What Islamic Enlightenment?

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Islamic EnlightenmentDe Bellaigue, Christopher. The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017. 432 pp.

The end of the Cold War did not usher in a thousand years of peace; nor did it see the end of History. Instead, even as the victorious Western alliance was popping champagne, a new menace was taking shape in the Islamic world. Terrorism was certainly not a new phenomenon, but the global reach and sophistication of what emerged in the closing decade of the second millennium was unsurpassed. Samuel Huntington famously – controversially – called it a clash of civilisations. Whether he was right or not, the Age of Terrorism has come to be deeply linked to Islam. It is this perception that Christopher de Bellaigue hopes to dispel. His latest book, The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times, is meant to be a riposte against Western historians, politicians, and commentators who repeatedly demand that Islam join the 21st century, that it should “subject itself to the same intellectual and social transformations that the West experienced from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries.” To those who clamour for an Islamic Enlightenment, Reformation, and Renaissance, to those insisting that the religion of Muhammad develop a sense of humour, de Bellaigue’s response is that it already has, albeit with a particular cultural touch.

Westerners have not generally come to the East with open minds and in their inability to see past a European universalism, de Bellaigue contends, have missed the fact that not all Muslims are primitive, regressive terrorists. In fact, the Islamic world has not shown any more hostility towards modernity than Christendom did a couple of centuries earlier. The author dates the clash between European modernity and Islam in 1798 with the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army on the shores of Egypt. De Bellaigue astutely observes that Western ideas were initially absorbed with greater success when they were perceived to be universal than later, after World War I, when they were seen as the business end of a hostile ideology.

Islamic Enlightenment locates the foci of modernisation in Cairo, Istanbul, and Tehran, where numerous figures, nationalists, litterateurs, monarchists, as well as the ulema, engaged with Western science, technology, and political science to adapt them to the needs of Islamically-minded societies. However, many of the modernisers were inspired not by the trinkets and gimmicks of European innovation but by the achievements of classical Islamic civilisation. De Bellaigue narrates the tales of modernisers of all shades. Some were intrinsically hostile to Western methods yet awed by them such as Abdulrahman al-Jabarti; others infused the “genius of Islam” in the universal knowledge the West possessed such as Rifa’a al-Tahtawi. Some of the reformers were optimistic of Western intentions in the Muslim world such as Muhammad Abduh, while others felt forced into reforms such as the Ottoman sultans Abdulmecid I and Abdulaziz. There were, of course, a few who saw modernity as a means to power and pursued Western knowledge with a purely secular interest such as Muhammad Ali Pasha. Regardless, the author notes, a liberalising, modernising tendency had emerged strongly in the Middle East.

This pushback against Islamophobia is laudable yet eventually flawed in its conception. Fundamentally, Islamic Enlightenment tries to pack into one term what in Europe properly describes at least four zeitgeists – the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. It is difficult to imagine, at least in Europe, an Enlightenment that was not preceded by the Reformation and the Renaissance. It was the rediscovery of the classical world and an emphasis on humanism based on reason that caused the first crack in the totalising edifice of the Christian faith. Renaissance intellectuals did not necessarily reject religion but there was, nonetheless, a subtle shift in the way they approach it. The Reformation continued this trend in two important ways – first, and more obvious, is the theological schism between Catholicism and Protestantism, and second, the savagery and horrendous toll of the Thirty Years’ War – between a third and half of the population of Europe – finally broke the power of the Church in temporal matters after the peace at Westphalia in 1648.

These two short yet turbulent epochs paved the way for the Enlightenment. Made receptive to a gradual shift from faith to reason, autocracy to democracy, European society broadly supported the principles of the Enlightenment even if not the pace of some of its most forceful advocates. The Counter-Enlightenment remained a German nationalistic rebellion against French supremacy in the arts rather than a full-blooded critique of the Enlightenment itself. Various aspects of Enlightenment thinking – in the arts, political reform, economic reorganisation, religious reconceptualisation – were realised over the next century and half in step with the Industrial Revolution.

