By Jason Goodwin
July 19, 2017
In the closing months of the 18th century a young Egyptian, Hassan al-Attar, plucked up the courage to visit the Institute of Egypt, staffed by a battery of eminent French specialists in various branches of science and linguistics. The institute had been recently established by Napoleon, following his victory over the Egyptian Army in a battle lasting less than an hour, and although it stood in a salubrious garden district of Cairo, Attar was nervous because he had heard of drunken fights in the area, where the French were billeted.
No doubt his mentor, a sheikh who had been invited to the institute along with other Egyptian bigwigs the previous year, had sought to put the young man off. As Christopher de Ballaigue relates in “The Islamic Enlightenment,” his fascinating and elegantly written account of the impact of modernity on the Islamic world, Abdulrahman al-Jabarti had come away from his encounter with the savants struggling even to formulate a response to ideas like majority voting, judicial process and scientific experimentation or indeed to a copy of the Quran translated into French. In the end, he had condemned much of it, ignored some of it and admired very little. In Jabarti’s world, the purpose of schooling was to learn the Quran by heart, restating the orthodox Muslim position that God alone was the cause of all earthly phenomena, knowledge was finite and revelation, not reason, was the surest guide to living.
Yet centuries earlier, Western scholars had themselves trooped to Spain to learn about science and Greek philosophy from the Arabs. While their effort contributed to the Renaissance in the West, in the Muslim world the doors of interpretation were actually closing, as traditions of speculative thought and inquiry that flourished in Islam’s classical age were being snuffed out. If philosophy presented a full account of life, the clerics grumbled, what was left for revelation and the Prophet? Ijtihad, or independent reasoning, was a danger to the established order, and so the schools were filled with Taqlid, or emulation. The Galata observatory of Istanbul, perhaps the last great scientific endeavour in the Islamic world, was destroyed in 1580 through the opposition of the Ulema, the clerics, who also banned the introduction of printing.
Hassan al-Attar, though, was disarmed by the enthusiasm of the French savants. Introduced to a young scholar who discussed literature with him in faultless Arabic, he left dazzled and inspired by the Frenchman’s love of learning, his breadth of reference, his knowledge of the literature and traditions of another culture — and, on subsequent visits, by the scientific, astronomical and engineering apparatus he was shown. Attar’s admiration would lead to one of the first of many attempts to reconcile Islamic teaching with Western enlightenment values.
Napoleon’s short-lived occupation opened the way to a new Egyptian ruler, an Albanian adventurer, to begin a radical reform of the Egyptian state. It was abundantly clear to Muhammad Ali that Western know-how, trade and finance were the keys to power in the modern world, and like Henry VIII he confiscated lands set aside in pious foundations. He also introduced commercial tribunals, a public health office, telegraph offices, canals and cotton factories. Alexandria became a great port where a Russian observed every day “some fresh innovation in the European style destined for the improvement of the city or for public utility.” Yet perhaps 20,000 men, women and children died in the digging of one canal in 1819. Not for the first time, Western advances did not bestow equal benefits.
De Bellaigue, a journalist and author, focuses on three Islamic cities in the first half of the book — Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran. In each, the rulers attempted to adopt elements of Western modernity. Egypt’s nominal suzerains, the Ottoman sultans, had in fact begun reforms before the period covered by this book, but progress was slower in a sprawling multi-faith empire in which there were many more interest groups to reconcile than in Egypt alone. In Istanbul, the sultan succeeded in using French military advisers to reform the army and destroy the reactionary Janissaries. The introduction in 1836 of quarantine and other preventive measures against plague, which had hitherto been treated with fatalism, changed people’s life expectancy, and saw plague eradicated by the 1850s.
“The Islamic Enlightenment” introduces us to a fascinating gallery of individuals who would grapple with reform and modernization in theory and practice over the next two centuries. Efficient guns, training in modern drill, factories, machines and bank loans were tools for the entry of Muslim states into the modern world, but they were not value-free. Rising levels of literacy, with the introduction of printing, allowed a press to flourish, in the European mould — but rulers in Istanbul found the means to control them could also be imported. The first censorship law was based on similar edicts issued by Napoleon III.
The growing complexity and interdependence of society and economies changed the way government was viewed, and the development of a literate bourgeoisie created people who thought about such things, focusing attention on the need for constitutions. That they often fared badly was hardly a surprise — by the time the Ottoman sultan agreed to grant a constitution in 1876, France had already run through 12 of its own.
Reactions were further complicated by the persistent pressure of the West on the resources of the Islamic world. Autocrats saddled their countries with profligate loans. The shah of Iran actually sold the resources of his country to Baron Reuter in 1872, an act of such egregious self-interest that it was undone by popular demand and international outcry, while the Ottomans were humiliated by the imposition of a foreign-staffed debt administration and the British occupied Egypt, effectively on behalf of European bondholders, in 1882. There were plenty of people in the Islamic East who could read Darwin and conclude, like the Egyptian feminist Qasim Amin, that natural selection impelled Europeans “powered by steam and electricity, to seize the wealth of any country weaker than them.” And while many others felt that their values — Islamic values — were threatened by the soullessness of the machine age, a multifaceted and slippery Sunni cleric, Jamal al-Din Afghani, was able to articulate some Muslim responses to modernity in ways that were distinctly modern, involving wreaths of cigar smoke, opera seats, international travel and a bulletin for the doctrine of Pan-Islamism called Firmest Bond, which was sent out, like an email newsletter, free of charge to every influential ruler or opinion maker in the Middle East. Islam, Jamal said, required its Luther.
One candidate for the role might have been the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh, who proposed a return to attitudes from the time of the Salaf, the ancestors — not, as the term is used today to describe Salafism, a fundamentalist religious outlook that denies the importance of reason, but as a creative moment in which, in Abduh’s view, any educated Muslim with the Quran could think out his position for himself. Abduh, like Attar a century before, was swept aside by a concert of vilification.
Inherent contradictions and weaknesses, allied with competing international developments, persistently favoured modernization imposed from above. Both Turkey and Iran, after World War I, cleaved to narratives of militant nationalism, with varying degrees of success. It became increasingly possible to ignore Islam entirely, following, as de Bellaigue puts it, “a worldview that had formed around Max Weber’s idea of humankind moving away from the ‘great enchanted garden’ of traditional belief and culture.” As he says, the two ideologies competing for support in the post-war Muslim world, capitalism and Communism were agreed on one thing: the utter obsolescence of religion in public life.
A book like this can only point to the sheer complexity of Muslim identities, loyalties and accommodations in the modern world, both among the hundreds of millions who lead lives of varying degrees of quiet and the troubled few. Far from spurning or avoiding modernity, Muslims are “drenched in it,” as de Bellaigue points out, and in tracking the sinews of enlightenment through the last two centuries of Islamic thinking, this brilliant and lively history deserves nothing but praise.
Jason Goodwin is the author of the Yashim Ottoman detective series and “Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire.”