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The Decline of the East

The Decline of the East

September 7, 2010

March 2002 -- BOOK REVIEW: The Decline of the East What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. By Bernard Lewis. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 180 pp. $23.00.)

For approximately a thousand years, from the death of Muhammad in 632 to the second siege of Vienna in 1683, Muslims had good reason to think that theirs was foremost among civilizations and might become the dominant civilization over all the earth. But in the three hundred years since the siege of Vienna failed, Muslims have been asking: What went wrong? And they have been offering a variety of answers. In this small work, Bernard Lewis, the leading American scholar of Islam, recounts the history of that soul-searching. It is a timely and illuminating work, given that the terrorist network of Osama bin Laden and the Islamic Revolution of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini emerged from one traditional explanation of Islam's decline: That it has fallen away from the true faith.

Unfortunately, Lewis's book is not as tightly integrated around its topic as it might be. The problem is not that the current work was already in page proofs on September 11, 2001. Indeed, that is more reassuring than otherwise, as one knows that the author has not been tempted to adapt his understanding of long-term trends in light of recent events. The problem is simply that Lewis's book has been stitched together from several independent sources. Three lectures given in 1999 constitute the basis of Chapters 1-3, while Chapters 4-7 draw on four other publications dating from 1980 to 1998. All of this material touches upon the Muslim inquiry: What went wrong? But a book conceived from the outset to trace the history of that inquiry would not have had both obvious gaps and repetitions.


Within thirty years of Muhammad's death, Muslims from Arabia had wrested Egypt, Palestine, and Syria from the Byzantine Empire. They had also defeated the Sassinid empire, which gave them Iraq and Iran. They had swept north into Armenia, east as far as Afghanistan, and west as far as Libya. In the next hundred years, Muslims extended their rule in the west to all of North Africa plus the Iberian peninsula and Sicily, and east to the borders of India and China. Islam also acquired territory by conversion. Thus, the Seljuk Turks from Central Asia were converted by Sufi missionaries about 1000 A.D., after which they invaded Iraq and pushed on to take Anatolia (modern Turkey) from the Byzantines. In the 1200s, the Tartars of the Golden Horde conquered Russia, and in 1252 the Khan converted to Islam, bringing Russia and much of Eastern Europe under Islamic rule.

This Muslim advance was not without setbacks. In 1492, Christians reconquered Spain, and in 1554 Orthodox Russians reached the Caspian Sea. But these, Lewis writes, seemed like minor reverses in distant lands. Of central importance was the conquest of Christian Europe. The Ottoman empire (which had replaced the Seljuks) defeated Serbia at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. In 1393, Sultan Bayezid I took the Bulgarian capital of Tarnovo by siege and turned it over to the fury of his troops. The biggest prize, however, was Constantinople, and Sultan Mehmed II conquered that city in 1453. In the days that followed, according to the sultan's historian and apologist, Critobulus of Imbros, the Turkish army "evacuated and devastated the whole city, to such an extent that no one could have believed that it had ever contained inhabitants, or riches, or urban property, or anything else in the way of furnishings of magnificence." (The Middle Ages: III, 1250-1520 [NY: Cambridge University Press, 1987], p. 321) In 1456, the Ottomans took the Duchy of Athens and converted the Parthenon to a mosque. What was left of Serbia was absorbed in 1459 and Bosnia in 1463. Belgrade was taken in 1521, and in 1528 Suleyman the Magnificent entered Buda, leaving with 100,000 captives after his siege of Vienna failed.

During the first half of the 1600s, Europe's attention turned to the Thirty Years War, while the Ottoman Empire was distracted by internal weakness and by conflict with a resurgent Iran to its east. But between 1656 and 1678, two grand viziers stabilized the empire's finances, transformed its army, and renewed the attack on Europe. In the light of history, the result was shocking. From 1681 to 1698, the Ottomans suffered defeat after defeat, ending with the Treaty of Carlowitz in 1699. Says Lewis: "The Treaty of Carlowitz has a special importance in the history of the Ottoman Empire, and even, more broadly, in the history of the Islamic world, as the first peace signed by a defeated Ottoman Empire with victorious Christian adversaries" (p.18). It seemed to mark the end of a progress that Ottomans had thought inevitable: victory over the Byzantine Empire followed by victory over the Holy Roman Empire.

