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28 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on 7 February 2003
"What Went Wrong?" is a short question about a very big problem. The Muslim world, which once led the world in wealth, arts and sciences, now lags most of the world in wealth, arts and sciences. What was once a dominant world culture is now no longer dominant and has been surpassed not only by the West, but also has been surpassed by much of East Asia. This is the problem that is the subject of this book.
Bernard Lewis writes lucidly about what he knows best - the results of his many years of distinguished scholarship in the history of the Middle East. He sheds much light on the answer to the question of "what went wrong?". He starts with the Muslim world's discovery of a challenge on its frontiers with the history of its military failures that started in the early 18th century. He then goes on to describe the impact of this challenge on the Muslim cultural world. The impact was mostly in the form of various Muslim attempts (mostly failed) to capture for itself the secret ingredients of wealth and power. More than any other author Prof. Lewis will bring you closer to the answers and prospects for the future. His arguments are particularly good on the Western impact on politics, administration and science in the Middle East. His book has little to say on the economic history of the region, which I thought would be central to answering the question "what went wrong?".
The reader will enjoy the book for its style and the authority of its scholarship. Note the chapter notes and bibliography that are both solidly packed with sources in the original Middle Eastern languages. This is a refreshing change from most other popular scholarship on the topic (e.g. Esposito's The Islamic Threat) that seems to be based upon secondary sources in only one language - English.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 29 July 2006
After finishing this book I wasnt sure if the author had answered the question the book posed. The first 80-100 pages of this book give a good history of the relationship between Europe and the Middle East which is useful to those without a deep knowledge of the subject. The Author then moves on to the changes, mainly cultural, in the Middle East and the effects of these changes on Muslims.

The author, in my opinion doesnt explain in enough detail why the present situation exists and the political events of the twentieth century are overlooked somewhat. This is probably because of the relatively short length of the book (at 180 pages). Had the book been longer, the author could, Im sure, have provided a detailed history of the muslim world and then concentrated on the effects of the changes. In less than 200 pages the author seems to have been hard pressed to detail the changes to the muslim world and the consequences.

Overall this is a good book but not for the beginner. Due to its brief length and therefore a lack of space for explanation, some knowledge of the Muslim world and Islam would be useful, particularly names of posts and religious terms. As a short read on a important contemporary issue, I would recommend it.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 15 July 2004
This interesting book is really two books in one. The first part of this book is a fascinating history of the interaction between the Ottoman Empire and the Christian West. The author begins in the sixteenth century, when the Ottoman Empire appeared to be the height of power and culture, while Christian Europe appeared to be comparatively weak and barbarous. However, as the dialogue continues the reader sees the Empire pass into first relative and then absolute decline, as the West gained more and more power. The steps taken by the Ottomans to stem their decline are shown, as is the reason why they were ineffective. This dialogue is quite interesting, and explains a great deal about how the Muslim world evolved.
Starting in the sixth chapter, the author changes to an examination of Islam, and its fundamental differences with Christianity. In particular, I found the author's analysis of the polyphonic nature of Western music and syncretic nature of Western civilization to be quite intriguing.
The final chapter brings the narrative around to the subject of the title, What Went Wrong? Why is it that Islam was so inventive and civilized at it's beginning, and yet moved so far away from such things? No definite answer is given.
This book is a fascinating look at Islam, one that I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in understanding the evolution of Islam, and how the Muslim world go to where it is today.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 27 September 2004
Bernard Lewis is a master of his subject, and a master of literary style. His work is both informative and revealing with regards to the history of Islam and its present situation in the world, which in turn leads to an alternative perception of Western society. Most importantly, he is strikingly imaginative and innovative in his approach to the question - the analagous relationship mentioned below between polyphonic music, democracy and football provides an excellent example of that.
There are two criticisms I would make though. Firstly, (and it is a minor criticism) Lewis' tone can be condescending and patronising as he characterises Muslim attempts to imitate, or their outright rejection of, Western values. Sure, it's funny - but it lacked a bit of empathy and was more of an antrhopologist's outside-looking-in view of Islam rather than an insider's knowledge.
Secondly, Lewis does not answer the question "What went wrong?" and the related question (at least, I think it is inherently related) WHY did it go wrong? Having finished the book, I'm not sure as to when, what or why it changed, but I'm very aware that Islam's relationship with to West DID change and what the symptoms of that change are - and (and this is where Lewis is very good) what the crucial relevant differences between the two political and social cultures are.
