• TheNews International
  • facebook
  • twitter
  • rss

Lewis-Said controversy

In the final analysis, Bernard Lewis was a greater historian who used his erudition to support the imperialist ambitions of America and Israel; while Edward Said was a better intellectual, never shy of challenging the dominant discourses

Lewis-Said controversy

This year marks the 40th anniversary since Edward Said’s groundbreaking book Orientalism shook the academic stage in 1978. Before one could write something to commemorate this event, the news of Bernard Lewis’ death on May 19, 2018, triggered a train of thought that took me back to the 1980s.

Bernard Lewis who died at the age of 102 in New Jersey, US, was a staunch opponent of Edward Said and his critique of Orientalism. Though Orientalism had hit the stands in the late 1970s, it was in the early 1980s that political activists and students such as myself heard about the ripples it had created in intellectual circles.

Bernard Lewis was almost 20 years older than Edward Said and had established himself as a renowned historian much earlier than Said had his first success as a writer and public intellectual. For most of the last decades of the 20th century, Lewis and Bernard sparred with each other and provided not only a bit of amusement but also substantial food for thought to students of history. Before we discuss the Lewis-Said controversy, first something about Lewis who was Jewish by birth and British by nationality, till he became a naturalised American citizen in 1982.

By the time Said was born in 1935 in Jerusalem, Lewis was about to graduate from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), at University of London. After completing his post-graduate studies in Middle Eastern history at the University of Paris, he started teaching at SOAS. By the time the Second World War started in 1939, Lewis had already acquired his PhD in the history of Islam specifically focusing on the origins of Ismailism. By 1950, when Said was still at school, Lewis was appointed to the new chair in Near and Middle Eastern History at the University of London.

Lewis’s early research also focused on professional guilds of medieval Islam. After the creation of Israel, it became difficult for Jews to travel to Arab countries for research; so he shifted his focus from Arab to Ottoman sources. He had easy access to Ottoman archives in Turkey and from there he continued his research on Arab history through Ottoman material. In his book The Origins of Ismailism he discussed at length the so-called murderous sect of Assassins who in the 12th and 13th centuries trained extremist Muslims to kill prominent personalities within the fold of Islam.

From 1950s to 1970s, Lewis’s research mostly focused on writing articles and books in which he highlighted extremist tendencies in Muslims originating from early Islam through the medieval period to the modern era. The Arabs in History (1950), The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961), The Middle East and the West (1964), and The Assassins (1967) are some of his major works of that period. In a nutshell, his basic idea was that the forces of mysticism, passion, and violence have always been a volatile combination, inspiring murderous tendencies throughout Islamic history.

Lewis tried to prove that just like in Hasan bin Sabbah’s time — who was reported to be the founder of the Assassins — power in the Islamic world has been based among a small and wealthy elite. This has prompted terrorism to this day. Terrorists’ methods made them unassailable; if one was struck down another would step forward. It was a beast that could not be defeated. This all precipitates wide-spread hatred and suspicion within the Muslim world. In Persia, the Assassins were finished off by the Mongols; in Syria by the Egyptian Mamluks.

Lewis and Said were poles apart in their interpretation, orientation, and reading of original sources and texts. If Lewis was interested in highlighting the down sides of the Middle Eastern history, Said had prepared himself to expose the selective approach and a condescending narration of the so-called Orientalists including Lewis.

According to Lewis, the Assassins did succeed in leaving a poisonous legacy that could reach down the centuries and infect minds as diverse as those of children in Gaza, Muslim youth in Britain, and even in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In all this, Lewis conveniently ignores the terror perpetrated by the Israeli state on Palestinians. He is also credited with coining the term ‘clash of civilization’ in the 1950s that was later used by Samuel Huntington as the title of his book in 1990s. Throughout this period, Lewis enjoyed extremely good relations with the state of Israel and, in his own words, he was a good friend of the highest ranking Israeli officials including prime ministers.

In one of the TV interviews — available on YouTube — Lewis acknowledges that he had his highest admiration for Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and defence minister, Moshe Dayan. In the mid-1970s, he moved to the US and joined Princeton University on attractive terms. From 1950 to 1975, Lewis had established himself as a leading authority on Islam and Muslim history. His advice was sought not only by researchers and students but also by politicians and policy makers on both sides of the Atlantic, especially by the governments of Israel and the USA.


There comes Edward Said. Said had done his first degree at Princeton University in 1957, almost 20 years before Lewis joined it. Said obtained his PhD in English Literature in 1964 from Harvard University and joined Columbia University to teach comparative literature. Being a Christian from Palestine, Said had closely observed the aftermath of the colonial rule in the Middle East. Even in literature, his first published book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966), he had challenged the dominant colonial discourse in the academia. Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1899) was foundational to Said’s future intellectual ventures in which he questioned the colonial mindset — in art, culture, history, philology, and philosophy.

So Lewis and Said were poles apart in their interpretation, orientation, and reading of original sources and texts. If Lewis was interested in highlighting the down sides of the Middle Eastern history, Said had prepared himself to expose the selective approach and a condescending narration of the so-called Orientalists including Bernard Lewis. By the late 1970s, Lewis had already spent over four decades in documenting and presenting his own version of Islamic history that had received a widespread acceptance among the Western circles — especially Jewish ones — who found an intellectual basis for their mischiefs in the Middle East.

