At 96, Historian Lewis Reflects On 'A Century' Over his long academic career, Bernard Lewis has arguably become the world's greatest historian of the Middle East. Now, at 96, Lewis turns his attention inward in Notes on a Century, a memoir that looks back on his life, work and legacy.
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At 96, Historian Lewis Reflects On 'A Century'

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At 96, Historian Lewis Reflects On 'A Century'

At 96, Historian Lewis Reflects On 'A Century'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Asked why he always deals with sensitive subjects, Middle East historian Bernard Lewis replied that the answer lay embedded in the question. The sensitive part of the body, physical or social, is where something is wrong, he wrote. Sensitivity is the signal the body sends that something needs attention.

The linguist and scholar's prolific and influential career began before the second world war, and in a new memoir he covers more than a few of those sensitive areas, race and slavery in Islam, the clash of civilizations, his long argument with scholar Edward Said and his role as an advisor to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

We want to hear from students of Middle East history today about taboos. What's sensitive or even dangerous to write about? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, a cause, stop and frisk, and an effect, a safer city. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen joins us. But first, Bernard Lewis joins us from the studios of member station WHYY in Philadelphia. His latest book is "Notes On A Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian," and Bernard Lewis, thanks so much for coming in today.

BERNARD LEWIS: Delighted to be with you.

CONAN: And I'd like to start by asking you about your least popular books, which cover race and slavery in Islam. There is a - we think of race, tend to think of race as a construct that's linked to the transatlantic slave trade. Is - are race and slavery linked in the Islamic world?

LEWIS: Oh yes certainly, very much so. Slavery was not an American invention. It was imported from the Old World. When the European and later American slave dealers went to Africa to get slaves, they didn't go out and hunt for them, they bought them. They bought them from local slave dealers. It was already a well-established industry, going back many centuries.

CONAN: And this industry, as you suggest, there's endless documentation, more and more every week, it seems, on slavery in the United States, in the New World and even in Europe, as you note in your book, yet there seems to be very little about slavery in the Middle East.

LEWIS: And because it's not politically correct.

CONAN: And why is that?

LEWIS: Well, one must avoid anything that is critical in dealing with the Middle East. You can be critical of anything European or American. You can be critical of anything Christian or Jewish, but not beyond that.

CONAN: Islam itself, of course, that's a very dangerous area to write about.

LEWIS: Exactly.

CONAN: The origins of Islam itself, some, particularly in Germany, scholars there have begun to question whether Muhammad was a real person or not, and boy, that's dangerous territory.

LEWIS: Yeah. I personally believe that he was, but I am not a specialist on that area and that era, and I don't want to go into that.

CONAN: I wanted to ask you, though, about another area of taboo. You write, of course, that all societies have them, different taboos in different societies, and ours is a different form of political correctness. And you write about the difficulties in academe that those who disagree with the late Edward Said have in their profession.

LEWIS: That is true. There is - there is an enforced orthodoxy in Middle Eastern studies in many universities all over the country, enforced with a rigor unknown since the days of the Inquisition in Southern Europe: You are a Saidian, or you have to choose some other profession.

CONAN: Choose some other profession, it's that serious?

LEWIS: No, I mean, it's not stated quite in that form, but if you want to get a job and succeed in the profession, it's necessary to toe the line.

CONAN: Edward Said's seminal book, of course, is called "Orientalism," and in it, you are cited as the, I guess, the chief of the Orientalists.

LEWIS: Yeah, he does me too much honor.

CONAN: But criticized for essentially being a non-Arab writing about the Arab world.

LEWIS: Yes. As long as - I was asked to comment on that once when I was visiting California, and I said here you have a world-famous institute of oceanography, and according to the Said doctrine, it should be manned by a faculty of fish.


CONAN: You met him, I gather, once for a debate.

LEWIS: Just once, yes.

CONAN: And how did you get along?

LEWIS: Well, we didn't really meet. It was a purely formal occasion. It was a debate. I mean we...

CONAN: And - go ahead, I'm sorry.

LEWIS: We were introduced. We debated briefly, but we didn't have any kind of conversation.

CONAN: And you never wrote to him, he never wrote to you?

LEWIS: We didn't have any direct communication, no.

CONAN: Would it be fair to say that his - well, how would you characterize his views of you?

LEWIS: Hostile.

CONAN: Because?

LEWIS: He felt that I was intruding on other people's territory.

