The Jewish Discovery of Islam: Studies in Honor of Bernard Lewis

Publication Year



Edited by Martin S. Kramer, Ph.D. 1982

“Jewish scholars," writes Bernard Lewis, "were among the first who attempted to present Islam to European readers as Muslims themselves see it and to stress, to recognize, and indeed sometimes to romanticize the merits and achievements of Muslim civilization in its great days." Lewis's premise is explored in ten studies prepared in honor of his eightieth birthday. Contributors include Benjamin Braude, Lawrence I. Conrad, Joel L. Kraemer, Martin Kramer, Jacob M. Landau, Jacob Lassner, the late Hava Lazarus-Yafeh, Minna Rozen, Shulamit Sela, and David Wasserstein


Starting in 1976, Edward Said has argued that Western scholars of the Middle East are continuing "an unbroken tradition in European thought of profound hostility, even hatred, toward Islam," and he singles out Bernard Lewis as their de facto leader. Strangely, when Lewis in turn argued in favor of the Orientalist tradition - that unique effort by members of one civilization to understand the outside world in depth - his colleagues with near-unanimity abandoned him. Still, the battle is not entirely over. While Lewis himself retired from the fray, his highly talented ex-student, Martin Kramer continues the not-entirely-lonely effort to defend several centuries of Western scholarship on the Middle East.
In The Jewish Discovery of Islam, Kramer takes as his starting point several comments by Lewis about the important role of Jews in developing nineteenth-century European attitudes toward the Middle East and Islam, then asks: Did Jews actually made a distinct contribution to the Western discovery of Islam? His reply - and that of his nine contributing authors - is a resounding yes. He and they argue that nineteenth-century Jews found in the Muslim world a model directly relevant to their current situation. Looking about for arguments to bolster their case to join the mainstream of European life, they pointed to Islamic civilization at its height as to show the benefits of integrating Jewry. This in turn meant they had to prove that Baghdad and Cordoba represented peaks of human achievement.
These "pro-Islamic Jews" routed the opposition and their empathetic, sympathetic approach rules the roost today. Kramer's book has many implications: By showing that the main Orientalist tradition derived far more from sympathetic Jewish approach than from the hostile Christian one, it devastates Said's grand theory of Orientalism. It establishes that recent Western attitudes to the outside world - such as the Third-Worldism of the 1960s and the multiculturalism of today - owe their existence in good part to the success of the pro-Islamic Jews' long-ago efforts of humanize Islam. Muslims eventually also picked up on the romantic Jewish myths about Islam and made these a standard part of their own self-image. Finally, Muslims now living in the West owe much to the Jewish scholars who laid the groundwork for their finding an at least partially hospitable reception. Middle East Quarterly, December 1999

Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University
Tel Aviv