Wisely, the Muslims did not try to displace the blame for their military failures by asking: Who did this to us? "The Ottomans, faced with the first major crisis in their history, asked a different question: 'What did we do wrong?'" (p. 23). No less important, says Lewis, the Ottomans started to ask: What is the West doing right? The trouble was that sources of information about the West were scarce. Although Western governments had long maintained representatives in the East, the reverse was not true. "It was the normal practice of Muslim sovereigns to send an ambassador to a foreign ruler when there was something to say, and to bring him home when he had said it" (p. 26).

This changed in the late 1700s. Ebu Bekir Ratib Efendi was in Vienna from 1791 to 1792 with a staff of more than one hundred officials and sent back hundreds of pages of immensely detailed information, primarily on military matters. In 1789, a new sultan, Selim III, ascended the throne determined to bring about military and administrative reform. But it was too late. In 1798, Napoleon conquered Egypt with a small expeditionary force and was ousted, not by the Egyptians or the Turks, but by the British Navy. Then, beginning early in the 1800s, the Balkan peoples, whom the Ottomans had earlier made subject, were inspired by the French Revolution to revolt in the name of nationalism and to establish their countries' independence. At the same time, Russia was advancing against Turkey, Iran, and the Central Asian states.

When World War I broke out, the Ottoman Empire made an ill-fated calculation that its advantages lay in an alliance with Germany rather than with the Allies. After their victory, Britain and France set up spheres of influence in the region and created governments in their own image, constitutional monarchies or republics, respectively. The end of this period may be dated from 1952, when a coup in Egypt ousted the monarchy and installed a military dictatorship. But, as Lewis observes, Anglo-French rule was "a consequence, not a cause, of the weakness of Middle Eastern states and societies" (p. 153), and therefore the retreat of the West did not bring revitalization.


For a long time, Lewis tells us, Islamic scholars (the ulema) had held that it was permissible to learn from the infidel only in order to fight him—that is, only in directly applicable military technology. But eventually Muslims began asking: Why is it always the West that introduces military innovations, so that we are always trailing and trying to catch up? The question implied that Muslims must go beyond adopting military technology and adopt that which underlay it: the sources of the West's wealth and strength. "The question now was more specific—what is the source of this wealth and strength, the talisman of Western success?" (p. 45). Previously, if a Muslim country had gone from wealth and strength to poverty and weakness, the source of blame would have been assigned automatically: It arose from a falling away from the true faith. But that answer did not make sense when the comparison lay between Muslim countries and infidel countries. Clearly, Muslims thought, Islamic nations were superior to Western nations in philosophy and religion, for the Islamic revelation superseded the Christian revelation. So the secret of the West's strength must lie outside those fields. It must lie in economics and politics.

Yet the Middle East's attempts to learn from the West in these areas seemed to work no better than the adoption of military technology. In politics, for instance, it was difficult for Muslims to grasp certain Western concepts. Under Islam, Lewis says, the opposite of tyranny is not freedom but justice. That is, the tyrant is contrasted with a legitimate ruler who dispenses justice according to God's law. But such an emphasis on seeing that "the right" is done left no room for the invaluable right to do wrong, without which individual freedom does not exist. Of course, it should be noted (as Lewis does not) that Western Europe itself was turning away from genuine freedom at this time and, through the philosophies of Rousseau and Hegel, trying to justify a coercive imposition of "right action." Perhaps Islam would have fared better if it had looked westward two centuries earlier, during the Age of Reason.

Apart from its distinction between tyrannical rulings and just rulings, Islamic political theory also distinguishes between a bad leader who rules without consultation and a good leader who rules only after consulting (somehow) with others. This latter tradition offered at least an avenue for democracy and parliaments, and feeble attempts were made in that direction as Western control increased. But they vanished with decolonization.