CONAN: That it was - you were a Westerner intruding on somebody else's preserve, particularly his?

LEWIS: Exactly, yes.

CONAN: All right. Let us go to another area of controversy. Samuel Huntington, of course famous for - made the phrase "clash of civilizations" famous. He acknowledges that he of course borrowed it from you. But it is interesting to me that you wrote it in the context of the ideologies of two contrasting religions being almost identical.

LEWIS: Well, my point was that the - there was this long clash between Christendom and Islam, and the clash arose in many respects more from their resemblances than from their differences. What Muslims and Christians have in common is the belief that they are the fortunate recipients of God's final revelation to humanity, which it is their duty not to keep selfishly to themselves like the Jews and the Buddhists but to bring to the rest of humanity, removing whatever obstacles there may be in the way.

And where you had two religions with this shared ideology living side by side, conflict between them was inevitable.

CONAN: Yet that might be descriptive of a world several hundred years ago. Does it still apply today?

LEWIS: No, I don't think so, not in that sense, not in the sense of rival religious revelations. It did apply in the sense of a different way of life, a different philosophy, a different system of economics, for example in our confrontation with the Soviet Union.

CONAN: With the Soviet Union.

LEWIS: Yes, when it was alive and well.

CONAN: Because the Soviet Union was the challenger to the, as you describe it, the millennial enemy.


CONAN: And the millennial enemy was seen as the cause and reason for the downtrodden state of so many in the Islamic world.

LEWIS: Exactly.

CONAN: We want to get callers in on the conversation, particularly students of Middle East history. What is taboo? What is sensitive to write or talk about? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Again, the phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is And let's start with Mohamed(ph), Mohamed's with us from Madison in Wisconsin.

MOHAMED: Yes, I'm an imam, and I'm Muslim. I'm at a mosque, and I've also been an imam in the correctional system for 15 years. And most of this discourse of this subject occurs between Afrocentrics and indigenous African-American Muslim. I have no problem with acknowledging that Arabs participated in the slave trade. I'm not an apologist for Arabs.

But Islam does not sanction cruel slavery. And to suggest that the Arabs' participation in the slave trade is worse and more destructive than the European and American transatlantic slave trade is ludicrous.

CONAN: Well, with respect, Mohamed, that is not what Professor Lewis said.

MOHAMED: That's what most Afrocentrics like Chancellor Williams said.

CONAN: He's not on the show today.

MOHAMED: And Molefi Asante.

CONAN: They're not on the show today. With respect, they're not on the show today.

MOHAMED: Right, but in researching, I've never heard of this gentleman except when I researched this among Afrocentrics, and his voice came over YouTube making these kind of statements, that the Arab participation in the slave trade was worse and more destructive than the European and American transatlantic slave trades. And I'll say again that's ludicrous.

LEWIS: I'm not aware of anyone having said that. The Arab participation in the slave trade was very much the same as the European and the American participation with this difference, that it started earlier and continued later.

CONAN: Mohamed, thanks very much for the phone call, (unintelligible). Let's see if we can go next to - this is - well, we'll get another caller in just a moment. The - here it is, Mark(ph), and Mark's on the line from Baton Rouge.

MARK: Yes, I wanted to thank you for having this, and I wanted to ask if you could discuss the religious tolerance that took place in the Mediterranean under Islamic rule.

LEWIS: Yes, there was certainly a measure of tolerance. Not only did it take place, it is actually prescribed. It is required by Islam, part of the basic rules of Islam as laid down in the Quran require a measure of tolerance. But one has to be careful in how one understands that term.

In the first place, it doesn't apply to everybody. It only applies to monotheists.

MARK: Yes.

LEWIS: In the second place, it does not grant them equal status. It grants them an inferior status with some, though not all, of the rights of the dominant group. But it does allow them to practice their own religions and follow their own laws, and in one respect it is more tolerant than our present Western system and that is they were allowed to live under their own laws and follow their own religions and even enforce their own laws in such matters as marriage and inheritance and so on.

MARK: Thank you.

CONAN: Is it also not correct, I think you wrote in your book, Bernard Lewis, that from this point of view, the Islamic point of view, it is right and normal for Muslims to rule over non-Muslims?

LEWIS: Yes, of course it is obviously right that the true believers should rule over the unbelievers, or the misbelievers.

CONAN: The misbelievers.

LEWIS: Well, the unbelievers are those who have no faith, and the misbelievers are those who have some faith but get it partly wrong.

