When he set out as a young man in the 1930s to study and teach Arab history, he says, all he could expect were “musty archives and academic conferences.” At the School of Oriental Studies in London he learned Arabic. Sir Hamilton Gibb at Oxford and Louis Massignon in Paris, both eminent Orientalists in their day, directed him towards medieval Islam, intending him to become a conventional student of conventional subjects. Even thoughtful people then took it for granted that, whatever Arabs and Muslims might or might not be doing in the present, they were not fully masters of their fate and therefore of interest only to specialists. Lewis could perfectly well have turned out to be just another such specialist unknown outside the university. Picking up Russian, Turkish, and Farsi without apparent difficulty, he prepared himself for greater things.
Linguistic skills were vital during World War II. In the whole of England, Lewis surmises, probably fewer than a hundred people knew Arabic. Recruited into MI-6, the branch of the British secret service dealing with foreign intelligence, Lewis had to translate or summarize texts in Arabic, some of them in code or cipher. His onetime boss, a major, made a comment on his file that showed he had the measure of one important facet of this unlikely subordinate: “His sense of humour should not be taken as seditious.” Although still today under oath not to reveal secrets, Lewis nevertheless reports a few newsworthy items, for instance that British intelligence was bugging the Saudi embassy in Vichy France.