Christopher de Bellaigue, The Islamic Enlightenment:
The Islamic Enlightenment:
The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times
Christopher de Bellaigue is one of the leading English-language authorities on the volatile Middle East, an elegant stylist with an uncanny ability to explain that bewildering swath of the globe in incisive yet clear prose. Heis the author of a perceptive biography of Muhammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister deposed in 1953 in a joint American-British covert operation, reviewed here in October 2014. De Bellaigue’s most recent work, The Islamic Enlightenment: The StruggleBetween Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times, tackles head-on the widespread notion that Islam, the Middle East’s dominant religion, needs an intellectual, secular awakening similar to the 18th century Enlightenment which transformed Western society. De Bellaigue delivers the message forthrightly that Islam has already undergone such a transformation. Those who urge Enlightenment on Islam, non-Muslims and Muslims alike, are “opening thedoor on a horse that bolted long ago” (p.xvi; disclosure: I have argued in these pages that Islam needs a 21st century Enlightenment).
For the past two centuries, de Bellaigue writes, Islam has been undergoing a “pained yet exhilarating transformation – a Reformation, an Enlightenment and an Industrial Revolution all at once,” an experience of “relentless yet vitalizing alternation – of reforms, reactions, innovations, discoveries, and betrayals” (p.xvi). The Islamic Enlightenment, like its Western counterpart, entailed the “defeat of dogma by proven knowledge, the demotion of the clergy from their position as arbiters of society and the relegation of religion to the private sphere,” along with the “ascendancy of democratic principles and the emergence of the individual to challenge the collective to which he or she belongs” (p.xxiv). Although influenced and inspired by the West, the Islamic Enlightenment found its own forms. It did not follow the same path as the European version.
De Bellaigue concentrates almost exclusively on three distinct Islamic civilizations, Egypt, Iran (called “Persia” up to 1935, although de Bellaigue uses the word “Iran” throughout), and the Turkish Ottoman Empire. These three civilizations constitute “Islam’s heartlands” (p.xxvi), the three most consequential intellectual, spiritual and political centers of the Middle East. Although he barely mentions such major Islamic areas as North Africa or East Asia, there is logic and symmetry to de Belliague’s choices, starting with a different language in each: Arabic in Egypt; Persian (or Farsi) in Iran; and Turkish in Ottoman Turkey. Egypt and Iran, moreover, represent full-strength versions of Sunni and Shiite Islam, respectively, whereas the Sunni Islam of the Ottoman Empire interacted with Christianity as the empire extended its suzerainty well into Europe.
The Islamic Enlightenment had a clear starting point in de Bellaigue’s account: Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, in which the Corsican general brought with him not only several thousand military troops bent upon conquest but also the transforming ideas of the French Revolution and the French Enlightenment. The French occupation was short-lived. The British dislodged the over-extended Napoleon from Egypt in 1802 and retained a foothold there that became full colonial domination in the latter part of the 19th century. But the transformative power of the new ways of thinking embodied in the French Enlightenment could not be so easily dislodged.
De Bellaigue begins with three chapters entitled “Cairo,” “Istanbul,” and “Tehran,” concentrating on Egypt, Turkey, and Iran in the first half of the 19th century. Here he demonstrates how, in a recurrent pattern throughout the first half of the 19th century, the new ways of thinking arose in the three locations largely as unintended bi-products of regimes where relentless leaders pursued institutional modernization, particularly of the military to defend against foreign incursions. The succeeding chapters, entitled “Vortex,” and “Nation,” treat the three civilizations collectively, and center on the increasing interaction and integration between the three in the second half of the century, up to World War I, along with their increasing servitude to the West at a time when European colonial acquisition began to run up against Muslim resistance. De Bellaigue contends that World War I marked the beginning of the end for the Islamic Enlightenment, setting in motion the forces that undermined the liberalizing tendencies of the previous century. His final chapter, termed “Counter Enlightenment,” takes us up to the dispiriting present.
Unlike many works on the Western Enlightenment, de Bellaigue goes beyond a history of ideas. He is interested in how the new thinking of the Islamic Enlightenment was utilized in the three civilizations as an instrument of transformation — or “modernization,” his preferred term. His work contains much insightful reflection on the nature of modernity and the process of modernization, as he addresses not only the intellectual changes that were afoot in the Islamic heartlands during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but also political and economic changes. This broad focus renders his work something close to a comprehensive history of these lands over the past two centuries. Along the way, de Belliague introduces an array of thinkers and political leaders, many also religious leaders, few of whom are likely to be familiar to Western readers.
