Bernard Lewis’ Stubborn Hope
In Notes on a Century, the historian is still optimistic about a ‘great civilization’ in the Muslim world
Of greater interest is Lewis’ own evaluation of the gaps in his own work. His earliest writings, he concedes, betrayed a Marxist influence—what he calls his own intellectual version of “measles and chicken pox,” a juvenile disease he outgrew in time. Startling, though, is an observation about the authenticity of Islam itself. “When I wrote my chapter on the Prophet in 1947 … I was able to present the advent of Islam in the form of a narrative of events and then try to interpret its significance in the framework of Arab, Muslim and general history.” Since then, “Radical, critical scholarship has called one source after another, one narrative after another into question. In a brief but broad-ranging historical essay of this type, it would not be possible, nor indeed would it be appropriate, to examine the arguments of the radical critics of early Islamic history, but neither is it possible to disregard them.”
Lewis, that is, acknowledges that the received history of Islam might be an invention of whole cloth, but he declines to discuss the matter further. One wishes he were more candid. It is a career-killer (and perhaps a killer of more than a career) to challenge the authenticity of the Quran and the received story of the Muslim conquests, yet a vast body of research over the last several decades makes it impossible for a rational observer to accept the Muslim account at face value. Unlike the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Gospels, the Muslim accounts are close enough to modernity to stand scrutiny against known facts, and on many accounts they fail basic tests of credibility. The German Muslim scholar Sven Muhammed Kalisch of the University of Münster surveyed the evidence in 2008 and concluded that no one resembling the Prophet Mohammed ever existed, and that the figure was concocted to serve the notion that the Arabs rather than the Jews were the chosen people.
If the critics are correct, then Islam cannot coexist with rational inquiry and has no future in modernity. The distinguished Georgetown University political philosopher Fr. James V. Schall wrote last year, “Scholars, mostly German, have been working quietly for many decades to produce a critical edition of the Koran that takes into consideration the ‘pre-history’ of the Koran. Due to the Muslim belief that any effort to question the Koran’s text is blasphemy, the enterprise is fraught with personal risk to the researchers. … The fragility of Islam, as I see it, lies in a sudden realization of the ambiguity of the text of the Koran. Is it what it claims to be? Islam is weak militarily. It is strong in social cohesion, often using severe moral and physical sanctions. But the grounding and unity of its basic document are highly suspect. Once this becomes clear, Islam may be as fragile as communism.”
Schall suggests an alternative that Lewis does not acknowledge, namely that Islam will neither persist in autocracy nor progress to some form of democracy, but will collapse as a civilization just as communism did. Some of Islam’s most obstreperous leaders, like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, proceed from fear of this outcome, and with good reason. The data suggest yet another reason to expect Islam to collapse rather than modernize.
During the middle of the past decade, demographers noted with astonishment that in some Muslim countries, fertility had fallen from among the world’s highest to the world’s lowest within the space of a single generation. The average Iranian woman bore seven children when Ayatollah Khomeini took power but now has only 1.5, the same as the European average. Turkish women (women, that is, whose first language is Turkish) also bear only 1.5 children on average, while Turks whose cradle tongue was Kurdish have between four and five children. “If we continue the existing trend,” Erdoğan warned in May 2010, “the year 2038 will mark disaster for us.”
Lewis, incidentally, has nothing to say about Turkey’s shift to Islamism under Erdoğan. That is his least pardonable omission. His hopes for the Muslim future were founded on his perception of Turkey’s modernization, the subject of his most lauded academic work. Lewis’ affection for the Turks pervades his new book; he recalls nostalgically a decadelong liaison with “an aristocratic Turkish lady” who presided over his Princeton dinner parties. He took an unpopular Turkophile position in declining to characterize the mass murder of Armenians during World War I as a “genocide.” Now that Turkey appears to have returned to political Islam under a government that routinely jails its critics, Lewis’ silence is disturbing.
What drives this great and sudden demographic shift in the Muslim world? As I wrote in my 2011 book How Civilizations Die, almost all the variation in Muslim fertility rates—among population cohorts within Muslim countries, and across the universe of Muslim-majority countries—is explained by education. Muslim girls who complete high school breed like Europeans. Modernity’s great precondition, namely education, leads to a demographic tailspin in the Muslim world, which appears to jump from infancy to senescence without passing through adulthood.
Bernard Lewis’ era was a better one than ours, buoyed by a sense that the victorious West had the power to set a successful example for societies that had lingered in backwardness. His generation went young to World War II and saw the Cold War through at the cusp of middle age. Lewis himself is one of the very last of a race of giants. We have the sorry task of managing the chaotic decline of the Muslim world. If Bernard Lewis speaks to us from a better time, he reminds us all the more poignantly that we had better move on and address the unpleasantness of our own.
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