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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“A thin line between cult and religion” By Tara Burton

(Or is belief system a circular spectrum ranging from atheism at one end and cult at the other end?  Interesting article on belief systems. F. Sheikh ). IF COMMENTING ON THIS ARTICLE, PLEASE COMMENT IN GENERAL AND DO NOT SPECIFICALLY TARGET ONE RELIGION.

Beginning paragraphs;

“Cults, generally speaking, are a lot like pornography: you know them when you see them. It would be hard to avoid the label on encountering (as I did, carrying out field work last year) 20 people toiling unpaid on a Christian farming compound in rural Wisconsin – people who venerated their leader as the closest thing to God’s representative on Earth. Of course, they argued vehemently that they were not a cult. Ditto for the 2,000-member church I visited outside Nashville, whose parishioners had been convinced by an ostensibly Christian diet programme to sell their houses and move to the ‘one square mile’ of the New Jerusalem promised by their charismatic church leader. Here they could eat – and live – in accordance with God and their leader’s commands. It’s easy enough, as an outsider, to say, instinctively: yes, this is a cult.

Less easy, though, is identifying why. Knee-jerk reactions make for poor sociology, and delineating what, exactly, makes a cult (as opposed to a ‘proper’ religious movement) often comes down to judgment calls based on perceived legitimacy. Prod that perception of legitimacy, however, and you find value judgments based on age, tradition or ‘respectability’ (that nice middle-class couple down the street, say, as opposed to Tom Cruise jumping up and down on a couch). At the same time, the markers of cultism as applied more theoretically – a single charismatic leader, an insular structure, seeming religious ecstasy, a financial burden on members – can also be applied to any number of new or burgeoning religious movements that we don’t call cults.

Often (just as with pornography), what we choose to see as a cult tells us as much about ourselves as about what we’re looking at.”

Concluding paragraphs;

“To talk about religion as a de facto abuse-vector of hierarchical power (in other words, a cult writ large) is a meaningless oversimplification. It’s less an arrow than a circle: a cycle of power, meaning, identity, and ritual. We define ourselves by participating in something, just as we define ourselves against those who don’t participate in something. Our understanding of ourselves – whether we’re cradle Catholics, newly joined-up members of the Hare Krishna, or members of a particularly rabid internet fandom – as people whose actions have cosmic if not metaphysical significance gives us a symbolic framework in which to live our lives, even as it proscribes our options. Every time we repeat a ritual, from the Catholic Mass to a prayer circle on a farm compound to a CrossFit workout, it defines us – and we define the people around us.

Today’s cults might be secular, or they might be theistic. But they arise from the same place of need, and from the failure of other, more ‘mainstream’ cultural institutions to fill it. If God did not exist, as Voltaire said, we would have to invent him. The same is true for cults.”

Cick for full article;

India: violent and caste ridden society

Shared by Dr. Syed Ehtisham

EOM: Worth reading article. How much Indian journalists are objective and critical of their environment.

In the land of Kama Sutra —–Our popular culture celebrates violence, but frowns on any expression of love. Marriage is a house-keeping, bonded-labour arrangement. The powerful cultural hegemony of the rich castes and classes has cast its spell on the rest, even the poor and the deprived, who emulate this cultural charade even more seriously. It is an India that has forgotten how to love.

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Lovesick in the time of anti-Romeos

By Padmaja Shaw | The New Indian Express – 24th April 2017

Freud famously said, “In the last resort we must begin to love in order not to fall ill, and we are bound to fall ill if … we are unable to love”. Love is an essential human instinct that keeps us sane. It transcends all artificial categories of caste, class, religion, race or ethnicity.

It is evident from the increasing attacks on young people in love, whether in the name of caste, anti-Romeo squads or love jihad, that we are surrounded by a muscular but sick society that considers love a bad word—a bad emotion. It is incapable of understanding that to love is to realise one’s humanity in its truest sense.9

A loveless sick society destroys the effervescence of a Romeo’s love for his consenting Juliet. Madhukar Manthani of Telangana and V Shankar of Kumaralingam village in TN were brutally killed for being in love with a higher caste girl. Neither were stalkers. Their love was reciprocated.

Our popular culture celebrates violence, but frowns on any expression of love. This was said in the 1960s by the Khosla committee report on film censorship. Nothing much has changed since.

Love was never much of a factor in traditional marriages, primarily because of endogamy and the mandated age difference between men and women. Sex in marriage is to fulfil the duty of procreation, it should not be confused with love.

Many a time, when young brides complain to their families about the coldness of the relationship with their spouse, mothers advice them to get a baby quickly to establish their position in the family.

Of course, mostly nothing changes. The woman just gets busier, with no time to think about the vast emptiness within her soul.

This equation is also the basis of marriages where caste, community and religion are important. The bride must understand her place in family and society. No new indoctrination should be necessary. She should be “homely, well-brought up” to fit into the family from day one, and is not supposed to recognise love if it stares her in the face.

