The Magazine

The Last Orientalist

Bernard Lewis at 90.

Jun 5, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 36 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

IT IS OFTEN SAID THAT the United States isn't easy on its scholars and public intellectuals--that they are not accorded the prestige and respect that they are given in the Old World. This complaint, usually made by left-wingers struggling against the tide in the United States, isn't totally without merit. A good literary scholar or classicist in the United States perhaps doesn't quite have the same social cachet as would a similarly accomplished scholar at Oxford or the Sorbonne. But when scholars do make it in the United States--and there certainly seem to be vastly more European scholars hoping to make it in America than Americans trying to snag a sinecure in Europe--there is simply no comparison in the eminence, influence, and renown that they can achieve. Since arriving in the United States in 1974, the British historian of the Middle East Bernard Lewis has become one of America's--and thus the world's--most famous academics.

For those of us seriously interested in the Middle East--and since 9/11 that has become a rather large crowd--Lewis, who will celebrate his 90th birthday on May 31, has attained a stature in the field and with the general reading public unrivaled by any historian, living or dead, of the Middle East and Islam. His range of writings--from the pre-Islamic period, through Islam's classical and medieval ages and its premodern "gunpowder" empires, to today's Muslim nation-states--is simply unparalleled by any other scholar, even from the golden age of Islamic studies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the field's terrifyingly erudite, multilingual European founding fathers--the much despised "orientalists"--bestrode the earth. Lewis is the last and greatest of the orientalists--an awkward, geographically imprecise name for those who gave birth to the disciplined study of Islamic civilization. To borrow from Shiite Muslim legal scholarship, Bernard Lewis is the marja-e taqlid, "the source of emulation," the scholar to whom on the great questions one must make reference. He has joined that elite group of academics--the economists Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith come to mind--who have decisively shaped public discourse, if not always government policy, on their subjects.

This is an odd situation, for reasons both personal and pedagogical. His place in America would not have been predicted 35 years ago, when Lewis was already one of the great dons of Islamic studies, precisely because he is (in all the best senses) so very English--which doesn't always play well in the United States. He is unrelentingly ironic and nuanced, preferring to come at the most consequential of matters obliquely. He is conservative, with a quiet, deep curiosity about small details and the traditions that have evolved and endured over centuries. He is urbane and witty, punctuating the most serious of discussions with subtle, usually mischievous, often mordant humor, gathered and delivered in many languages (translations are provided, though not without occasional frowning). He can be shy and, despite his vast learning, at times arrestingly modest. These attributes are hard to square with his experiences--few men have read and remembered as much as Lewis has forgotten, or traveled the world as thoroughly, or dined so regularly with the high and mighty--but they nonetheless are attributes that define his character, and make him open to people and places that great men, by the time they become great men, usually can no longer see.