De Bellaigue’s brief history of 19th century reform movements in the Middle East – to which he devotes half the book – describes abortive attempts at modernisation that underscores this point further. Middle Eastern – Islamic? – attempts to replicate Europe’s material successes failed precisely because they focused purely on the material aspects of the European experience without adequately contemplating on the socio-cultural reformations that had taken place since the late 14th century that had brought Europe to a place whence the Enlightenment was possible. ‘Enlightenment with an Islamic flavour’ deviates sufficiently from the European experience that it cannot be herded under the same umbrella.

As de Bellaigue narrates, most Muslim modernisers were enthralled by Western science and technology but retained their faith in the supremacy of Islam. Even secular, power-hungry rulers and administrators were loathe to go to war against the ulema in the name of Western science or progress for fear that they would destabilise their kingdoms and lose their thrones, or worse, their lives. This was not an altogether unfounded fear, as Mirza Taki Khan Farahani found out in a bathhouse in Kashan.

Reforms with largely material goals in mind can hardly be termed an Enlightenment. If technology were the sole arbiter of progress, some of today’s most visious terrorist groups such as the Taliban, al Qa’ida, and ISIS could be said to be progressive. All the major terrorist groups in the 21st century have access to highly sophisticated weaponry and knowledge of explosives and tactics to challenge most national armies, an equation that Middle Eastern rulers of two centuries ago would have yearned for. The pitfall of such progress is visible – although the armies of Muslim states reduced the technological gap between themselves and their European counterparts over the 19th century, there was a backlash against cooperation with Europe after World War I that returned the socio-political situation almost to where it had been a hundred years earlier.

It is also difficult to understand how de Bellaigue considers the fervour of the 19th century as an Enlightenment when many of the most influential actors, be they pashas, clerics, or men of science, continued to cast a sheep’s eye on Islam. Nor was this the Islam of the 10th century Mu’tazilites, a relatively open faith not allergic to external knowledge or inquiry. By the time of Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition, it was well past the era of Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali or Taqi ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyya and the closing of the Muslim mind. This Islam, intrinsically regressive as Shiraz Maher argues in his excellent Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea, looked to the era of its prophet and his companions as the most perfect era in human history and was, thus, fundamentally antithetical to reason. This is not to say that such a society cannot change, but there is certainly a big question mark on whether such a society is capable of an Enlightenment.

Finally, the European Age of Imperialism was not an epoch of liberalism in the Middle East. None of the bold reformers of Egypt, Turkey, or Iran were democrats in the spirit of Jacques Pierre Brissot. In fact, all of de Bellaigue’s examples were despots whose liberal tendencies ended outside the throne room. The question for the author becomes whether it is possible for autocrats to usher in an Enlightenment. Unintentionally, Islamic Enlightenment serves as a warning to Western politicians who believe that they can play midwife to liberal democracy in the Middle East: even when such an endeavour had local support, it was not quite liberal and eventually failed.

All said and done, de Bellaigue is not wrong in his larger point. There is a tendency to view Islamic societies as intrinsically defective and prone to violence. This is no more true for them than it is for Christian societies, especially in the past, even the recent past. A little nuance beyond the sterile dichotomies an attention-deficit media churns out is required in reading the politics of the Middle East. However, nuance cannot be an excuse to whitewash all sorts of regressive social customs and political beliefs. No one sane thinks all Muslims are terrorists but there is a gradation of radicalisation in the Muslim world from terrorists to those who, for example, think blasphemy and apostasy should be punishable by death, to a far more tolerant and humanist sample. Although our attention is held mostly by one extreme end of the spectrum, it is only prudent to consider whether problems also lie further along the spectrum. Furthermore, while a more pleasant distant past holds out hope, it is only natural that it is the stormy present that educates our policies and beliefs.

It is tragic that those who are convinced of de Bellaigue’s broader message probably do not need his book as much and are already familiar with the research of scholars like Majid Fakhry, Lenn Goodman, Marshall Hodgson, and Ira Lapidus. Those who are not convinced, however, will likely not be persuaded by his book or even read it.