not share that knowledge
with rest of his men, because sharing knowledge would reduce his power.
Did Ottoman armies and administrations have these problems sharing
information — is this what made it diffiicult to embrace new technology
and methods? In the early days of Muslim conquest, were armies this bad
at communicating, and successful nevertheless? Lewis doesn’t say.
Some of Lewis’ explanations about the Middle East’s failure to
Westernize are simply laughable. Lewis makes much out of the reluctance
of Middle Easterners to appreciate European classical music. Lewis
attributes Middle Eastern indifference to European classical music to a
general aversion to foreign influence, and in particular to a dislike of
polyphonic technique, which uses the same organizational genius as
Western team sports, parliamentary government, and corporate structures.
Lewis doesn’t notice the many and substantial foreign influences on
Middle Eastern music, which come from the East instead of the West.
Muslim classical musical styles were heavily influenced by Indian and
pre-Muslim Persian styles. Popular Middle Eastern music is full of
influences from Central and Eastern Europe. Today, music from India is
extremely popular in the Middle East. Muslims do like foreign music,
they just happen to find eastern styles more congenial than western styles!
By contrast, Lewis talks approvingly of the adoption of European
architectural styles. He does not mention that medieval Muslim empires
created their distinctive architectural styles from the elements of
existing buildings. In Eastern regions of Muslim dominance, mosques were
converted from Byzantine churches. In medieval Spain, Muslim took the
columns, literally and figuratively, from the ruins of Roman buildings.
Muslim architecture always incorporated foreign influences; this was the
rule, not the exception.
Throughout the book Lewis describes the tensions between modernizers,
who wished to replace the traditions of Muslim society with European
imports, and traditionalists, who wished to recover a lost world of
cultural purity. Lewis himself seems to agree with the assumptions
underlying this debate, and he takes the side of the modernizers. Lewis
seems to embrace the assumption that a strong civilization builds its
own culture out of native materials; but a weak civilization needs to
adapt to cultural norms of the stronger power. Lewis doesn’t consider
that a strong civilization is one which is able to embrace, absorb and
transform diverse influences. In other words, Lewis makes the same
mistake as the subjects of his historical inquiry.
Here’s what I take away from the book, based on Lewis’ evidence and
other reading. The decline in Muslim civilization occured long before it
the evident decline of the Ottoman empire. The Ottoman empire was
militarily powerful in its day, and wealthy at its prime, but it lacked
the cultural flexibility required to innovate and adjust to change.
But why was the Ottoman empire so insular and inflexible? Lewis
describes the phenomenon, but doesn’t explain it.
By the way, I haven’t read Said’s Orientalism (yet), which criticizes
Bernard Lewis in particular, and Western scholarship in general, for
colonalist and racist stereotypes of the inferiority of Muslim cultures.
The problem with What Went Wrong isn’t that Lewis’ criticisms are
biased, it is that they are shallow; they don’t explain very real flaws
of Middle Eastern societies in modern times, which are flaws even with
respect to the greatest historical achievements of Muslim civilization.
Based on a recommendation from a blog reader, I picked up “What Went