In economics, too, Muslims seem never to have discovered the West's secret. "The economy, and more especially industry, was seen as the prime source of wealth and therefore ultimately of military effectiveness" (p. 46). Essentially, countries in the Middle East undertook "five-year" plans that involved building factories. "The effort failed, and most of the early factories became derelict" (p. 47). In the twentieth century, the same countries preferred socialism to capitalism as the economic philosophy reputed to be the most advanced in the world. Needless to say, socialism also failed.

Lewis's discussion of Islam's attempt to adopt Western political and economic practices lacks one important observation, as do most other discussions of the same subject. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Islamic peoples and states adopted from the West the doctrines of nationalism and socialism. When these failed, many Muslims felt that they had tried "adopting Western ways," and it was time again to look to their own Islamic heritage. What needs to be said, in this regard, is that nationalism and socialism are actually the antithesis of the rationality and individualism that form the essence of Western civilization. They are Western in form, to be sure, because they were given expression by certain philosophers in post-Enlightenment Europe. At their core, however, nationalism and socialism are simply throwbacks to the tribal mindset and tribal life found among all primitive peoples. And therein lies the seed of much tragedy. When in their post-colonial stage peoples (in the Middle East and elsewhere) have felt the need to modernize, they have often looked to the contemporary West and chosen the most appealing system. Not unnaturally, collectivist systems have been the most appealing because they are simply the same old primitivism in modern dress. But for that same reason, collectivist experiments have failed to provide modernization, and that in turn has been viewed as discrediting everything Western, including the individualism that truly lies at our civilization's heart.


While most Muslims looked to economics and politics to bring about equality with the West, others pointed to still-deeper features of the rival civilization. For example: "Through the nineteenth century an increasing number of young Muslims, most of them officers and civil servants, most of them Ottomans, began to speak of how Europe 'the smallest of the continents,' achieved paramountcy in the modern world through its mastery of the sciences. Some speak more broadly of knowledge" (p. 76).

This explanation had one great appeal to devout Muslims. Traditionally, Muslims had said that the Islamic world achieved its greatest splendor when it had been closer to the true faith. But that argument, as noted, could not explain why splendor had now passed to the infidels. The hypothesis that used science to explain the difference fit the facts better, in Muslim eyes. The Islamic world had achieved its greatest splendor when it had been the world leader in science. Now the infidels led in science, and that is why their civilization was superior.

But how had this reversal come about? "In the development and transmission of the various branches of science, men in the medieval Middle East…played a vital role. They had inherited the ancient wisdom of Egypt and Babylon. They had translated and preserved much that would have otherwise been lost of the wisdom and science of Persia and Greece. Their enterprise and openness enabled them to add much that was new from the science and technique of India and China" (pp. 78-79) And then, approximately at the end of the Western Middle Ages, the process stopped. In the view that came to prevail, "the corpus of medical knowledge had reached perfection in the days of Avicenna [980-1037], and in principle no change or addition was needed. Indeed, any change or addition was seen as impious" (p. 39). The only exception was if a new disease appeared, as when syphilis arrived from the New World, and therefore, "until the late eighteenth century, only one medical book was translated into a Middle Eastern language—a sixteenth-century treatise on syphilis" (p. 7).

Here, clearly, is the source of Lewis's key question. As noted, Ottoman intellectuals in the late nineteenth century began to speak up for Western science. "Increasing numbers of European scientific books were translated, often with prefaces insisting on the importance of science for progress" (p. 78). But, Lewis tells us, the underlying social and cultural foundations of science were not and still are not accepted. (81) A principal reason may be that the intellectuals who became the strongest advocates of reason were, simultaneously, strong spokesmen for the intellectual opposition between science and religion. And one must add to that: Islam's difficulty in conceding that any activity lies outside its purview.


Given the many ways in which a devout commitment to Islam blocked modernization in the Middle East, one might ask: Why did the Islamic world not separate religion from the rest of life, as the Christian world has? Why is there no separation of mosque and state comparable to the West's separation of church and state?

