As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the public will be inundated with analyses of the past decade, mostly fault-finding and finger-pointing, that has become the signature of the mainstream media.
What will be missing is historical context. No one provides this better than Bernard Lewis. In his 90s, Lewis is by all accounts the most important living historian of Islam, Muslims and the Middle East.
Soon after 9/11 Lewis published two books, What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam, in which he painted the big picture. In his latest book, Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East, Lewis returns to the subject with his unique style and learning.
In explaining culture, religion and politics, context is paramount. We live in a stream of historical time, and what is present makes proper sense only when situated in this stream.
Moreover, it is in comparative understanding by engaging in the study of two and more cultures that one begins to appreciate the richness of human experience taken together. This is what makes Lewis a formidable historian.
Any view of Islam and Muslims in isolation is no more instructive than a similar view of Christianity and Christians in isolation from world history in which it was born and took shape.
The contemporary Muslim world might best be described, analogically speaking, as similar to Europe and Christians around 1400.
Christendom was then a backwater of culture compared to contemporary civilizations of the time — Islamic, Indian, and Chinese.
Each of those civilizations was more or less self-contained with little consequential traffic among them. None paid any attention to Europe — Greece and Roman civilizations had crumbled centuries earlier — which had little to offer besides brigands.
No European — a concept that emerges later to describe a portion of Eurasian land mass as a separate continent, and its uniqueness in the making of the modern world — or anyone else imagined around 1400 what would be unfolding over several centuries in transforming their world of faith and politics.
Nevertheless the internal convulsions of Europe for the next half millennium — it may be contended the story continues to unfold — through wars, revolutions and advances in philosophy and science would surpass all other living civilizations in human progress.
Christianity was invariably affected by Europe’s transition. Christians are, ironically, the first victims of modernity and, in a twist of history, the changes accompanied by blood and steel liberated Christendom from its own sordid past as successor to the debauched Rome of Caesars.
Unlike the world of 1400 in which Christendom was ignored by other civilizations, we are living in a highly shrunken world of globalization.
This means the belated convulsions seizing Islam and the Muslim world today, of which 9/11 is an episode, is under the full gaze and also interventions of other cultures.
The historic transition that occurred in Europe is never simple and linear. It is violent and the upheaval of one civilization has enduring effects on others.
Yet for those caught in the vortex of such immense transition, as the non-Muslim world is presently, they understandably have little patience to calmly reflect upon history when its mighty waves batter their shores.