I say relatively short, because of course the book is 400 pages long, and they're big pages and each one is packed with information. Readers like me who hear the words they read rather than seeing them will stumble over the hundreds of unfamiliar Arabic, Persian, and Turkish words and names. And you'll probably find yourself rereading pages and sections to make sure you understand them. It took me three months to finish this book.
This is not a criticism. Like Collapse, this is a big, informative book, and its difficulty is not a problem to overcome but simply a fact attending to the book's subject matter. It is, after all, about 2000 years of history of a region of the world most of us know only from the current news and the Old Testament.
I would like to try to distill the book down for you, but that would force this review to be longer than the Everglades piece. The book takes a while to read because there is so much in it, and I can't summarize. Frankly, I think Lewis has done as good a job as can be of summarizing 2000 years of history.
But I read this book for a reason: understanding. Background on the current conflict (which earlier this year I thought I'd be getting very close to) is limited and generally of poor quality, and I wanted some before I went over there to see it. Surely I must have taken something away from this book, right?
Lewis shows that Islam is the defining feature of the Middle East, as opposed to geography, ethnicity, history, trade, learning, or anything else. It is perhaps the only region of the world so specifically defined by its religion. Like all religions, Islam has been interpreted and reinterpreted throughout history, and the various interpretations that have held sway among the leaders of the region have affected all the people who live there. The caliph, the shah, the sultan and wazir, all ruled their people by ruling religion first. There has never been separation of church and state; the caliph was not a pope, and there has never been a meaningful professional priesthood. Islam permeates the region, and no understanding of the Middle East is possible without understanding Islam.
Lewis looks upon Islam not as a violent religion, but as a missionary one. The mission of all good Muslims is to take the faith to the infidel unbelievers, whether they are next door or beyond the sea. In the early years of the faith this nearly always took the form of literal warfare, but the tenets of Islam dictated that conquered peoples not be forced to convert, but that they must come to the faith through choice alone. Unbelievers could be enslaved, but Lewis argues that Muslim slavery was generally a much more benign experience for the slave than in most other cultures. Even as slaves, though, unbelievers could not be forced to claim Islam, but should be taught about the religion in the hopes that they would choose the "right path;" they were not to be put to the sword except as necessary to pacify their territory.
The power of the Middle East has ebbed and flowed since that time as the reach of Islam has done so. The golden age of Islam coincided with some of the darkest years of European history, and the cultured and educated Muslims looked upon their western brothers as unenlightened, uncultured, and misled. This golden age came to an end gradually, and Muslim power declined over many years as the Europeans lept ahead, for a variety of reasons (it's worth noting that Lewis seems to agree with Jared Diamond's belief that lack of natural resources (timber especially, but most forms of mineral wealth are lacking in the Middle East, too) played an important role in the ultimate decline of Middle Eastern civilization), but the attitude of Muslims toward Europeans really never changed.
For centuries Muslim scholars and Muslim men in the public square debated why the untutored infidels of Europe were growing in power while their own culture stagnated. This debate is still ongoing, and it frames most of the modern history of the Middle East, from the Ottoman defeat in World War I through the period of colonization and the creation of the state of Israel. Lewis doesn't make any prognostications about what the future holds for the Middle East, about whether Muslim culture will seek to challenge Western culture or continue to simply fight a losing battle against it; nor does he claim that conflict there between Muslim and Christian nations is necessarily guaranteed. This is a history book, not an opinion paper, and Lewis very carefully avoids such things.
He does, however, make one interesting comment near the end of the book, which he fails to follow up on. He notes that the decline and collapse of the Ottoman Empire has been compared to the Soviet Union's decline and collapse, and while there are some true comparisons there, he disagrees that the comparison is especially apt; I'll quote (pg 290):
But there is another aspect of the Ottoman decline that suggests a different present-day parallel. The economic weakness of the Middle East, unlike that of the Soviet Union, was not due to an excess of central control. Such control, on the contrary, was almost entirely lacking... It had also become a predominantly consumer-oriented society... [emphasis mine]
In contrast, the rise of mercantilism in the producer-oriented West helped European trading companies, and the states that protected and encouraged them, to achieve a level of commercial organization and a concentration of economic energies unknown and unparalleled in the East, where...'market forces' operated without serious restrictions.
Lewis continues on without ever coming clean about the present-day parallel he sees. I wonder, though, if this might not be some veiled critique of the West's transition from a production-oriented to a consumer-oriented society. Perhaps he sees in the decline of the Ottoman Empire an important lesson for the West today? I wonder.
This is a challenging, but ultimately a very rewarding, book. I strongly recommend it.