The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle between Faith and Reason by Christopher de Bellaigue - review by Eric Ormsby

Eric Ormsby

Righteous Reformations

The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle between Faith and Reason


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In the mid-1830s, the Algerian scholar and man of letters Hamdan ibn Uthman al-Jaza’iri found himself in an insoluble quandary. Although versed in all the traditional Islamic disciplines, he had become an ardent admirer of European, especially French, philosophy and culture. Fluent in both Arabic and Turkish, he had learned French well enough to translate Benjamin Constant into Arabic. When the French invaded and conquered his homeland he was appalled. Unlike his fellow countryman the great mystic and warrior Abd al-Qadir, he did not engage in direct action against the French. He fell back on a form of quietism; when plague struck, he counselled resignation to the will of God. Whatever befell human beings, whether conquest or epidemic, had been willed by Allah; however entranced he might be by European ideas, these were not what he relied on in moments of crisis. And yet, the allure of such Western concepts as ‘freedom’ continued to attract him. Like Faust, he had ‘two souls within his breast’, one deeply traditional and pious, the other both exploratory and innovative. He did not seek to reconcile the two; they inhabited his spirit in uneasy equipoise. Perhaps, steeped as he also was in Sufi practices, al-Jaza’iri saw these apparently irreconcilable perspectives as a ‘coincidence of opposites’, in which truth is revealed in the very disparity of opposing concepts. 

Although he does not mention al-Jaza’iri in his excellent new study, Christopher de Bellaigue eloquently demonstrates how paradigmatic the Algerian’s position proved to be. Muslim intellectuals, both reformers and traditionalists, as well as ruthlessly reforming sultans and pashas, were simultaneously attracted to and repelled by Western achievements and practices. The fact that these unfamiliar foreign novelties arrived wrapped in an aura of sheer godlessness and ignorance of the one true faith confounded Muslims. How was it possible that Allah, who had bestowed the final truth on Muslims in a revelation that superseded both Judaism and Christianity, would permit such infidels to triumph over them? The question, which vexed Muslims from Napoleon’s first incursions into Egypt in 1798, remains tormentingly pertinent today. It perplexes traditional Muslim preachers and it fuels the rage of jihadists. God cannot be unjust, and yet, how to account for the overwhelming material superiority of the sinful West? At the same time, once Muslim leaders had witnessed the devastating effect of Western weaponry and military tactics on the battlefield, they had to obtain and master them. Other novelties, such as printing with movable type or medical and scientific research (including human dissection), took longer to be accepted but eventually proved equally irresistible.

De Bellaigue’s title turns on a paradox. We seldom, if ever, think of Islam, at least in its current form, as exemplifying, let alone promoting, ‘enlightenment’. Yet his intention ‘is to demonstrate that non-Muslims and even some Muslims who urge an Enlightenment on Islam are opening the door on a horse that bolted long ago’. He goes even further when he states that ‘for the past two centuries Islam has been going through a pained yet exhilarating transformation – a Reformation, an Enlightenment and an Industrial Revolution all at once.’ This seems to me somewhat overstated. After all, one of the obstacles to any reformation within Islam is not solely the intransigence of its well-ensconced clergy, both Sunni and Shia, but also the simple fact that the emergence of Islam itself represented a reformation, at least in the eyes of its adherents. It grew partly as a reformation of what the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers saw as the distortions of monotheism present in both Christianity and Judaism. Many Christian doctrines, such as that of the Incarnation or the Trinity, scandalised early Muslims because they infringed upon the overriding conception of God’s absolute oneness.

De Bellaigue follows that bolting horse on its zigzag and often bloody path over some two centuries, chronicling its progress in considerable detail. He does this by turning first to the three cities in which the impact of Western influence was most marked: Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran. The chapters on these places are fascinating, full of vivid portraits and telling historical detail. Although most of his sources, with the exception of some Persian and Turkish accounts, are in translation, he possesses a sure sense of place and of social and historical context, perhaps because of the twelve or so years he spent working in the Middle East as a journalist. When, for example, he compares Constantinople, an artful travelogue (and classic of the genre) by the 19th-century Italian observer Edmondo De Amicis, with the gritty, down-to-earth description of Istanbul by the pioneering Turkish journalist Ibrahim Şinasi, we see at once the vast difference between the perspectives of a well-intentioned outsider and a native of the city. Indeed, one of de Bellaigue’s insights is that the kind of journalism that Şinasi excelled at was in part the result of the impact of Western ways of writing, especially in the press (Şinasi actually founded two of the first newspapers in Turkey). That influence, as well as the public reaction against it, inspired Turkish writers like Şinasi to look afresh at what was right in front of their eyes.

The chapters on these three places display de Bellaigue’s method at its best. For each city he provides a historical account interspersed with character sketches of leading figures. In Cairo, still reeling under the Napoleonic invasion, the eminent scholar and historian Abdulrahman al-Jabarti, the last in the great Islamic historiographical tradition that stretched back for almost a millennium, cursed the French, begging God ‘to strike their tongues with dumbness … confound their intelligence, and cause their breath to cease’. But al-Jabarti also engaged in discussions with the French, whose odd views intrigued him. When they spoke of ‘freedom’ he was puzzled: for him, freedom only meant not being a slave. The notion of liberté was otherwise meaningless to him; after all, the rulers of Egypt, the Mamluks, had themselves been slaves. After further observation, al-Jabarti conceded that the French invaders ‘were not in fact barbarous at all: they displayed wisdom, good sense, even moral soundness’. De Bellaigue’s portrait of Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Albanian-born Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, is especially fine. This ruthless pasha destroyed the Mamluks, created a modern Egyptian army, had canals, telegraph lines and factories built, set up the first Egyptian printing press (where the Koran was set in type for the first time), undermined the powerful clergy by confiscating huge swathes of their land and even put women to work, suitably veiled, in factories producing yarn.

In The Islamic Enlightenment, reforming despots such as Muhammad Ali or the Ottoman sultans Mahmud II and Abdulhamid II or the Qajar overlords of Iran rub shoulders with a huge array of intellectuals, from the remarkable Rifaa al-Tahtawi, who established a translation movement that ended up rendering some two thousand European and Turkish works into Arabic (including the writings of Voltaire and Montesquieu), to the astonishing ‘prophetess’ Qurrat al-Ayn, who dared to give sermons unveiled in public. His account of the Babi and Baha’i movements in Iran is particularly good. And his treatment of such reforming figures as Jamal al-Din Afghani or Muhammad Abduh – journalist, theologian and reforming rector of al-Azhar University – is exemplary. There are occasional errors. Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, is the first of the twelve Shia Imams, not the second, as he claims. And his account of the Asharite school of theology, still the dominant form of Sunni orthodoxy, is quite muddled. But these are rare missteps. This is a rich and surprising history that fully justifies its provocative title.

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