To understand, says Lewis, we must begin by recalling that the deepest traditions of Christianity recall a time when the religion stood outside of the state, the Roman Empire. When Jesus said, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's," he provided a basis for that separation. In addition, of course, Jesus was crucified by the Roman state. Later Christians, reflecting on these facts, were not inclined to give the state great power over their lives. As a result, "Christians developed a distinctive institution—the church, with its own laws and courts, its own hierarchy and chain of authority" (p. 98).

In the 300s, of course, the Emperor Constantine took the church under his wing, and there arose the idea of a pro-Christian ruler. But the deep alienation between believers and rulers created by the state's murder of Christianity's founder persisted. It was natural, then, that "in the course of centuries, Christian jurists and theologians devised or adapted pairs of terms to denote this dichotomy of jurisdiction: sacred and profane, spiritual and temporal, religious and secular, ecclesiastical and lay" (p. 98).

By contrast, Lewis writes: "Muhammad was, so to speak, his own Constantine. In the religiously conceived polity that he founded and headed at Medina, the Prophet and his successors confronted the realities of the state and, before very long, of a vast and spreading empire. At no time did they create any institution corresponding to, or even remotely resembling, the church in Christendom" (pp. 98-99).

As there is no church, naturally there is no clergy. The relationship between the believer and God requires no sacraments and therefore no priesthood. Now, one might think this much to Islam's favor, recalling what Enlightenment thinkers had to say about priests and priestcraft. But the absence of priests has a converse: As there is no clergy in Islam, so there is no laity. "The idea that any group of persons, any kind of activities, any part of human life is in any sense outside the scope of religious law and jurisdiction is alien to Muslim thought" (p. 100). By that fact alone, the possibility of any project similar to the West's Enlightenment was rendered impossible.

Another line of thought led to the same sad result. Because there is no religious authority in Islam, Lewis says, one might go so far as to say there is no such thing as orthodoxy and heresy. "Even the major division within Islam, between Sunnis and Shi'a, arose over an historical conflict about the political leadership of the community, not over any question of doctrine" (p. 100). Beyond that internal division, obviously, there is a distinction between belief and unbelief, Muslim and infidel. But, as is the case with many religions, Islamic society offered a rather tolerant (though distinctly subordinate) place to the unbeliever. The West, which most definitely did have a concept of heresy, discovered through its wars of religion the benefits of toleration. "After centuries of bloody strife and persecution, growing numbers of Christians finally concluded that only . . . by depriving the state of the power to interfere in the affairs of the church, could they achieve any tolerable coexistence between people of differing faiths and creeds" (p. 103). And of course, they had their own deepest traditions to fall back on in arriving at that renewed separation. Muslims, in addition to lacking such traditions, also did not encounter the problem of internal religious warfare on the same magnitude as Christians and "therefore required no such answer" as secularization and tolerance (p. 104).


In his last two chapters, Lewis proceeds to offer other possible reasons for the difficulty Islam has had in modernizing. For example, he believes that the Muslim world has trouble grasping that individuals with different purposes can join in coordinated and mutually profitable activities. But his way of making this point is allusive in the extreme.

For example, he mentions the West's development of polyphonic music, beginning about 1100 (p. 128). About that development, music historian Alec Harman has written: "So long as the parts [of a part song] moved at the same time there was no difficulty in keeping together, but when, as happened at the beginning of the twelfth century, the chant melody was performed in long-drawn-out notes above which was added a florid organalis part, the problem of ensemble became serious" (Man and His Music: The Story of Musical Experience in the West, Mediaeval and Renaissance Music, p. 45). Classical Arab music, by contrast, has apparently been largely monophonic. But can one deduce important conclusions from that difference? Lewis apparently thinks so. Commenting on polyphony, he says:

Different performers play together, from different scores, producing a result that is greater than the sum of its parts. With a little imagination one may discern the same feature in other aspects of Western culture—in democratic politics and in team games, both of which require cooperation, in harmony if not in unison, of different performers playing different parts in a common purpose (pp. 128-29).

That is inference with a vengeance.

