*The Islamic Enlightenment* | A critical review

De Bellaigue, Christopher. (2017) The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason 1798 to Modern Times. Liveright Publishing Corporation (Norton & Company) New York, London.

In 1798, in view of the Pyramids, a French expeditionary force defeated the strange caste of slave-soldiers, the Mamlukes, who had been ruling Egypt for several centuries. The Mamlukes charged the French infantry squares on horseback, ending their charge with the throwing of javelins. The Mamlukes were thus eliminated from history. The French lost 29 soldiers. In the conventional narrative, the battle woke up the whole Muslim world from its long and haughty slumber. The defeat, the pro-active reforms of Napoleon’s short-lived occupancy, and the direct influence of the French scholars he had brought with him lit the wick of the candle of reform or, possibly, of enlightenment throughout the Islamic world.

De Bellaigue picks up this conventional narrative and follows it to the beginning of the 20th century with a dazzling richness of details. This is an imperfect yet welcome thick book on a subject seldom well covered.

This book has, first, the merit of existing. Many people of culture, well-read people with an interest in Islam – Islam the sociological phenomenon, rather than the religion – know little of the travails of its attempted modernization. Moreover, under current conditions of political correctness the very subject smells a little of sulfur: What if we looked at Muslim societies more closely and we found in them some sort of intrinsic inferiority? I mean by this, an inferiority that could not easily be blamed on the interference of Western, Christian or formerly Christian, capitalist societies. Of course, such a finding could only be subjective but still, many would not like it, and not only Muslims.

Second, and mostly unintentionally, possibly inadvertently, the book casts a light, an indirect light to be sure, on Islamist (fundamentalist) terrorism. It’s simple: Enlightened individuals of any religious background are not likely to be also fanatics willing to massacre perfect strangers. Incidentally, I examine this issue myself in a fairly parochial vein, in an essay in the libertarian publication Liberty Unbound: “Religious Bric-à-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad” (January 2015). With his broader perspective, with his depth of knowledge, De Bellaigue could have done a much better job of this than I could ever do. Unfortunately he ignored the subject almost entirely. It wasn’t his topic, some will say. It was not his period of history. Maybe.

This is a book rich in details, as I said, colorful, intelligent, and inherently interesting. It reminds me of a superior travel book, one by Paul Theroux, for instance. It includes a small number of well-chosen, quality color illustrations. Overall, it makes for pleasant reading. I finished it within a few days; I was never tempted to put it down. I recommend it in spite of several reservations described below.

The Islamic Enlightenment… begins a little strangely with an otherwise useful introduction where the author also accuses pretty much everyone, including his readers and his potential readers, of being Islamophobic bigots. (See the end of this essay for a potential explanation.) Then, he gets down to the real topic of his book.

De Bellaigue (“DB”) gives us in rich particulars the attempts to modernize in three well chosen Muslim countries and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in the Muslim world. The three countries are – in order of appearance – Egypt, Turkey (Ottoman then, the Republic), and Persia. Those countries are important in every respect, on account notably of their demographic weight and of their influence in their region.

I use the word “modernize” as in “Modernization” rather than the “Enlightenment” of the book’s title because, when all is said and done, DB only does a good job of describing attempted institutional transformation, both successful and not so much, and the men who promoted it. Chief among the institutions so transformed are the armed forces and, in a superficial way, political institutions. Both happen to be structures that are fairly responsive to top-down planning and implementation. Per force, he has less to say about enlightenment proper, a term I take to refer to what goes on in the minds of people, and inside the minds of many people simultaneously. I mean what the French Annales school of history calls “mentalités.”*

The conventional narrative about the European Enlightenment begins with the elaboration of different self-concepts, of a view of individuals as central to themselves rather than as filial creatures of God. This transformation of the self-concept in turn nourishes the emergence of examining reason as an alternative to revealed truth and/or tradition. In Europe, this evolution begins timidly in the Renaissance. I say “timidly” because Renaissance figures seem to remain deeply religious. Moreover, the gains of reason did not stop large numbers of Europeans from gutting one another for more than one hundred years of religious wars. (I realize this is a complex topic and that the perpetrators of the Wars of Religion of the 16th and 17th century were not merely motivated by hatred of beliefs different from their own.)

