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Professor Bernard Lewis—a towering personality on the Middle Eastern academic landscape—passed away on Saturday in Voorhees, New Jersey, just twelve days before his 102nd birthday. Born in London on 31 May 1916, the British-American historian observed, studied, analysed, foresaw and often forewarned much of the shifts and sands of the Middle East since the demise of the Ottoman Empire. His eight-decade long academic journey began in 1937 with his scholarly work on Ismaili, an off-shoot of Shia Islam when he was just 21. His first teaching assignment came the following year and since then he never turned back.

In his university profile Professor Lewis observes, “I was educated in the University of London, primarily but not entirely at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where my B.A. degree was in History with special reference to the Near and Middle East; my Ph.D. in the History of Islam.” Having taught in the University of London from 1949, he moved to Princeton University in 1974 and upon his retirement in 1986 he became professor emeritus. In between became an American citizen in 1982.

Son of a ‘modestly successful Jewish real estate agent’ he carved out an indomitable place as the Islamic scholar and knew Latin, French, Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Hebrew and Italian. In his profile, he describes Assistant Lecturers, his first academic position, as ‘the lowest form of human life in British universities’ a description many would apply to academic institutions across the globe.

In many ways Professor Lewis shaped the Western understanding and appreciation of Islam and the wider Middle East. Not all his admirers are blessed with his sagacity and nuanced understanding of the complexities. Because of the insatiable demand for knowledge about Islam in the West, he once observed, “I have found myself busier than anytime I can remember since the summer of 1945” when the Second World War ended. Interestingly during the War he worked for the British intelligence.

Directly and indirectly Professor Lewis taught, trained, groomed, shaped and inspired scores of scholars and dedicated students of the Middle East. He was able to define and trace the Middle Eastern fault lines such as sectarian divide, radical Islam and authoritarianism long before they became fashionable and scholarly acceptable. He studied the minorities of the Middle East long before it was politically correct to do.

Some of Professor Lewis’s views and positions became controversial. Though accepting the death of a large number of Armenians during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, Lewis was unconvinced of holding the Ottoman Empire responsible for it and was not prepared to call it genocide. Likewise, his endorsement of President George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq earned him more enemies than friends.

Unlike many of his contemporaries and successors, Professor Lewis had a sympathetic understanding of Islam but felt that much of the problems of the Middle East were ‘self-inflicted’ than caused by external interventions or domination. Moving beyond the academic ivory towers he educated the masses through his lucid and persuasive style. He was the first westerner to have access to the Ottoman archives in 1950 and he came out with The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961) and Istanbul and the Civilization of the Ottoman Empire (1963).

A prolific scholar, Professor Lewis published over 30 books and some of his master pieces include The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961) The Assassins (2005), Semites and Anti-Semites (1982) The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (2003), What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (2002); From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, (2004); The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, (1995); Cultures in Conflict, (1994); The Shaping of the Modern Middle East, (1994); The Arabs in History, (1950); Islam and the West, (1993); Islam in History, (2011); Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry, (1990); The Political Language of Islam, Chicago, (1988); The Muslim Discovery of Europe, New York, (1982); The Origins of Ismailism,  (1978);  The Multiple Identities of the Middle East (1998).

And there is a personal angle. One of his seminal works, The Jews of Islam contains a passage wherein Professor Lewis observes:

I recall reading a delightful little pamphlet proving that the Islamic caliphate was superior to the American presidency. This was done by the simple device of defining the caliphate in terms of theological and juridical treatises and the presidency in terms of the latest scandals from Washington. It would of course be equally easy, if anyone thought it worth the trouble, to demonstrate the reverse by the same method—by defining the presidency in terms of the constitution, and the caliphate in terms of gossip from medieval Baghdad, which is not lacking in the sources at our disposal.

Then comes the real message. He goes on to say, “This kind of comparison, however common, is not very helpful. It may be emotionally satisfying, but it is intellectually dishonest to compare one's theory with the other's practice. It is equally misleading to compare one's best with the other’s worst.” As a young doctoral candidate I was reading lines in 1988 and they had a profound impact upon the fertile mind. His words opened my eyes, broadened my horizons and gave words to my thoughts.

A decade later in the late 1990s, I met him after one of his spellbound lectures in the Tel Aviv University and when I showed a copy of his Jews of Islam for autograph, his words were: “You wrote me, didn’t you!” He recollects a letter more than a decade later and after some pleasantries, he said, “I passed through Madras, as it was called then, in the 1960s.”

Professor Bernard Lewis once remarked: “For some, I’m the towering genius… For others, I’m the devil incarnate.” One might agree or disagree with everything he wrote but none could excel his indomitable quest for scholarship on Islam and the Middle East.

Bernard Lewis (31 May 1916-19 May 2018)


As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats, to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy