By Christopher De Bellaigue
19 February 2015
A party of school-age swimmers takes to the waters of a municipal pool in north London. Among her peers, one Muslim girl stands out – nine or 10 years of age, brown face and eyes under a yellow cap, sliding gingerly into the water in a cotton salwar kameez that prevents the male attendants, the boys in her class, and other random males in the pool, like me, from seeing her prepubescent body.
So far as I know, there is nothing in Islam that bars girls below the age of menstruation from showing their legs and tummy in public, but in more conservative households there is a strong distaste for the idea of even partial undress in mixed company at any age. In less understanding circumstances, this distaste could have led to the girl’s withdrawal from her school’s weekly swimming outing – denying her a part of our holistic modern curriculum. But in this case consultations have evidently taken place between parents, school and pool management (has the salwar kameez been washed?), leading to this civilised modus vivendi.
Back home, in Pakistan, or Bangladesh, the question would not have arisen because such outings to the pool would almost certainly be single-sex affairs. Silly me: this is home, where she was born, where she is part of, and her life here will be one long variant on this trip to the swimming baths, a negotiation between her expectations and the expectations that others have of her. Ideas will be batted about, solutions proffered; change and adaptation happen on both sides. It isn’t only among Muslims that values are in an unsettled state – who would have thought that gay marriage would enter polite acceptability as smokers are being shown the door?
The girl in the yellow cap popped into my mind after the attacks in France this January – which, like the copycat killings last week in Copenhagen, prompted another round of discussions about Islam’s “place” in the modern world. It was generally agreed that the Muslims must pull themselves together. According to Hubert Védrine, a former French foreign minister, writing in Le Monde on 13 January, the answer is the kind of Islam that is in tune with the Enlightenment and sharply delineated from jihadism. “What a boost that would be for an enlightened Islam,” he wrote, “what an example (while awaiting a genuine reform of Islam), and what a beacon!” In the following day’s edition of the same paper, three schoolteachers renewed their own vows to secular values. “We have learned to do without God,” they wrote. “We have no master but knowledge … we take it for granted that [Eugène Delacroix’s painting] Liberty Leading the People and [Voltaire’s] Candide are part of the heritage of humanity.” The challenge, they wrote, is to inculcate this heritage in their pupils, those left “by the wayside of republican values”.
Whenever jihadi groups carry out an atrocity, or – as is happening a lot these days, western foreign policy failures lead to large areas of the world coming under the sway of oafs who claim to be acting for God – the call goes up for a Muslim Enlightenment. The imputation of Védrine, the French schoolteachers, and thousands of other commentators is that various internal deficiencies have excluded Islam from this indispensable cultural and intellectual event, without which no culture can be considered modern. Such views cut across political borders; they would find sympathy at the BBC as well as in the editorial offices of the Sun. Islam needs to get with the programme.
Yet it cannot escape the attention of any westerner who has travelled to a Muslim country that for the people there, the challenge of modernity is the overwhelming fact of their lives; the double imperative of being modern and universal on the one hand, and adhering to the emplaced identities of religion and nation, on the other, complicates and enriches everything they do. To anyone outside the west, it is self-evident that there is more than one way to be modern – a truth easily observed in any developing country. Modernity is at the best of times a tension, a dislocation and an agitation, producing – in a phrase from Nietzsche that expresses a kaleidoscopic weirdness of perspective – “a fateful simultaneity of spring and autumn.”
Nietzsche was referring to the west, where the questions that led to modernity had been volunteered in the first place, during the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the race for empires, and where the cultural necessity of providing an answer was never seriously doubted. But his words are also relevant to the lands of Islam. The history of the Middle East over the past two centuries is also a history of modernisation – of reforms, reactions, innovations, false starts, discoveries and betrayals – and there is something gloriously cack-handed and unreal about westerners demanding an “Enlightenment” from people whose lives are coterminous with a strenuous, ceaseless engagement with all that is new. The experience of modernity cannot be reduced to various rites of passage through which the west has passed. Modernity is the shared predicament of all who discover or are discovered by new values and technologies – and a description of the pleasure and pain that follows.
