Reviews — From the May 2017 issue

Unseen Worlds

Islam’s forgotten reformation

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 2 of 5 )

With The Islamic Enlightenment, Christopher de Bellaigue, the author of several fine books on Turkey and Iran, sets out to correct a mistaken belief. “Islam needs its Enlightenment,” goes the refrain; “Islam needs a Reformation, a Renaissance and a sense of humour.” In fact, he writes in his introduction, those who call for such reforms “are opening the door on a horse that bolted long ago.”

What follows is an account of the horse’s journey: a stylishly written, surprisingly moving chronicle of intellectual and political flourishing in Egypt, Turkey, and Iran — “the brain of Islam” — in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We trail some extraordinary figures, each of whom sought to integrate Islamic and European ideas: Rifaa al-Tahtawi, Egypt’s “forward-thinking mandarin,” the first Arab to use the word jumhuriyya (“republic”); the gay savant Hassan al-Attar, who, between prolific writings in defense of logic and astronomy, enabled the first official dissection in Egypt; the polymath Ibrahim Sinasi, who released Turkish poetry from its “dungeon of precedent”; Mirza Saleh Shirazi, “bookworm and xenophile,” who put out Iran’s first newspaper; Besir Fuat, “ardent Voltairian,” who penned a real-time account of his own suicide; Halide Edib Ad?var, who wrote a futuristic novel about the rise of the Turkish nation before helping to usher those visions into reality; and Ali Shariati, “Iran’s space-age Luther.”

Belying his simplistic subtitle (The Struggle Between Faith and Reason), de Bellaigue spins a web of tensions. One strand sets subtle minds such as these against “Islam’s progressive autocrats,” those “impatient transformers” who sought to modernize by force. Tahtawi spent much of his career “at the mercy of viceregal whim.” Nam?k Kemal, whose vision for a parliament in Istanbul would have a formative effect on his country’s politics, lost years to exile. Reform-minded despots saw their efforts thwarted in turn by recalcitrant mullahs: Amir Kabir, Iran’s merciless modernizer, “could no more than nibble at the clergy’s judicial powers.” And despite Sultan Mahmud’s persistent efforts against the plague, it took the intervention of the highest-ranking cleric, around 1850, to convince the people of Istanbul of the benefits of quarantine, which, “with a suddenness that must have been stunning,” eradicated the disease.

We learn about changing attitudes toward slavery and sex, the education of women and the dilution of faith (“the human intellect was elbowing the divine Creator aside”). From the middle of the nineteenth century, however, “the promise inherent in Western knowledge was offset by the terrifying advance of the European powers” — the French into Tunisia in 1881, the British into Egypt the following year, to say nothing of the Anglo–Russian contest that destabilized much of Asia — and the narrative homes in on the struggle for Muslim self-determination against imperial encroachments. In other words, it becomes a story about the politics of resistance, which increasingly involved the assertion of global Muslim unity against colonial incursions. This line of thought, known as pan-Islamism, was at first scant on theology; later it would develop a fundamentalist branch.

In their use of new technologies, mass mobilization, and concepts such as justice and progress, these militant movements were as modern as the ideas they opposed (“To its intense irritation, Islamism itself was shot through with Enlightenment values”), but the politicization of religion sits uneasily within the terms de Bellaigue has set himself. The rise of pan-Islamic thought is told with care, but to call it a “counter-Enlightenment” is misleading. He writes that “from a defensive starting point the modern Islamic world became a poor producer of original ideas,” which is another way of saying that when your country is being occupied, science and philosophy might not be your first concerns.

Upheavals of thought have an austere drama, which de Bellaigue conveys with flair. In what might have been a thicket of isms it is hard to find a dull sentence. The Suez Canal was “a bone with one end in France’s maw and the other in Britain’s,” Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul “a neoclassical meringue with all the mod cons.” This is history in the grand style: men “hurdle” seas, “vault” mountains, and “sire” incredible numbers of children. De Bellaigue correctly warns us “against taking orientalist writing on trust,” though he does not always follow his own advice. Not since the death of Queen Victoria can a book have resorted so often to the word “benighted.” The cosmopolitan inhabitants of Alexandria are “half-breeds,” Cairo “an untameable bazaar of ideas,” the political theory known as Ottomanism “an exotic big yurt arrangement.” The following sentence would not have been out of place in a piece of fin-de-siècle reportage:

It does not escape the attention of inquisitive Westerners who travel to Muslim countries that for the people there the challenge of modernity is the overwhelming fact of their lives.

