What Went Wrong by Bernard Lewis

“What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East” by Bernard Lewis is a probing examination of the political, economic, and cultural decline of Islamic civilizations in the modern age, particularly when contrasted with the rise of the West. Lewis, a prominent historian of the Middle East, explores the intricate factors that have contributed to the stagnation and perceived backwardness of a civilization that once stood at the pinnacle of human achievement.

Lewis’s central thesis posits that the decline of the Islamic world began long before the age of European colonialism and that various internal factors, such as religious rigidity, resistance to innovation, and socio-cultural practices, played a pivotal role in hampering progress.


  1. Historical Depth: One of Lewis’s notable strengths is his extensive knowledge of Middle Eastern history. The book is replete with rich historical details that offer a comprehensive view of the Islamic world’s evolution.
  2. Clear Argumentation: Lewis effectively lays out his arguments with clarity, supporting them with historical events and developments that provide readers with a structured understanding of the decline’s causes.
  3. Addresses Complex Questions: The book doesn’t shy away from tackling intricate and often controversial questions about the differences in trajectory between the Islamic world and the West.


  1. Potential Western Bias: Critics argue that Lewis, despite his extensive knowledge, approaches the subject with a Western-centric lens. This perspective can sometimes lead to an oversimplification of complex socio-cultural and historical realities.
  2. Neglect of External Factors: While Lewis emphasizes internal factors as primary reasons for decline, he arguably doesn’t give adequate weight to external influences, such as European imperialism, global economic dynamics, and geopolitical interventions, which have significantly impacted the region’s trajectory.
  3. Essentialist Perspective: There’s a risk of interpreting Lewis’s arguments as suggesting a sort of essential incompatibility between Islamic culture and modernity. Such a viewpoint can inadvertently perpetuate stereotypes or misconceptions about the Islamic world.
  4. Broad Generalizations: The book sometimes generalizes the vast and diverse Islamic world, which spans multiple continents, cultures, and histories. Such generalizations can obscure nuances and variations within these diverse societies.


“What Went Wrong?” is a thought-provoking and scholarly exploration of a question that has perplexed many observers of the Middle East. While Bernard Lewis offers a compelling historical analysis, readers should approach the text with an understanding of its potential biases and limitations. The decline and challenges faced by the Islamic world are multifaceted, and any single narrative, including Lewis’s, captures only a fraction of this complex reality. Nevertheless, the book serves as an insightful starting point for those looking to understand the historical dynamics of the Middle East and its relationship with modernity.