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What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East Paperback – January 7, 2003

325 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0060516055 ISBN-10: 0060516054

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Bernard Lewis is the West's greatest historian and interpreter of the Near East. Books such as The Middle East and The Arabs in History are required reading for anybody who hopes to understand the region and its people. Now Lewis offers What Went Wrong?, a concise and timely survey of how Islamic civilization fell from worldwide leadership in almost every frontier of human knowledge five or six centuries ago to a "poor, weak, and ignorant" backwater that is today dominated by "shabby tyrannies ... modern only in their apparatus of repression and terror." He offers no easy answers, but does provide an engaging chronicle of the Arab encounter with Europe in all its military, economic, and cultural dimensions. The most dramatic reversal, he says, may have occurred in the sciences: "Those who had been disciples now became teachers; those who had been masters became pupils, often reluctant and resentful pupils." Today's Arab governments have blamed their plight on any number of external culprits, from Western imperialism to the Jews. Lewis believes they must instead commit to putting their own houses in order: "If the peoples of Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, [and] poverty and oppression." Anybody who wants to understand the historical backdrop to September 11 would do well to look for it on these pages. --John Miller --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

In the fields of Islamic and Middle Eastern history, few people are as prominent and prolific as Lewis, emeritus professor at Princeton. This time around, however, he has written a book with an inconsistent argument and an erratic narrative consisting of recycled themes from his earlier books, a work that sheds no new light on Middle Eastern history or on the events of September 11. His general argument is that Islamic civilization, once flourishing and tolerant, has in modern times become stagnant. This, he contends, has led to considerable soul-searching among Muslims, who ask themselves, "What went wrong?" But while sometimes the author states that there is a critical inquiry into the source of economic weakness in Muslim civilizations, other times he says that, instead of looking into the mirror, Muslims have blamed their problems on Europeans or Jews and thus fed their sense of victimhood. In medieval times, Lewis notes, Muslim civilization transmitted scientific ideas into Europe. But after offering intriguing examples of Muslim physicians and astronomers on the cutting edge in the 13th to 15th centuries, this chapter abruptly ends by stating that in modern times the roles have reversed, leaving the reader baffled over what between the 15th and the 20th centuries may have contributed to this reversal. Thus, the book raises more questions than it answers. Furthermore, Lewis discounts the effects of various decisions made by European and American colonial powers that negatively impacted the development of a democratic political community and a viable economy in the Middle East. Lewis's earlier books, such as The Muslim Discovery of Europe and The Middle East and the West, are much more useful for anyone seeking to understand the historical dynamic between these two parts of the world. First serial to Atlantic Monthly.

Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (January 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060516054
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060516055
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (325 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #77,033 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

126 of 136 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 3, 2002
Format: Hardcover
As a number of reviewers have noted, this is not Lewis's best book. It could have used an editing to reduce redundancy, and it leaves some important questions unanswered. For example, Lewis raises the fascinating issue of the failure of the Middle Eastern world--alone, it seems--to appreciate Western Classical music. Ergo, what? He doesn't say. One is left wondering what he meant to say by raising this issue.
Having said that, I have been disappointed by the hostility toward Lewis that some reviewers on this site have manifested. Most egregiously, a reviewer on this site, whom I will not name, makes some patently untrue statments about Lewis and his work, in a seeming attempt to prejudice possible readers. To set the record straight: Lewis in fact DOES distinguish between "wesernization" and "modernization," doing so several times in the course of this book, and indicating exactly what is meant by both terms. Also, Lewis has NEVER denied the genocide of Armenians by the Turks at the beginning of the last century. Quite the opposite: in his history of modern Turkey, he gives the number of slaughtered Armenians as about 1.5 million--hardly a denial. What he said in his controversial "Le Monde" interview was that there was no evidence that the massacres represented an OFFICIAL POLICY of the Turkish government. Quite a big difference. This was his assessment as an historian who has mined the documentary record; I have no reason to doubt that he is correct. Let's drop the hysteria, shall we? The interview is available, and one is free to read it for oneself. And to say that Lewis was "convicted" in a French court without mentioning that his "punishment" was a fine of two Francs rather overstates the severity with which the quirky French legal system treated his analysis.
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140 of 156 people found the following review helpful By maximusone on January 17, 2003
Format: Paperback
It is difficult not to ask this question when one sees that during the Middle Ages Islamic civilisation was far more advanced than Western Christian civilization in most areas, including science. Yet today, the combined non-petrol exports of all Arab countries amount to less than those of Finland, and in Spain each year more books are translated than the Arab world has during the last 1000 years.
Lewis clearly belongs to the school, which seeks to explain the fortune or misfortune of civilisations through their cultures, rather than geography or political events. There have been many studies in recent times trying to explain the backwardness of Arab countries in economical and other matters (see e.g. Arab World Competitiveness Report 2002-2002, Arab Human Development report 2002). All of these stop at secondary explanations, such as the discrimination of women, lack of freedom etc..... Lewis traces these back to their roots : the culture of Islam
Lewis paints a picture of an Ottoman world, the most powerful entity in and a proxy for the Islam world, not interested in learning much from the infidel west, except in military matters (to averts defeats). Cultural Exchanges between the West and the Ottoman world had been a one-way street for centuries, the West absorbing what was useful, and the Ottoman empire too aware of its superiority to contemplate learning from infidels. This superiority in part was due to Islam's view of Christianity as a precursor of Islam, i.e. less perfect. Still, military defeats in the 17th and 18th century forced the Ottomans to ask themselves what caused their decline and what was the solution. In the 19th century Ottoman rulers undertook a number of modernisations, which they hoped would strengthen the empire.
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76 of 84 people found the following review helpful By John G. Gleeson Sr. on August 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought this book after the horrific events of September 11 caused me to wonder how any faith, no matter how militant, could justify the murder of innocents. I am a retired lawyer and, when I had the time, pursued the study of history as a hobby. I do that a lot now. I understand this country's strengths and weaknesses, and found it beyond belief that we could be hated with such intensity, and that any religion or political philosophy could endorse such obscene behavior. Professor Lewis answers this question with his recognized expert understanding of a failed civilization. While Europe foundered into the dark ages following the fall of Rome, education, much of it from the far east, flourished in the Muslim world. But Western Civilization, largely as a result of the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, secularized government. The Muslim world has not done so to this very day, nor has it pursued scientific inquiry, music or literature, as was the case in the West. Lewis points out that other than seeking to learn about the West's military techniques after suffering a chain of defeats, science,technology, music and the arts were not important to a people who centered their lives on a medieval, militant religion. One of the first collisions between Islamic thought and that of the West arose from the latter's elimination of the slave trade. Slavery, to Islamic ways, was approved by Allah, and thus was not an evil practice.It was a troubling collision of ideas to the East, which has not been fully resolved to date. Lewis helps us to understand that this same antiquated thinking collides with Western enlightenment with respect to the status of women. It is in the area of personal rights and status that brings this failed belief system into profound conflict with Westernism.Read more ›
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What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East
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