When Orientalism appeared in 1978, that was the period when the US had retreated from Vietnam; and countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, and Nicaragua had become hotbeds for anti-American feelings. For a time, it seemed that the left was in ascendency and the time for the Western dominance was almost over. Under these circumstances, when the readers of developing countries such as Pakistan got to read Orientalism, it made sense to them. The analysis and description of Orientalist thinking presented by Said looked cogent and plausible. When this writer first read Orientalism, Bernard Lewis was a new name for him.

As was the common practice in leftist circles around the world, opposing views were not appreciated or welcomed. The arguments presented in Orientalism appeared to be on solid academic grounds. Said had presented Orientalists (Western experts of the east) as the source of false cultural representations with which the Western world perceived the Middle East. Though not many had read the original writings of the Orientalists, almost every leftist took Said at face value. Much in the same fashion as the West had received Bernard Lewis with all his partial interpretations.

Orientalism established Said as a strong cultural critic. He had proposed the existence of a ‘subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arab-Islamic people and their culture’. Said stressed this prejudice originated from Western culture’s long tradition of false, romanticised images of Asia in general, and the Middle East in particular. To the readers in Pakistan who had read Sibte Hasan’s writings in Urdu and the books of Marxist philosophy printed by Progress Publishers in Moscow, the colonial powers were nothing short of demons, and Said had exposed these wily creatures who used even academics as their tools.


Said’s contention that biased cultural representations by Orientalists had served as implicit justifications for colonial and imperial ambitions of the European powers and the US was not off the mark. Even more appealing to the leftists was the way Said denounced the political and cultural malpractices of the regimes of the ruling Arab elites who had internalised those false representations of Arabic and Islamic cultures. This condemnation of the West and of the ruling elites was in consonance with the Marxist ideology prevalent at that time: Anglo-American Orientalists were bad. Full stop.

Though Bernard Lewis had contradicted Said in his articles in the early 1980s, this writer never got to read any of his writings at that time. It was only in the 1990s, that I got to read Bernard Lewis in detail. I was teaching M Phil classes at the Area Study Centre for Europe in Karachi, when I found the entire collection of his books in the library. The first book that I read from him was The Muslim Discovery of Europe, first published in 1982. I was impressed by the book and got it photocopied and bound (I still have it on my shelf. Copyrights didn’t bother me at the time).

Its dozen or so chapters are a testament to the intellectual erudition of Bernard Lewis. The points raised by Edward Said now seemed only partially true. By the end of the 20th century, the Marxist philosophy was in decline and the Left movement had almost disappeared, at least in Pakistan. One felt more liberated to read the ‘other point of view’ that was earlier maligned in the leftist circles. I found Lewis’s other books such as The Political Language of Islam and Race and Slavery in the Middle East equally convincing. By that time, terrorism had become a reality and the observations made by Lewis resonated well with the current realities.


The internet in the 21st century made it possible to access the original exchange of arguments between Lewis and Said published in the New York Review of Books in 1982. These articles offer an entertaining read. The first by Lewis is titled The Question of Orientalism. In this article Lewis tries to defend himself by questioning Said’s competence as a historian. His argument is that Said was not familiar with the works of all Orientalists as Lewis was; hence Said’s interpretation of Orientalism itself was biased and based on uncooked ideas. When you read Lewis’s defence you tend to agree with him despite his verbosity.

Then comes Said’s rebuttal with equally convincing counterattacks. In 1993, Said expanded his arguments in Culture and Imperialism. This is a marvellous collection of essays, mostly focusing on the Western literature written in 18th and 19th centuries. Since literature was his primary field, he could expound his ideas in a much better way than he could in terms of pure history as Lewis had done. Not only that, during all that period, Said emerged as a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause. He was also a piano player and an expert on the history of music and opera.

So, in brief, who is the winner?

In terms of ideological soundness, both stand on high pedestals in their manner; though, both were prone to making sweeping statements at times. But on the intellectual side, Edward Said wins the game. To this writer, Lewis’s actual downfall came in the 21st century, after Said had died in 2003. In the post-9/11 world, Lewis exposed himself as never before. His books in the last 20 years such as The Crisis of Islam and What Went Wrong smack clearly of his prejudices. During the Bush administration, Lewis served as a warmonger.

Though Lewis never admitted his role in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, he was clearly one of the masterminds; and for that he was feted by the likes of Wolfowitz, Cheney, and Bush himself.

Read also: Crossing of the pens – II

In the final analysis, perhaps Lewis was a greater historian; but Said was a better intellectual. Lewis used his erudition to support the imperialist ambitions of America and Israel. Edward was a nomad of knowledge, never content with one field of study, he surpassed disciplinary boundaries and was never shy of challenging the dominant discourses propounded by the establishments in the West.

To me, in terms of conceptual clarity, political consciousness and social understanding Said is head and shoulders above Lewis. If I can idealise any intellectual — despite his shortcomings — it would be Said and not Lewis.

Dr Naazir Mahmood

Naazir Mahmood
The writer has been associated with the education sector since 1990 as teacher, teacher educator, project manager, monitor and evaluator.


  • Adnan Ashraf Warraich

    Another enlightening article. Historians who serve the dictators and colonial forces are doomed to be remembered as merely the tools of barbarity. On the other hand, the ones who use their intellectual and scholarly abilities to create a sense of proportion in this world of huge imbalances, keep on influencing the minds of serious readers.

    • You are right Warraich, balance is the key.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


 characters available

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Scroll To Top