CONAN: And that is either those, to some degree, whose faith preceded or...

LEWIS: Well, that means basically Christians and Jews.

CONAN: Christians and Jews.

LEWIS: Christians and Jews are monotheists, and they did receive revelations, but from the Muslim point of view, they mishandled those revelations. They got them wrong. They distorted them.

CONAN: Mark, thanks very much for the phone call. We're talking with Middle East historian Bernard Lewis, his latest book "Notes on a Century." We want to hear from students of Middle East history about taboos, what's sensitive or even dangerous to write about. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Bernard Lewis first traveled to the Middle East in 1937, arriving in Alexandria, Egypt; then on to Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Turkey. In the years since, he's witnessed or taken part in some of the transformative events around the Middle East.

After 32 books, he's out with a new memoir, "Notes On A Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian." We'd like to hear from students of Middle East history today about taboos. What's sensitive or even dangerous to write about? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Bernard Lewis, I'd like to ask you about another element of your work, and that is your facility with languages, from, well, ancient Greek to many Turkish dialects and the importance for an historian of being able to read sources in the language they were written.

LEWIS: Well, I had the good - excuse me. I had the good fortune to grow up in England, where we had to learn French and Latin, so starting from quite early years of education I had to learn two languages, one living, one classical, and that made me - familiarized me with the techniques of learning a language so that later, when in the course of my studies I had to deal with other languages, I knew how to set about learning a language.

CONAN: Is it absolutely critical to - for an historian to be able to read sources in the original?

LEWIS: Oh, absolutely. I think that a historian cannot work seriously unless he can read his sources in the original.

CONAN: Give us - for an example, you were the first Western historian given access to the archives of the Ottoman Empire. How important was it in that respect for you to be able to read, well, some pretty archaic language in that respect?

LEWIS: It was crucially important. I had the good fortune to be allowed into the Ottoman archives. As you said, I was the first Westerner. This was not because of any special privilege on my part; it was because I just happened to apply at the time when they decided to admit foreigners, and I was the first one.

In order to read those documents, you have first of all to be able to read the script, and not just to know another alphabet but to be able to read it in a variety of bureaucratic scripts. And second, you need to know the technical language of the administration. And unless you can read them and understand them, obviously you're wasting your time in the archives, wasting your opportunities.

CONAN: And the difference being, you describe it in the book, the example you gave was previously an historian was able to write Sultan So-and-so ordered an architect to build a mosque. Once you'd been in the archives and were able to read that language, you had vast amounts of information on exactly what went into it.

LEWIS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the sultan ordered the building of a mosque, that's one thing, but in the archives you find the records for the building. So you know how much it cost, how long it took, what people were employed, how much they were paid and so on and so forth. It's invaluable economic information, economic and social information.

CONAN: And the source of that data, all of that data, this is huge amounts of information. Has it all been delved?

LEWIS: Oh no, there's still a lot there that hasn't been explored. There's still a vast amount of information in the imperial Ottoman archives that haven't yet been used. But there are people working on them now that they admit people. And people go there every year and work in the Ottoman archives, and a good deal of work is being published on them. But there's still a lot more to do.

CONAN: One of your areas of interest when you started out as a young historian was on the Assassins sect, about whom much is imagined but very little is actually known except from your work. And part of the problem was you were able to visit some of their villages in what is now Syria as a young man but then prohibited for many years.

LEWIS: At that time I was able to go, yes, but now it's no longer possible.

CONAN: Tell us a little bit about these people. Again, we think of them as in battle with the Crusaders. In fact, most of the time they were not.

LEWIS: No, they weren't attacking the Crusaders. They were mainly attacking the Muslims. This was a Muslim rebel group, and their aim was to take over the world of Islam. I mean, this was an opposition within Islam and a very serious one.

CONAN: And are they analogous to Osama bin Laden?

LEWIS: I don't see that at all, no.

CONAN: Do we learn anything about modern-day terrorism from their actions?

LEWIS: No, I think they were much more gentlemanly than the modern-day terrorists. I mean, they generally took great care not to cause any injury to innocent bystanders, and they took great care not to cause injury to women and children. They made no attempt to escape but usually stayed there and perished themselves. No, as I say, they were very different from the modern variety.

CONAN: Some of your work on Islam and the Islamic world came to great attention after 9/11. In fact, you've said Osama bin Laden made me famous.

