By MARY-JANE DEEB
Two eminent historians discussed 1,400 years of Islamic civilization in the Mediterranean during a program held at the Library on May 7. The question "What Went Wrong and Why?" was debated by Bernard Lewis, Emeritus Professor at Princeton University and author of a best-selling book with a similar title, and Mohamed Arkoun, Emeritus Professor at the Sorbonne in Paris. The program, which filled the Library's Coolidge Auditorium to capacity, was sponsored by the Library's African and Middle Eastern Division and Office of Scholarly Programs. The program was chaired by the Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, with Prosser Gifford, director of the Library's Office of Scholarly Programs and the John Kluge Center, moderating a question-and-answer period.
Lewis began his presentation by describing the Muslim civilization that emerged at the end of the seventh century in Arabia and spread to the then Christian lands of the southern and northern Mediterranean as "the greatest civilization since Greece and Rome" and the most advanced militarily, scientifically and intellectually in the known world. That civilization lasted nearly 700 years and was, according to Lewis, the intermediary stage between the classic and the modern world. Christian Europe tried to fight back, but the Crusaders were defeated, Byzantium fell, and the Empire of Constantinople was conquered by the Muslim Ottomans. In the 15th century, however, Christendom reasserted itself in Spain and Portugal, and the Muslims were expelled from Spain in 1492.
The Treaty of Carlowitz (1699) between the Austrians and the Ottomans brought home to the Muslims the fact that they were no longer the dominant power they had been at one time, Lewis asserted. That treaty was "the first [negotiated] peace signed by a defeated Ottoman empire with victorious Christian adversaries." It is then, argued Lewis, Muslims began asking themselves, "What went wrong?"
It was clear that Europe's military superiority was a major factor in the Muslims' defeat. In the early part of the 18th century, the Ottomans recognized that they needed to modernize their weaponry and their military strategies and tactics. Lewis maintained that the Ottomans realized that Europeans were experimenting with new ways of doing things; they tried to emulate them but to no avail. This "modernization" was a process that many in the Muslim Ottoman empire resisted, even though some reformist leaders tried to accommodate change. The Ottomans altered the way their soldiers dressed, hired Prussian advisors, and even adopted Italian military music by Donizetti but still they continued to be defeated on the battlefield.
Lewis explained that the Ottoman empire was also falling apart economically, while Europe was growing more prosperous in the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the ability to manufacture a large quantity of cheap goods to sell around the world.
In the political arena, Europe was creating parliaments and writing constitutions that gave people many kinds of rights that were denied to citizens in the Ottoman empire. Although political reforms were introduced in Turkey and Iran, the modernization of the military, political and economic spheres did not achieve the desired parity with Europe. And so the question remained: "What went wrong?" or more to the point, "What did they do right?"
Arkoun began his presentation by saying that he agreed somewhat with Lewis but differed in his approach to history. Islamic history, according to Arkoun, should be viewed as a "constituted history" by both Western and Muslim scholars, meaning a history that was created selectively, depending on one's perspective. There is no one Muslim society in the singular, but rather a number of quite different Muslim societies, such as Morocco and Indonesia. Therefore, when one asks what went wrong, Arkoun maintains that one must specify where and when.
Arkoun pointed out that there was no real history of the Mediterranean region—a region that included Europe as well as a Turko-Arab "space" incorporating Iran because of that nation's significant impact on the Mediterranean. It was in that region that Islam became the dominant power and remained so for almost 800 years. Historians, Arkoun argued, never really explained what happened during that period, particularly in terms of the acquisition and transfer of knowledge. According to Arkoun, the end of the Muslim era of dominance came in 1492, when Muslims and Jews were expelled from Spain, not at the time of the peace treaty of Carlowitz in 1699 as Lewis claimed. From 1492 onward, Europe became the hegemonic power in the Mediterranean, and European countries such as France were able to rewrite not only their own history but also that of the countries they dominated. Arkoun observed that Lewis wrote about what went wrong with Muslim societies, with the assumption that things went right with Europe (in spite of two world wars).
Finally, Arkoun advocated that historians take a new approach to the history of the Muslims and the West that calls for an "intellectual and spiritual subversion" of existing systems of thought. Referring to the title of a 1999 Library of Congress conference in which he participated, he called this new approach a new "frontier of the mind."
Ms. Deeb is an Arab world area specialist in the Library's African and Middle Eastern Division.