In his memoir, Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian, published in 2012, Bernard Lewis wrote (page 95): “While my principal concern had for some time been mainstream Islamic history, I had never forgotten the Hebraic and Judaic interests and concerns which had first led me into the field of Middle Eastern studies.” Few of the obituaries I have seen deal in any significant way with Lewis’ contribution to Jewish research. In 2014, on the occasion of the republication of the paperback edition of Lewis’ The Jews of Islam, I was asked by Princeton University Press to write a new introduction. With their permission, I offer below an abridged version of that essay in tribute to and in memory of a great scholar and a great friend and colleague in Princeton’s Department of Near Eastern Studies. May his contribution to Jewish research always be remembered.
“Foreword to the Princeton Classics Edition” by Mark R. Cohen as published in THE JEWS OF ISLAM by Bernard Lewis. Copyright © 1984, 2014 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.
The Jews of Islam, first published in 1984, is one of two books that Bernard Lewis devoted entirely to Jewish history. The other, Semites and Anti-Semites, appeared two years later. But the history of the Jews in the Islamic world occupied a place in Lewis’ research agenda for three-quarters of a century. Indeed, I once asked him why he wrote so often about the Jews. He answered with his characteristic wry humor, quoting a commercial for the soft drink Pepsi Cola: “it’s the pause that refreshes.”
Already in 1939, at the very beginning of his professional career, he published an article entitled “A Jewish Source on Damascus just after the Ottoman Conquest,” which appeared in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (BSOAS) In this piece he showed Ottomanists that they could learn something about their own subject from contemporary Jewish sources, in this case, a Hebrew travelogue (part of which Lewis translated) by an Italian Rabbi and kabbalist who visited Damascus (and many other places) shortly after the Ottoman Conquest and described its robust economy. Conversely, in the following year, in a Hebrew article entitled “Jewish Science according to an Arabic Author of the Eleventh Century,” he published for the benefit of Jewish scholars a Hebrew translation of the section of al-Ṣā‘id al-Andalusī’s Arabic account of learned Jews in his encyclopedia of men of science and philosophy. In 1945, with the same goal in mind, Lewis brought three “Arabic Sources on Maimonides” to the attention of Jewish scholars, with new, Hebrew translations from the Arabic originals. Two of these sources include information about Maimonides’ much debated conversion to Islam in his youth during the Almohad persecutions in North Africa and Spain and his reversion to Judaism after arriving in Egypt. The article appeared in a new British journal of Jewish studies published by the scholar of Jewish thought, Simon Rawidowicz. In “An Apocalyptic Vision of Islamic History” (1950), he analyzed and translated a Hebrew source that revealed how messianically inclined Jews reacted to the Arab conquests and to the Crusades later on. In the same year, he discussed—again, in Hebrew–“The Legend of the Jewish Origin of the Fatimid Caliphs,” a common theme accusing the Jews of being perversely spreading heresy in Islam. Two years later he contributed an article about an Ottoman Jewish court physician to BSOAS: “The Privilege Granted by Mehmed II to his Physician.” The article featured a translation and historical analysis of a 16th century Hebrew rabbinical responsum quoting an Ottoman ferman exempting this doctor’s family and descendants from all forms of taxation (1952). In “Maimonides, Lionheart, and Saladin,” published in 1963, Lewis examined and assessed the sources underlying medieval stories of Maimonides’ alleged association with these two famous rulers.
In 1950 Lewis was the first Western scholar to be admitted to the Turkish archives. Two years later he published some of his discoveries in a modestly-titled but path-breaking pamphlet called Notes and Documents from the Turkish Archive: A Contribution to the History of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire (1952). The venture into those archives heralded a lifelong interest in the history of Turkish Jewry and spurred research on those archives for both Jewish and Ottoman history. In an article he contributed to the memorial volume for Simon Rawidowicz, in 1983, for instance, he offered a sample of the kind of statistical information from Turkish archives that could be used to reconstruct Jewish population figures as well as taxation policy in the Ottoman Empire. Continuing his work on Jewish sources that illuminate Ottoman history, he published, in Turkish and in English, a translation from Hebrew of a section of “A Karaite Itinerary through Turkey in 1641-52,” in 1957.
