Read an extract

The Islamic Enlightenment by Christopher de Bellaigue



In The Islamic Enlightment, de Bellaigue shows us how to look beyond sensationalist headlines to foster a genuine understanding of modern Islam and Muslim culture. Shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize. Read the conclusion of the book below


With the failure of democracy in Egypt, the revolution that took place in Iran, and the rise to power in Turkey of a strain of Islamism that later turned authoritarian, the story of the Islamic Enlightenment, including its dissonant coda, the counter-Enlightenment, seemed to have come to an end by around 1980. Nowadays it is hard to discern any general movement in favour of liberal, humanist principles in the Middle East, but rather a slippage towards violence and sectarian hate. Indeed, with the failure of the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq in 2003, the aborted Arab Spring of 2011, and Turkey’s evolution under Recep Tayyip Erdogan from a progressive new society to a corrupt authoritarian one, it is tempting to conclude that the Islamic Enlightenment was an interesting idea that ended in failure; that the great movements of thought, modes of living, and political organisation that have been described in this book did not, in the end, amount to more than the weight of tradition and conservatism they were supposed to overturn.

The idea that the struggle between faith and reason has been won by the former is misleading, however – and not simply in the light of the exceptionalism displayed by Iran, which continues to be dominated politically by a vigorous reformist faction. In fact the terms of the confrontation between tradition and modernity have been redefined. As is exemplified by the tortured disputes over what constitutes ‘real’ Islam, claims and counter-claims permeate the modern Islamic identity. Rarely in Islamic history has Sunni zealotry so insistently proclaimed that the Shia are heretics deserving death; other Muslims state baldly that these same zealots practise not Islam but barbarism; and all the while, technology, literacy and the modern cult of the individual have permitted people to practise Islam according to their own tastes. 


What is called ‘Islam’ is a very broad church indeed

Homogenisation has opposed variety for much of Islamic history. The urban centres of the Ottoman Empire were made up of communities living side by side; but propinquity did not necessarily bring sympathy, let alone emulation.[1] Religious and secular authorities alike tried to reduce the practice of the faith to a limited number of schools and comportments. Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Jabarti strongly disapproved of the saint worship practised by many of his compatriots, while the violent reaction of Nasser al-Din Shah to Babism and Bahaism showed a hypersensitivity to the threat posed by modern prophethood. More recently, homogenisation has been challenged by technology and an ethic of personal emancipation that has crossed from the secular to the religious sphere. The emergence of individualistic versions of the faith is in part a consequence of the weakening of the traditional Sunni clergy that occurred throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In part it stems from the dislocations of modern life.

A British Muslim of Pakistani origin may consult radical online screeds rather than accompany his parents to hear a traditional, apolitical sermon in the local mosque. For alienated French Muslims, Islam may be less of a code of belief than a response to racism and Islamophobia, and they may know little of the faith they espouse. What, if anything, links these angry, often ill-informed Muslims to the entrepreneurial Iranian Americans who hold Sufi prayer meetings and engage in philanthropy in suburban Los Angeles, or the followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher, whose network controls hundreds of schools around the world, preaches inter-religious amity, and is accused of trying to overthrow the Turkish state? It is far from certain whether these people belong to the same community or different, opposing ones. What is called ‘Islam’ is a very broad church indeed.

And then, of course, there is an unquantifiable number of people whose world view has been shaped by Islamic beliefs and practice and who, while respecting the moral precepts they have received from their forebears, are lax in matters of observance. They, too, may, identify themselves as Muslim; in their secular world view and relatively liberal values they represent the successful part of the Islamic Enlightenment.

These examples show that the breakdown of geographical boundaries between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds has had a big effect on the variegated Islam we now see around us. Islam is no settled entity. It has burst its banks and seethes with discontents and desires that are immediately recognisable as the consequence of a painful engagement with modernity. Many of the suicide bombers who have done their work on European soil are pitifully ignorant of Islam; their abominations are more the product of psychological instability and a wider failure to reconcile Islamic values with those of modern society in the libertine and materialistic form it has assumed since the 1960s. The phenomenon of the suicide bomb is indissoluble from the media that report it; recorded by smartphone or body camera, broadcast through the social media, these acts may be considered extreme selfies – they are to some degree an authentic product of our narcissistic age. Some of the worst ‘Islamic’ attacks that have taken place in the West have been committed by men whose lives had been chaotic, criminal and hedonistic. It is hard to attach the label ‘Muslim’ to people whose engagement with the faith is so superficial. These miracle-grow Muslims have been incubated in the hothouse of modernity.

