The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Bernard Lewis on Arab political language

Last week I got a new book - well, a 1988 book - by Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam. I need to take notes, so I'll do that here. Have already done that here, in parts; but I've decided to separate out this overview, which may now serve as my review.

This book is a collection of lectures delivered in the fall of 1986, at the University of Chicago. This was a "conservative" outpost at the time, which meant Reaganist. So it was friendly soil for "neo-conservatives". Lewis was preparing neoconservatives to face the next great challenge after post-Chernobyl Marxism, which (Lewis believed) was political Islam, starting with Iran.

These lectures therefore focus on the Islam which faced mediaeval Europe. Accordingly it mainly touches Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. Some reviewers mumble that this had led to a book about the Middle East and not about Islam, but I say that its focus doesn't matter. Islam's laws of war and of international politics grew out of this belt from Spain to Samarkand, and were secondarily exported to - say - India.

As a collection of short lectures, each chapter here doesn't get as deep into the topic(s) as some might like. I've been filling gaps on this day's blog.

First chapter-lecture is on metaphor and allusion, with a focus on the twentieth century. What I'm hoping to get out of this is, given my research, any nonquranic expressions, which I'm hoping will be prequranic. Lewis doesn't (here) deal with Syriac, despite the numerous Syriacisms in the Qur'an well-known to the West since the early twentieth century (he'll touch it in the next chapter). So Syriacisms don't feature into his page 7. The lecture does rather better with Old Arabic, at page 11.

Second lecture on "the body politic" actually goes further than the anatomical metaphors, so the title isn't great. I do however appreciate its explanation how Islam's strongly theocentric worldview demanded a language to describe "facts on the ground", as it were. Like regions that didn't pay taxes to the "sultan" - which will be dealt with in more detail in lecture #4.

Third lecture on "the rulers and the ruled" was mixed, for what I demand of it. I had to skim the "rulers" part, which went up to page 58. This part elaborates upon a famed pessimistic hadith: "caliphs, amirs, kings, finally tyrants". To that, Lewis's footnotes 2 and especially 6 over pp. 132-4 must fight a rear action against the conquering force of Martin Hinds and Lewis's own former pupil Patricia Crone. Sadly Lewis only got to read God's Caliph when his own book was almost in press. Worse, this lecture is on occasion just wrong, like when it calls sura 12's Egyptian king 'Aziz the "pharaoh" (p. 55). This word is not only absent from that sura, but misses its point - which is to eulogise the 'abd of (this) 'Aziz who is Joseph (plug, plug!). The Prophet's master is not and cannot be a Pharaoh. The chapter's second "ruled" part is much better. Although the master / servant thingy would be supplemented by Ulrike Mitter, "Unconditional manumission of slaves in early Islamic law: a hadith analysis" (if you can find it).

Fourth lecture on "war and peace" is a return to form. We get definitions of sulh and of 'ahd-nameh pacts (real pacts, not this camel-turd). Peace may be a legal fiction in Islam, until all the world acknowledges God's rule; but it's a fiction with a framework, as long as no-one perceives a shift in fortune. Note that this how peace works everywhere; Thomas Hobbes, yo. Lewis p. 79 notes that when Muslims comment upon Western treaties, they use sulh for them too, like Utrecht and Versailles. What was Versailles if not an armistice for twenty years?

Fifth and last lecture on "limits of obedience" mainly applies to the modern period; because here is when Muslims were being occupied by Christians first in far-flung Sicily and Spain, and finally at home in Palestine and al-Sham. Muslims owed no moral loyalty to tyrants (Lewis cites sura 26, a man after mine own heart), but might have to obey even unbelievers if they could protect from anarchy.

Overall this book is valuable, worth the four bucks I exchanged for it and more, and I wish I'd bought it when I saw it on the used-bookstore shelf, which is even before I'd got The Arabs in History. It's possible that when I leafed through it, I'd accidentally opened the first half of that third chapter which, as mentioned, was outdated even by a mid-1980s standard. Which means I lost a game of Russian-roulette to a mere tenth of this book. Let us now, belatedly, award nine out of ten stars.

posted by Zimri on 10:50 | link | 0 comments

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