And the ability of the young bride to make food allowed and relished by the community is ensured. The bride is seamlessly integrated into the family. The age difference between men and women insisted upon in arranged marriages is to ensure that women stay fit enough to serve the men in old age.

Marriage is a house-keeping, bonded-labour arrangement. This, in essence, is the root of anxiety about youngsters finding mates of their choice, the anxiety that such independent women may not play their assigned role.

With wives fully occupied with perpetuation of the bloodline, men are free to find their pleasures elsewhere, without attracting any social opprobrium. The devadasis and joginis are an artful exploitation of unattached women with full religious approval under the noses of presiding deities.

In the orthodox mind, this thing called love is a dangerous emotion. It is associated with joy in another being that thrives outside the accepted social relations they are familiar with. So every time it sees a couple happily in love, the orthodox mind rises up in rage as whatever love they themselves experienced in their taboo world is associated with illegitimacy. The well-brought-up girl you are married to is not supposed to know anything about love. In a woman, it reflects an autonomy of spirit that can pose a threat to the male authority.

Killing our own kind for reasons other than threat to one’s very survival goes against species loyalty. But in India, we see incidents of murder and violence perpetrated daily against people of a different faith or caste to “protect the honour of the family”. Humans have exploited colour, language, gods and demeanour to differentiate between groups. In this process of pseudo-speciation, we have created artificial divisions and differentiations that allow us to disrespect basic loyalty to our own species. The caste system is a despicable example of such pseudo-speciation. Humans across races, ethnicities and colour can cohabit and reproduce. Such pseudo-speciation that is socio-culturally manufactured and imposed ensures that people do not break out of the traps of exploitation and discrimination.

The young people of India are emerging out of the stranglehold of these divisions and becoming more human, by the fact that they are able to love someone transcending the social boundaries. It is also a healthy sign that the very ability to love also makes them saner and more empathetic. It allows them to see through the social and political games played by those who want to preserve old structures and orthodoxies that are designed for accumulation of wealth and ensuring the right to its enjoyment through a rigid system of succession within bloodlines. An elaborate cultural charade of family honour and purity of descent is built around it to justify this basic objective. Everyone and everything—women, children, gods, faith, rituals—are subordinate to this overarching purpose. The powerful cultural hegemony of the rich castes and classes has cast its spell on the rest, even the poor and the deprived, who emulate this cultural charade even more seriously.

This is the 21st century India that stakes its claim to global leadership. It is an India that has forgotten how to love. The “anti-Romeo squads” and the “anti-love-jihadists” are coercing the young back into their caste and community, essentially to preserve the upper class/caste hegemony. Only in such fragmented soil can divisive politics thrive. Are we tacitly approving self-righteous vigilante violence, allowing them to destroy love around us by keeping silent? Or are we silent because the vigilantes are the foot soldiers who are ensuring the perpetuation of our little empires without us getting our hands dirty? Is a dead son here and a dead daughter there a small price to pay for a superpower that has taken ill?

(The author is a retired journalism professor, Osmania University. Email:



The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason

The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason
The Dilemma Facing Ex-Muslims in Trump’s America

“Challenging Islam as a doctrine,”
Ali Rizvi told me, “is very different from demonizing Muslim people.”

Rizvi, a self-identified ex-Muslim, is the author of a new book titled:
The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason“.

One of the book’s stated aims is to uphold this elementary distinction: “Human beings have rights and are entitled to respect. Ideas, books, and beliefs don’t, and aren’t.”

The problem for Rizvi is that the grain of Western political culture is currently against him. Those in the secular West live in an age when ideas are commonly regarded as “deeds” with the potential to wound. So, on the left, self-critique of Islam is often castigated as critique of Muslims. Meanwhile, the newly elected president of the United States and his inner circle have a tendency to conflate the ideas of radical Islam with the beliefs of the entire Muslim population. So, on the right, the very same self-critique of Islam is used to attack Muslims and legitimize draconian policies against them.


Protesters at a demonstration called for an investigation into the possible involvement of Russian officials in the 2016 campaign.

America’s Two-Front War of Ideas

One possible response to this problem is to back down and stay silent. The Atheist Muslim is a sustained argument for why silence is not an option. I met up with Rizvi in his hometown of Toronto recently to discuss his reasoning.

Rizvi told me he wrote his book to give other ex-Muslims and wavering Muslims a reference point.
He particularly had in mind those atheists, agnostics, and humanists who live in Muslim-majority countries where the act of renouncing one’s faith is punishable by death. Rizvi, who was born in 1975 in Pakistan, where blasphemy carries a potential death sentence, and who lived for more than a decade in Saudi Arabia prior to becoming a permanent resident in Canada in 1999, knows all too well how dangerous public declarations of disbelief can be.

