The Muslim world’s ‘struggle between faith and reason’

For centuries, Ottoman authorities threatened to execute anyone who published books.

Cover of Christopher de Bellaigue’s “The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason”.


2017/04/23 Issue: 103 Page: 23


The Arab Weekly
Francis Ghilès



The book reads at times like a thriller — it is a tale of reform and reaction, innovation and betrayal, a struggle, as the author would put it, between faith and reason.

Christopher de Bellaigue’s “The Islamic Enlightenment: The Strug­gle Between Faith and Reason” is a well-told narrative that centres on a clash between reformists and traditionalists in three cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The United Kingdom, France and Rus­sia played important roles in the clash, which often turned violent.

Tehran, Istanbul and Cairo are the stages for this clash but it is a pity the author did not include Tunis, where in 1846, the ruler (no mere governor of an Ottoman province as de Bellaigue makes out but the scion of a dynasty that was founded in the early 18th century) offered his subjects the first mod­ern constitution in the Arab world.

Why has the Islamic world been missing its rendezvous with modernity? Whole libraries have been written on the subject and the question still informs or misinforms the debate in the West today. Indeed, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, François Fillon and not a few conservative politi­cians and gutter press editorialists in London still paint Muslims as enemies of modernity.

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, US president George W. Bush noted that these acts of violence may have been committed by Muslim terrorists but “[violated] the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith”. His measured rhetoric, however, did nothing to mitigate the chaos of the foreign policy adventures launched by him and his partner in regime change, Tony Blair. Sixteen years later, the war on Islam Bush declined to launch has been effec­tively taken up by the new inhabit­ant of the White House.

“Anyone who cannot name our enemy is not fit to lead our coun­try,” US President Donald Trump said during the campaign. Trump immediately named it: “Radical Islam.” His views are shared by leading European populist and conservative leaders.

With such divisive views el­evated to state policy, a book that examines the Islamic world’s lib­eralisation process — at least until the French and the English carved up the Middle East after 1918 — is welcome. While it is tempting to take the view that Islamic civilisa­tion has been in a state of inexora­ble decline since the 13th century, as the author is prone to do, that narrative is largely a product of 18th- and 19th-century colonial­ism. Unfortunately, it has been internalised by many Muslims themselves.

After all, it is worth noting that even after suffering the twin cata­clysms of the 13th century — the Christian Reconquista of Muslim Spain and the Mongol devasta­tions that destroyed centuries of Abbasid civilisation — the Muslims went on to establish the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires. During the Age of Enlightenment, European thinkers were confront­ed with the fact that aspects of their own civilisation were drawn from Islamic culture. To justify their country’s increasing interfer­ence into the affairs of the Islamic world, they argued that the region was culturally stagnant. They did the same when justifying Europe’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in India and China.

The first to internalise their alleged inferiority were the Algerians, who fell under French control for 132 years starting in 1830. The French had invaded Egypt in 1799, when they found only 20 schools compared with the country’s 75 at the turn of the 15th century. Among them was one of the world’s oldest universities, al-Azhar, described by de Bellaigue as a place that “suspected science, despised philosophy and had not produced a thought in years”.

The French occupation of Egypt was short but seminal and directly resulted in the introduction of major reforms. The cases of Egypt and Tunisia are interesting in that their modernisation drives were conducted in conditions of relative freedom, contrary to the drives im­plemented by royal autocrats such as Iranian Crown Prince Abbas Mirza, who reformed the Persian military during the Napoleonic wars.

Those who shared this vision, such as Rifaa al Tahtawi, whose conception of progress included educating girls and reforming lin­guistics, and the prime minister of the bey of Tunis, Kheireddine Pa­cha, who set up the College Sadiki, modelled on a French lycée, and came up with the framework for paid civil service, played key roles. Ibrahim Sinasi, the father of Turkish journalism, was another interesting case.

Change came quickly in the mid- 19th century. Despotic govern­ments, a near-universal illiteracy rate and the clergy’s monopoly over knowledge were rudely inter­rupted by major innovations, such as the telegraph, postal service and new table manners. New theories of anatomy in schools of medi­cine overturned the Prophet’s injunction against cutting corpses. Slavery was abolished, and the region moved closer to integrating the sexes.

One key reason that Muslims remained not just strangers with but enemies of modernity is the delay of development of movable type in the Middle East. (It took 400 years for product to come into general use in the region.) For centu­ries, Ottoman authorities threatened to execute anyone who published books. This helps explain why many still believe that Muslims hate modernity and their religion is the enemy of civilisation.

As de Bellaigue explains, in very lively pages, many Muslims embraced modernity “in spades and only lapsed into Islamic recalcitrance after the first world war obliterated them physically and the victorious allies tried to subjugate them politically.”

He recounts the life of the tower­ing 19th-century Muslim modern­iser Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and is never shy of explaining to constant meddling, often using crass decep­tion and the brute force of Europe­an powers, sometimes in favour of reformers, often against them. It is hardly surprising that these great reformers, not least Tahtawi, were contradictory characters.

The author writes that “five years in France convinced him of the need for European sciences and technologies to be introduced into the Islamic world but he chose not to enquire about the link between a free intellect and a free spirit, or whether the inquisitive­ness he admired in the French people might in some way be con­nected to their quest for political liberty.” Kheireddine Pacha, who moved from Tunisia to become the grand vizier of the Ottoman sultan, was a fascinating character who would have deserved to figure in this beautifully written story.

What this book shows only too well and which many Europeans and Americans choose to ignore to­day — through ignorance or sheer arrogance — is that the imperialist policies they have sponsored over the past two centuries and more, followed by the cynical carving up of the Middle East after 1918 and the huge impact of Saudi Wah­habism after 1945, have considerably slowed progress and contributed to the region’s prevailing chaos. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 has resulted in mayhem and blood, aggra­vated by the fall-out of the misnamed “Arab spring” after 2011.

Supporting conservative Islamic clerics, which the British, French and Ameri­cans have often done, may have helped their short-term policy aims, but has produced serious consequences for Western societies in ways they cannot have foretold. Islamic societies have long memories.

Those in the West have forgotten history but, as the historian Fer­nand Braudel pointed out decades ago, what matters is le temps long. As the West, Russia and Israel, not to mention the Gulf monarchies and Saudi Arabia, play games in a region already divided by tribe, re­ligion and numerous other factors, the speed with which the region will modernise is anybody’s guess. What is not in doubt is that this book offers key points to under­standing a story that will carry on for some time.


Francis Ghilès is an associate fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.


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