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on 30 November 2002
Lewis is the Daniel Boorstin of Middle East historians. He brings the same sort of encyclopaedic knowledge to his subject. The vast scope of his erudition is evident on every page in this volume. In fact, if there is anything to quibble about, it may be that few readers will be able to keep pace with him as he traverses Middle-Eastern history and landscape.
Part of the difficulty in keeping up comes from the way in which Lewis presents his information. This is not your typical linear narrative, starting at a particular era and then ploughing forward through time. Though there is an overall progression (we start out in the Roman era and end up in current times), the author also often backtracks when discussing different aspects of the civilizations he covers. So while the book starts out in a relatively chronological manner in the first few chapters(Romans>Byzantines-Crusades>Mongol Invasions>Turkic Ascendency-Ottomans), we suddenly detour to Part IV of the book, entitled "Cross-Sections." Lewis then proceeds to break down different societal components such as "The State," "The Economy," "The Elites," etc. in which he backtracks to provide additional details about groups he has earlier portrayed. This is where I for one, who am looking for enlightenment on these subjects and have no real background scholastically speaking, had a hard time keeping track. I consider myself at least a moderately attentive reader, and a lover of history from Herodotus to Gibbon to Parkman to Tuchman, but felt swamped at times here from the sheer wealth and breadth of information. One also had better be up on their geography from about six different eras in that part of the world. Though there are a series of maps in the appendix, obscure towns, countries and dynasties are paraded forth at a rate that is taxing for the general reader. While we may be familiar with place-names such as Mecca, Medina or even Basra, how many western readers are going to have a mental image of the area that Yathrib sits in? or Nishapur? or Bukhara? The maps don't really help either, as the regions that have the most obscure towns are in areas that are the most darkly shaded, and the print is so fine, it's impossible to make the names out.
All that said, if you want to learn about a region that up until recently not many westerners were really all that interested in, Lewis is an excellent teacher. Just be warned that he is rather a dry lecturer. He's not a "school of color" historian. He's an academic and a pure scholar. There are vitually no anecdotal details. No human interest. No exciting passages or descriptions of great battles. He is a purveyor of information and you will come away from reading <The Middle East> with a lot more information than you came in with. If, like me, you think being at least reasonably well-informed at times such as these is important, you will want to investigate this book.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 26 January 2006
“The Middle East” provides the reader with a well written, fairly easy to follow history of the region over the last two thousand years. I found that it helped draw together diverse facts which I had heard over time. The stories of Byantines and Ottomans, Crusaders and Saracens, Persians, Arabs and Israelis are skillfully interwoven. The history is approached from many perspectives, including religious, political, economic, literary, artistic and others. The story flowed from era to era with hardly a ripple.
I was surprised at the emphasis placed on various themes in the history. For all the controversy over the Crusades, they seemed to be mentioned almost in passing.
One test of a book is whether it helps the reader understand the world of today. This one passes! From the explanation of the evolution of Islamic government over time I obtained a better understanding of the allure for some of a unified Muslim World. “The Middle East” is a valuable read for one searching for an understanding of this perplexing part of our world.
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on 23 August 2011
In a sweeping and vivid survey, renowned historian Bernard Lewis reviews and analyses the history of the Middle East since the birth of Christianity through our modern era, focusing on the successive transfigurations that have configured it. A rather concise but comprehensive overall examination of the last two millennia of the Middle East history. This work is one of the best single volume history of the region, written by a non local authority, like Horani, on the Middle East in Historiography. While the rich tradition, the broader cultural, and linguistic developments that shaped the center of the ancient world, could be elaborated and read by by other specialists in the particular field.

Islam is at the book's core, since its advent that started early, in the seventh century. The reader may occasionally feel this is a book on the history of Islam in the Middle East, rather than the multicultural Middle East, I know of, even if the author view point advocates that Islam was the defining factor for the whole region since its emergence from the Arabian peninsula like a locust like invasion of the green field of Christian population, that erupted in the mid seventh century. Lewis' work as a whole, and this book in particular does not support "Orientalism," Edward Said's defining work on the relations between the Arabs and the West.

Scholarly yet accessible, Lewis' elegently written book, satisfies its stated mission to explore through two thousand years of the immense and vigorously active history of a region that has thrived and declined under numerous political powers, in just few hundred pages. But Lewis succeeded to provide an unbiased overview of Middle Eastern history from the Roman annexation of Egypt through the doors leading to the October war and Arab Spring, so compellingly.
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on 12 February 2006
If you are looking for a detailed history of the Middle East, this is an excellent place to start. Lewis uses his vast knowledge of Islam and the Middle East to write this book and it provides an exceptionally detailed narrative to the history of the Middle East and some of the origins to society of today. The focus is very much on the Islamic religion and the society that developed from that, with its battle against neighbouring empires (notably Byzantium/Ottoman).
