Review: ‘What Went Wrong?’ by Bernard Lewis

Fill in the space ahead: “___ created a world civilization, polyethnic, multiracial, international, one might even say intercontinental.”

The United States seems to fit. Our pop culture permeates the world, as do our military bases. U.S. citizens are not merely polyethnic and multiracial; diversity in America is palpably different than in other countries. A son of Honduran immigrants born here is not just legally an American citizen, he’s an American full stop, in a way the same son born abroad would not be a German or a Chinese. And between our polyglot population at home and our protectorates oceans away, the U.S. is both an international and intercontinental empire in all but name.

But “United States” does not fill that blank; rather, “Islam” does. More specifically, Islamic civilization at the peak of its power, in the centuries before the Renaissance and Reformation kick-started the rise of Western Europe. The question Bernard Lewis’ book thus tries to answer is the same as its title: “What Went Wrong?” How did a society so advanced in the arts and sciences of civilization come to see itself surpassed by medieval Europe, what Lewis describes as “in a sense a dependent of the Islamic world”? His answer in this concise volume is interesting, but not as interesting as the lesson it holds for the United States today.

“What Went Wrong” charts the history of the Islamic world’s engagements with the West. In that sense it’s a useful primer for those both curious about the history of the two civilizations and those not opposed to reading an abridged version of it. Here you’ll learn enough about the sieges of Vienna and the reign of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to answer a few $400 Jeopardy questions.

But the book is better read as a warning than a history. The West’s position now is similar to that of Islam’s in 1500. Leading the world in technological progress and military prowess tempts us toward insularity and arrogance. These vices led the Renaissance and Reformation — harbingers of compounding technological and military advancements — to pass “virtually unnoticed” in the Middle East, largely because the region’s leaders “didn’t see the West as equals, just barbarians with nothing useful to impart.” 

Medical knowledge suffered from a similar stagnation, according to Lewis, as Islamic scholars thought their understanding of medicine had already reached perfection, and no longer needed to be developed. “Knowledge was something to be acquired, stored, if necessary bought,” Lewis writes, “rather than grown or developed.” The West — fragmented politically and more pluralist as a result — enjoyed a different and more inquisitive attitude toward science. This wasn’t preordained. Medieval Islamic society was highly inventive, but by “the end of the Middle Ages, there was a dramatic change.” While European society advanced, in the Middle East “independent inquiry virtually came to an end” as science was reduced to veneration of the past. The former students in the West had become teachers, with the second siege of Vienna in 1683 instilling a painful lesson.

Further humiliations followed. Napoleon entered Egypt in 1798, and his army remained until the British ejected him. Muslims received the message with shame: Not only could European powers now act with impunity in their territory, only another European power could displace them. How they reacted is instructive: “The basic fault,” most believed, “was falling away from the good old ways, Islamic and Ottoman; the basic remedy was a return to them.” This response has proved stubbornly persistent. As Lewis writes, across time Muslim societies have identified various problems — Europe, Asia, America, Judaism, Christianity, economics — “but the solution is always the same: restore the old law, and root out pagan influences.”

That solution has not worked. But failure in the East can help the West realize how susceptible we can be to similar reasoning, and guard ourselves against the same arrogant insularity that led to Islam’s eclipse. The most lasting impression of “What Went Wrong” then is to leave the reader wondering how the West can prevent some future Bernard Lewis from asking that same question about ourselves.

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