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Books and Documents ( 28 Jul 2017, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Islamic Enlightenment—the Modern Struggle between Faith and Reason

By Roshan Shah, New Age Islam

29 July 2017

The Islamic Enlightenment—The Modern Struggle between Faith and Reason

Author: Christopher de Bellaigne

Published by: The Bodley Head, London

Year: 2017

Pages: 398


No culture has been—or can be—immune to change, no matter what self-styled purists may demand or expect. Change is a hallmark of human life, personal as well as collective.  Even if some people would like to preserve cultures intact, as in a museum, this can never happen. Internal developments as well as the impact of external events ensure that cultures are always in a process of flux.

Notwithstanding this, some people single out ‘Islamic civilization’ or ‘Muslim culture’ and present it as allegedly impervious to any transformation. Ironically, this untenable claim is often made by people supposedly on polar opposites of the ideological spectrum—by hardcore Islamophobes, on the one hand, and hardliner Islamist ideologues, on the other. They both project ‘Islamic civilization’ as something static, frozen forever in time and as allegedly immune to change.

In this well-researched book, de Bellaigne indicates that these suppositions are fallacious. Reflecting on some of the challenges posed by the advent of Western modernity in Muslim contexts, he points to some creative ways in which Muslims sought to fashion an ‘Islamic Enlightenment’. Such an ‘enlightenment’ sought to incorporate key values such as the rule of law, representative governance, acceptance of the benefits of science, rationality, and tolerance.  De Bellaigne’s analysis focuses particularly on Iran, Egypt and Turkey, but several of his findings are of wider relevance to much of the ‘Muslim world’ generally.

Recognising that Muslims (like many other people, one may add) across the world are today creatively seeking to deal with the imperative of being ‘modern’ and universal, on the one hand, and adhering to religious, cultural and other such identities, on the other, this book urges its readers to recognise the positive transformations underway in Muslim societies in the direction of an ‘Islamic Enlightenment’ that don’t often get reported in the media. At the same time though, de Bellaigne would probably readily recognise that this ‘enlightenment’ still has to contend with considerable opposition or indifference on the part of numerous Muslims themselves.

If, as de Bellaigne contends, the interaction between Muslims and Europeans over the past couple of centuries has indeed helped spawn an ‘Islamic Enlightenment’ (which may not be widely known or recognised or appreciated sufficiently), it indicates the importance of recognising multiple ways of being ‘modern’. At the same time, it urges us to recognise that many non-Western cultures have much to contribute in terms of evolving forms of modernity, especially insights and teachings related to the demands of the spirit and to the relationship between humankind and the Divine.


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