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By Bernard Lewis

Extended book review

This is a five-star book as a history with enough detail to satisfy the most inquisitive. The author's deep insights into how the lands of Islam operate are still being played out in our times.

The first century set the stage for what was to come. In parallel with the other monotheisms of the times, schism upon schism brought about branches bearing ever less resemblance of one another. An early and paramount issue had to do with governance. What entity, religious or secular, would lead the way into the future? Another was: Who was a citizen and who was not? Empire was an issue as well, and they too came and went. And the various sects almost continuously fought one another to be the voice for all, a battle still going on.

Through it all the hands seeking power wrought their deeds with Shia, then Sunni holding fort and court. And each of these main branches divided into groups of their own.

When a power vacuum appeared; as often as not, the military would take over. Although the Arabs and Persians were quite capable fighters from the time of Mecca onward, their pride was deeply wounded first by the Steppe people, and then the Mongols, not to mention the Crusading Popes. And like ordinary individuals with a checkered history in hand-to-hand combat, Islam as a whole suffered similarly.

It took the Ottoman Turks to bring an empire worthy of the claim to the region. It lasted into the 20th Century largely because it was home-grown Islam speaking, not a foreign power. The Ottoman demise in 1918 opened the doors to foreign domination that continues into our day.

Our time may be seeing a lessening of that situation. Inept at trapping bin Laden for over nine years, and even worse at intervening and nation building, the mighty US is only now beginning to react to events with a long view in mind. How that slow process will work out will be a matter for future historical dialogue.

With the current Middle East as a back drop, a close read of Lewis can only sharpen one's insight into current events. Lewis brings Middle Eastern history to life with names and places, dispassionately. Like his contemporary, Barbara Tuchman, he vividly illustrates the rhythms of history--where each wave seems to beget another wave. One disturbing aspect of that feature is that the wave magnitudes and frequencies both appear to be increasing. Minerals, hydrocarbons, and now the Atom, hold the future of humanity hostage going into the next wave.

Given our Authoritarian Personalities, steeped in denial:
Are we up to being statesmen for humanity?

Time will tell--if human history is allowed to continue.


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