Islam and enlightenment

Beware of the myth

Anyone in Europe calling for Islam to finally go through a phase of enlightenment should first pause for critical reflection on our own concept of Enlightenment, writes the prominent Islamic studies expert Ulrich Rudolph

The current debate around Islam has led to repeated calls for Muslims to (finally) go through a phase of enlightenment. These calls usually combine two complementary assumptions: one diagnostic, which says that numerous problems in the Islamic world can be traced back to the fact that no enlightenment has taken place there yet; and one therapeutic, according to which "catching up with" the process of enlightenment will sooner or later provide solutions to these problems.

These are both bold assumptions, resting as they do on a one-dimensional construction of history, entirely focused on the European model of epochs (Middle Ages; Renaissance; Reformation; Wars of Religion; Enlightenment etc.). But even so, we cannot simply reject this call. The requirement linked with the concept of "enlightenment" is a categorical one. Strictly speaking, it is not founded in historical considerations, but applies fundamentally to all people.

On top of this there is the fact that many present-day Muslims share this same desire, hoping it will bring release from fossilised thought patterns that one-sidedly glorify an idealised past and are thus committed to a discourse that is mythical rather than rational. 

The striving for emancipation and maturity must not only be identified with the West

Admittedly, in the current debate we should take care not to let enlightenment itself become a myth. That is exactly what happens when it is made an absolute and invoked as a general master-key, almost automatically opening the gate to intellectual and social progress. Enlightenment, too, is subject to preconditions and limitations. But these must be exposed if the debate surrounding it is to fulfil its own critical claims and not degenerate into simple lesson-learning. In this sense it seems imperative to look more closely at how the conditions for using the term "enlightenment" apply to the Islamic world and the following three considerations are made with this aim in mind.

The first problem with the current debate is that "enlightenment", meaning the human striving for emancipation and maturity, is exclusively identified with 18th-century Europe. But as we now know, in Europe alone enlightenment passed through various different phases and initiatives.

Wood engraving showing Arab astrologers with measuring devices, Venice 1513  (photo: picture-alliance)
The heyday of Islam: intellectual and scientific thought flourished during the Abbasid period (749-1258). The imperial capital, Baghdad, became a centre of discovery and learning

These include the Renaissance, possibly the 13th century (if you agree with Kurt Flasch's theory), Greek Sophism and above all the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, the aims of which are nothing less than man's independent use of reason and are therefore classed as enlightenment by Jurgen Mittelstraß among others.

Then there are similar tendencies in other cultural circles and of course in the Islamic world. There – depending on how the term "enlightenment" is understood – various thinkers are described as enlighteners: philosophers such as Abu Nasr al-Farabi, Avicenna and Averroes for their advocacy of independent reason; Abu Hamid al-Ghazali for his critique of reason; Abu Bakr ar-Razi for his plea for a rational religion; but also some political thinkers of the Ottoman period like Hasan Kafi al-Aqhisari, for his critique of government. Thus there are Islamic authors who have clearly articulated human striving for emancipation and maturity and who are ripe for rediscovery by both Muslims and non-Muslims.

No one todayn would say that the consequences of the Enlightenment in Europe were all positive

But at the same time – and this is a second important point for the debate – acknowledging multiple phenomena of enlightenment certainly does not mean lessening the significance of the European Enlightenment of the 18th century. On the contrary: it is precisely when enlightenment is understood as a universal concept that it is also possible to accord a general validity to each individual manifestation of it and to call on today’s Muslims to engage with it intellectually. Some present-day Muslims may take that as an imposition, but it corresponds to an attitude that has long been held in the Islamic world.

The background to this offers another social challenge, namely the question of how Muslims of the early years were to deal with the intellectual legacy of antiquity. The answer to this was a self-conscious one. As Abu Yusuf al-Kindi put it, as early as the 9th century: "We must not be ashamed to acknowledge and adopt the truth, wherever it may come from, even if that be from distant races and other peoples."

And this was the spirit in which people acted, with many texts by Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle, being translated into Arabic.

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