Increased reliance on examining reason and its imputed multiple beneficial real-world consequences exploded in the 18th century. The consequences included progress in representative government, improved judicial integrity, the emergence of individual rights, cultural universalism associated with tolerance of otherness, the institutionalization of science as more than an individual hobby, and the seeds of Weberian capitalism (socially legitimate enterprise and gain-seeking for its own sake.) DB’s book is perhaps inadvertently, it’s hard to tell, rich with recounting of failure to change collective mentalités to any depth.

The recurring theme of the book is adequately expressed by a single long paragraph:

The classic image of the Muslim modernizer is of an irascible man in mess boots, a man who is impatient with his compatriots’ old-fashioned mode of dress and their backsliding, malingering attitude to hard work; an impulsive friend of modern values who, while being perhaps a little rough in his methods, answers with admirable clarity to the summons of progress. That image took well over a century to develop and was embodied by figures as diverse as Reza Shah of Iran, King Amanullah of Afghanistan, and the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. (17)

DB tells the same basic story over and over about Egypt, Turkey, Iran and, in a small way, about other Muslim countries: More or less enlightened despots – often under the influence of enthusiastically westernized scholars – attempt to shake their societies out of their century-old torpor. Repeatedly, they fail to achieve any deep lasting change although they manage somewhat to modify their state apparatus to make it more responsive. Long story short: They mostly flunk although they succeed in getting slightly better bargains from Western countries than would otherwise be the case, I would argue. (I think DB wouldn’t say so, though.)

Everywhere, according to DB, modernization was attempted in response to, as protection against, the encroachments of Western powers, of which the creation of the Suez Canal is the most dramatic example. The traumatizing outright French conquest of Algeria, nominally an Ottoman vassal between 1830 and 1870 is another instance, of course. DB’s thesis of reactive modernization (or “enlightenment”) in Muslim lands is not completely persuasive. According to his own narrative, modernizers were intermittently at work in both Turkey and Persia before the former realized it was a weak and vulnerable polity, and before Persia came of economic interest in the West. During the 19th century, transportation became cheaper and safer, the telegraph was installed in many places. (It’s a cheap collective equipment). Printing also became easier and cheaper. The latter progress helped with the creation of newspapers and it improved the efficacy of secular education. These forms of material modernization might have eventually led to a transformation of mentalités in a large segment of the urban population, with or without Western pressures. The eagerness, well recounted in the book, of Turks and of Egyptians to learn a foreign language – French – speaks to the possibility of spontaneous movements of modernization. Regrettably, DB does not clearly examine this road not taken.

The first wave of modernizers emerging from the traditional elite, more or less assisted or inspired by home-bred intellectuals, was eventually replaced in all three countries of focus by another breed of modernizers we would call fascist leaders in any Western country. Issued from the military, they enjoyed a fair degree of popular support by promoting nationalism, drove a hard bargain with other countries, developed further the state apparatus of their countries, completed the construction of a modern army, and expanded education significantly. (Curiously, DB seems to miss the signal achievements of those late modernizers: the mass schooling of girls.) Gamal Abd El Nasser is the prototype of this second kind of modernizer.

The improvement of the state apparatus in Islamic countries led to a momentous change in their forms of social control. Under traditional despotism, government rule in those countries was relatively benign, not by design but because of government’s lack of effectiveness. You could easily get beheaded if you displeased the ruler but the chance was remote.** Almost all could live in peace and even in prosperity far from the ruler’s eye. When modern states came to be in the region, many more activities suddenly fell within the province of government at the same time as government’s reach grew exponentially. The savage Savak of the last Shah of Iran, for example, was hardly a freak. It was soon replaced by the equally effective, more intrusive and even more savage secret services of the Islamic Republic. So, in the end, what DB is pleased to call “Enlightenment” resulted in the reduction of private freedoms in most Muslim societies. And, incidentally, and while we are at it, the most deeply colonized such societies were, the less the above statement seems to hold. (I am thinking Tunisia and, especially, of Senegal, vs Iran and Afghanistan.)

