Islamic Enlightenment, The Struggle between faith and reason

A worth reading book reviews by Kenan Malik on three books on Islam, Christopher de Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason(Bodley Head), Cemil Aydin’s The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History (Harvard University Press) and Tariq Ramadan’s Islam: The Essentials (Pelican). It was published in the New Statesman, 9 June 2017.

The Turkish nation,’ Mehmed Ziya Gokalp wrote, ‘belongs to the Ural-Altai [language] group of peoples, to the Islamic umma, and to Western internationalism.’ Gokalp was an early-20th-century sociologist, writer, poet and political activist whose work was influential in shaping the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the key figure in the founding of modern Turkey. What is striking about Gokalp’s argument is that it stitches together three elements that today seem to many to be irreconcilable. ‘Islam’ and ‘Western internationalism’, in particular, are often seen as occupying opposite sides in a ‘clash of civilisations’.

This sense of a fundamental separation between Islam and the West has been ex- acerbated by the rise of Islamism and the emergence of Islamic State. Some Muslims are attracted to IS because of a deep loathing for the West. Many in the West regard that support as evidence for the incompatibility of Western and Islamic values. Christopher de Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment and Cemil Aydin’s The Idea of the Muslim World, in very different ways, try to explain the historical shifts that have made what once seemed necessary and rational now appear impossible and self-deluding.

The starting point of de Bellaigue’s luminous work is the oft-made claim that ‘Islam needs its Enlightenment’. De Bellaigue argues, on the contrary, 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.’ What is distinctive about the Islamic world today, he writes, is that it is under the heel of a counter-Enlightenment, a development visible in particular through the emergence of Islamism, of which Islamic State – the group that has claimed responsibility for terror attacks in Europe, including the latest atrocities in London and Manchester – is the most grotesque expression.

The Islamic Enlightenment explores the complex relationship between Muslim-majority countries and modernity, a relationship mediated largely through its relation- ship with Europe, and more generally the West. De Bellaigue begins in three of the great cities of the Muslim world – Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran – and guides us through the transformation of their intellectual, political and social worlds in the 19th century. He is a wonderful narrator, and these chapters burst with colour and detail.

Each city and nation confronted modernity and the West in distinctive ways. However, in all cases, de Bellaigue observes, ‘The world of Islam was only ready to shed its superiority complex once its supports were revealed to be rotten.’ In Egypt, that rottenness was laid bare by Napoleon’s invasion of 1798. In the shadow of the Pyramids, as the French destroyed the Egyptian forces, ‘the fiction of Christian deference to Muslim superiority fell away’.

Napoleon brought to Egypt not only soldiers but scholars, too. In Cairo he set up the Institute of Egypt, which became the meeting point for Islam and the Enlightenment. One of the first Egyptians to visit the institute was Hasan al-Attar, who later became Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, among the most important clerics in Sunni Islam. Egypt’s ‘first modern thinker’, in de Bellaigue’s words, al-Attar was a polymath who be- came intoxicated by the learning he found at the institute. He transformed al-Azhar, one of the oldest centres of Islamic learning, into a vibrant university and encouraged a new generation of thinkers versed in Western thinking.

Most notable of this new generation was Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, another Egyptian cleric who made it his life’s work to prove that reason was compatible with Islam. After spending time in Paris, al-Tahtawi returned home in 1831 to help lead the statewide effort to modernise Egypt’s infrastructure and education. He founded the school of languages in Cairo and supervised the translation of over 2,000 foreign works into Arabic – the greatest translation movement since that of the Abbasid period, a millennium earlier. His own works introduced to a new audience Enlightenment ideas about secularism, rights and liberties.

It was not just the intellectual sphere that was upturned. The physical and social worlds were transformed, too, at a pace undreamt of in Europe. From the printing press to female graduates, from steam trains to oppositional newspapers, from the abolition of slavery to the creation of trade un- ions, in the space of a few decades in Egypt, modernity wrought changes that had taken more than a century to happen in Europe, and transformed Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran from semi-medieval markets into modern, semi-industrial cities. ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned,’ Marx observed of the disorienting effect of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution in Europe. How much more so that must have seemed in Islamic states.

Inevitably there was a backlash, as there was in Europe. Yet unlike in Europe, those who promoted Enlightenment values in the Muslim world faced another problem: that of the European powers themselves. European nations may have basked in the light of the Enlightenment but they also insisted that pursuit of ideals such as liberty or democracy should not get out of hand and threaten European imperial interests.

Take Iran. In August 1906, a year-long popular struggle for democracy against the shah and his autocratic government succeeded in establishing an elected national assembly and a new constitution. The radical democrats looked to Europe for their ideals. ‘Iran must both in appearance and reality, both physically and spiritually, become Europeanised and nothing else,’ claimed one of the leading constitutionalists, Has- san Taqizadeh. But the European powers were fearful that the new, democratic Iran would no longer be a pliant creature, acting in the interest of the West. In August 1907, Britain and Russia signed an accord dividing Iran into two zones of imperial influence. Russian troops invaded Iran, dissolved parliament, and arrested and executed many deputies. Britain established a de facto col- ony in its area of influence in the south-east of the country.

Four decades later, after democracy had been restored in Iran, Western powers again intervened to destroy it. In 1951 the democratically elected Prime Minister Muhammed Mossadeq nationalised the oil industry. Britain and the United States engineered a coup d’etat that, two years later, overthrew Mossadeq and returned the shah to power – and Iran’s oil industry to Western control.

Such actions of European powers led many people in Muslim countries to see the modernising project as an imperialist imposition. It also led many to elide opposition to imperialism, and defence of the nation, with opposition to Enlightenment ideas of liberty, equality and secularism. Hence the growth of popular support for Islamist groups. The eventual consequence of Western attempts to suppress democracy in Iran was the revolution of 1978-79 – and the seizing of power by Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters.

The Islamic Enlightenment is a dazzling feat of erudition and storytelling. It is also a necessary work, challenging many of the assumptions that animate contemporary narratives about Islam. But for all that it unpicks the myths woven into the conventional narratives, de Bellaigue’s own narrative weaves in its own myths.

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