If I had to make a criticism I would say I found the middle section a little heavy going… the first third of the book details the origin of society in the Middle East in particular focussing on the origins of races/tribes; the final third of the book describes the role of the Middle East in world affairs over the past 200 years, notably focussing on wars in the 20th century and the discovery of oil (at the very end).
That said it is fairly readable if you are looking at it for more than purely reference purposes, and I certainly find myself understanding the origins of the Middle East far better than I did before.
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on 10 June 2009
I have not finished this book but so far it is fascinating. I am continually disappointed by Amazon's minimal packaging of paperback books, though. This was received with a creased cover and warped pages. I saw this book at the British Museum but didn't buy it at the time as I wanted to see how much Amazon were charging for it. So I've saved £2 or £3 but I'd rather have paid that little bit more and had a nice copy that I would be proud to display in my collection
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on 19 December 1998
Bernard Lewis' book 'The Middle East' is a testament to how irrelevant the debate over Orientalism has become. Edward Said was quite right 20 years ago to draw attention to the context in which Western scholarship of the Middle East was born. He armed a whole generation of educated youngsters in Arab-Islamic cultures humiliated by Western military imperialism and the cultural and economic imperialism that followed it once the armies had gone, ammunition they used at random in newspapers, in conversation on university campuses and in lecture rooms as perhaps a form of misplaced revenge.
But the accusation 'orientalist' somehow misses the point. It missed the point when Said wrote 'Orientalism' because Western scholars of the 'Orient,' for all the secularism of the West, wrote as believers in their own sacred history. What more, therefore, could we expect of their work other than it be to some degree or another an 'apology' or 'criticism' of Islam before the Christian West? Virtually everything they have written falls within these two parameters: apology-criticism, as 'explanation' to a skeptical Western audience. The majority of Muslim scholars of history in recent times have done exactly the same: they write as committed Muslims, who believe their own sacred history, and for the majority of scholars that is untouchable.
The loser in all this, however, is history itself, and this is why the debate about Orientalism now, two decades after Said blew it open, is even more irrelevant. A new body of scholars emerged in the 1970s which for the first time took the debate over how to interpret Arab-Islamic history out of the realms of religious polemic and into the fundamental issues of historiography: how is it that a new civilization comes into existence; are we really prepared to accept that it happened (all 200-300 years of it) on the back of a glorious decade or two, when the religion is supposedly perfected via the Quran and the Sunna; and where is the evidence for this?
Scholars such as Lewis will enter into great discussions and diatribes about the deterioration of the Islamic state during the time of the first four caliphs, ending in the first civil war, and portray this as a disaster for the new religion and its realm, but in doing so he is merely mouthing the stories of Muslim scholars who wrote over two centuries later. Why is it that the scholars of a civilization at its intellectual zenith talk of a brief golden age which steadily fell apart? Why does a religion which won the world talk as if that world is lost? Lewis doesn't enter these very serious issues because, like those Muslim scholars, Lewis is obsessed with the religion and not the civilization.
The new wave of scholars argue that they are trying to understand the formulation of a civilization, and that the traditional account of Islam -- its evolution, its deterioration and the great civilization that inhabited the wasteland of its 'deterioration' -- is too full of holes. A look at the source material is sobering: there is not one contemporary Muslim source for the story of the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The earliest material that is recognizably Quranic is the text inscribed on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (built c.688 CE). The earliest history is that of Ibn Ishaq who died over 100 years later in 767 CE and even then our versions of it are written another 100 years later. With every new history written in the Abbasid period (begun 750) more "facts" about the life of the Prophet and the early caliphs emerge. The stories fit into the stereotypes of the sacred histories of the peoples of Semitic civilization.
An example of a very real problem of Islamic history that those such as Lewis fail to address is the evidence that the Ummayyad caliphs thought of themselves as "viceroy (caliph) of God [Shiite ideology]" on earth and not "viceroy of the Prophet of God [Sunni ideology]," as the established Muslim canon maintains they were, following the death of the Prophet. In fact, a book was published on this subject and its huge implications by Martin Hinds and Patricia Crone in 1987, 'God's Caliph', and it is one of the most important scholarly works in the last 20 years on early Islamic history.
A new generation of historians argues there are simply too many problems with the source material to write a convincing history of early Islam, the Arab conquests, the early caliphs and the Ummayyad dynasty. We can only be sure of the outlines. Contemporary Christian sources even offer differing dates for the death of the Prophet. Lewis, Lapidus and others are frightened of touching these issues.
