Reviews — From the May 2017 issue

Unseen Worlds

Islam’s forgotten reformation

Download Pdf
Read Online

Discussed in this essay:

The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times, by Christopher de Bellaigue. Liveright. 432 pages. $35.

The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History, by Cemil Aydin. Harvard University Press. 304 pages. $29.95.

The Story of Reason in Islam, by Sari Nusseibeh. Stanford University Press. 288 pages. $29.95.

Letters to a Young Muslim, by Omar Saif Ghobash. Picador. 272 pages. $22.

Early in January 1989, a man who had led a revolution wrote to a man who was trying to bury one. “Mr. Gorbachev!” the letter said. “Reality must be faced.” Three emissaries were sent to Moscow, where for two hours they made the case that Marxism had failed to meet “the real needs of mankind.” The Western world, on the other hand, offered nothing but vulgar materialism. They proposed an alternative, a way “to help fill up the ideological vacuum of your system.” After some thought, the secretary-general of the Communist Party politely declined the Iranians’ invitation to embrace Islam. Ayatollah Khomeini, on hearing the news, was disappointed. He had wanted, he said, “to open a door from the unseen world” to the Russian people.

The Astronomy Lesson, ink and gold on vellum, Ottoman Empire, fifteenth century © Leemage/Bridgeman Images

The Astronomy Lesson, ink and gold on vellum, Ottoman Empire, fifteenth century © Leemage/Bridgeman Images

In historical terms, this story is a footnote, but it, too, seems to open a door from the unseen world. What if Gorbachev had said yes? After his fall from power, he expressed regret at not having given the offer more thought. In any case, the prospect of mass Soviet conversion is less interesting than the encounter itself. As an improbable meeting of two systems often thought to be rigid and unreformable, it warns us against thinking too rigidly ourselves. Khomeini was talking, of course, about the hidden world of belief. But more than that remains unseen today; the episode encourages us to look for other doors.

How do we talk about Islam? The ways are few and narrow. One involves prefacing discussion of any aspect of its civilization, however ancient or arcane, with caveats about present horrors committed by a few in its name. No doubt such remarks are an acknowledgment of confusion, of the difficulty of thinking through a complex subject outside the terms set by the news cycle. But they are also, I suspect, a shibboleth, a Masonic handshake meant to convey that one is on the right side of darkness. I know of no other issue that requires the affirmation of basic decency before debate can take place.

Four new books get this rhetorical move out of the way early on. They also, by various means, attempt to stretch the straitjacket. They speak in different voices — personal, popularizing, academic — but have in common a kind of restlessness, a side shuffle, a desire to take the way we talk about Islam off-piste.

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 5

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf

More from Yasmine Seale:

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada


April 2019

Works of Mercy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.