How the Islamic Enlightenment Came and Went

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 How was it possible that Allah, who had bestowed the final truth on Muslims in a revelation that superseded both Judaism and Christianity, would permit such infidels to triumph over them?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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No, Israelis and Palestinians Can’t Simply Sit Down and Solve the “Israel-Palestinian Conflict”

Jan. 17 2019

By “zooming out” from the blinkered perspective with which most Westerners see the affairs of the Jewish state, argues Matti Friedman, one can begin to see things the way Israelis do:

Many [in Israel] believe that an agreement signed by a Western-backed Palestinian leader in the West Bank won’t end the conflict, because it will wind up creating not a state but a power vacuum destined to be filled by intra-Muslim chaos, or Iranian proxies, or some combination of both. That’s exactly what has happened . . . in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. One of Israel’s nightmares is that the fragile monarchy in Jordan could follow its neighbors . . . into dissolution and into Iran’s orbit, which would mean that if Israel doesn’t hold the West Bank, an Iranian tank will be able to drive directly from Tehran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. . . .

In the “Israeli-Palestinian” framing, with all other regional components obscured, an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank seems like a good idea—“like a real-estate deal,” in President Trump’s formulation—if not a moral imperative. And if the regional context were peace, as it was in Northern Ireland, for example, a power vacuum could indeed be filled by calm.

But anyone using a wider lens sees that the actual context here is a complex, multifaceted war, or a set of linked wars, devastating this part of the world. The scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.

The fault lines have little to do with Israel. They run between dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing for generations; between progressives and medievalists; between Sunnis and Shiites; between majority populations and minorities. If [Israel’s] small sub-war were somehow resolved, or even if Israel vanished tonight, the Middle East would remain the same volatile place it is now.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East