Monday, August 13, 2018

An Enlightening Book About the Absence of an Islamic Enligtenment

The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times (Liveright 2017) is an engrossing and well-written book, though I feel a more accurate title would be, Some Modern Islamic Thinkers Have Been Enlightened. The notion that Enlightenment ideas and ideals might have prevailed, if only history had played out a bit differently in Muslim countries, seems overly fanciful.

The book is mainly a biographical history of many political players, including "modernizers," conservatives, and reactionaries. Rather than discussing how the ideas of various Muslim modernizers fit in with Western Enlightenment thinking, the author Christopher de Bellaigue simply equates "modernization"- or secularization - with Enlightenment. Of course, it's more complicated than that.
Bellaigue argues that one reason the Enlightenment did not take hold in Muslim societies is that it was not a natural, organic outgrowth from pre-Enlightenment thought, as it clearly was in the West (in the works of Hobbes and Spinoza, for example). But that also is too simple. Bellaigue himself notes that enlightenment-style roots were deeply buried in the classical Islamic civilization and culture of the 8th-11th century, including the ecumenical and progressive works of the Mutazilites and the faylasufs (philosophers), including Avicenna. I wish Bellaigue had written more about those early thinkers, who planted the seeds of a potential, authentic Islamic enlightenment. Unfortunately, by the ninth century reactionary, fundamentalist approaches to interpreting the Koran were already coming to the fore, and before long the slender roots of a truly Islamic enlightenment had dried up, remaining without water for several centuries.

Today, especially following the failures of the so-called "Arab Spring," to speak of an Islamic enlightenment seems so much wishful thinking. There is, of course, a large Muslim diaspora spread around the world, where a more enlightened, more cosmopolitan brand of Islam is practiced. Bellaigue has little to say about that modern diaspora, including the fact that it exists mainly because of the absence of social, political, and religious freedom in Muslim countries.

Whatever its defects, I learned a great deal from reading The Islamic Enlightenment, including important thinkers who previously were unfamiliar to me, such as Sheikh Muhammad Abduh, who asserted that "main was not created to be led by a bridle."

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