The rollback of modernization was decisive and facilitated, paradoxically, by the success of that second wave of modernizers. By replacing civil society with the state to a large extent, they made easier reaction against the modest progress toward Enlightenment in the Western sense. Large government prisons can easily be re-dedicated and filled by new opponents, after all. By the end of the twentieth century, anything resembling an enlightenment had been decisively rolled back in all three countries of reference. The Iranian Islamic Revolution brought clerics a measure of power they would not have dreamed of possessing under traditional despots. Then, self-declared Islamists assassinated the fairly mild military dictator of Egypt. Latter Egyptian Islamists actually won elections and they governed for a short time but their power was abruptly terminated by a coup, then replaced by more fascism. The lesson was not lost on those Egyptians who favor representative government or judicial fairness: not the time or place for either. The reaction continues in Turkey where the relatively liberal ideas of Ataturk are being dis-implemented one by one while the modern repressive apparatus of the state keeps expanding.

Algeria is somewhat exemplary in this respect. There, after allowing free elections, the ruling military stopped the (Islamist) reaction in its tracks in the 90s by simply canceling the results of an election. This technically anti-democratic coup against anti-democrats preserved some measure of modernization -including a thick network of secular schools – in that Muslim country of 40 million. But this happened at the cost of discrediting democracy and of legitimizing military rule in the eyes of many. The net balance of this victory against religious obscurantism is anyone’s guess.

It’s also true however that some degree of representative government took root during the 20th century in several Muslim countries, including Indonesia. Curiously the latter country was rigorously colonized in the 19th century and situated far from the reach of early Muslim modernizers; another story, obviously. At any rate, and whatever change in mentalités was achieved in the 19th and 20th centuries is being pushed back quickly across a broad front. Any older observer will tell you that many more women currently wear the hijab in big Muslim cities than was the case fifty years ago. As I write, lawyers in Pakistan – “The Land of the Pure” – insist that death is the proper penalty for… apostasy.

The absence of almost any reference to Japan in this book is surprising. Japan was undergoing the same travails at about the same time as Turkey and Iran (that is, later than Egypt). Japan was spectacularly successful in most aspects of its modernization whereas the Muslim countries mostly failed. To a large though incomplete extent, the success of Japan engaged the mentalités of ordinary Japanese. That is, Japanese society became enlightened to some extent – in Western sense – as well as superbly modernized in its institutions and its economy. It would have been worth the author’s while to wonder aloud about the sources of this contrast in outcomes. In his place, I would have speculated about the role of mass education. It seems that literacy was widespread in Japan before its forced “opening” by the US; it was abysmally low in all the Muslim countries DB considers.

The failure of Islamic societies to produce a full Enlightenment is puzzling given that they had a head start of sorts. In the High Middle Ages, eye witnesses, including the Tunis-born world traveler Ibn Khaldun, describe large swaths of the Islamic World that enjoyed a sort of urbane prosperity. It included a vigorous intellectual life, both scientific and poetic, and a high degree of tolerance (although dhimmi, Christians and Jews, suffered several kinds of statutory discrimination). Commentators often blame the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, and also (or then) the fall of the last Muslim Kingdom in Spain, Granada, in 1492, for the end of that Muslim Golden Age. I am not satisfied with this rudimentary explanation, of course, because there were plenty of large, well-off cities in the Islamic world where the Golden Age could have been perpetuated and bettered, or duplicated.

The form of The Islamic Enlightenment…

Overall, DB writes in an engaging manner although his love of long sentences made me a bit breathless. When all is said though, and repeating myself, I read this 350-page book in a short time. It never bored me. Nevertheless, the author sometimes uses English a little strangely. Thus, he misuses the word “crescendo,” which he did not have to use at all. There are more such trivial mistakes, rather worse ones, in fact. You can tell reading the book that DB is a man of broad culture, even beyond what you would expect from someone with a BA from Cambridge and a MA in Oriental Studies. Yet, no one knows everything. His economic baggage might well be on the light side. Be it as it may, I think anyone who writes a book of history should be bound by basic reason. DB does not demonstrate a high standard in connection with that requirement.

