Jewish Ideas Daily: Why Bernard Lewis remains the greatest Middle East historian
Hillel Fradkin is director of the Center on Islam, Democracy, and the Future of the Muslim World at the Hudson Institute.
Bernard Lewis has published many books and still more articles on the history of the Middle East and Islam. On these subjects he is, simply, the pre-eminent authority. At 96, he has now published yet another book, a memoir titled Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian. It provides a fascinating account of the varied, extraordinary, unexpected life he has led; it also points beyond the personal to questions of history and the vocation of the historian.
As those familiar with Lewis’s work know, he is a master of the telling anecdote, story, or citation—telling because with these devices, he immediately illuminates subjects that he also discusses in more typical scholarly fashion. The same is true of his memoir, which recounts not just his scholarship but his vast travels in the Muslim world and experiences with his many Muslim friends and acquaintances, all facilitated by his extraordinary command of many languages. He is, he says, a man who “relishes” language; but his command of his native English is especially complete and gives this book the graceful charm characteristic of his writings.
The theme of the historian’s responsibility is in part expressed, with Lewis’s characteristic modesty, by the book’s subtitle, Reflections of a Middle East Historian—but only in part, because Lewis is not “a” Middle East historian: He was one of the very first modern, professional European historians of the Middle East in the contemporary sense. Surprising as it now seems, when Lewis was appointed in 1938 as lecturer in the history of the Near and Middle East at the University of London, he was the first individual in Britain to hold such a position....
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