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By way of background, de Bellaigue begins with a revealing picture of the three civilizations prior to 1798. Many Western readers will be aware of the flowering of Islamic civilization from approximately the 9th century onward, a period of “glory, prosperity and achievement” (p.xxvi), in which the faith of the Prophet Muhammad created an “aesthetic culture of sophistication and beauty, excelling in architecture, textiles, ceramics and metallurgy” (p.xviii), along with mathematics — the study of algebra originated in the Arab world during this period, for example. Dynamic centers of learning permitted the “unfettered exercise of the rational mind” (p.xviii) in a way that was unthinkable in Europe during what was considered Christendom’s “dark ages.” But sometime in the 15th century, Islam began to molder and decay, falling victim to the same wave of superstition and defensiveness that had beset Christian Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Egypt at the time of the Napoleonic conquest, nominally a province of Ottoman Turkey, “hadn’t produced an original idea in years. Of the world outside Islam – the world of discovery and the Americas, science and the Industrial Revolution – there was a virtual boycott” (p.2). Napoleon, inspired both by the prior intellectual vigor of Egypt and the transformative potential of the French Revolution, strove to restore the country to its earlier glory under France’s “benign tutelage” (p.4). Napoleon brought with him a retinue of scholars who acted in the field of knowledge “as his army had acted on the field of battle, pointing to the future and shaming the past” (p.2). The short-lived French occupation set in motion new ways of thinking that altered Egypt indelibly and, in de Bellaigue’s interpretation, jump-started the Islamic Enlightenment across the Islamic heartlands.
The first of the Middle East’s “coercive modernizers” (p.18) was Muhammad Ali Pasha. Although De Bellaigue resists the temptation to label Muhammad Ali the heavyweight champion of 19th Middle Eastern modernization, that is a fair summation of the man who served as the Ottoman Sultan’s viceroy in Egypt from 1805 to 1849. Ali packed more reforms into the first half of the 19th century than had been carried out in Egypt over the previous 300 years. He reined in Islamic clerics and reformed the state bureaucracy, agriculture, and education. Above all, he modernized the military, with the Egyptian army becoming “both a symbol and a catalyst of the new Egypt” (p.21).
Muhammad Ali showed little interest in fostering the Enlightenment spirit of irreverence, skepticism and individual empowerment. But this spirit nonetheless arose as an irrepressible component of modernization. The interaction with French scholars convinced Hassan al-Atta, arguably the first major thinker of the Islamic Enlightenment, that the progress which had surged through Europe was a universal impulse that could gain traction anywhere, and was in no way foreclosed to Muslim civilizations. Spellbound by the Frenchmen he met in the aftermath of the Napoleonic conquest, Al-Attar spent many formative years in Istanbul. When he returned to Egypt, he took up the task of reconciling Islam with secular knowledge in fields as diverse as logic, history, science, medicine and geography. One of al-Attar’s students, Rifaa al-Tahtawi, known as Rifaa, received from al-Attar “what may have been the most complete education available to any Egyptian at the time,” (p.29), and went on to build upon his teacher’s efforts to show that the Muslim faith was compatible with progressive ideas.
Rifaa became the first 19th century Egyptian to study in France, spending five years there in the 1820s. He wrote a seminal travelogue, the first comprehensive description in Arabic of post-revolutionary France. Rifaa’s time in France “convinced him of the need for European sciences and technologies to be introduced into the Islamic world” (p.39). Rifiaa sought to close the distance between modern ideas and the capacity of Arabic to express them. De Bellaigue characterizes Rifaa as a translator in the “broad sense of someone who fetches ideas from one home and makes them comfortable in another” (p.42). His translated works had a “huge impact on the engineers, doctors, teachers and military officers who were beginning to form the elite of the country; they were the forerunners of the secular-minded middle classes that would dominate public life for much of the next two centuries” (p.43).
In the sprawling, multi-faith Ottoman Empire, of which Egypt was but one province, Sultan Mahmud II was the approximate equivalent to Muhammad Ali, and Ibrahim Sinasi the complement to Rifiaa. As the 18th century came to a close, Ottoman Turkey, although not nearly as backward as Egypt, had suffered a handful of painful military loses to Russia that convinced Mahmud II that the empire sorely needed to upgrade its military, not least to quell separatist tendencies emanating from Muhammad Ali’s Egypt. But the reforms instituted under Mahumd’s rule went well beyond the military, extending to education, statistics, modern sociology, agricultural innovation and political theory, with some of the most stunning innovations occurring in the education of doctors and the practice of medicine.
Like Rifaa, Sinasi spent time in Paris, where he saw the inadequacies of the Turkish language. Sinasi gave birth to modern Turkish prose and drama. Emulating Victor Hugo, Sinasi popularized concepts like freedom of expression and natural rights. Cosmopolitan, outward looking, and drawn to questions of human development, Sinasi was one of the first in the Middle East to “define rights not as conferred from above, but as inseparable from the growth of a law-based society,” making him a “pioneer of a new mode of thinking,” (p.80-81).
Iran was more isolated than Turkey or Egypt in the first half of the 19th century, and entered the modern era later and more sluggishly. Yet, Iran had to contend throughout the century with the persistent meddling of Russia in its affairs, with Britain becoming equally meddlesome as the century progressed. Iran in the first half of the 19th century had no forthright, determined and durable modernizer comparable to Muhammad Ali or Mahmud II. It sent no fledgling intellectuals or future leaders to Europe for education. Powerful Shiite clerics, proponents of “obscurantism, zealotry and fear” (p.129), served as a check on modernization.