I have retained the image of the young swimmer negotiating the waters in her salwar kameez, steering between competing expectations, while I have been researching a book about the earlier time when “modern ideas” first arrived in the Middle East from the newly dominant west. Few people have thought to qualify the word “modernity” using a culturally loaded adjective other than “Muslim”; one doesn’t hear much about “Indian” modernity, or “Chinese” modernity, even though the new ways of looking at the world have not entered these cultures without difficulty. Nor do I think that many modern Muslims regard their lives as substantially different or more complicated than those of non-Muslims across the globe. Certainly, those in the 19th and early 20th centuries who were the first bearers of new ideas were animated by a desire to be part of a movement that represented not only certain cultures or geographies, but all mankind.
Looking at the tableau before me, running from those early modernisers to the blameless mermaid of north London, I have the impression of a long, difficult, but very often joyful negotiation – the same negotiation in which many more have prospered without being noticed, and in which a number, among them the killers of Paris and Copenhagen, have catastrophically failed.
The reform of the Muslim world began in earnest at the turn of the 19th century, when Europe penetrated the Middle East with all the brusqueness you would expect from a rapidly developing civilisation whose constituent parts were in a race for colonies, wealth and glory. The cultural heartlands of Islam, by contrast, were lame, lachrymose, and chronically resistant to novelty. Cairo’s school of Al-Azhar – the acknowledged citadel of Islamic learning – suspected science, despised philosophy and hadn’t produced an original thought in years. The paradigmatic idea was that society under the prophet Muhammad had attained a perfection from which later generations were condemned to live at an exponentially increasing remove.
The meeting of the two cultures (which, for obvious symbolic reasons, is often dated to the Napoleonic invasions of Egypt) led to a realisation on the part of Muslim rulers that only by adopting western practices and technologies could they avoid political and economic oblivion. The extraordinarily rapid process of change that this triggered has been summed up by the historian Juan Cole:
“In the space of decades intellectuals forsook Ptolemaic for Copernican astronomy … businessmen formed joint-stock companies (not originally allowed in Islamic law), generals had their armies retrained in new drills and established munitions factories, regional patriotism intensified and prepared the way for nationalism, the population began growing exponentially under the impact of cash cropping and the new medicine, steamboats suddenly plied the red Sea and the Persian Gulf, and agrarian capitalism and the advent of factories led to new kinds of class conflict.”
And so on. In the middle of the century the Ottoman Sultan declared equality between his Muslim and non-Muslim subjects, the slave trade was outlawed and the harem fell gradually into desuetude. The sheikhs and mullahs saw their old prerogatives in the law and public morality arrogated by an expanding government bureaucracy. Clerical opposition to dissection was overcome and theatres of anatomy opened. Culture, too, was transformed, with a surge in non-religious education, and the reform of the Arabic, Turkish and Persian languages – the better to present modern poetry, novels and newspaper articles before the potent new audience of “public opinion”. Compared to the western experience, modernisation was drastically “telescoped”, as Cole puts it, with the moveable-type printing press, dating back to the 15th century, and the telegraph, which was invented in 1844, arriving almost simultaneously.
Political consciousness also rose. In the last decades of the 19th century, Egypt, Iran and Turkey, the most populous and culturally influential centres of the Middle East, all experienced movements in favour of representative government – in Turkey and Iran, parliamentary rule came into effect a few years after the turn of the new century, and in Egypt after the first world war.
