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What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East

3.7 out of 5 stars 164 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0060516055
ISBN-10: 0060516054
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Editorial Reviews


This had a press date of 2 May. Bernard did a big interview with the SUNDAY TIMES NEWS REVIEW section which ran on 5 May and we have had some good reviewcoverage with reviews still coming in: ''WHAT WENT WRONG? is a masterly, engaging account of its (the Islamic state) steady decline and clashes with modernity.'Stephen Grey, THE SUNDAY TIMES 'Those who wish to gain a deeper understanding of the current problems in the Middle East should start by reading this book, written by a great scholar whose respect for a once-great civilisation is as clear as his cool-headed analysis of what it has become today.'Ian Buruma, THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH 'authoritative book'Akbar Ahmed,THE GUARDIAN 'bold lines of discussion and masterly perspective'Anton La Guardian, THE DAILY TELEGRAPH 'the book is a great pleasure to read because of the breadth of Lewis's knowledge, his ability to summon up the illuminating quotation, his familiarity with unsual byways of historical investigation, and, of course, the delightful fluency of his pen.'ME Yapp, LITERARY REVIEW 'Few contemporary scholars of Islamic culture and history can match the erudition and insight of Lewis. In this work he offers a learned and absorbing explanation of the reasonsfor the rather sad state in which the Muslim world finds itself today despite all the achievements and glory that Islam enjoyed in medieval times. And a very compelling explanation it is too'.COMMONWEALTH LAWYERS ASSOCIATION 2002 The book was also selected by John Gross in the SUNDAY TELEGRAPH for his summe --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Bernard Lewis is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton University. An eminent authority on Middle Eastern history, he is the author of over two dozen books, most notably The Arabs in History, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, The Political Language of Islam, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, and The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. What Went Wrong? has been translated into more than a dozen languages, including Arabic and Turkish. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.


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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
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (164 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #30,591 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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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Format: Paperback
Certainly "What went wrong?" is a provocative question that many will find unpalatable from the start. However, it is the right question, and Lewis answers the question superbly. To deny that that the current state of Islam and the Islamic world is not in dire decay is simply agenda-driven or politically-correct blindness. Oppression of women and ethnic minorities is rampant -- women are not allowed to own property, drive cars, appear in public without the veil, and instead undergo clitorectomies, honor killings, and enslavement. Similarly, one can look at Muslim treatment of other Muslims, for starters, such as Saddam's gassing of the kurds, or the Iran-Iraq war, or the current Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq.

Lewis traces the insularity of Islam after its heyday during the middle ages, when it rejected or was slow to adopt "infidel" technologies, such as modern weaponry and the printing press. At the same time, Islamic societies did import some of the poorer offerings of the Western World, such as fascism and centralization of state power (brought on by bureaucracy, record keeping, and so on). These led to the Islamofascist dictatorships -- secular strongmen bolstered by an ideology, which we see in Egypt or Syria, or fundamentalist ones such as Iran, and would be examples, such as the resurrection of the caliphate that Bin Ladin seeks. A sad byproduct of this centralization was the elimination of intermediate power holders in the Islamic societies, which acted as a constraint on the capriciousness of central authorities. The loss of Halifa, the "rightful" empire of Islam, has fueled resentment as Muslims confuse Westernization with Modernity, or resent the successes of modernity, which have painfully few roots in the Islamic world.
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I've read three of Lewis' books now and I would say unequivocally that for anyone interested in understanding how the Middle East got to where it is now, you will find very compelling explanations in this work. The rise and spread of Islam is front and center. The overriding theme of the book is that what made Islam successful at the beginning became a trap as time went on. Specifically, the wildfire like spread of Islam around the Mediterranean forced homogeneity (a common language, Arabic, and common basic moral values) upon a formerly disparate population. Unfortunately, this was done not by a sectarian government, but by a theocracy. Since religion by nature is righteous, dogmatic and rigid, this great culture would eventually succumb to cultural, economic and scientific rigor mortis. Meanwhile the barbarians of Europe were catching up with the cultural achievments of the Middle East, and daring to experiment with the mix of government and religion. Eventually, European civilization surpased the Middle East and Europeans ventured world wide rather than sticking close to home as did Muslims. This brought more resources and fresh ideas back to Europe...potent fuel feeding the growth of European civilization. The clash between these two great civilizations dragged on until European armies simply crushed the declining and backward armies of the Middle East setting off a period of colonialism that sucked what little life was left out of the Islamic Middle East. There is much more juicy information than this preview. I highly recommend this book.
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