The big question is tackled incisively but all too briefly in the 'Conclusion', the structure of which could suggest a better approach to the specific question. Issues are raised here that could have been drawn out, and in some cases really should have, in the main body of the work - Lewis appears to summarise what has not been expounded. And interesting ideas such as the Judeo-Christian/Judeo-Islamic nature of Israel deserve exploring, not confining to a single paragraph.
In essence, there's no argument running throughout the book that can be neatly tied up in a conclusion as its provocative title would suggest. This isn't surprising - it's formed, in a large part, from lectures and thus wasn't conceived as a coherent whole.
And it isn't actually particularly important - the question of "what went wrong?" and why, would take up a vast scholarly tome and this clearly isn't what Lewis was aiming for. What he sets out to do he achieves in style - a lucid, informative and illuminating and account of the dynamic interaction of Islam with the West.
In fact, exactly what he says in the subtitle.
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11 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 19 February 2010
This was a disappointing book. It does not explain What Went Wrong in Islamic or Middle Eastern society. It could not hope to do so, since apparently Mr. Lewis has no idea, or at least no intention of communicationg to his readers What Went Right in the first place, to apparently Go So Wrong as he thinks it has. The author merely drags old preconceptions out of the smoking rooms of 19th century London clubs and 21st century Administrations, whose denizens were and are always anxious to dress their colonial depredations in the guise of "helping the poor natives" and to dismiss their own failures as the inevitable consequence of attempting to make these ungrateful natives into passable imitations of, of, well, of US.... if you get my meaning.
At one point Lewis explains the lack of translations of western technical and other works into Middle Eastern languages by saying that the only people who might have been able to do this translation were "Levantines" (I can only suppose he means here the mass of people inhabiting the area roughly encompassing present-day Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel and Syria) and that they "had neither the interest nor the capacity" to perform these translations. What utter codswallop!
Mr. Lewis passes over the first 8 or 9 centuries of Islam very cursorily, and yet this was a long and sustained period of great expansion, of the establishment of an Islamic hegemony over a vast area of the world, and of social, economic, cultural and scientific collation and innovation. Lewis is insistent and repetitive in his tedious anecdotes of exasperated westerners encountering obtuse easterners from the 16th century up to the present. But a more sanguine observer might point out that it was only from some time in the 16th century that any European state could make a convincing case for being the equal of, let alone more advanced than, Turkey or Egypt, Persia or Mesopotamia.
Let us further put the time scale into perspective here (try to bear with me here): Islam was born as a religion in the 7th century, and immediately leapt out of the confines of the Arabian peninsula to sweep within a century over an area stretching from Spain and North Africa in the West to India in the East. Nine centuries later it was indeed showing considerable signs of decay and a loss of intellectual innovation. Now let us turn to the present Northern European-based hegemony (here I count the United States as being merely an inheritor and continuation of this Northern European lineage, no offence meant). This European culture required the new-found energy of Protestantism to break the shackles inherited from the long defunct Roman Empire, kept locked as long as possible by the Roman Church, and its great territorial and intellectual expansion occurred in the 16th through 19th centuries. In other words, this expansion is only 500 years old at a very optimistic estimate, whereas the Islamic expansion was 900 years old in the 16th century, or 400 years older than the Northern European expansion is today. Now, can we say we are still as energetic as Islamic civilisation was at its 500 year point? That is around 1150 CE ? This was in fact a very vibrant period of Islamic history, and the very period when the ignorant thugs who made up the overwhelming mass of the Crusaders first butted up against this at the time superior culture. And what will be the state of the Northern European expansion in another 400 years from now? On present indications, probably merely a dim memory, long since replaced by something more vigorous which in its turn is having its heyday.
And then some shallow scholar will write a book, entitled "What Went Wrong......."
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on 20 September 2014
I think I now know why Islamic nations are so out of step with the western world even though they once led it.
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16 of 24 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 31 December 2003
Professor Lewis of Princeton University is a world-renown authority on the history of the Middle East and the author of many books on the subject. Here he expands on lectures given at the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna in 1999 to explore and answer the question of why the preeminent culture in the world during the Middle Ages has become the laggard culture of modern times.