LEWIS: Yes, that is so. It just so happened that I had published a couple of books just about that time. So they made it to the bestseller lists.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. We'll go to Carl(ph), Carl with us from Las Vegas.

CARL: Hi. Dr. Lewis, it's a pleasure having you on the show today. I enjoyed listening to you. I wonder if you could comment on the role that religious law superseding civil law has in conflict in the world.

LEWIS: I'm sorry, I don't understand the question.

CARL: Religious law superseding civil law has caused conflict in the world. Can you comment on that, please?

LEWIS: Well, from the Muslim point of view, there is only religious law. There is the holy law of Islam, which is the Sharia. The rest is simply local rules and regulations. It is not law in any significant sense of that term.

CARL: Can I follow up on that?

CONAN: Go ahead.

LEWIS: I'm sorry?

CONAN: He wanted to follow up on that. Go ahead.

CARL: Rules that govern society's behavior is civil religious. It seems that civil law has a civilizing effect on society whereas religious law traditionally, in any religion, causes conflict. Would you comment on that, please?

LEWIS: I don't think religious law necessarily causes conflict. It may do. Conflict occurs between people who have a sort of sum-total view of the world that, you know, we are right, you are wrong, and therefore we must continue to fight until we subjugate you.

CARL: Exactly, which is religious law's role in conflict, and unfortunately that's probably what's wrong with the world today.

LEWIS: Yeah, but that wasn't - that's not only a religious attitude, it's also the attitude, say, of communism and fascism, which are not religious movements. But they have the same attitude to the world. And in religion, certainly in Islam, there is a prescribed measure of tolerance which is allowed.

CONAN: Carl, thanks very much. Let's go next to - this is Ken, and Ken's with us from Bel Air in Maryland.

KEN: Hello?

CONAN: Ken, you're on the air, go ahead, please.

KEN: OK, thanks a lot. I was trying to point out that there was a caliphate in Spain, and the caliph was taken, because of his liberal treatment of Christians and other religions, was actually recalled back to the Middle East and given a choice of recanting or - recanting and giving up his victories or being beheaded.

The instructor that I had at the time pointed out that had Galileo or Copernicus been doing their research in Spain, they would have been treated with honor as scientists, pointing out just, you know, the sun is not the center of the universe, and the Earth revolves around it, little things like that, and also that there was a Muslim city in - I believe it was Sicily, that was actually a fiefdom of the then-called Holy Roman Empire.

You know, just conflict between state and science that could have turned out differently had Galileo and Copernicus been doing their research elsewhere.

CONAN: Ken, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. The existence of the Muslim rulers in Spain, of course, is hardly a secret. In fact, one of the things you write about in the book is that some in the Islamic world, when you mentioned Spain, it's immediately followed by the phrase: Should it be returned to the rule of Islam?

LEWIS: Right. No, from the Muslim point of view, the tasks of the Muslims have been explained a number of times. The first task is to expel the intruders from the Muslim lands. When that has been completed, the second task is to recover the lost lands of Islam, which means Spain and Portugal and Sicily and the Balkans. And then the third is to bring the true faith to the infidels all over the world.

CONAN: We're talking with historian Bernard Lewis. His new book is "Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian." And let's see if we can go next to - this is James. James with us from Seattle. James, are you there?

JAMES: Yes. I'm here.

CONAN: Yes. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JAMES: Yeah. I was a Fulbright scholar to Syria in 2006, and I never attempted to write about this subject, but just in my conversations with people then in the Middle East, I always felt it was difficult to talk about the act of writing down the Quran and whether or not that's the same version of the Quran that is most widely read today.

CONAN: Yes. You address that in the book, Professor Lewis, that indeed in the Western world it's common to understand that the Bible was written by different people, in different times and different places, not so with the Quran.

LEWIS: No. The Muslim concept of Scripture is very different from the Judeo-Christian concept. I mean, the Bible, as you said, consists of a number of different books written by different human beings at different times. Human beings that we believe to have been divinely inspired, but nevertheless human beings. The Quran is one book and one book, single and undivided, eternal and uncreated from the Muslim point of view. It has existed since all - for all time. And to question it in any way is to question Islam. That is the Muslim view.

CONAN: James, thank you. There's an email from Michael: Thank you, Professor Lewis. As a graduate of U.C. Berkeley's Middle East studies program, I've seen firsthand, it is taboo to support Israel in any way. Do you think there's any way this will change?