And yet, for all the apparent suspension of the Islamic Enlightenment, the historic shifts associated with it grind on. In the summer of 2009, Iran’s Green Movement mobilised millions of people in spectacular protests against a fraudulent election result manufactured by the country’s hardline leadership; in Tehran I was told by protesters (a large number of whom were women) that the aims of the Constitutional Revolution were finally being achieved. Two years later the Arab Spring promised similar delayed gratification for peoples that had been denied self-determination by European colonialism at the end of the First World War and had since been ruled by tyrants drawn from the military. In Cairo revolutionaries told me they had been emboldened by the toppling of the political despotism of Hosni Mubarak to undermine long-standing hierarchies closer to home; no established structure, whether the family, the workplace or the university, seemed immune from Egyptians’ desire to re-examine their deferential attitudes to authority. Then in 2013 Turkey erupted in protests of a similar size and intensity against Erdogan’s intolerant form of government.

That none of these demonstrations of popular will has achieved its goal does not of course mean that the motivations animating them have gone away. Iran’s Greens were first crushed, then vindicated five years later by the election of the moderate reformist President Hassan Rouhani. Inept, distrustful of democracy, the government that the Muslim Brotherhood set up in Egypt in 2012 was itself overthrown the following year in a military-led counter-revolution; and the protests in Turkey gave Erdogan all the pretext he needed to round on his domestic adversaries. In the meantime, civil war in Syria, Libya and elsewhere, along with poverty and climate change, pushed millions of Muslims into Europe. All but an infinitesimally small minority of these people did not come to the West in order to turn it into an Islamic caliphate. They came in order to avail themselves of the fruits of an Enlightenment that had gone wrong in their own countries.

Much of this book has been about the relationship between the Islamic world and ideas that were first elaborated in Europe. This relationship was gusty and volatile back in 1798, and it remains so today, but I hope I have demonstrated that many of the ideas, such as the value of the individual and the benefits of law, science and representative government, were adopted rapidly – so seamlessly, in fact, that they are now authentic features of Islamic thought and society.

Of course, the West itself has not stood still during this process of integration and assimilation, stretching the limits and possibilities of humankind in ways that none of the characters in this book can possibly have imagined. Some manifestations of post-Enlightenment life, whether sociological, such as the condemnation of the traditional family, or cosmic, such as science’s seductive promise of immortality, speak to many Muslims of a repugnant hubris. For post-religious Christian society Islam remains a younger sibling that, while it has internalised many modern ideas, continues to insist on a spiritual dimension that has been largely lost in the West. This is Islam after the Enlightenment, sketched by Jamal al-Din Afghani and Muhammad Abduh, humanised by Jalal al-e Ahmad and pumped up by Sayyid Qutb, never at rest, beset by contradictions. It is certain to continue to needle and perplex us.   


[1] Where unregulated mingling did take place, such as in the rural Balkans, Islam, Christianity and Judaism produced syncretic traditions that later purists frowned upon and stamped out.

Want more book news?

Sign up to get exclusive articles, interviews, and sneak previews of new books, every month.

More about the author

The Islamic Enlightenment

Christopher de Bellaigue


Selected as a book of the year 2017 by the Times Literary Supplement and the Sunday Times ('At a time when the gulf between Islam and the West yawns distressingly wide, De Bellaigue’s book is a welcome and surprising corrective' Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times)

'The best sort of book for our disordered days: timely, urgent and illuminating' Pankaj Mishra

'It strikes a blow … for common humanity.' Sunday Times

The Islamic Enlightenment: a contradiction in terms?

The Muslim world has often been accused of a failure to modernise, reform and adapt. But, from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present day, Islamic society in its Middle Eastern heartlands has in fact been transformed by modern ideals and practices, including the adoption of modern medicine, the emergence of women from purdah and the development of democracy.

Who were the scholars and scientists, writers and politicians that brought about these remarkable changes? And why is their legacy now under threat?

Beginning with the dramatic collision of East and West following Napoleon’s arrival in Egypt, and taking us through 200 tumultuous years of Middle Eastern history, Christopher de Bellaigue introduces us to key figures and reformers; from Egypt’s visionary ruler Muhammad Ali to brave radicals like Iran’s first feminist Qurrat al-Ayn and the writer Ibrahim Sinasi, who transformed Ottoman Turkey’s language and literature.

This book tells the forgotten story of the Islamic Enlightenment. It shows us how to look beyond sensationalist headlines to foster a genuine understanding of modern Islam and Muslim culture, and is essential reading for anyone engaged with the state of the world today.

Related features