The story of Muslim modernisation has sometimes been depicted as the efforts of a few potentates to enforce alien precepts on resistant populations. Muhammad Ali, Egypt’s khedive, or viceroy, for most of the first half of the 19th century, and his near contemporary (and nominal sovereign), Sultan Mahmud II, are the names to remember here, and there were indeed many instances of popular opposition to what were depicted as godless innovations. In 1814, for example, the Muslim notables of Piraeus were persuaded by a local divine not to set up quarantine stations to protect themselves from an outbreak of the plague. The pandemic was “from God”, he said; “to try and limit its progress is to oppose Providence”. (The population was duly obliterated.) The Persian crown prince Abbas Mirza, modernising his fiefdom of Tabriz, in north-west Iran, drilled the soldiers of his new army behind high walls, for fear that they would be spotted by their disapproving families.
The myth that modernisation had no natural constituency – to be contrasted invidiously with the spontaneity of emergent modernity in the west – has been exacerbated by some of its rankly insincere recent apologists. The Mubaraks and Ben Alis of this world paraded modernity like a codpiece; to look at these self-described apostles of secularism and development, one might be forgiven for thinking that modernisation in the Middle East has always been infertile, and always will be.
But if we want to understand the relationship between ideas and change in the Middle East, we must turn to an earlier moment, and to the figures who found themselves mediating between the two. We are limited here by the historical record – which preserves the accounts of a few distinguished figures – but there is no reason to believe the hope and trepidation that they expressed were not also felt by a great many of their lesser-known contemporaries. Societies changed, as the dialectic of new and old continued, and people lost themselves in the intensity of the transformation of which they were a part.
One of the earliest Middle Easterners to appreciate the unavoidable, tentacular qualities of modernity was the Iranian Mirza Muhammad Saleh Shirazi. He was one of five students who were sent to England by Crown Prince Abbas Mirza in 1815 to study useful things and bring them home. The travelogue that Mirza Saleh wrote is among the first books written in Persian about a Christian country. Reading it one gets the sense of a worldview that is changing; even Mirza Saleh’s writing alters as he acclimatises to Regency London, moving from stiltedness to fluency, directness and utility. Here, in real time, is the literary modernisation of the Middle East.
In the spring of 1817, Mirza Saleh made a trip to the west Country, which forms the most exquisite section of his book. A sense of diligent journalism permeates his writing as his coach quits London on the westward turnpike. In comparison to the potholed and rutted dust roads of Iran, passable only on horseback or on foot, his detailed description of this efficient mode of transport must have struck his readers as a great novelty. At first he sits inside the coach, with a Spaniard and several farmers for company (all equally unintelligible); after nightfall he takes his place on top, where he remains until Salisbury Cathedral comes ethereally into view at dawn.
And on to Exeter, where he is met by his host, Robert Abraham, and the two set off for the latter’s home in the stannery town of Ashburton. Amid the tin mines, Mirza Saleh exchanges European clothes for Iranian robes, which causes the daughters of his host much amusement. Indeed, much of Mirza Saleh’s stay is spent in the company of these and other Devonshire girls, “moon-faced” and “sweet-natured”. (He seems to have censored himself, for in the descriptions he provides of bucolic musical interludes overlooking the River Dart, mention of cider is suspiciously absent – only tea.) Mirza Saleh is partial to young Sarah Abraham, who displays “the utmost excellence, perspicacity, sagacity and delicacy” as they converse on the road to Plymouth. For the people back home, used to a strict segregation of the sexes, the outlandishness of such a friendship would not need spelling out.
In Plymouth, Mirza Saleh lavishes his ever-improving descriptive powers on “the most secure port in England”, with its armouries and massive hospital. The anchorage is so extensive a thousand warships could park there, protected by ramparts bristling with cannon – and he explains dry docks and breakwaters for the landlocked Tabrizis, whose only experience of the sea is as poetic metaphor. Amid celebrations to mark George III’s birthday he ventures out clutching the hand of Miss Sarah (again, a liberty he would not take with a girl back home) is mobbed by 500 people, and flees. And when the time comes for him to say farewell to the Abrahams, he asks, “of what importance are differences of religion? … I wept for the members of this family, old and young, such that I have never been so affected.”