Early, in the book, DB misuses the technical term “comparative advantage” the way smart but inattentive undergrads will do routinely. It’s mildly disturbing because he did not have to use those words at all. I suspect he chose them in an attempt to impart a fragment of scholarly authority to his (good) journalistic text. At one point, DB states that cheap imports from England had reduced Egyptian (manufacturing) productivity. More on this below, but first, a digression.

The general theme illustrate here is familiar in left-wing narratives of anything pertaining to the missing economic development of underdeveloped areas of the world: It’s not their fault, Western capitalism stopped them from developing, even forced them back. (It’s called: Teoria de la dependencia, in Spanish.) The idea is plausible but it lacks rigorous support. It’s not backed by empirical research that could and should have been performed years ago. I know that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence but still, if it had been one of my favorite ideas, I would have managed to do the supporting empirical research. Yet, this narrative has its own prestigious intellectual pedigree including a beautiful, thoroughly annotated book by Immanuel Wallerstein, published in 1974 (The Modern World System: Capitalist Agriculture…). It’s a book worth reading although it’s mostly wrong in its conclusions, I think. Its main thesis – that economic exchanges with more developed, capitalist countries actually caused underdevelopment in poorer countries – was forcefully invalidated in the 70s and 80s by American quantitative researchers, including myself. (Ask.) The same idea was picked up powerfully by Ghandi, incidentally. End of digression.

Back to my main thread (that concerns economic literacy). I have turned DB’s statement in my mind every which way, and I can’t figure any mechanism by which their simple availability, even direct competition from foreign products would negatively affect indigenous productivity. The best I can do is these two basic ideas. First, the direct competition of imports motivates indigenous producers to improve their own products or to make them cheaper. Second, the competition of imports results in the elimination of the weakest indigenous producers. With both processes, indigenous productivity is improved, not decreased as DB would have it. He confuses productivity and production, I think. This is not a small mistake, for a journalist in particular, who is supposed to care about words. Beyond ignorance of economics, this mistake demonstrates either poor logic or a lack of attention. In subtle ways, it undermines my willingness to follow DB in areas with which I am myself unfamiliar. I also wonder why his editor did not catch it. Same destructive effect on my level of trust.

Something is missing from the book. After the failure to enlighten the Muslim countries he examines, DB should have gone one step further and ask the obvious. He should have engaged in the serious examination of the possibility that the deep beliefs of Islam, explicitly embodied in its Scriptures, are an obstacle to the reign of reason above and beyond the usually conservative influence of religious authorities (the ulemas). Also missing is the possibility that a habitually rudimentary understanding of Islam among Muslims (See Delacroix, cited above) fails to provide a foundation for the exercise of the individual judgment that is, I think, at the heart of the Enlightenment. I am tempted to add that DB would have profited by reading V.S. Naipaul’s devastating, pitiless, and somber but fairly prophetic 1981 book, Among the Believers: an Islamic Journey. Naipaul, after all, is not one of those esoteric Delacroix finds, as you might rightly fear; he is a Nobel Prize winner. If nothing else, DB could have countered the dire tales about real Islam at ground level Naipaul tells. I hesitate because there are two valid schools of thought on how to analyze history. One requires that the historian ignores as much as is humanly possible what he knows of today when writing about yesterday. The second recommends that the understanding of today should be forcefully applied to an understanding of yesterday. There are merits to both. DB leans to the first school.

The book is carefully and copiously referenced. From its bibliography, I deduce that DB has a command of French (in addition to English, of course). He may be able to read Farsi; it’s not obvious although he references Farsi-language sources (in Roman alphabet transliterations). He may speak that language to some extent because he was a correspondent in Tehran for I don’t know how long. He is married to an Iranian woman (which has some unspoken consequences; see below). I noticed no sources in Turkish nor in Arabic. This is problematic, of course. This book is thus largely based on the observations of Western visitors and on translations from English and French.