But Nasser al-Din, who ruled as Iran’s Shah for 48 years, from 1848 to 1896, longer than either Ali or Mahmud II, found an engineer of reform in his tutor and then Chief Minister, Amir Kabir, 30 years older. During a tenure that lasted only three years, Chief Minister Kabir pursued industrialization and manufacturing, introduced town planning, established a postal service, promoted reforms in medicine, education and agriculture, and reined in the Shiite clergy. Nasser al-Din had Kabir removed from office, then executed, probably because he was perceived to have been too close to British and Russian diplomats.
Al-Din’s increasingly tyrannical rule after Kabir’s demise saw the rise of Jamal al-Din Afghani, sometimes credited with being the Middle East’s first advocate of pan-Islamism, a complex set of ideas that revolved around the notion that Muslims needed to transcend state boundaries and stand up to Europeans. Berating despotism and the European presence throughout the Muslim world, al-Din Afghani “embodied the use of Islam as a worldwide ideology of resistance against Western imperialism, knitting the Islamic heartlands together in a way that today seems impossible” (p.230).
Backward and isolated Iran made the region’s most dramatic move toward modern nationhood when it underwent a constitutional revolution in 1905 that gave rise to a National Consultative Assembly, Iran’s first parliament. The new powder of democracy was sprinkled over the land, with unprecedented levels of freedom of speech. But Russia in 1907 signed an anti-German pact with Great Britain, a portion of which divided Iran in half, with Russia having a sphere of influence in the north, Britain in the south, all the while purporting to honor and respect Iran’s independence. The two powers encouraged Iran to crack down on the constitutionalists, resulting in the installation of a military dictatorship in the name of the shah. For the remainder of the century, democrats and constitutionalists in Iran were caught in the middle, with those who favored an unchecked monarchy competing with Shia clerics and their supporters for control over public policy.
Turkey underwent a similar constitutional revolution following a military mutiny in Macedonia in June 1907. The military officers formed a key part of a group of “young Turks” who came together to demand that the brutally repressive Sultan Abdulhamid revive and reform the Ottoman constitution of 1876. With the surprising backing of the Sultan, a new legislative chamber met in December 1908, at a time when the Empire’s hold on its European provinces had begun to unravel. The defeat by Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece in the First Balkan War in 1912 all but ended the Ottoman presence in Europe.
As the first decade of the 20th century closed, Egypt, by then formally a British colony which lacked Iran and Turkey’s experiences with electoral politics, was also developing institutions that might have underpinned a liberal political regime, “if permitted to mature” (p.293). Across the region, a liberal, modernizing tradition had emerged strongly in the three intellectual and political centers of the Middle East. In less than a century, de Bellaigue writes, the region had “leaped politically from the medieval to the modern” (p.291). But World War I constituted an “unmitigated catastrophe” (p.295) for the region.
The Ottoman Empire, which sided with Germany during the war, ended up as one of the war’s losers and was formally and finally dismantled in its aftermath. Britain used the war to increase its hold on Egypt and suppress nationalist activity. Iran, although officially neutral, was violated with impunity during the war, as Turkish, Russian and British armies “ran amok on Iranian soil” in an effort to exploit Iranian oil resources. By the close of hostilities, Iran seemed “barely to have existed” (p.296).
The secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France, to which Tsarist Russia assented, divided most of the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence and has come to symbolize the “cupidity and arbitrariness” (p.299) of the Western powers in the Middle East. But to de Bellaigue, Sykes-Picot was far from being the most consequential among the treaties, declarations, and gentlemen’s agreements that were imposed on the region. This collection of instruments, “ill-considered, self-interested and indifferent to the desires of its inhabitants” (p.300), created a belt of instability across the region that endures to this day. The post-war settlements also accelerated the importance of oil for world economies, skewing development and ensuring continued meddling of the West in the region.
The Islamic counter-Enlightenment which de Bellaigue describes in his final chapter was a “response to the arbitrary settlements that had been imposed by the victors in the First World War” (p.315), expanding revulsion toward the West exponentially across Middle East. Fueled by the “paradoxical situation of imperialists advocating democracy” (p.315), the revulsion expressed itself in many forms, among them militant nationalism that left little room either for democratic norms or for Islam as a force that could provide internal coherence and strength to the region.
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Today, de Bellaigue concludes, it is “hard to discern any general movement in favor of liberal, humanist principles in the Middle East” (p.352). Rather, the trend seems to be toward violence and sectarian hate, which makes it easy to discount the Islamic Enlightenment. De Bellaigue’s erudite and – yes – enlightening work thus leaves us yearning wistfully that the sparks of new thinking which ignited Islamic civilization in the 19th century might somehow be rekindled in our time.
Thomas H. Peebles
Washington, D.C., USA
December 15, 2018