It is around 800 CE that modern scholars find themselves on much firmer ground vis-a-vis the source material. It is around this time, for example, that a caliph (Al Mamun) instigates an inquisition of the class of religious scholars. Al Mamun is also the caliph who openly played with Shiite politics by housing the imam of the time as a means of legitimizing his rule.
Ostensibly, this inquisition was to force the religious scholars (ulamaa') to accept a caliphal view on a nit-picking theological point about the Quran, which for the first time enters into the language of the source material in the definite sense we have of it now as 'a book.' But that these issues should be still open -- the role of the caliphs vis-a-vis the religious scholars, whose right was it to interpret the religious law, a supposedly Sunni caliph has a legitimacy problem -- is a fact of tremendous consequence. In the ensuing century, Islamic civilization comes alive: the hadith are compiled, the four schools of law crystallize, founding histories of Islam and grammars of Arabic are written. But the orientalists are too tied up in the sensitivities and political correctnesses of the present to deal with these important issues -- it is easier to stick within the bounds of apology-criticism of Islam as a religion (the Arab conquerors converted by the sword/the Arab conquerors did not convert by the sword), than to deal with the very real problems of historiography.
A more cynical opinion of Lewis at least is that such an enterprise would deprive him of his right to proffer his opinions on modern Middle Eastern politics. He insists on talking about such absolutes as 'Islam' and 'democracy.' In the final chapter of 'The Middle East', he appears to throw off all pretension to 'history' and enters into straight political opinion: "So-called Islamic fundamentalists [have] no use for democracy, except as a one-way ticket to power," and "European-style democracy is not dead in the Islamic lands and there are some signs of a revival." This biased generalization ignores the fact that the most European-style democratic regime in the region is very much on a one-way ticket to power and showing no signs of giving it up, and that the term 'Islamist' includes a powerful movement of educated people who advance a political program at least as democratic as any other political group in the country. And is democracy the only way forward? Effectively, Lewis mouths the most prominent excuse of our times offered by despotic, military regimes for going on and on and on: allow free elections and we allow the "fundamentalists" in.
Further, for all Lewis' interest in the Islamic Revolution in Iran of 1979 he has little to say about modern Saudi Arabia, whose religion and politics is, in the view of many Arabs and Muslims, far more pernicious than that of Iran. Does their pro-Western stance make them less worthy of comment to Lewis? What about the opinion of the peoples he is actually writing about? Lewis tells us that the regimes of this century, cooped up inside their false borders perhaps, have nevertheless shown remarkable resilience -- and this says much about Lewis' attitude. As Said said in 1977, Lewis sees something inherently wrong with "change" or "revolution" in the region, more so if Islam has anything to do with it.
Edward Said himself recently noted that no adequate response has yet been made to the quiet revolution in Western scholarship on Islamic civilization. The truly secular approach which posits that Islam as we know it took some 200 years to formulate and evolve, and did not "pop out of the head of a prophet," is a far more serious attempt at 'history' than the "blockbusters" of Bernard Lewis, which have been spouting, in their countless numbers, essentially the same thing since the 1960s ad nauseam: that the Middle East as it is presently conformed, no matter the cost, must remain as it is. The society and civilization of the Arab Middle East is reduced from beginning to end to religion. For Lewis, before there was classical Islamic civilization there was 'Islam'. For Lewis, 'Islamists' today are en masse fundamentalists for Islam and not educated human beings who see the paradigm of Islam as the only one for the revival of their society, whose fabric they argue has been eroded by 200 years of ideas which belong essentially to another social environment.
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on 26 March 1999
This is a general book about Middle Eastern history. It does not provide much detail or description of the numerous events that have shaped the region but it does offer many brilliant observations that give the reader a better insight and understanding of the development of Middle Eastern cultures.
This book should be supplemented by a more concise account of historic events in order for the reader to better comprehend the evolution of the region. In conclusion I found the book very interesting and insightful and I enjoyed it very much.
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on 7 May 2016
This is a well-written but extremely sanitized account of the Arab Muslim invasion and conquest of the lands outside their Arabia Deserta. Not a word about the reign of terror, the looting, enslaving, raping and killing. Not a word about Jihad, the religious Law of War, or even a mention of the Islamic laws to subjugate and destroy all other faiths until Allah and Islam reign supreme in the whole world. This is the real meaning of peace in Islam.
Allah's holy Law of War is in fact the most important religious duty in Islam, obligatory for all Muslims. This is absolutely clear in the Qur'an, the Hadith-traditional stories, the very first valid histories by Ibn Ishaq and Tabari, and Islamic law.
Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued. Qur’an 9:29
The phrase la ilaha illa allah in the Qur’an: in Mecca 37:35, 38:4-10 and Medina 47:19.
In these it means religious war for supremacy against all disbelievers.
Qur’an 47:19 Muhammad So know that La ilaha illallah, there is no god except Allah.