In contrast to other prominent ex-Muslim activists, like the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, there is no atrocity, trauma, or turbulence in Rizvi’s narrative. He grew up in a loving and supportive family. His parents are Shia Muslims, but they are “secular and relatively liberal” professors, he said. It wasn’t until his late teens that he began to seriously question his faith. According to Rizvi, when he told his parents about his atheism, “they were fine with it. We had arguments, but I wasn’t going to get disowned.” On the day The Atheist Muslim came out, his mother told him, “Your book will do well, inshallah” (“God willing”). To me, he joked, “If she’d told me that before, I would have put it as a blurb on the cover!”

In Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion, the sociologist Phil Zuckerman makes a distinction between “transformative apostasy” and “mild apostasy.” The former refers to “individuals who were deeply, strongly religious who then went on to reject their religion,” whereas the latter refers to those “who rejected religion but weren’t all that religious in the first place.” Rizvi belongs to the latter category. “I was a nominal believer,” he told me.

One criticism that has been leveled at ex-Muslims is that they are prone to fundamentalism, trading one form of zealotry for another. In Murder in Amsterdam, for example, the Dutch writer and academic Ian Buruma controversially ascribed to Hirsi Ali “hints of zealousness, echoes perhaps of her earlier enthusiasm for the Muslim Brotherhood, before she was converted to the ideals of the European Enlightenment.” This type of psychological observation seems way off in the case of Rizvi, who has a successful career outside of his public role as a former Muslim: He is a medical communications professional and a gifted musician who plays and sings in a rock band. For Rizvi, Islam was never an all-defining identity, and neither is his current ex-Muslim status.

“You can’t sanitize scripture. Fundamentalists have a more honest approach—they’re more consistent.”
In his book, Rizvi describes himself as an “agnostic atheist,” someone who doesn’t believe in God, but who is open to the possibility that he or she may be wrong. He also admits that when he fully abandoned his faith he was initially reluctant to embrace the “atheist” label. “The stereotype of atheists was of strident, aggressive, arrogant know-it-alls. … This is not how I wanted to identify. I was humbled by everything I did not know, and everything I could not know,” he writes. “It was later that I realized atheism is a position of humility, in contrast to theism, which claims to know the truth, and moreover, deems it divine and absolute.”

In Letters to a Young Contrarian, the anti-theist Christopher Hitchens confided that he found “something suspect even in the humblest believer” on account of their “arrogant” assumption that they are “an object of real interest to a Supreme Being” and their claim “to have at least an inkling of what that Supreme Being desires.” Rizvi, who counts “the Hitch” as an intellectual hero, is clearly opposed to this line of critique. He writes about Muslims with great humanity and feeling. He also remains culturally wedded to Islam, celebrating Eid and enjoying the feasts of Ramadan.

Yet he is trenchantly critical of canonical religious texts. “Most Muslims are moderate, but whoever wrote the Quran, that’s not a moderate person,” he said. Rizvi devotes an entire chapter of his book to exposing what he sees as the flagrantly illiberal elements in Quranic scripture. Referring to the chapter on women, Surah An-Nisa, he writes: “It establishes a hierarchy of authority, where men are deemed to be ‘in charge’ of women. It also asks wives to be obedient to their husbands, and allows their husbands—in the most controversial part of the verse—to beat them if they fear disobedience.”

Rizvi condemns this, but he reserves an almost equal contempt for reformist Muslims who, as he sees it, try to rationalize away such verses. He puts the scholar of religion Reza Aslan in this category, taking him to task for his suggestion that interpretations of scripture have “nothing to do with the text…and everything to do with the cultural, nationalistic, ethnic, political prejudices and preconceived notions that the individual brings to the text.” Rizvi is incredulous at the categorical “nothing” in this claim, and echoes the Islamic studies scholar Michael Cook’s observation that religious texts provide “modern adherents with a set of options that do not determine their choices but do constrain them.” He is skeptical, too, of reformist efforts to reinterpret scripture so as to bring Islam into line with liberal values. “You can’t sanitize scripture,” he insisted. “I think fundamentalists have a more honest approach. … They’re more consistent.”

The left’s suggestion that criticism of Islam equals criticism of Muslims is a form of blackmail.
Rizvi is also opposed to any efforts to sanitize Islam as “a religion of peace.” He is particularly critical of any attempt to separate jihadist violence from Islamic scripture, which he believes is one of its main drivers, though not the only driver. This puts him at odds not only with Donald Trump’s currently embattled deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka, who identifies the “martial” passages in Islamic scripture as the overriding cause of jihadist violence, but also with Gorka’s liberal critics who deny or minimize any such causal link.

The main bête noire of The Atheist Muslim is not the Islamic fundamentalists who would like to see Rizvi’s head on a spike, but the “regressive left,” who, in Rizvi’s view, are the former’s preeminent apologists, and who seek to silence voices like his own. For Rizvi, their suggestion that criticism of Islam equals criticism of Muslims is a form of blackmail, disseminated to shut down any forthright critical engagement with the religion.


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