Several hundred pages of British history and actuality are still to come. Mirza Saleh traces events from the Roman invasions to the Napoleonic Wars, and there is something thrilling about seeing the names of the Saxon Kings transliterated into Persian for the first time. His account of contemporary London takes in house design, domestic mores (not unreasonably, he is surprised that when people enter houses, rather than take off their dirty shoes, they remove their hats), and detailed descriptions of the prerogatives of the king and parliament. Admiring but never cringing, fully aware that his exposition of Britain’s partial democracy will prompt interest and perhaps envy in the Iran of the divine right of kings, he reserves his greatest astonishment for the ability of a single artisan, “a poor man, with a shop”, to postpone the building of Regent Street by refusing to sell his freehold to make way for the thoroughfare. “And suppose,” Mirza Saleh writes with pardonable hyperbole, “that the whole army were to come down on his head, they cannot oblige him to give it up … the prince himself cannot inflict the slightest financial or physical harm on him.”
Mirza Saleh and his fellow students were a small sample of similar contingents that were dispatched from Muslim countries to Europe over the course of the 19th century. In 1819 the five Iranians were recalled home, where Mirza Saleh went on to become a teacher, diplomat and pioneering newspaper owner and printer. (Among his productions was a Qur’an with a Persian translation between the lines – he appreciated the importance of Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English). Of his former travelling companions, one rose to be chief engineer to the (newly modernised) army, and translated a biography of Peter the Great, while another, who had studied medicine in London, assumed the title of royal doctor and designed Iran’s first polytechnic. The only artisan in the party, the master craftsman Muhammad Ali, became head of the royal foundry; his English wife introduced knives and forks into their household.
Thus change entered Iran and the wider region through the cerebral and the banal, and if it was to stand a chance of popular success it would need the endorsement of men of religion. In the absence of a central ecclesiastical institution capable of bringing people – with the authority, say, of a papal encyclical – over to a new understanding of things, the sheikhs and mullahs would have to be guided by their own consciences.
Perhaps the most celebrated of the early modernising theologians was Egypt’s Rifa’a al-Tahtawi. Rifa’a was the archetypal “new” sheikh; chloroformed at al-Azhar and revived abroad (in his case, as a student in Paris in the late 1820s), he returned home to join the bureaucracy and trill the virtues of civilisation – a word whose Arabic equivalent, tamaddun, from the word meaning “city”, he did much to popularise.
The idea that the future will be better than the past is integral to any understanding of progress, and Rifa’a adopted it unambiguously: his love of the new was heartfelt and unapologetic; he ridiculed those who dismissed the modern era. He promoted a reformed Arabic, published furiously (including the first Arabic grammar for schools), and edited the country’s first newspaper. In 1836, he set up a translation bureau that brought new and unfamiliar ideas rushing into Egypt by rendering 2,000 European and Turkish works into Arabic, ranging from Greek philosophy and ancient history to books about geography and geometry.
The effect of these translations on the engineers, doctors, teachers and military officers who read them can easily be imagined. For this new elite, forerunners of the secular-minded middle classes that dominate public life even now, learning about antiquity expanded the meaning of the instructive past. The feats of the hitherto reviled non-Muslims presented an alternative story of talent and achievement, occluding faith-based partitions and suggesting a more equitable distribution of God’s favours than many Muslims had previously entertained.
Rifa’a had been amazed by the malleability of the French language, geared to utility more than embellishment, and he introduced similar principles into Arabic as Mirza Saleh, through his travelogue, had done for Persian. Translation is an expression of the universality of the intellect, but one Middle Eastern language remained unable to receive the new ideas – arguably the most important of them all, Ottoman Turkish. When writing in Ottoman Turkish it was considered a fine thing to approach the subject in as ornamental and long-winded a fashion as possible, executing puns, ransacking the Persian classics and eschewing punctuation. Nine different calligraphic systems were in use, getting to the point was considered facile and functionality was ignorance.
