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The Crisis of Islam

Donald M. Poundstone

What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, by Bernard Lewis. New York: HarperCollins, 2002, 186 pages, $12.95, paper.

The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, by Bernard Lewis. New York: Random House, 2004, xxxii + 190 pages, $12.95, paper.

Christians in recent decades—at least since the Ayatollah Khomeini's Iranian Revolution of 1979—have grown increasingly aware of the challenge presented by the religion of Muhammad. As a knowledgeable friend said to me at the time of the Gulf War (1990-1991), resurgent Islam will make the threat once posed by a communist Soviet Union seem tame by comparison. Especially after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, American Christians realize we face ruthless, determined enemies. But what do we know of Islamic history, culture, and beliefs?

To gain a deeper understanding of all things Muslim, we could do worse than listen to Bernard Lewis, Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies (emeritus) at Princeton University. Lewis, born to Jewish parents in London and still active at ninety-one, is widely acknowledged as one of the world's foremost scholars and authorities on Islam. He is thoroughly conversant with Turkish, Arab, and Persian language, literature, and history. The author of more than twenty books and numerous academic articles on the subject, Lewis's most recent works are two brief volumes aimed at explaining the Muslim world to the general public.

In What Went Wrong? completed shortly before the attacks of 9/11, Lewis elegantly rehearses the dismay and anguish of modern Muslims as they come to grips with the undeniable fact of their own decline vis-̀a-vis the West in areas they once held sway—military prowess, economic power, and the various arts and sciences of civilization. For centuries Muslims looked down on non-Islamic peoples, when they thought of them at all. Convinced that Islam is the final and only true revelation of God, Muslims were confident they had little or nothing to learn from ignorant infidels and barbarians. For many years after the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, it seemed that Islam would advance irresistibly and eventually overwhelm Christendom. That reality began to change with the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the technological revolution. But Muslims only slowly came to realize the dramatic shift in cultural dominance.

The Ottomans certainly had inklings of their weaknesses. From the sixteenth century they began to recognize the infidels' strength at sea. The West also enjoyed success on the battlefield and in the marketplace. Unfortunately for their civilization, Muslims lacked the cultural openness and curiosity to benefit from advances and discoveries in the rest of the world. In exploration, science, technology, economic prosperity, warfare, governance, diplomacy, and human rights Islam fell behind the West. The Ottoman Empire finally crashed in the wake of World War I. The West then carved up much of the Islamic world into little fiefdoms to be ruled by European powers.

Lewis observes that when things go wrong in a society a common question to ask is, Who did this to us? The answer most often lays the fault on domestic minorities or foreigners abroad. The Ottomans asked a different question: What did we do wrong? Answers to both these questions are still being debated in the Middle East today, with Americans and Jews usually getting most of the blame.

The Crisis of Islam deals with the Muslim dilemma from a military and political perspective following the terrorist attacks on 9/11. As in What Went Wrong? Lewis surveys significant developments in Islamic history, focusing this time on militancy, terrorism, and international relations, particularly during the twentieth century.

Readers will learn how Muslims view the Crusades, the American and French Revolutions, European imperialism, and relations with the old Soviet Union. Lewis provides a brief but lucid account of the rise among Saudi rulers in Arabia of Wahabism, one of the most radical and militant Islamic movements, and its relation to present-day terrorism.

Lewis makes much of our Lord's saying, "Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matt. 22:21). He sees this clear separation between government and religion as a fundamental difference between Christianity and all forms of Islam. It reflects the differing histories of Jesus (humiliation and crucifixion) and Muhammad (military victory and triumph during his lifetime), and has deeply influenced the contrasting attitudes and behavior of their followers. Christians have learned meekness and suffering with Christ; Muslims typically pursue armed conflict and the forcible subjugation of their enemies.

These are learned yet accessible books that take us behind today's bloody headlines. They make no attempt to give an adequate summary of Islamic doctrine and cultic practice; there are many books on the market that do that quite well. Nor does Lewis analyze Islam religiously from an orthodox Christian point of view, although he clearly sympathizes with ideals of freedom, tolerance, and representative government championed in the modern world by most Christians and Jews. He respects Islam and admires many of the followers of Muhammad. He is probably more sanguine about a peaceable future for Islam than most Christians are. While recognizing the militant and often coercive features of Islamic civilizations, he is also aware that in places the Koran promotes quite humane practices. Such verses represent what Abraham Lincoln in another context called the "better angels of our nature." Lewis also knows that many modern Muslims yearn for the freedoms so widely enjoyed in the West.

Christians ought to pray and labor for the advance of the gospel among Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere. They have proven very resistant to the good news concerning Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. Bernard Lewis may not admit that Islam's hostility to the Son of God is a primary source of its internal problems. He is, nonetheless, an engaging and valuable guide to learning about the history and current struggles of the world's more than one billion Muslims. Reformed pastors and ruling elders, as well as other believers, will profit from reading these books.

Donald M. Poundstone
Regional Home Missionary
Presbytery of Southern California (OPC)
Temecula, CA

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