"The Islamic Enlightenment"

I’ve been reading Christopher de Bellaigue’s “The Islamic Enlightenment” a chapter at a time over the last few months. It is a balanced, fascinating and beautifully written account of Islam over the last two centuries when, the author argues, Islam has undergone an enlightenment.

In his introduction, de Ballaigue declares that Islam “mouldered and decayed” for centuries and “retreated into scholasticism and literalism, with archipelagos of sometimes lunatic mysticism.”

Islam flowed upon the “same Abrahamic course” as Christianity, but believed Christianity’s “incomprehensible doctrines” made Islam the superior and more successful Abrahamic religion. Therefore Napoleon’s annexation of Egypt in 1798 was a shock to the Islamic world. Islam’s superiority was called into question. It also set before them an essential question: to what extent do they accept or reject “foreign innovation?”

I was familiar with the story of the West’s conquest of Egypt and I have seen Egyptian artifacts on display in London and Paris. But I had never read an account of the West’s conquest of Egypt from the perspective of the Egyptians. Napoleon brought with him a force of French scientists and scholars eager to study every aspect of Egyptian history and society they could get their hands upon. This openness and dedication made a great impression upon some of the Muslims.

Muslims went to study and learn from the great universities in the West, while some Islamic politicians adapted Christian European innovations to Islamic culture. What was plain to see was the importance of European military technology and strategy—and the need to match it.

De Ballaigue traces the contours of this revolution within Egypt as various trends and countertrends change Egypt from within. Reformist and Conservative movements clash as they transform the culture around them.

From Egypt, de Ballaigue takes us to Istanbul and Tehran, and lingers over each to offer historical insight into their cultural struggles and transformations. Then he brings Islam into the sweeping changes of the 20th century.

Technological advances encouraged far more interactions between people than ever before. The modern notion of the individual creeped into Islamic countries. Communication advances encouraged the sharing of new ideas. Easier travel meant educated Muslims from different countries could meet and discuss events on a Haj.

This is a brilliant and quite readable history. I quoted liberally from the book in the above paragraphs because de Ballaige is a quotable writer. He writes succinctly with wit and insight. I was often struck by his turns of phrase or rich metaphors. For instance, some Islamic conservatives are “despairingly attached to the warming ice packs of tradition.”

Though there is a current trend toward authoritarianism in the countries he analyzes, de Ballaigue retains optimism. Despite current events, reformist trends remain strong in those countries. As for the much publicized suicide bombings, those acts that dominate Western feelings towards Islam, de Ballaigue says those are acts committed by men living chaotic lives with such a superficial engagement with Islam that it is hard to call them Muslims at all.

This is thoughtful and entertaining history that challenges Western notions of Islam.