To be fair, however, Lewis buttresses his argument about coordination in other ways—for example, by pointing to the tardy adoption of public clocks in the Islamic world. The mechanical clock was invented in the West in the 1300s and appeared first on monastic buildings (to regulate worship) and then on town halls (to regulate city life). It took two centuries for the mechanical clock to enter the Middle East, and then it came only as an imported item, so that maintenance and repair remained severe problems. What is most remarkable, however, is the delay in setting up public clocks. "It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that the first public clock in Istanbul—perhaps indeed in any Islamic country—was installed in the grounds of the Dolmabache Palace" (p. 125). Again, Lewis seems to imply, we see here a deep-seated antipathy on the part of Muslims to having their lives ruled by punctuality and temporal coordination.

Why might that be? Lewis mentions, though does not insist upon, the fact that one word used in the Qur'an for time, dahr, gives rise to dahriyya, "followers of time," "the classical term used by Muslim theologians for materialism in its various forms" (p. 131). And he ends his penultimate chapter with this quotation from a postwar French traveler, citing the opinion of "wise and experienced men" of the Middle East on the vice of punctuality: "Strict exactitude has minor advantages, but is very inconvenient. It lacks suppleness, it lacks fantasy, it lacks cheerfulness, even dignity" (p. 132).

These are interesting anecdotes, but they raise two questions: Are they sufficient to demonstrate a broad cultural antipathy to temporal coordination? And: If such antipathy exists, is it detrimental to modernization? Clearly, Lewis's evidence does not amount to a demonstration, however suggestive it may be. As to the second point, I believe Lewis is right in holding that modernization requires temporal coordination, but he needs to show why. One cannot simply observe that railroads employ timetables. One needs to show how temporal coordination on a vast scale is necessary to the gains of the myriad mutually profitable interactions that characterize modernity.


Reading Lewis's descriptions of the vibrant intellectual life of "medieval" Islam, it is easy to fall in with him and ask: What went wrong? But that is a mistake. First, it offers only a snapshot history. Yes, Islamic civilization was far superior to Western civilization in the early Middle Ages. But if we are comparing Islamic civilization and the West during the 600s and 700s, we must remember that the latter had been pulverized by barbaric invasions, while Muslims were taking over as the rulers of several highly advanced areas—in the Levant and Persia. Under the circumstances, superiority as such proves little. If we are looking at Islamic civilization and the West during the 800s, 900s, and 1000s, we must remember that the West was just beginning to recover from total destruction, while Islamic civilization was reaching its peak.

What we need to compare, then, is not the respective cultural levels of East and West at a given moment, but the respective attitudes. What attitudes did Islamic civilization bring to absorbing and extending the existing knowledge they found in the East? What attitudes did the Carolingians and post-Carolingians bring to absorbing and extending the existing knowledge they found in Ireland and Spain? And why did these two cultures have the attitudes they did?

In other words, we must start by asking: What went right? What did Islam do that brought it to a flourishing height—and why? Was its intellectual wealth largely a matter of having a rich inheritance fall into its lap? Or was it largely a matter of internally generated curiosity? And of course we must ask the same for the medieval West. Only then will we be in a position to ask: What went wrong in Islamic civilization? And: What did not go wrong in the West? If Islam's surge to the fore was simply the result of a great inheritance, then its fall requires no explanation. Once the inheritance was absorbed, Islam went no further. But if Islam's surge was indeed internally generated, to a great extent, then it does look as if some civilizational switch was turned off at the end of the medieval period, and that requires an explanation. Lewis gives one the impression that Islam did generate its own cultural energy and even many cultural advances. But he does not even hint at the philosophy that might have caused that internal energy, and so, of course, he does not tell us what became of it.

That is what he needs to do. Lewis needs to tell us how he interprets the battle in medieval Islam between those who viewed philosophy as the handmaiden of theology (kalam) and those who viewed it as an independent branch of knowledge (falsafah), one capable of saying which theological assertions are literal and which allegorical. Most especially, Lewis needs to compare the effects of Islamic theologians' successful attacks on the most brilliant advocate of falsafah, the ardent Aristotelian Averroes (1126-98), and the Catholic Church's canonization of its most ardent Aristotelian, Thomas Aquinas (1225-74).

This article was originally published in the March 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.

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