In the late 1850s and early 1860s Turkish was made fit for purpose by a curmudgeonly polymath named İbrahim Şinasi. The orphaned son of an artillery captain, Şinasi grew up in the Tophane district of Istanbul (now much sought after by foreigners), where he learned Arabic, Persian and French before going to Paris on a scholarship. He returned with a shrewd realisation that the goals of human progress and linguistic development are linked – and applied himself to both.
In 1860 Şinasi co-founded the empire’s first independent Turkish-language newspaper, and shortly afterwards he launched his own paper, the Tasvir-i Efkâr, or Illustration of Opinion. The subjects he wrote about ranged from foreign policy (he was a hawk) to literature and the importance of good manners. Şinasi also pushed the idea, then in its infancy, of a national identity. In Egypt Rifa’a al-Tahtawi was thinking along similar lines, popularising the word watan, or nation, and translating the Marseillaise. The outlines of the Middle Eastern nation states were coming into view.
One of the most fascinating of Şinasi’s editorials reveals his ability to draw philosophical significance from apparently quite workaday subjects. The government had announced a scheme to introduce street lighting to parts of central Istanbul, opposed by kneejerk conservatives – just as the same innovation had been opposed in London almost 200 years earlier. Şinasi, of course, was enthusiastic, not only for practical reasons of reduced criminality and enhanced commerce, but also because the illumination of the streets seemed to presage the deeper and less extinguishable illumination of people’s minds. “Who opposes street lighting,” he demanded, “if not those ruffians who profit from the darkness of the night?” And then, in a barbed reference to the intellectual monopolists whose feeble glow depended on surrounding gloom and the ignorance of others: “A firefly only glows at night.”
Sultan Abdulaziz read impertinence and sedition into editorials of this kind, and in January 1865 the government introduced censorship following the example of Napoleon III. Within the month Şinasi had fled to Paris but the press could not be controlled. Over the next 11 years the number of publications available in Istanbul went from four to 72, with the most popular papers selling as many as 24,000 per issue. It was a similar, if slower story in Egypt, where the newspaper-reading public in 1881 has been put at 72,000; Iran’s press revoultion was just as dramatic.
It was little wonder that governments across the Middle East viewed with alarm the transformation of the public discourse and their diminishing ability to regulate it. Relationships between people of different backgrounds were being formed against the neutral backdrops of the university, the office and the steamship. The rigid seclusion of the harem fell away and for men it was no longer necessary to be a eunuch in order to enjoy the society of a woman who was neither a prostitute nor your mother. Between the strata of the Ottoman family a kind of pluralism inserted itself, with one modernist insisting that his patriarchal father show respect for an “individual’s opinion”.
What if that individual was female? While decades would pass before most Muslim women were acquainted with even the theory of their rights, change came earlier for the upper classes in the cities. There, rising female literacy led to employment in nursing and teaching, and the emergence of western-style charities independent of the mosque. New women’s magazines showed the Paris fashions and called for the prohibition of polygamy.
The career of the Turkish writer Fatma Aliye shows how a combination of new institutions, technology and altered patterns of thought were changing society with a convulsive force. Born in 1862, the daughter of an Ottoman grandee, she might have seemed destined for a traditional life – and indeed, despite showing exceptional intellectual promise and even learning French in secret (her mother feared her exposure to impious notions), she went into purdah at 15 and was married off at 19 to a man who disapproved of her vocation.
But Aliye continued to write and translate, eventually winning her husband’s support, and what she produced in seclusion the new press enabled her to diffuse among an expanding audience of literate women. Hers became a distinctive voice in the Istanbul papers, where she promoted girls’ education and kicked against the stock male denigration of women as “long on hair, short on nous”.
What makes Aliye’s experience so instructive is the way in which she was formed by modernisation and formed it back in turn. Among her best-known works is an epistolary novel comprising letters by upper-class women speaking of their lives and their loves, a conceit that would have been meaningless were it not for the new institution of the imperial postal service. She was the sort of woman who would engage in philosophical conversations with strange men while crossing the Bosphorus on a steamer. Public transport was exercising its usual levelling function, with hitherto segregated members of society thrown together and their candour naturally heightened by the transience and anonymity of such encounters.
