Title : “ The Methodology of Bernard Lewis in his approach to the intellectual aspects of Islamic History.” (in Arabic)
Scholar: Mazin S. Motabbagani.
University: Imam Muhammad ibn Saud University, College of Da wa at Madinah , Department of Orientalism. Year 1414(1994).
This thesis is an attempt to study the methodology of Bernard Lewis in his approach to the intellectual aspects of the Islamic History which logically excludes his dealing with the facts of the Islamic history unless they are pertinent to the intellectual aspects. In order to achieve this goal the topic was divided into four main chapters. The first deals with the main features of the British and American schools of Orientalism. hem a brief sketch of Lewis’ life has been given , while the third section gives a detailed Lewis’ works in addition to his various academic activities.
The second chapter deals with the Qur’an , Hadith, Islamic theology and some topics of Figh. Each of them has been dealt with in a separate section.
The third chapter is about Islamic history and civilization. It was divided into seven sections as follows:
1- The Biography of the Prophet (PBUH)
2- The reign of the first four Caliphs,
3- The Muslim Jihad to pave the way for the spread of Islam.
4- Modern history: Ottoman Caliphate, Zionism and the Palestinian
5- Lewis’ views about Islamic civilization,
6- The structure of Islamic society.
7- A critique of Lewis’ methodology in his study of Islamic history
The fourth chapter deals with the contemporary Muslim World in three sections. The first is about Lewis’ views of nationalism and communism. The second is concerned with westernization. and The third deals with modern Islamic movements starting before the second World War until the present time. This also includes Lewis’ dealing with the so-called “Fundamentalism.”
The thesis is concluded by a summary of the dissertation, a bibliography and some appendices.
Bernard Lewis represents a multi-faceted phenomenon in his approach to Orientalism. He combines the characteristics of the British and American schools of Orientalism due to his British upbringing and education since he studied under prominent British Orientalists. He was also subject to the influences of American Orientalism since the early fifties through his various appointments as visiting professor at many American universities. This influence was strengthened when he finally relocated to the USA in 1974.
Lewis has followed the footsteps of traditional Orientalism in his study of Islam, its theology , Islamic jurisprudence and in his study of Muslim sects and the Ottoman Archives, and in his writings about Muslim society, modern economics and religion in the Middle East alongwith the Arab-Israeli struggle. he also took interest in recent years in Islamic movements and their attitudes towards the West.
After a thorough and deep study of Lewis’ writings in order to extract his methodology and refute his misgivings or shortcomings, it was found that his study of the Qur’an, Hadith, Islamic theology and Figh was neither original nor authentic. He repeated the old views of past orientalists such as Goldzeiher, Schacht, Brocklemann, Gibb, etc. However, Lewis has presented old views in his lucid English and fertile activity as ‘new discoveries’ which made them acceptable to Western readers and conferred upon him a high status and a scholarly standing , and permitted him to present himself as an authority in these topics, especially after passing of most of the earlier prominent orientalists and the absence of new figures at par with his scholarship.
It was found that Lewis’ method was to continuously suspect the validity of the Qur’anic text while his methodology mixed truth and falsehood. He also ignored the facts of the Qur’an.
Lewis is Known for presenting his ‘opinions’ with great degree of finesse as if they were established facts. He challenged, for example, the linguistic miracle of the Qur’an by giving a few examples of foreign words in the Qur’an and occluded from this that the Qur’an is not an authentic text!
His study of the Hadith and the Sunna is based on his refusal to accept the validity of the Hadith because it occasionally suffered from falsification. He failed to look deeply and seriously into the efforts of the Hadith scholars to purify Hadith from all traces of falsification. We find that Lewis said good-bye to objectivity where he asserted the validity of Tabaqat literature (biographies) but denied it for Hadith. Lewis has used his inverted logic to deride Islam and Muslims when he chooses to cite some ahadith without looking into their degree of validity according to Muslim standards.
