In The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle between Faith and Reason, Christopher de Bellaigue chronicles the attempts of 19th- and 20th-century Muslim intellectuals, clerics, and rulers to come to terms with Western civilization and what it has to offer. Eric Ormsby writes in his review:
Muslim intellectuals, both reformers and traditionalists, as well as ruthlessly reforming sultans and pashas, were simultaneously attracted to and repelled by Western achievements and practices. The fact that these unfamiliar foreign novelties arrived wrapped in an aura of sheer godlessness and ignorance of the one true faith confounded Muslims. How was it possible that Allah, who had bestowed the final truth on Muslims in a revelation that superseded both Judaism and Christianity, would permit such infidels to triumph over them?
The question, which vexed Muslims from Napoleon’s first incursions into Egypt in 1798, remains tormentingly pertinent today. It perplexes traditional Muslim preachers and it fuels the rage of jihadists. God cannot be unjust, and yet, how to account for the overwhelming material superiority of the sinful West? At the same time, once Muslim leaders witnessed the devastating effect of Western weaponry and military tactics on the battlefield, they had to obtain and master them. Other novelties, such as printing with movable type or medical and scientific research (including human dissection), took longer to be accepted but eventually proved equally irresistible.
De Bellaigue’s title turns on a paradox. We seldom, if ever, think of Islam, at least in its current form, as exemplifying, let alone promoting, “enlightenment.” Yet his intention “is to demonstrate that non-Muslims and even some Muslims who today urge an Enlightenment on Islam are opening the door on a horse that bolted long ago.” He goes even further when he states that “for the past two centuries Islam has been going through a pained yet exhilarating transformation—a Reformation, an Enlightenment, and an Industrial Revolution all at once.” This seems to me somewhat overstated. After all, one of the obstacles to any reformation within Islam is not solely the intransigence of its well-ensconced clergy, both Sunni and Shiite, but also the simple fact that the emergence of Islam itself represented a reformation, at least in the eyes of its adherents. It grew partly as a reformation of what the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers saw as the distortions of monotheism present in both Christianity and Judaism. Many Christian doctrines, such as that of the incarnation or the Trinity, scandalized early Muslims because they infringed upon the overriding conception of God’s absolute oneness.
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