In her later years, she continued to exercise a degree of autonomy as a Muslim woman that would have been unthinkable in her youth – travelling alone to Europe to pursue her errant younger daughter Zubeyda, who (to her immense chagrin) had become a Catholic nun and moved to France. Zubeyda later recalled that her mother had been “haunted” by the question of the “equality of the sexes in society and the struggle to achieve it”. In the Turkey of the 1860s, when Aliye was a child, there had been little question of “equality of the sexes”. There had been no “struggle”. Now there were both.
The stories of Fatma Aliye, Mirza Saleh, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi and İbrahim Şinasi are only few among many, but they reiterate what should already be apparent, that Muslims had an energetic engagement with modernity more than a century before television pundits began demanding one – an engagement, then as now, defined by negotiation rather than conquest. It may be, as these examples show, that there is not a “canon” into which they can be fitted – a neat narrative of Muslim modernity to put alongside the western one we know so well, thanks to M. Védrine and others. But then it could be argued that the idea of a canon is somewhat déclassé, with contributions to the collective experience being written, as the young swimmer in the council pool demonstrates, around us all the time.
To suggest that the Muslim world’s experience of modernity has been severely deranged by the repeated incursions of western imperialists and post-imperialists is to restate one of the truisms of our age. When Britain and France invade Egypt with the aim of protecting their loans (literally in the case of Gladstone, with his heavy personal exposure to Egyptian government bonds) and Sykes and Picot split the region into British and French zones under cover of the first world war; when the western nations award land to Zionism that isn’t theirs to give and when the region is thrust into a cold war not of its making, with a harvest that includes Saddam, Mubarak and the Assads – with all this happening in the space of a few decades it would be optimistic to expect the reordering of cultures and societies to go without a hitch.
It is not surprising that many at the business end of this penetration have been sceptical of the westerners’ claim to be acting in their best interests, and that in time some of these Arabs, Turks and Iranians expanded their distaste for the curled colonial lip into a more general critique of modern life. When the radical Muslim Brother (and founder of modern Islamism) Sayyid Qutb went to study in the United States in the late 1940s, his reaction to the west was sharply dissimilar to that of Mirza Saleh 140 years earlier; what was revealed to Qutb was less a model worthy of emulation than the seedy internal workings of a system that he – an Egyptian chafing against a sybaritic monarch propped up by Britain – knew all too well.
Few westerners have considered how bruising it is to be constantly reacting to another’s invention, statement or action: always being told to “catch up” or improve. This is the situation that so many Muslims have found themselves in over the past two centuries. But this is the backstory that has made Islam’s engagement with modern values more suspenseful, more despairing, more suffused with the “simultaneity of spring and autumn”, than anywhere else in the world.
In the light of adverse politics and history, the surprise is not that modernity has been a tortuous experience for some Muslims, but that it has been adopted so widely and with such success. (Many millions of Muslims live in harmony with the modern values of personal sovereignty and human rights: another self-evident truth in need of reiteration.) With immigration from the Middle East and north Africa to Europe, the Mediterranean culture that ended with the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain in 1492 has been revived. Our world is even more interpenetrated than the communal gallimaufry of the Ottoman empire. Talk of European values that exclude Islamic values will be barren for as long as millions of Europeans regard Islam as an important element in their lives. Talk of teaching them Voltaire is a joke as long as they cannot teach us back. The much-touted choice facing the “Muslim community”, between modernity and obscurantism, between “here” and “home”, is false. Here is home. Life is modern. All we can do is negotiate.
Christopher de Bellaigue is a journalist and author who has covered the Middle East and South Asia since 1994. His books include Patriot of Persia: Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup, and In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran. He is currently writing a book on the entry of modern ideas into the Middle East