Lewis has chosen to study the weak points- from his point of view- of the Islamic history or highlighting some sects such as al-Munafiqun(hypocrites)- which he termed the ‘opposition party’, Isma’ilis and the Zinj etc. He describes these sects with traits of heroism and greatness. He portrays their leaders as geniuses, claiming that these sects possessed authentic ideologies and organizations not yet fully discovered. Lewis also claimed, without presenting solid proofs that Sunni sources are not trustworthy.
In order to distort the intellectual , theological and sociological aspects of Islamic history, Lewis purposely reverts to linguistic explanations of some terms without referring to Islamic sources or Arabic dictionaries. He also uses hasty generalizations and past judgments in dealing with Islamic Jurisprudence. He also purposely ignores some aspects of Islamic Jihad. His secularist background prevailed upon his treatment of the relations between the Muslim “Ulama and rulers, inspite of his admission of their role in objecting to any violations of the Islamic Shari’at.
Lewis also ignored or belittled the Islamic political thought by attributing it to pre-Islamic practices or accusing it of dependence on foreign sources such as Persian, Greek, or Roman.
His methodology is also characterizes at times by taking texts out of context and the misuse of Islamic and Christian sources.
Lewis has followed the footsteps of many orientalists in depending on sources not specialized in the topics he deals with, such as depending on al-Aghani as a source for theological, sociological and historical topics. Other examples of such sources are Alf laila wa lila and al-Iqd al-Farid. Lewis also reverts at times to anonymous sources or the use of the phrase ‘sources say’ without specifying them.
In his study of the biography of the Prophet (PBUH). Lewis did not abide by scholarly objectivity. His writings are simply polemical in many ways. He selected and used the evidence to support conclusions determined in advance by ideological and institutional authorities. Lewis depends largely, at times solely, on orientalist sources for his study for his study of the Sirah. He was even selective so as to choose only which paint a negative picture of the Prophet(PBUH). At the same time he completely ignored the more objective sources.
Lewis’ writings about the Islamic civilization are more centered around one theme; to refute its authenticity and to highlight the role played by non-Muslims in the building of this civilization. He also belittled the status of the Islamic civilization in the fields of trade and industry. He also adopted the view of other orientalists in describing the Muslim mind to be ‘ atomistic.’
Despite Lewis’ courageous attitude in the beginning of his career in criticizing the polemical writings of some previous orientalists such as Lammans, we found that Lewis committed the same mistakes he had criticized.
In order to bestow objectivity upon himself and other orientalists, Lewis came up with two categories for historians or specialists in Islamic and Arabic studies: those belonging to the ‘free world’ and the others belonging to a world not enjoying such so-called ‘freedom’. Those belonging to the ‘free-world’ are free from pressures, and their incentives is pursuit of knowledge and nothing but knowledge.
Lewis methodology is also characterized by greatly simplifying the historical facts or stating them very briefly to the degree that these facts loose their value. He also concentrated on the economical and material elements in history beside his aligning himself with Zionism.
In dealing with currant affairs which dominated his writings in recent years, Lewis tended to deal with these topics in the journalistic way focusing on sensationalism and at the same time neglecting facts.
In spite of all these negative points in the methodology of Lewis, he has offered a critical view of the orientalist approach to the Islamic studies and uncovered many of their shortcomings. He has been successful in developing these studies, from an orientalis point of view, in the UK and the USA. However, the final decision remains that negativism, flaws and hostility towards Islam and Muslims far exceed the positive aspects of his studies.
Therefore the study recommends, Muslims scholars should continue to study and scrutinize the works of orientalists. These studies, however, cannot be achieved by individual efforts alone. Indeed such efforts call for the expansion of departments concerned with these studies in our universities and research centres. They should be equipped with the necessary materials(i.e. books, periodicals, research tools etc.) Muslim scholars must also be encouraged to study European languages. They should also contribute to orientalist periodicals and participate in their conferences and debates.
The works of Arabic and Islamic students of Orientalism must aim at scrutinizing and critical studies. At the same time we should be prepared to take the lead in presenting our history and other subjects as what Dr. Al-Umery once said ‘ we must first depict ourselves before ourselves, thereafter only we may take the next step and depict ourselves before others.’
Reproduced from: Muslim & Arabic Perspectives l :10-12 (1994) p.p. 637-642)