Enlightenment in the Islamic world

Refuting the 'westernisation' narrative

In his latest work, essayist and seasoned correspondent Christopher de Bellaigue presents the Islamic world in the 19th century in a new light. His main thrust? The Islamic Middle East did indeed experience its own genuine Enlightenment. By Arnold Hottinger

With ″The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle between Faith and Reason″, Christopher de Bellaigue has written a book in which he aims to show that there was, in fact, an Enlightenment in the Islamic world. Much has been written about the ″reform movements″ that started in the three hubs of Islamic culture – Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran – in the early 19th century, movements that saw them motivated to ″learn″ from their neighbouring European cultures in order to survive the increasing pressure from said neighbours. But de Bellaigue gives us a new perspective on the period.

Until now, this "reform" has been described from the viewpoint of those who regarded themselves as the originators and owners of what the Enlightenment achieved. They described how those other cultures learned from our own. From their viewpoint, the learning process was always an honourable effort, but incomplete; THEY could never become like US, although they tried very hard to learn from us. They registered what was ″nearly″ but never quite achieved, the ″progress″ of pupils who forever remained our pupils and imitators.

From the standpoint of the achievers

De Bellaigue manages to view the development from the standpoint of those who set it in motion. He first looks at what coming into contact with this foreign culture meant to Arabs, Turks and Iranians in the 19th century, emphasising just how strongly what had been foreign became, as years passed, a new native lifestyle.

Cover of Christopher de Bellaigue′s ″The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle between Faith and Reason″ (published by Bodley Head)
"Thanks to an unparalleled ability to empathise, de Bellaigue is able to see events through the eyes of the protagonists who bring the Enlightenment to their previously traditional societies, rather than those of the Europeans or other inhabitants of ″the West″ who speak dismissively or disapprovingly of ′westernisation′,″ writes Hottinger

His essential argument is that the Islamic Middle East went through a genuine Enlightenment. Of course, the European models existed and were applied. But he places the emphasis on the work of adopting them – on what was achieved by those Middle Eastern figures bringing enlightenment to their societies – rather than labouring the point that the adoption of foreign elements into a neighbouring culture was necessarily incomplete, compared to that which existed in Europe.

Muslim proponents of the new culture

Ultimately, the task was to enlighten their own society, not to liquidate it in favour of foreign models. The famous names of those early pioneers dispatched to Paris and London in order to learn also appear in de Bellaigue′s book. But he gives us more details about their lives and the effect they had on their own societies, bringing them into focus as people.

Previously, Middle Eastern bringers of enlightenment such as the Egyptian Rifaat at-Tahtawi (1801–1873), the Iranian Mirza Saleh (c. 1790–1840), who visited and described Great Britain, the Turk Ibrahim Sinasi (pronounced ″Shinasi″, 1825–1871), who played a crucial role in introducing modern Turkish as a language of the vernacular and also published the first significant Turkish newspaper, have been seen and depicted as mere vehicles for cultural transfer.

The same thing happened to many of the other people who are portrayed anew by de Bellaigue. This new account shines a spotlight on them as active proponents of the new culture, helping in the process to reform their own.

The author emphasises the fact that in reality, the people who effected this great transformation of traditional Islamic societies were members of these societies. The focus shifts from ″They became almost like us,″ to ″They took our values and managed to incorporate them into their own societies, changing these societies radically and permanently.″

Unparalleled ability to empathise

Even today, the European eye that looks at its neighbouring culture still sees the differences: ″But this thing and that is completely different to how it is here, despite all their efforts to learn from us and adopt our ways.″ The native eye sees how times change, how its own culture has been completely changed by the efforts undertaken by its own people: ″Nothing is the same as it used to be!″

Thanks to an unparalleled ability to empathise, de Bellaigue is able to see events through the eyes of the protagonists who bring the Enlightenment to their previously traditional societies, rather than those of the Europeans or other inhabitants of ″the West″ who speak dismissively or disapprovingly of ″westernisation″.

And after the Enlightenment?

The Islamic Enlightenment enters a crisis. The author describes this, too, though in less detail than he does the achievements of the Enlightenment period that preceded it. The crisis arrives with the First World War – which shatters the Ottoman Empire – and what happened in its wake, including the division of the Arab world among the colonial states (now often referred to by the shorthand ″Sykes-Picot″).

There was also the birth of Turkey as a nation state and the emergence of a nationalistic Iran following British and later American interventions. A contradiction emerges between the values of freedom that the West proclaims and its actions, which amount to the subjugation of neighbouring civilisations.

The coercion that now comes with enlightenment – enlightenment on command and for the benefit of the commanders – enables the conservative enemies of enlightenment, who have always been there, to gain the upper hand and discredit the idea of the Enlightenment as liberation.

Military dictatorships seize power

The ″liberal age″ is coming to an end. Technology – weapons, first and foremost, but also factories – continues to be necessary. There is no surviving without it. But Western neighbours have imposed themselves to such an extent that now the resistance against them prevails. Military dictators seize power as the colonialists retreat during the aftermath of the Second World War. Even the fact that they think it necessary to maintain rubber-stamp parliaments shows that the traditional world has changed.

But the increasing pressure of foreign influence gives a boost to the call for a native culture. The enlighteners′ attempt to organise their own societies more usefully using rational criteria is overpowered by the nationalistic model. Its aim is to increase the power of the native society, now thought of using the imported concept of the ′nation′, as far as possible. For that, a military leadership is seen as necessary.

Superseded by ideological Islam

As the hopes placed in these military leaders begin to fade, owing to the fact that they are losing rather than winning wars, people begin to call for a return to their own ″Islamic″ roots. The call is first made by the Muslim Brotherhood (founded in 1928) and then by that group′s radical wing under the influence of Sayyid Qutb, who was executed under Nasser′s government in 1966. De Bellaigue describes this in enough detail for us to work out the underlying motives and reasons for it.

He only hints at the further consequences: a newly-constructed version of Islam is gaining ground – one that has nothing to do with believers′ previous understanding of their religion, but a lot to do with the will to repel foreign influences. This happens most abruptly where these foreign influences have been imposed from outside by force, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But even in countries that haven′t faced a military invasion, from Iran to Morocco, the new self-image of these Muslims is gaining ground, as they try to mobilise Islam to support them against the infiltration of their countries by foreign ideas and powers. At the same time there are more self-assured majorities everywhere: people who hope – without utterly breaking off from their own tradition – to find their way back onto the path to an enlightened future that they set out on over two hundred years ago.

Arnold Hottinger

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

More on this topic
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: Qantara.de reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. Qantara.de will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.