It’s hard to imagine a more pressing topic for Westerners today than Islam. Christopher de Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment provides the kind of comprehensive, carefully researched and nuanced history that can help us put the current situation in perspective. People often say that Islam needs an “Enlightenment,” like the one Europe and America experienced in the 17th and 18th centuries. These calls, according to de Bellaigue, “are opening the door on a horse that bolted long ago.” The Islamic Enlightenment has already happened. The story of that Enlightenment—its origins, its champions and their achievements, the resistance they have encountered, and the counter-Enlightenment that begin after the First World War—forms the subject matter of this book. “Through the characters of his book,” the author tells us, “we will see 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.” De Bellaigue is careful to set this transformation of the last two centuries, the subject of his book, in the larger context of the history of Islam since its beginnings in the seventh century.
The key element of that background is the extraordinary flourishing of Islamic scholarship and philosophical speculation that began in the eighth century and lasted for several hundred years until it was cut short by hostile movements from the West, the Crusades and the expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian peninsula. De Bellaigue speaks of “a period of glory, prosperity and achievement lasting over half a millennium…and a later period of insularity and strengthening conservatism that made the region acutely vulnerable to the West.” A group called the Mutazalites had argued “for free will over fatalism and quoted Quranic verses showing displeasure at an inactive mind.” The famous Ibn Sinna or Avicenna, cited favorably by Thomas Aquinas, taught that the paths of virtue “should be mapped by reason and experience,” not just accepted by blind obedience to laws promulgated in the Quran. Islamic scholars discovered the lost works of Aristotle and made them available to Christian thinkers like Aquinas.
People often say Islam needs an Enlightenment, but the Islamic Enlightenment has already happened, Christopher de Bellaigue writes.
But by the late 18th century, where de Bellaigue’s study begins, opposition to rationalism and the scientific exploration of the world had established itself in the Islamic world, which had become defensive and focused on certainty in place of speculation and doubt. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, according to de Bellaigue, marks the beginning of what he calls the Islamic Enlightenment. The enlightened discoveries and values of Europe and America began to flow into the up-until-then closed world of Islam. Young Islamic scholars, sent by openminded rulers to study in England and France, learned of new discoveries in medicine, social policies and the conviction of reason’s triumph over superstition. These young scholars, who, over a period of five or more years in the West, had tasted these ideas and found them delightful, brought them back to their countries of origin. De Bellaigue explores the unfolding of this transformation in three centers—Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran—examines the resulting generalized patterns of development in the Middle East and explores the counter-Enlightenment movements after World War I that brought the transformation to an end and introduced an anti-Western militant form of Islam.
De Bellaigue’s extended descriptions of the careers of these scholars constitutes one of the most appealing features of his study. The scholars, their opportunity to travel to the West and their freedom to disseminate Western ideas depended on the openness of their rulers. One ruler was Mohammed Ali Pasha, generally regarded as the founder of modern Egypt. During his long reign, 1805 to 1849, he accomplished “as many reforms as had been carried out in the country over the previous three hundred years, transforming everything he touched in his haste to establish a powerful, European-style state and thus avoid foreign subjugation.”
Under Pasha’s patronage, scholars, including Hassan al-Attar and his pupil Rifaa al Tahtawi, travelled to Europe, absorbed the achievements of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment and brought them home. Hassan al-Attar’s intervention in the tense situation brought about by the establishment of the first medical college in Egypt provides an example of a dynamic repeated over and over in this study of innovation, resistance to innovation and the overcoming of resistance by “enlightened” believers. Mohammed Ali had deputed a French surgeon, Antoine Barthélemy Clot to found the medical college, but a major obstacle to its functioning had to be overcome, namely the “insurmountable religious opposition to the science of human anatomy.” There could be no dissection in Egypt without clerical support. Hassan al-Attar, as “head of the faith in Cairo,” stepped in, “declaring his approval of anatomy classes and also expressing his support for hygiene, or preventative medicine.”
The author’s description, cited above, of an “exhilarating transformation—a Reformation, an Enlightenment and an Industrial Revolution all at once,” raises the question of whether “Enlightenment” might be too narrow a title for the book’s subject matter. The word enlightenment in the West is freighted with antireligious meaning that was not central to the awakening this book describes. Like all really important books, this one also raises questions it does not answer. How, for instance, does the Enlightenment de Bellaigue describes compare with the earlier awakening that began in the seventh century? This is a worthwhile book for those willing to make the investment, both for the answers it gives and for the questions it raises.