The Islamic Enlightenment
Christopher de Bellaigue
The Islamic Enlightenment: a contradiction in terms?
The Muslim world has often been accused of a failure to modernise, reform and adapt. But, from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present day, Islamic society in its Middle Eastern heartlands has in fact been transformed by modern ideals and practices, including the adoption of modern medicine, the emergence of women from purdah and the development of democracy. Who were the scholars and scientists, writers and politicians that brought about these remarkable changes? And why is their legacy now under threat? Beginning with the dramatic collision of East and West following Napoleon's arrival in Egypt, and taking us through 200 tumultuous years of Middle Eastern history, Christopher de Bellaigue introduces us to key figures and reformers; from Egypt's visionary ruler Muhammad Ali to brave radicals like Iran's first feminist Qurrat al-Ayn and the writer Ibrahim Sinasi, who transformed Ottoman Turkey's language and literature. This book tells the forgotten story of the Islamic Enlightenment. It shows us how to look beyond sensationalist headlines to foster a genuine understanding of modern Islam and Muslim culture, and is essential reading for anyone engaged with the state of the world today.
Read a review by Bettany Hughes:
Riches of their own … the interior of the Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran
‘Fifteen years ago, I sought out the oldest surviving folios of Plato’s philosophy. My hunt took me first to the Bodleian library in Oxford, and then past vats of indigo and pens of chickens in the souk in Fez, through the doors of al-Qarawiyyin mosque and up some back stairs to its archive storeroom. There, copied out and annotated by the scribes of al-Andalus, was a 10th-century edition of Plato’s works: in my hands was evidence of a Renaissance, in Islamic lands, three centuries before “the Renaissance” was supposed to have happened.
‘The jibe too often heard today that Islam is stuck in the dark ages is simplistic and lazy – as evidenced by this vigorous and thoughtful book about Islamic peoples’ encounters with western modernity. One of the pertinent questions Christopher de Bellaigue asks is: did a rational enlightenment follow on from Islam’s deep-rooted interest in the works of Plato and other classical philosophers? The answer he gives is: yes, in certain places and at certain times.
‘This book also elegantly offers a reminder that we are the stories that we tell about ourselves. The Islamic world did not feel itself a “victim” compared with the west. Muslims saw Islam not as the Johnny-come-lately of the Abrahamic faiths but as its zenith. Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and transubstantiation were seen as superstitious and baffling. The word “America” probably didn’t appear in the Persian language until the end of the 18th century – but then with a documented past stretching back at least 5,000 years, the east had riches of its own.’…