Lewis' point of departure for the lectures can perhaps be taken from page 152:
"By all the standards that matter in the modern world--economic development and job creation, literacy and educational and scientific achievement, political freedom and respect for human rights--what was once a mighty civilization has indeed fallen low." (p. 152)
The question of course is why? Lewis' answer points not to Western imperialism nor the much earlier Mongol invasions, believing them to be "a consequence, not a cause, of the inner weakness of Middle-Eastern states and societies." He notes, first that "the greatest achievements of the Muslim peoples, notably in Iran, came after, not before, the Mongol invasions." Then he points to the "postimperial development of former British possessions...Singapore and Hong Kong...the various lands that once made up the British Empire in India," causing us to wonder why the Middle East did not recover as well. (pp. 152-152)
Lewis makes no clear unequivocal statement about who and/or what is to blame, but it is not Islam itself, he believes, although much of the evidence he presents certainly suggests that some characteristics of Islam are indeed part of the cause, in particular the inability of the Muslim mind to find a way to separate the secular from the religious. Lewis notes that nowhere in the Qu'ran is there anything like the Biblical injunction to "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's"). (p. 97) He adds, "The idea that...any part of human life is in any sense outside the scope of religious law and jurisdiction is alien to Muslim thought." A contributing factor in Lewis' view is the imperfect and selective adoption of Western ways, especially the rise of Western-style nation states with autocratic rulers. He hints that shari'a law itself may also be a factor, writing, "There is [in Islam] distinction between cannon law and civil law, between the law of the church and the law of the state, crucial in Christian history." (p. 100)
In the "Conclusion" Lewis writes, "For others, the main culprit is Muslim sexism, and the relegation of women to an inferior position in society, thus depriving the Islamic world of the talents and energies of half its people." He notes that still others point very interestingly to "the depredations of the goat that, by stripping the bark off trees and tearing up grass by the roots, turned once fertile lands into deserts." Or to, "the exhaustion of precious metals, coinciding with the discovery and exploitation by Europe of the resources of the new world." In this connection he asks, "Why did the discoverers of America sail from Spain and not a Muslim Atlantic port, where such voyages were indeed attempted in earlier times? (pp. 156-157)
For Muslims themselves there is the "blame game" which increasingly points to the Jews and the Americans as the cause of all their troubles. Lewis notes, "For the governments, at once oppressive and ineffectual, that rule much of the Middle East, this game serves a useful, indeed an essential purpose--to explain the poverty that they have failed to alleviate and to justify the tyranny that they have intensified. In this way they seek to deflect the mounting anger of their unhappy subjects against other, outer targets." (p. 159) In this regard, Lewis points to "the events of 1948--the failure of five Arab states and armies to prevent half a million Jews from establishing a state in the debris of the British Mandate for Palestine" as a shock. He adds, "it was bad enough to be defeated by the great imperial powers of the West; to suffer the same fate at the hands of a contemptible gang of Jews was an intolerable humiliation." (p. 154)
The situation in the Middle East today is one of irony: the profits from all those oil riches go not to the people but to the ruling elites while the oil itself is used to power the economies of the west and far east. Meanwhile, the poor get poorer and more desperate to find a target for their frustration. Eventually, I suspect they will realize that blaming the Jews and the West for their troubles is fruitless and they must take a look at themselves and especially their dictatorial, theocratic, monarchical rulers for a solution. The day is coming when the great economies of the world will finally give up their oil addiction. It is too bad that the money from that oil is not now going toward training and educating the people of the Middle East in preparation for that time.
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on 10 November 2015
Excellent oversights, with plenty of historical background.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 29 March 2010
This is a book in my opinion every religious Muslim preachers should read and perhaps than they can see why the Muslim world is suffering. Bernard Shaw, contribution in this book is outstanding, how the Islamic world one the greatest in human history spiral downwards to a point of ridicule!
Muslims who rule do not know how to rule, and that is perhaps their biggest flaws, if the concept of continuity was established within the Muslim states, and respect for human rights as in Islam, the troubles in the Arab and Muslim world would disappear.
Islam and the Muslim world suffered under one huge Empire, because when an Empire grows too big so does its arrogance and this was the failure of the Ottomans, which dragged the rest of the Muslim world with them.
This is a great book to read if anything to understand as the title suggest "what went wrong"
The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror
Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet
An Englishman in Riyadh
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 10 October 2003
Excellent historical background read but lacks in-depth analysis of why Muslims stopped pioneering in so many fields so abrubtly. Lewis focuses on how they tried to catch up with Europe. A good sequel would address the 'Why did it go wrong?' question.
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The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror
The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror by Bernard Lewis (Paperback - 8 Jan. 2004)


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