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Crossing of the pens – II

The long-drawn academic battle between Bernard Lewis and Edward Said

Crossing of the pens – II

I’m reproducing here a friend’s response to my last column on Bernard Lewis. It demonstrates how people believing in plurality and egalitarian values view Lewis.

“I liked your piece very much — it must be good to have a public forum in which to vent your disapprobation of all the pernicious forces in the world which diminish our lives and society. This man was one of them and you took him down a peg or two very nicely,” wrote one of my friends.

That’s a really nice compliment. Generally speaking, Lewis’ opinions and inferences ruffled many academics, like my friend, who is a trained historian from a top British university. A majority of academics, particularly those specialising in Islam and Middle Eastern Studies, look at Lewis’ scholarship with a pinch of salt if not with absolute disdain.

A look at Lewis’ profile reveals similarity between him and Arnold Toynbee, an eminent British scholar in History and author The Study of History. Toynbee, like Lewis, had profound knowledge of several classical languages — including Arabic, Turkish, Latin and Greek. This allowed both the Orientalists to access and utilise the original source material to their advantage.

Classical Orientalist tradition banked heavily on such polyglot scholars like Toynbee and Lewis. William Jones and John Gilchrest too had mastered several languages which helped them to scrutinise India from the vantage point of scholarship, epitomising the western superiority. Scholars reimagined History and Cultural tradition with the help of knowledge of various classical languages.

Toynbee and Lewis were no different. They used their scholarship to construct the eastern (read Islamic) ‘other’ against the western-self. This was also the theme Edward Said, Professor of the Comparative Literature at the University of Columbia, took up in his path-breaking book, Orientalism (1978).

Lewis was proficient in Arabic, Persian, Ottoman, modern Turkish, French and German, and he used these languages during his 60-year-long academic career. He was the co-editor of 11-volume of Cambridge History of Islam and the senior editor of the Encyclopedia of Islam for 31 years. For quite a long time, the western academia imagined Islam and Muslims through his writings.

After the communists ceased to be the chief adversary of the western capitalist world, Lewis was the foremost among scholars who projected Islam and Muslims as the binary opposite to the West.

According to him, Islam since its birth in the 7th century was antithetical to Christian civilisation. For him the West was the modern incarnation of the Christian civilisation whose ascendancy irked Muslims. It was such a reading of Muslims and Middle East, and Lewis’ unequivocal support to the Israeli state and his derision for the Palestinian cause, which stirred Edward Said (1935-2003) into sneeringly describing his scholarship as “old-fashioned Orientalism, which seems to have little feeling for any country in the region other than Turkey”.

To Said, the field of Orientalism was “political intellectualism bent on self-affirmation” and not an objective study. He regarded it as “a form of racism” that worked as a “tool of imperialist domination”. He nursed strong doubts on the scientific neutrality of Middle East scholars, like Lewis.

Lewis retaliated by writing a critique of Orientalism, accusing Said of politicising the scientific study of Middle East (and Arabic studies in particular), neglecting the critique of the scholarly findings of Orientalists, and giving a “free rein” to his biases. In the afterword to the 1995 edition of the book, Said replied to Lewis’ criticisms of the first edition of Orientalism.

In a much cited interview of Said with an Egyptian weekly, Al-Ahram, he berated Lewis’ knowledge of Middle East as biased and that it cannot be taken seriously. Said thought Lewis’ scholarship lacked substantive worth as he “hasn’t set foot in the Middle East” for at least 40 years. Said held Lewis “knows something about Turkey” but nothing about Middle East.

An important criticism that Said levelled against Lewis was that he treated Islam as “a monolithic entity” without acknowledging the nuances of its plurality, internal dynamics, and historical complexities, and accused him of “demagogy and downright ignorance.”

In one of his important books, Covering Islam, Said underscored Lewis’ inability to deal with the diversity of Muslims. He stated, “The Islamic peoples are entitled to their own cultural, political, and historical practices, free from Lewis’ calculated attempt to show that because they are not Western… they can’t be good.”

For more than two decades, Said and Lewis fought many academic battles. Lewis’ supporters accused Said of being a supporter of terrorism because of his support to the Palestinian cause; Said’s supporters accused Lewis of propagating the Zionists conspiracy. Whether Lewis peddled Zionist conspiracy is not an issue here. It’s certain he was a staunch supporter of Israel.

Lewis’ reaction to Said’s onslaught was equally pointed and passionate. Rejecting the view that western scholarship was biased against Middle East, Lewis responded that Orientalism developed as a facet of European humanism, independent of the past European imperial expansion. He underlined that “the French and English had pursued the study of Islam in the 16th and 17th centuries, yet not in an organized way, but long before they had any control or hope of control in the Middle East, and that much of Orientalist study did nothing to advance the cause of imperialism.”

But one may argue here that the Orientalist study that Lewis so zealously advocated, colluded with the Imperialist forces which spread its tentacles across the continents of Asia and Africa in the subsequent centuries. In his 1993 book, Islam and the West, Lewis wrote, “What imperial purpose was served by deciphering the ancient Egyptian language, for example, and then restoring to the Egyptians knowledge of and pride in their forgotten, ancient past?” That assertion demonstrates Lewis’ failure to take cognizance of the mediatory control which western scholars had acquired over the Egyptian knowledge.

The fact remains that the major chunk of Middle Eastern history and the cultural tradition was reimagined and then reinvented in light of the canons of western epistemology.

Lewis’ scholarship is an avid testimony of the perception that prioritised western knowledge system over the knowledge systems emanating from various regions falling in the eastern hemisphere. Lewis in The Muslim Discovery of Europe (1982) claimed that the western quest for knowledge about other societies was unique in its display of disinterested curiosity, which Muslims did not reciprocate towards Europe. He also asserted that “knowledge about Europe [was] the only acceptable criterion for true knowledge”. Such were the formulations that triggered, and as some analyst said, “the crossing of the pens” between Said and Lewis.

Lewis wrote a critique of Orientalism, in an essay titled, The Question of Orientalism, which was published in The New York Review of Books (1982), where he accused Said of politicising the scientific study of Middle East (and Arabic studies in particular), neglecting the critique of the scholarly findings of the Orientalists, and giving “free rein” to his biases. In the afterword to the 1995 edition of the book, Said replied to Lewis’ criticisms of the first edition of Orientalism.

Thus, the battle went on…

This long-drawn academic battle, often reduced to polemics, between the two highly distinguished and influential American academics of the 20th century, highlights the crucial and highly controversial place of Middle East Studies and Islamic Studies in western academia. Western academics, like Bernard Lewis, have often failed to understand the various nuances of the arguments that Middle East scholars, like Edward Said, have advanced.

Read also: Lewis-Said controversy

Nevertheless, the huge influence that Lewis had on the academic disciplines of his time cannot be wished away. His death invites more critical attention to his work, and a more informed critique of his work.

— Concluded


Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore


  • A very informative and interesting article. The efforts of Dr. Tahir Kamran, to bring theoretical debates into public arena, are highly appreciative. I, however, wonder the closeness of Jinnah’s and Pakistan State’s conception of Islam with the monolithic understanding of Islam as expounded by Bernard Lewis. Isn’t that going closer to Edward Said’s conception of pluralistic Islam means going away from the core idea of Pakistan?

  • A rebuttal of Lewis’s Jefferson Lecture may be read at

    Originally published in Social Text 30 (1992). Also published in Pakistan in my Ambiguities of Heritage (Citybooks, Karachi, 1999)

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