Book Review: Speaking with One Voice – June 30, 2002

The political language of Islam by the well-known scholar, Bernard Lewis, consists of a series of lectures originally delivered by the author at the University of Chicago in 1986. The current edition has been reprinted for sale in South Asia only. Although Lewis’ lectures were delivered more than a decade and a half ago, they retain their relevance as an exposition of the political language of Islam.


In the chapter “Metaphor and allusion”, Lewis explains that in order to understand the politics of Islam, we must develop an understanding of the language of political discourse as expressed in Arabic, Turkish and Persian. These languages shared an enormous vocabulary of loan words, although they belong to different and unrelated linguistic groups. During the Ottoman Empire, Arabic, Persian and Turkish were “harmoniously combined” as the three instruments of a political culture which shaped the destinies of much of the Middle East for half a millennium.


Lewis states that Islamic thought was transformed by its interaction with Europe. Greek philosophy, science, Judeo-Christian revelation and law, also have an important place in Islamic culture and heritage.


Lewis’ deep familiarity with Arabic, Turkish and Persian has enabled him to embark on an etymological tour d’horizon of political words. Very interestingly, he links the Arabic word siyasa, denoting politics in virtually all the Islamic languages, to an ancient Middle Eastern word meaning “horse” or a classical Arabic verb meaning “to groom” or “train a horse”. The Ottomans used the horsetail as an emblem of authority. They designated certain high officers of the sultan as the “Agas of the Imperial stirrup”.


We are informed that the root wly is the origin of familiar terms such as vali and vilayet from Turkey, Mollah from Iran, and maulvi and maulana from India, which primarily means “to be near”. Among other words which engage his attention are khawarij, “those who go out”, jamaa, “to gather or join”, hence the jamaat, “the community” ruled by ijma, “consensus”, and faraqa, “to separate or divide”, which gives rise to firqa, “sect”.


In France the king was called le roi-soleil (the sun king). In the Middle East, because the sun was a terrible enemy, the metaphor used for the ruler was shadow — providing shade to protect the people under his authority from the merciless sun.


Continuing with his valuable insights, Lewis states that in classical Islam, the Arabs forged a new political vocabulary after studying Plato and Aristotle. In contrast to the Western Christian lands, where the clergy was the only literate class, in Islamic lands there was a second literate elite. These were the scribes or the scribal class who produced an immense collection of literature on multifarious issues including politics.


Political culture was expressed by the word adab. In one sense adab has a connotation of good breeding, courtesy and urbanity; in another sense of civility, etiquette, and correct behaviour in both social and political contexts. By the ninth century, adab was frequently used in the sense of literature — a usage which survives to the present day.


There is no theocracy or papacy in Islam, no equivalents in Muslim history to Cardinals Wolsey, Richelieu, Mazarin or Alberoni. The regime of the ayatollahs in Iran is a radical departure from all Islamic precedent. In Islam the ruler is not an all powerful despot. He is circumscribed by God’s law. The word caliph is derived from khalifa which means in Arabic to “come after” or “come instead of”. The word thus combines the meanings of deputy, replacement and successor. The decline of the caliphs after the end of the Abassides was accompanied by the rise of the Sultan with its connotation of military and political authority.


Islam has often been described as an egalitarian religion. Lewis admits that this is true. Islam never recognized caste or aristocracy. However after paying Islam these encomiums, Lewis takes away the lustre by suggesting that in practice Islam admits of inequality. He points to the unequal status of master and slave, of man and woman, of Muslim and non-Muslim. The dhimmi had legal rights but no political rights.


Lewis also treads on the sensitive and charged subject of jihad, an Arabic word with the literal meaning of “effort”, “striving” or “struggle”. But then with the terversigation which many Oriental scholars are guilty of — and Lewis is, despite his vaunted erudition, not an exception — he opines that jihad means “to wage war”. It is noteworthy that the detractors of Islam whose numbers seem to be on the rise after 9/11, are saying precisely the same thing, namely that Islam enjoins holy war on its followers against non- believers.


This portrayal of Islam as an intolerant, warlike and bloody religion regrettably conforms to a long standing and false prejudice nurtured by medieval Christendom when the two religions were locked in armed combat in which the Christians came off second best.


Lewis makes no effort to take into account the essentially defensive nature of the early wars the Muslims fought against the Quraish, who were out to destroy the nascent Muslim polity. Nor does he talk of the difference between the greater jihad, which is the inner spiritual struggle for righteousness enjoined upon Muslims, and the lesser jihad with its connotation of essentially defensive armed struggle against their enemies.


In the final chapter captioned “The limits of obedience”, Lewis states that in principle the Muslim ruler, who does not possess the necessary qualifications, or who is not chosen or appointed according to the law, is a usurper. Among the Shias this has remained a crucial question. According to them all Sunni rulers not being nominated and appointed by an Alid predecessor, are usurpers. In practice Muslim intellectuals and jurists such as Ibn Batta and Imam Ghazali and others preached the doctrine of submission to the rulers. Lewis concludes that the political language of Islam is acquiring a new relevance and a new significance. It is also acquiring a new content.


Lewis’ book will be read with renewed interest because of the September incident. Americans are still trying to cope with the enormity of the catastrophe. Scholars such as Lewis are in considerable demand in government circles and among leaders of public opinion who want to understand Islam.


While Lewis is learned about Islam, his bona fides among some scholars are suspect as an old time Orientalist who cannot help but see Islam through an adversarial and distorted prism. To others he is an objective if blunt and frank critic of the weaknesses in Islamic doctrine and practice. To a large extent, one’s view depends upon which side of the fence one is sitting on.



The political language of Islam

By Bernard Lewis

Oxford University Press, 5 Bangalore Town, Sharae Faisal, Karachi-75350 Tel: 021-4529025


ISBN 0-19-579782-5

168pp. Rs395

— From: Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan

— Published: June 30, 2002


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