How to succeed in religion

Islam should have adopted separation of mosque and state, a noted scholar suggests

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Bernard Lewis has pulled off the kind of coup scholars hope for: A book long in preparation suddenly validated by external events, in this case the Sept.11 terrorist attacks and the attendant surge of American interest in learning about Islamic and Arabic culture.

As multitudes throng bookstores and libraries in search of answers to President Bush's question, "Why do they hate us?" Lewis will be one of the sources they turn to. But this slender book, a compilation of lectures by the Princeton professor emeritus, sometimes described as the doyen of Middle East scholars, may pose more questions than it answers.

"What Went Wrong?" might almost have been subtitled, "And when will they stop beating their wives?" It assumes that something did go wrong in the Middle East, not in the months or years leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, but starting in the late Middle Ages. Progress in science and technology, including military technology, seems to have simply halted. This, combined with a notable lack of curiosity about what was going on in the "infidel" lands to the West, kept Islamic civilization on the sidelines throughout most of the past millennium.

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Among the innovations the Islamic world should have adopted sooner, in Lewis's view: clocks, calendars, standard weights and measures, and printing presses. Arabs introduced the Europeans to the pleasures of coffee and sugar - and the Europeans subsequently learned to grow both more effectively in their New World colonies.

Islamic societies have also been held back by their treatment of women, Lewis maintains - although he also notes, "The Muslim woman had property rights unparalleled in the modern West until comparatively recent times." He includes a quotation from a Turkish diplomat in Vienna in 1665, reporting on the "extraordinary spectacle" of the Habsburg emperor respectfully doffing his hat when he encountered a woman in public.

Lewis also offers an interesting riff on polyphony: many players synchronized into a harmonious whole. It's the essence of Western music, obviously, but Lewis connects the concept to railroads, team sports, and parliamentary politics, among other Western phenomena. In detailing what the Muslim world was missing, he even extends the concept to such literary forms as the novel (with multiple characters and subplots, as contrasted with the simpler tale) and history (with its synthesis of multiple sources.)

What are the patterns of thought that prevent us, as individuals or societies, from moving forward and realizing our full potential? And to what extent do religions or other belief systems affect those patterns of thought? Thoughtful people don't want to be judgmental about other people's religions. But the questions must be considered if we are to understand one another within our local and global community.

It's not easy to connect the dots from religious teaching to cultural practice. Lewis traces the Western notion of separation of church and state - which he obviously heartily approves - to Jesus' dictum about rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's

But how does one get, for instance, from Jesus' utterance, "Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat," to the Protestant work ethic? Or within the Islamic context: If there was within the religion itself something that impelled the Islamic civilization into world-class achievement in science, mathematics, and medicine during its first several centuries, did that something change, or somehow lose its efficacy?

In his harsh conclusion, Lewis writes, "If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become the metaphor for the entire region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity.... If they can abandon grievance and victimhood, settle their differences, and join their talent, energies and resources in a common creative endeavor, then they can once again make the Middle East, in modern times as it was in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, a major center of civilization. For the time being, the choice is their own."

Meanwhile, those of us interested in better understanding this troubled region have been given an introduction to some important issues - and a lot of food for thought.

• Ruth Walker is on the Monitor's staff.

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