Lewis did not abandon the medieval period of Jewish history in the Islamic world. He published a new English translation of the neo-platonic Hebrew poem, The Kingly Crown (Keter Malkhut), by the eleventh century Andalusian-Jewish poet and philosopher, Solomon ibn Gabirol. Particularly important for my own subsequent research on the Jews in medieval Egypt was Lewis’ brief article “Palṭiel: A Note,” which appeared in BSOAS in 1967. Lewis proposed a solution to the identity of a Jew from Italy who, according to medieval Hebrew legend, rose to a lofty position in the Fatimid court in the mid-tenth century. Another important translation, this time from Arabic, formed the basis of his 1974 article, “An Anti-Jewish Ode: The Qasida of Abu Ishaq against Joseph ibn Nagrella,” a contribution to the Festschrift for Salo Wittmayer Baron, the doyen of Jewish historians in the first half of the twentieth century. Lewis also translated a messianic Hebrew poem from the Cairo Geniza arguing convincingly, against the view of earlier scholars, that it describes the final military confrontation between Byzantium and Persia and the first Arab conquests that followed (the poem is reproduced here in chapter 2). To the Festschrift for S. D. Goitein on the occasion of his eightieth birthday in 1980, Lewis contributed and edition and English translation of a Judeo-Spanish letter from a Jewish cloth merchant addressed to a British consul. Lewis had discovered this morsel of Jewish daily life in the Ottoman Empire among a batch of Turkish letters from the Ottoman Sultan to English monarchs.”
One of his characteristically engaging pieces on Jewish studies is his 1968 article, “The Pro-Islamic Jews,” the lead essay in a special issue of the journal Judaism devoted to the subject of “Judaism and Islam.” In that paper Lewis described the phenomenon of Jewish partiality toward Islam, exemplified by such luminaries as Benjamin Disraeli, the baptized Jewish prime minister of Britain. Disraeli was attacked by opponents on account of his pro-Turkish stance on the Eastern Question and was often depicted, as were other Jews of his time, as an “oriental” at heart, allied with the Muslims in the struggle against antisemitic Christian Russia. Islam and Islamic civilization appealed as well to Jewish scholars in Central Europe, many of them rooted in Talmudic studies, such as the legendary Hungarian scholar Ignaz Goldziher. Goldziher’s admiration for Islam led him to travel to study in the famous Al-Azhar mosque school in Cairo and to become the father of modern Arabic and Islamic studies. To explain the pro-Islamic outlook of so many European Jews, Lewis formulated a still widely accepted theory. He argued that these Jews were frustrated with the slow progress of emancipation in Europe and, at the same time, alarmed by the rise of the new, racist, political antisemitism. They looked back, nostalgically, to medieval Islam, especially Muslim Spain, “mythically” imagining Islamdom to have been a tolerant society, granting Jews the freedom and equality that these Central European Jews, particularly in Germany, yearned for from their Christian compatriots. Here Lewis uttered what was to become one of many Lewis-ian maxims: “The myth was invented by Jews in 19th-century Europe as a reproach to Christians—and taken up by Muslims in our own time as a reproach to the Jews.”
I close with a comment about the famous “orientalism” debate between Lewis and Edward Said. In Orientalism, Said excused his omission of the German Arabists and Islamicists on the grounds that Germany had not taken part in the colonialization of the Middle East, unlike France and England, for whom “orientalism,” in Said’s pejorative meaning of the word, served as the handmaiden of their imperialist colonial project. Had Said thoroughly investigated the German (or German-writing) orientalists he would have discovered what Lewis had described in 1968–that they were disproportionally Jews and that they admired Islam–and that Lewis, the arch “orientalist” in Said’s lineup of culprits, had written sympathetically about their pro-Islamic posture.
Mark R. Cohen