Magazine article The Spectator

Islam's Lost Enlightenment

Magazine article The Spectator

Islam's Lost Enlightenment

Article excerpt

The Muslim world had an age of modernisation. It died in the first world war

I am quite used to people smirking into their sleeves when they hear that I've just written a book called The Islamic Enlightenment. The really helpful wags say they expect something along the lines of The Wit and Wisdom of Spiro Agnew, which was billed as a collection of all the memorable aphorisms of the former US vice-president, and contained only blank pages.

So, the Islamic Enlightenment -- good for a laugh. But we're all familiar with the serious argument that lies behind the jests; that Islam has not been through an Enlightenment, a Reformation, or any of the other rites of passage that have formed our modernity, and that, ergo, Muslims and modernity are strangers. Not just strangers, but enemies: ever since Gutenberg revolutionised mass printing in the 1450s, pushing the West into the modern age, the Muslims have set their face against innovation. And to be fair, when you take into account the fact that it took some 400 years for movable type to come into general use in the Middle East, and that for much of this period the Ottoman authorities punished book-printing with death, is it any wonder that this bleak view of Muslim improvability has acquired the wide acceptance and legitimacy it currently enjoys?

In fact, rarely has there been a better time to test the belief -- widespread in the Trump White House, among Europe's rising populists, and the Kremlin -- that Islamic society is incapable of reforming because it hates progress. Wouldn't it be awkward if proof were adduced to show that, on the contrary, for long periods in their recent history the central and most influential lands of Islam, having been confronted by dynamic western modernity, embraced that modernity in spades and only lapsed into Islamist recalcitrance after the first world war obliterated them physically and the victorious allies tried to subjugate them politically? But this is what happened in Turkey, Egypt and Iran during the 'long' 19th century until 1914.

A key aspect of Islamic modernisation (in Egypt's case only until the British invasion of 1882) was that the lands in question acted as free, independent agents. Change was not only driven by royal autocrats like Iran's Crown Prince Abbas Mirza, who reformed the Persian military during the Napoleonic wars, but also by commoners of vision such as the Egyptian administrator and intellectual Rifaa al-Tahtawi, whose conception of progress accommodated steamships, girls' education and linguistic reform. Another secular visionary was Ibrahim Sinasi, father of Turkish journalism, who peppered the Ottoman government of the early 1860s with impertinent advice on how to deal with Greek irredentists and poured scorn on reactionaries who opposed the introduction of gaslights in Istanbul (the same innovation had met with the same reaction in Georgian London).

Islamic society on the eve of the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798 had indeed been medieval in many ways, its backwardness perpetuated by despotic government, almost universal illiteracy and the clergy's monopoly over knowledge. Now change came in a rush. The telegraph, the postal service and table manners arrived almost simultaneously, closely followed by the first polite calls for the crowned head to share power. Theatres of anatomy overturned the prophet's injunction against cutting up corpses ('though it may have swallowed the most precious pearl') and there was an increase in religious scepticism; a photograph of an Istanbul medical school around the middle of the century shows a cohort of medics posing in fezzes amid ghoulish arrangements of human remains. …

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