The great, nay legendary, historian Bernard Lewis died on Saturday at the age of 101. He was born during the terrible throes of World War I, and his life would be shaped in so many ways around the lands of the Near East forever changed in the wake of that war. World War II brought him to the region for British intelligence, but before too long he found himself back in academia at London's School of Oriental Studies (now SOAS), where he would quickly rise to chair the department of Near and Middle Eastern History. But in 1974, he broke away to head to Princeton and begin a period of amazing productivity in his work.
For those students of the Middle East like me and my colleagues educated after the 1970s, his work was a staple, and his name a byword. And an inspiration: Unlike so many who opine on the topic of the Arab, Persian, and Turkish worlds, Lewis knew it, saw it, and maintained contact with those who lived there all of his life.
Like so many who knew Bernard, I was overwhelmed by his charm. His erudition was an established fact, as was his beautiful writing; but the great historians have not always been known for their joie de vivre, their sheer love of their subject, or their ability, Gandalf-like, to weave the threads of history around you like a magical spell. To me, only one other such historian of the Middle East achieved such heights — my own teacher Fouad Ajami. His description, in a New York Times review of Lewis' 1996 work, "The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 Years," still sings:
There will be no shortage of obituaries of this great man, with a better recitation of his work, and of course, the requisite sniping and politics without which we cannot seem to breathe in Washington. But at AEI, we remember our 2007 Irving Kristol Prize honoree, and his memorable address to the assembled crowd. As usual, he ended with a note of hope about the region and the people he appreciated and loved:
Bernard Lewis turns 80 this month. He is peerless in his craft, his flame as vital as ever. His first book was published nearly six decades ago, in 1940, when he was in his early 20's. He has given us a body of work that is destined to endure. We shall no doubt go on quarreling about Middle Eastern history and its wellsprings, but we shall for years to come be indebted to this historian. He has retrieved and chronicled the histories and lives of men and women of a civilization that has been the closest neighbor to the civilization of the West, and the one fated to be its most difficult antagonist. We must begin with Mr. Lewis's work if we are to understand those peculiar terms of engagement — the philosophical proximity, the shifting debt back and forth between giver and receiver, the political antagonism — across the border between Islam and the civilization of Europe.
As always, Professor Lewis, well said. Rest in peace, and our condolences to the indomitable Buntzie Churchill.
The Islamic tradition, in theory and, until the onset of modernization, to a large degree in practice, emphatically rejects despotic and arbitrary government. Living under justice is the nearest approach to what we would call freedom. But the idea of freedom in its Western interpretation is making headway. It is becoming more and more understood, more and more appreciated and more and more desired. It is perhaps in the long run our best hope, perhaps even our only hope, of surviving this developing struggle.