The attitude to "foreign" knowledge is interesting here. It was not seen as "cultural property" which could be attributed to a particular nation or religion, but as a universal legacy for mankind. That is why in the 11th century Sa'id al-Andalusi was able to compile a genealogy of peoples to whom he attributed important contributions to the development of scientific studies. These included Indians, Persians, Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Arabs and the residents of Spain, whose particular cleverness, he said, was that Muslims, Jews and Christians worked together there. This is to say: Sa'id al-Andalusi recognised that knowledge, reason and maturity are universally valid and should not be exclusively ascribed to one particular people.
Thirdly: the fact that pleas for enlightenment can be greeted with mistrust is also to do with how they are framed. And this leads us back to a point already articulated at the start of this essay: the demands being put to Muslims in the current debate often rest on a mythical image of enlightenment.
This is surprising inasmuch as the Enlightenment, when it comes to Europe itself, ceased to be glorified a long time ago. No one would still claim today that its consequences in Europe were purely beneficial: the last two centuries of European history and the theoretical objections that have been voiced again and again since Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno‘s "Dialectic of Enlightenment", both speak against the idealisation of this epoch.
But how do things stand when we cast our gaze beyond Europe? How did the exponents of enlightenment in other societies and cultures see things? And what were the consequences for those affected by them? Here we can also see fractures in the image put forward by some prominent thinkers, which should be more clearly articulated and revealed. As a rule, the early enlighteners had no problem with traditions from outside Europe. They valued an Arab philosopher like Abu Bakr Ibn Tufail and studied works from different cultural circles. This enabled Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, for example, to write at the start of the 18th century: "If the Latins, the Greeks, the Hebrews and the Arabs should ever be exhausted, the Chinese... will take their turn and provide material for the intellectual curiosity of our critics. Not to mention some old books by the Persians, the Armenians, the Coptics and the Brahmins, which in time will be pulled out of obscurity, so that no enlightenment is neglected..."
The idea that Islam is not capable of enlightenment is a high-handed claim
Later, by contrast, the acknowledgement of other philosophical traditions did become a problem. Immanuel Kant concentrated entirely on his own philosophy, which to him represented not only the goal, but also the measure of all rational cognition. In his successors, this led to the history of philosophy as a whole containing a teleological tendency, which is conspicuous in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, among others.
For him, there was only one single philosophy, the history of which was synonymous with the self-revelation of reason and ultimately led up to his own philosophical system. Beside this, other ways of thinking could be "only preliminaries", as Hegel writes, particularly "Oriental philosophy" (by which he meant Chinese and Indian philosophy). And "the Arabs", who may have transmitted Greek thought to the Latin Scholastics, but otherwise had "nothing of their own" to show.
Judgements like these dogged European research all the way into the 20th century. And they were not only applied to the history of philosophy; they mark a fundamental attitude that was only developed with full clarity as the Enlightenment progressed. The more self-assured Enlightenment thinkers were in formulating their own concepts, the more critically they expressed themselves with regard to the thought of others. Or, to adapt an adage from the "Dialectic of Enlightenment": the fully enlightened European shines in the sign of his triumphal judgement, passed on all those who cannot, as he sees it, stand up against his own insights.
This is also something to bear in mind for anyone wanting to enter into a debate on enlightenment with Muslims. Over the course of the Enlightenment, the intellectual traditions of the Islamic world were markedly devalued in Europe. This devaluation continues to have an effect today, when some Europeans present Muslims with the ultimatum of orienting themselves by "our Enlightenment" or, even more high-handedly, claim that Islam is simply not capable of enlightenment.
© Sueddeutsche Zeitung 2016
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin
The author lectures in Islamic Studies at the University of Zurich.