LEWIS: It has already changing. There are some people in the Islamic world who realize that Israel can be useful to them in some ways. They don't go public with it, but it's already existing.

CONAN: Yet, for example, for many years, Turkey was Israel's closest ally in the Middle East...


CONAN: terms of cooperation.

LEWIS: Right.

CONAN: That seems to have come to an end.

LEWIS: That has come to an end, at least for the time being, yes. They also had very quite friendly relations with Iran for quite a while. And they have other relationships in various parts of the Islamic world, which, for obvious reasons, are not publicized.

CONAN: Again, our guest is Bernard Lewis. "Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian" is his latest book. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And here's an email from Alex in San Francisco. Would you care to elaborate on your support of the war in Iraq and the notion that it would bring about a wave of modernization in the Middle East? I must confess that, like many, I'm not familiar with the specifics of your arguments and your rationale at the time nor what you said since. I'd like to hear your thoughts on the matter.

LEWIS: Yes. It is not true that I supported the war on - in Iraq. On the contrary, I opposed it, meaning the second war. The first one, after the conquest of Kuwait, was necessary. I don't think anybody opposed that. We're talking about the second one. At the time, the Iraqis in the north were running a very successful separate state in northern Iraq, which was working very well, and they've made a proposal to establish a provisional government of free Iraq in Iraq, on Iraqi soil.

They did not ask for any financial or military help. All that they asked from Washington was political help and a declaration of support. They didn't get it. All that they got was the invasion, which I felt then and think now, was a mistake. We should have supported the local regime, not made that unnecessary and pointless attack on Saddam Hussein's regime.

CONAN: Yet, you were an adviser to Vice President Cheney, among others. You were asked for your advice. Did you express that at the time?

LEWIS: I did indeed.

CONAN: You have been identified with some, though you say you disagreed on policy, as the intellectual father of the invasion of Iraq.

LEWIS: That is nonsense. I was opposed to it at the time and ever since.

CONAN: And...

LEWIS: I thought it was necessary to intervene but not in this way, to intervene by helping the people in northern Iraq, as I said, I said so at the time and I've said so ever since.

CONAN: There was, I think, an op-ed I remember from The Wall Street Journal whose title - you're not necessarily responsible for the title - but "Time for Toppling," I think, it was.


CONAN: But that was for regime change, to support those in the north and not for - an - effectively, an American-led invasion...

LEWIS: Exactly.

CONAN: ...yes. You've been associated with policymakers in different places, not just Washington, D.C., but in the Middle East over the years, as well - from people in Israel, to people in Jordan, people in Cairo, as well, back in Egypt. As you look back on the world as you knew it in the late 20th century, what do you think has come about in the changes that we've seen - so many changes - just in the past year or so?

LEWIS: Mm-hmm. That's a difficult question to answer. Overall, I think we're moving closer to an awareness of the realities of life in the region. And that's a good sign. Um, fewer distractions, more realities.

CONAN: Realities in what sense?

LEWIS: People are realizing what the real issues are and what the real dangers are.

CONAN: Among the issues that you write about in your book - and this is an organization that goes well back into history, and you cover quite a bit in your book - the Muslim Brotherhood, which we see re-emerging as a major political factor in Egypt and, well, making its presence felt in several other states around the area as well.

LEWIS: Yes. I mean, a takeover of the Islamic world by the Muslim Brotherhood or organizations of the same kind would be a catastrophe, above all, for the Muslims themselves.

CONAN: And do you feel...

LEWIS: And there are many Muslims who are well aware of that.

CONAN: I have to say, despite that warning, that your book is suffused with optimism that this is a part of the world that can yet sort out its problems and retake its rightful place as a beacon of modernism.

LEWIS: Well, I wouldn't quite go that far, but, yes, I am cautiously optimistic. And the total exports of the entire Arab world, other than oil and gas, according to a recently published Arab survey, amount to less than those of Finland, one small European country. They have nothing else at all. Sooner or later, oil and gas will be either exhausted or superseded, and then they will have to confront the realities of life. And there are signs, in some places, that they already are beginning to do so...

CONAN: Bernard Lewis...

LEWIS: And that will be a good sign.

CONAN: ...thank you very much for your time today.

LEWIS: You're very welcome.

CONAN: Bernard Lewis's new book "Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian." He joined us from our member station in Philadelphia, WHYY. Up next, New York's controversial stop-and-frisk program. Do results justify questionable police tactics? 800-989-8255. Email us: Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen will join us. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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