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A return to reason: how Islamic reformers kept the faith

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The question of why so much of the Islamic world has kept missing its rendezvous with modernity has taxed scholars and diplomats, travellers and writers, at least since Napoleon appeared at the mouth of the Nile in 1798. Sample the FT’s top stories for a week You select the topic, we deliver the news. Select topic Enter email addressInvalid email Sign up By signing up you confirm that you have read and agree to the terms and conditions, cookie policy and privacy policy. At the time of the French invasion, there were just 20 schools in Cairo, compared to 75 at the turn of the 15th century. Al-Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world, “suspected science, despised philosophy, and hadn’t produced an original thought in years”, says Christopher de Bellaigue, an acclaimed writer on Iran and Turkey.

The French occupation was short-lived but seminal, bringing to Cairo a taste of the “most self-consciously modern society on earth”. Along with his irresistible invasion force, Napoleon was accompanied by an army of savants — a “pop-up brains trust”, as de Bellaigue has it. This collision led to a stream of education “missions”, bringing to Europe a succession of bright, young, usually religion-schooled students from Egypt, Iran, and the Turkic heart of the Ottoman Empire — the three countries that are the subject of this vivid study. The Islamic Enlightenment is, de Bellaigue says, a tale of reform and reaction, innovation and betrayal, and — in the words of the book’s subtitle — “the modern struggle between faith and reason”. It is about a civilisation in sharp decline from the golden age of Islam (roughly the eighth to the 13th century).

In those days, as Europe was plunged into its Dark Ages, Islamic scholars had kept safe the treasures of Hellenistic thought and science, adding great learning of their own, especially in mathematics and medicine. By the 19th century, however, reaction had set in. The west was viewed with deep ambivalence, despised as predatory and corrupt, with its cultural, technological and military accomplishments the source of both admiration and fear.

The effects of this intellectual retreat were profound. Bubonic plague raged unchecked throughout the Ottoman Empire well into the 19th century, 200 years after the last major outbreak in Europe, because the higher Muslim clergy or ulema insisted this was not a matter of hygiene or quarantine but of God’s will. Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussian general appointed by the late Ottomans to modernise their army, concluded that “as long as there is an ulema, the pestilence will go on”.

Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, the towering Muslim moderniser of the mid- to late-19th century, was inclined to say that Islam needed a Martin Luther to dispel the thickets of superstition from Muslim minds. All the same, the common western refrain that Islam had no Reformation and no Renaissance and therefore no Enlightenment is inadequate and Eurocentric. Even after suffering the twin cataclysms of the 13th century — the Christian Reconquista of Muslim Spain at one end of the Islamic world and the Mongol devastations that ended centuries of Abbasid civilisation at the other — Muslims would still go on to establish three new mega-states: the Ottoman, Mughal, and Safavid empires. Yet it is true that in the wake of these 13th-century disasters Islam went from being a confident culture and creed to a defensive one. Bleak milestones include the rise of the theologian Ibn Taymiyya — hammer of Muslim heretics in the mould of Christian inquisitors like Torquemada — and the abolition of ijtihad, the process of reasoning by analogy that was intended to help Islam accommodate developments unforeseen in the Koran. Certainty of faith and the imposition of scholastic legalism replaced the honest doubt of reason and inquisitive philosophy. In the world of Ibn Taymiyya, forerunner of the puritanical and sectarian Wahhabi creed the Saudis would later impose in central Arabia, “the goal of the believer was not to know God but to obey him”.

Nevertheless, throughout the 19th century and beyond, Muslim thinkers, emphasising Islam as a civilisation as well as a religion, sought to upgrade their culture and recapture its old élan. A central idea, from Afghani onwards, is that modern ideas and values now considered universal existed in embryonic form in early Islam. This was the genius of Islam. That Janus-like looking backward as well as forward easily detoured into defensive ideologies of resistance, including Islamist extremism, under pressure from the European powers that thrust into Muslim lands in the 19th and 20th centuries. Helmuth von Moltke concluded that ‘as long as there is an ‘ulema’, the pestilence will go on’ Two other, related handicaps — the predominance of the ulema and absence of a literate print culture of the kind that lit up the Reformation in Europe — enabled the Muslim clergy to maintain its monopoly of knowledge for far longer than its Christian counterpart. Islam had no William Tyndale as well as no Martin Luther. When printing got properly under way in the mid-19th century, introduced at the same time as the telegraph, it was a revolution as electrifying as the internet, and de Bellaigue tells the story well. His cast of characters — “the Muslim pioneers we never thought existed” — is presented with flair and an acute eye.

There are several classic accounts of Islam’s engagement with modernity, but the originality of this book is to tie together the Arab Awakening or Nahda with the Persian and Turkish enlightenment of the 19th century. He is good at capturing the contradictions of his characters. Sayyid Qutb, ideologist of the Muslim Brotherhood, is a “salivating prude”. De Bellaigue writes of the 19th-century Egyptian intellectual Rifaa al-Tahtawi that “five years in France convinced him of the need for European sciences and technologies to be introduced into the Islamic world, but he chose not to enquire about the link between a free intellect and a free spirit, or whether the inquisitiveness he admired in the French people might be in some way connected to their quest for political liberty”. He portrays Afghani as a chameleon, the first pan-Islamic moderniser, a showman who would receive guests in a cloud of cigar smoke or turn up at the Moscow opera in full clerical regalia, an “accomplished political insurgent” who divined British designs in Egypt and Iran, a man for whom “expediency and ambiguity were . . . lodestars”. This is a civilised and beautifully written story of the advances and reverses of a great civilisation that lost its own way, was shunted into cul-de-sacs by predatory European imperialists — and yet was and is constantly searching out ways to bounce back. The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason, by Christopher de Bellaigue, Bodley Head, RRP£25, 398 pages David Gardner is the FT’s international affairs editor Photograph: Getty: https://www.ft.com/content/623c5188-f75c-11e6-bd4e-68d53499ed71

Also read: http://islam4humanite.blogspot.com/2017/02/the-problem-with-islamism-political.html
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