Maududi says: This was at the time of the battle of Badr. It is also entitled al-Qital, the Fighting, because it gives the firm command for Jihad, and its theme is to prepare the Muslims for war against disbelievers and to give them instructions about those who kill and those who are killed: Qur’an 9:111
Lewis also makes the fatal mistake of translating the name of Allah as the title God.
Allah is not God, and Islam is not a religion of Abraham. This is absolutely clear in the Qur'an, Hadith-traditional stories, and Islamic law.
In Arabic and the entire Qur'an, the title of Almighty God is Ilah, and Allah is 'the god' the one pagan god of Arabia.
The names of Almighty God in the Qur'an are Ar Rahman, the Beneficent, the Most Merciful, the Most Gracious.
Qur’an 41:84 It is He Who is the only God in the heaven and the only God on the earth.
Ibn Kathir: This means He is the God of those who are in the heaven and the God of those on earth.
Qur’an 43:84 It is He Who is Ilah, God in the heaven and on the earth.
Qur’an 19:65 Lord of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them, so worship Him and abide patiently in His worship. Do you know of any other with His Name?
Ibn Kathir: Ibn Abbas says, ‘There is no one named Ar-Rahman (the Most Beneficent) other than Him, Blessed and Exalted is He. Most Holy is His Name.’
See Quran chapters 19, 20, 21, 25, 26, 36, 37, 41, 43, 67, etc.

Allah is always and only named Allah in Arabic and English.
Qur’an 43:84 It is He Who is Ilah, God in the heaven and on the earth.
Qur’an 6:3 And He is Allah in the heavens and in the earth.
Ibn Abbas: He is the One who is called Allah in the heavens and on the earth.
The Shahada, the Muslim pledge of faith, denies God:
La ilaha ill-Allah, there is no God/god but Allah.
The sentence comprises a denial and an affirmation.
Negation: 'La ilah' negates all forms of God or god.
Affirmation: 'illAllah' affirms that there is only Allah.
Before you can say ‘I believe in Allah’(illa Allah) you have to reject or disbelieve in any other god or God (La illaha).
Question 179 Islam Q&A [...]
Questions 114, 6703, 11819, 20239, 20815
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on 13 December 2012
No complaints. The book in its paper back edition is as it was expected. I would recommend this to any one who is interested
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on 16 April 1997
This book, by the generally acknowledged "dean" of Middle East studies and Islamic history, is a masterful synthesis of two thousand years' worth of events and developments in the Middle East, from its pre-Islamic beginnings to the present day. Bernard Lewis weaves a cogent tapestry out of a bewildering array of facts to present a cohesive and intelligible portrait of the primary forces at work in that region of the world throughout time.

The book ends with Bernard Lewis speculating over what the future might hold for the Middle East and the Muslim world now that there is only one superpower left in the world and now that the major European powers have pretty much withdrawn from the region and no longer exert such a "heavy hand." Bernard Lewis's comments and musings are tempered by his historian's natural reticence to comment or opine on the future, but nonetheless I found his insights helpful.

In terms of where Bernard Lewis's book fits in with other books, I think Lewis is unrivaled as an historian of the Middle East and of the Muslim world generally. The book is similar to other books insofar as Lewis provides a history of the Middle East over the last 2,000 years (several thousand books have probably been written on that large subject alone). So, I think it covers the same subject matter, objectively speaking, as other history books. But Lewis gives us insights and ties events together in a way other historians do not. His writing style is also a pleasure compared to the turgid prose of some others in the field.

I ended up having my appetite whetted by Lewis's musings on the future. If other readers feel similarly, they may want to read Anthony J. Dennis's excellent book "The Rise of the Islamic Empire and the Threat to the West." Unlike Lewis, Dennis does not set out to provide an exhaustive and comprehensive history of the Muslim Middle East over the last 2,000 years. Rather, Dennis pulls significant strands and discusses significant or "watershed" developments and events which tend to support his thesis that political Islam functions much like nationalism does in other parts of the world, and furthermore that fundamentalist Islam may very well serve as the basis for the political unification of some or all of the traditional Muslim world (the "birth of an empire", see middle chapters of his book). In essence, Anthony Dennis picks up where Bernard Lewis left off. As someone outside the academy (Dennis holds Middle East history and other degrees but is apparently a practicing lawyer and human rights activist not an academician), Dennis is not afraid to speculate on possible future power shifts in that part of the world. Lewis appears uncomfortable making such predictions or educated estimates. I found Lewis matchless in the historical sphere and Dennis similarly breathtaking in looking ahead in an intelligent and highly creative fashion to possible future developments in the Middle East (particularly within the world of political Islam). Would recommend both books be read in tandem.
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