This affable condescension extends to physical descriptions: one ruler is “corpulent, generously moustachioed, forbidding,” another is “massively bearded, bejewelled, mega-fecund.” Huda Shaarawi, the campaigner for women’s rights, is “beautiful.” By contrast, Antoine Clot, the physician who set up a school of midwifery in Egypt, is simply “the civilising Frenchman.”

My larger complaint, however, is one less of tone than of framing. For in that magical word, “modernity,” lies a shaky conceit shored up by a bewildering array of metaphors. “Jane Eyre is modern,” and so are “the potato, kerosene lamps, wire nails and sewing machines,” pianos and blotting paper, rifles and bow ties. Modernity is something you might “manipulate” or “delay” but that “no one” could “stop,” something you could “teeter on the edge of,” “miss out on,” or, if you were lucky, be “smiled on by”; it is a “wave,” a “race,” a “sprint,” an “animal,” a “call” that “cannot be unheard” and “quivers in the air,” a “contagion,” a “hothouse,” a “blast.” It has “many faces.”

This haziness leads to some strange contortions. Coercive reformers “set up new, modern institutions but the ethos inside them was not always modern.” Rifaa al-Tahtawi was by any standards a remarkable man, but was Egypt really “a country whose modern meaning he can be said to have invented”? And then there are the flights of raw enthusiasm: “Who could resist the power of autonomous judgment encouraged by the printed newspaper, or fail to hear in the tick of a modern watch the reordering of time itself?” Who indeed? I couldn’t help but identify with the illiterate porters who are said to have accosted R?za Tevfik, one of the Young Turks who restored the dormant Ottoman constitution in their revolt of 1908.

“Tell us what the constitution means,” the porters yelled. Tevfik replied, “Constitution is such a great thing that those who do not know it are donkeys.” “We are donkeys!” the porters roared back good-naturedly.

Perhaps it would be better to resign oneself to donkeyhood. But when modernity encompasses everything from vaccination to warfare, it is hard not to ask what exactly is being celebrated. For to argue, as de Bellaigue does, that “for the past two centuries Islam has been going through a pained yet exhilarating transformation” is merely to make the case that Muslims, too, are part of history, that the nineteenth century brought disorder, improvement, and trauma to their lives as it did to others’. It is only a slight exaggeration to say the implicit claim of this book is that Muslims are not martians after all: they aspire — who would have thought? — to the same freedoms, are receptive to the same ideas, and, given the chance, are capable of the same achievements as anyone else. That these assertions, which border on the tautological, can be passed off as a defense of Islam against its detractors is perhaps a sign of the current political climate in the West. But “assumptions of wilful Muslim backwardness,” wrong as they are and widespread as they may be, should not be the only way of framing the history of Muslims.

In February, de Bellaigue published a digest of his book in the Guardian under the title “Trump’s Dangerous Delusions about Islam.” To the bigots in the White House he offered the “picture of a Middle East that embraced many aspects of modernity,” which rich tableau “should give the lie to the caricature of centuries of incurable Islamic stagnancy.” The hope seemed to be that if only the ideologues in government and their followers got wind of the Islamic Enlightenment — railroads! periodicals! quarantine! — maybe they wouldn’t hate Muslims so much. If only Steve Bannon knew that one of the grand muftis spoke French with a Parisian accent, maybe we could all be friends! But to suggest that anti-Muslim feeling can be put down to ignorance of Islam’s liberal “moment” is, I think, to err twice: it ennobles modernity as a cure-all, and it misunderstands the nature and history of racism itself.

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
Share

More from Yasmine Seale:

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2019

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

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.