For this reason alone, I wish DB had had a co-author. I mean someone with a Muslim name and literate either in Arabic or in Turkish. In my own broad experience, those who rely on translations and on foreign travelers’ observations gain only a limited understanding even of French society. If this is correct with respect to Englishmen writing of the geographically nearby and historically familiar France, I can only imagine how constrictive reliance on such sources must be for Westerners dealing with exotic and naturally closed Islamic societies. (They are naturally closed in the sense that one half of their adult population is normally silent.) Yet, The Islamic Enlightenment… may not have ended much different if DB had had such a co-author and that’s the problem: I will never know. I realize also, of course, that a co-author with roots in the Muslim world might have made DB even more timid. Muslims, or people reputed to be Muslims, who criticize Islam today have reasons to be worried for their safety. (I hope that’s the reason why there are currently so few.) I am not about to forget the fate of the novelist Salman Rushdie forced to live in hiding for twenty years by Islamist (ist) gross intolerance.*** In accordance with this sense of danger, I worry about the possibility that his wife has relatives back in Iran whom DB may see as so many potential hostages. This concern may have made DB more timid that he would otherwise have been, even altered his perception of reality. It may also explain the aggressive tone of his Introduction.

A personal comment about a fact that is relevant to the inquiry although only tangentially so: I have known Muslims all of my long life, in France where I was raised, in the US where I emigrated, and in other countries, including several Muslim countries where I spent time. This multi-faceted experience has left me with a strong preference for the company of Muslims. I found all Muslims I have known for more than an hour personable.**** I do not credit religion here. There is something in Muslim culture, beyond national and linguistic differences within the Islamic world, that is very attractive. I am sure, I am not the only one who has fallen under the charm; I have seen others do it. I can only intuit the relevance of this observation to the issue of enlightenment. Perhaps, two different objects cannot occupy the same (mental) space. Perhaps, enlightenment, as we created the concept in the West, entails a kind of refrigeration of the collective heart.

I need to go one step further, a difficult step because I think of myself as a great-grandchild of Diderot. Western rationalists like me put a lot of stock in the European Enlightenment, among other reasons because it fathered the American Revolution. We forget easily that it also engendered the French Revolution,***** terrorism as a method of government, followed by the modernizing (and thus lasting despotism) of Napoleon, followed by the butchery of the Napoleonic Wars and, after that, probably, communism as well as fascism.

I learned a great deal about the history of Muslim societies in this book but not much about the absence of an Islamic Enlightenment.

Post Scriptum This book is about Muslim national societies (some Muslim societies). It should not be necessary to affirm the following: None of its conclusions, explicit or implicit, has anything to say about individual Muslims, possibly about millions of individual Muslims, whose condition of personal enlightenment vastly exceeds that of the populace in any Western country. The same applies to this critique.


* I recommend highly in connection with this book the Annales historian’s Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. And, readers who are retired or existing in an undemanding graduate environment should begin reading his formidable, three-volume Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800 although it’s only tangentially about the Islamic world. PS: Sorry there is pressure on me to brag but I read the series page by page twice, once in French and another time in English. It’s so good, I am tempted to read it again.

** On this topic, perhaps see the essay here at NOL (and featured at RealClearWorld): “The Ottoman Empire and Libertarianism.”

*** Salman Rushdie was condemned to death through a fatwa – a religious injunction – by the lamented Ayatollah Khomeini for having given the names of the Prophet’s wives to the denizens of a brothel in his lovable novel, The Satanic Verses.

**** I am well trained in conventional sociology with a degree from a reputable university. (Go ahead, make my day and peruse my C.V. !) I know all about bad sampling and confirmation bias. Nevertheless I think it’s valid to rely on anecdotal evidence under two conditions. First, the evidence has to be strongly repetitive, not two of one kind, three of another and then, one of the first kind again. Second, those relying on anecdotal evidence have to be very willing to be questioned and even rebuked, especially by anyone having rigorous data at his disposal.

***** For a detailed contrarian view on the French Revolution, read Thomas Carlyle’s 1837 The French Revolution: a History. The following NOL essay examines one possible obstacle to enlightenment, in the Arab World, specifically: “Language and Informational Prisons: The Case of Arabic.”

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