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20170916 The Islamic Enlightenment 


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The main idea of this book is that when Islamic world discovered its inferiority versus Western world at the end of XVIII century when Napoleon invaded Egypt, it applied considerable effort to catch up starting in XIX century ongoing till now, while not very successful so far. As the way to understand what happened author looks at the history of 3 centers of Islamic world in XIX century and then analyses how cultural change proceeded from massive attempts to implement societal mores similar to western mores starting in XIX centuries to strong rejection of this mores by significant part of Islamic societies in XX and XXI centuries.



The introduction starts with comparison of Jane Eyre – an early XIX century Christian writer in England with situation of women in Islamic world at the same time where existence of such writer would not be possible. However by the end of XIX century similar female writer Fatma Aliye was a reality in Ottoman Empire. Similarly to her western sisters she was a product of development of her society with its postal services, travel, and limited, but growing independence of women. Author uses this story to claim that there is nothing inheritably wrong with Islam that prevents Muslims from moving into contemporary world and all these ideas about need for Islamic reformation are not a valid approach to the problem of contemporary Islamic poverty, failed states, and global terrorism. His main point is that Islamic world went through a massive effort of modernization in XIX and XX century that he calls Islamic Enlightenment. This process was quite different from Western Enlightenment and started much later mainly under influence of technological and especially military failures, especially Napoleon invasion of Egypt that made it obvious for everybody. The structure of the book is first to look at history of 3 main branches of Islamic civilization: Egypt, Turkey, and Iran, then look at separate issues of development: societal change, development of nation/state, and massive counter-enlightenment movement that started after WWI.


The story of Egypt enlightenment started in 1798 with Napoleon invasion and complete destruction of Mamelukes – main military power of Egypt. The French conquest led to influx of Western scholars and their direct interaction with Muslim clergy. Author goes through the most important personalities that were involved in this interaction such as Jabarti – one of the leading clerics. He was amazed by French knowledge and technology, but main inference was that Muslims did something wrong religiously against god and it led to punishment so the remedy should be increase in religious compliance. The reason was not a tool that could help in this conservative view. Counter this conservative approach was Hasan Al-Attar who intermingled with French, but went nowhere after French army evacuated. However this first encounter brought in a typical figure for Islamic and other civilizations attempting to overcome their deficiency against the West: authoritarian reformer, in this case Muhammad Ali Pasha who after coming to power in 1805 spent the next 40 years modernized Egypt using methods similar to Peter I of Russia, including sending delegation to Europe to learn and cutting beards together with heads. Author reviews this history in quite a detail; specifically live of one of the most important members of such delegation Rifaa Al-Tahtawi who was a pupil of Al-Attar. Rifaa was supported under reformer Ali-Pasha, expelled under his successor Abbas I, and returned back after successor died and enjoyed support for his ideas until his death in 1873. Author points out that the first 70 years of XIX century dramatically transferred Egypt and moved it much close to the West. Author completes this chapter with the story of Suez Canal, which eventually led to British occupation in 1882.

2: Istanbul

Similarly to Egypt the prompt for modernization came to Ottomans from military defeat to Russia when they lost monopoly over Black see and Crimea in 1768. Ottoman Empire also experienced unrest among its Arabs from Wahhabi revolt in 1798. The internal tensions also came from Orthodox Christians who become subject of Russian interest and support. All this made modernization necessary for survival. As usual in Islamic word the opinion on what to do was divided between conservative Muslims who believed that weakness came from not sufficient devotion to god and modernizers who believed that it came from economic and technological deficiencies. The first serious drive for modernization started under Selim III (1762 – 1808). On ideological side the important figure of modernization become Sayyid Mustafa. After coup and counter coup that removed Selim, another modernizer Mahmud II came to power and remained in power until 1839. The modernization started with building new military force and annihilation of Janissaries who were representing military power of conservatives. One interesting innovation that Mahmud implemented in the diverse Empire was granting separate legal authorities to various religious groups, while demanding loyalty to Empire. Despite reforms Ottomans continue to lose territories and retreat, leading to Mahmud falling into depression and dying. His sons continued modernization with 30 years of reforms known as Tanzimat. Author reviews in details the cultural and political history of this process that eventual led to creation of Ottoman constitution in 1876. It confirmed sovereignty of the sultan, but provided bill of rights and limited electoral system. However it contained an article that allowed sultan override anything and everything so its impact was very limited.

3: Tehran

Iran entered modernization after significant turmoil. In 1722 it was invaded by Afghanistan leading to destruction of old order without creating a new one. This situation continued until 1796 when Agha Muhammad Khan managed to setup some order and declared himself the shah, but he lasted only two years before being killed by servants. The next shah, Fath-Ali managed to stay in power until 1834, but he had to deal with Russia that won consistently over this period and took away Caucasus. Fath-Ali mainly transferred military power to his son Abbas Mirza who failed to push Russia out, so he brought in British advisors and started military modernization. This was not an easy thing to do due to tribal character of the country and overall traditional attitudes. Despite all these efforts Iran continued losing to Russia. As other modernizers Iran sent learning missions to Europe and one of the members of such mission Mirza Saleh became somewhat effective promoter of modernization and Western ways, so author describes his story in detail. There is here also quite interesting history of Russian policies in Iran and later British interference that made Iran into battlefield between two colonial powers. Eventually great-grandson of Fath-Ali Nasser Al-Din became shah in 1848 and remained in power for the next 40 years vacillating between modernization and retreat. He initially supported his older tutor Amir Kabir considered to be a great reformer who managed establish internal stability and implemented typical set of modernizing reforms. It not lasted for a long time since shah had Amir Kabir killed after which modernization somewhat stalled. Instead the central place in history of this period went to religious struggles that author describes in detail: traditional Islam against the new and popular religion of Babiism that was later transferred into Bahaism. All this led to Iran falling behind comparatively with other modernizing Islamic countries Egypt and Ottoman Empire.

4: Vortex

This chapter is about the turbulence that all Islamic societies arrived to by the end of XIX and beginning of XX century trying simultaneously catch up with military and technological modernity of the West and retain their cultural and religious traditions. This period combined into one chapter because author believes that the differences between countries became mainly irrelevant at this point. Economy, railroad, communications, mass press, all this made the world intertwined and forced it to move somewhat in synch, with Islamic world becoming provider of raw material and cheap labor parts for world economy driven by the West. Combined with pretty cruel colonial attitudes, this necessarily generated high level of hate and resentment. Correspondingly elite was divided into two main groups one – conservatives rejecting modernity and moving back to religious roots and modernizers embracing change and trying to move to the future where Islamic world would become rich and powerful. Both groups resented the West and its colonial attitude of superiority. Author reviews cultural change of this period, literature, attitudes to women, sex, and religion,

5: Nation

This chapter starts with referring to the fact that initial interaction between Islam and West in XIX century was mainly beneficial, but by the late part of century it become more and more violent: British vs. Afghanistan and Sudan insurgencies, Russian Caucasian wars, and such. However the Pan-Islamic movement was considered not that different from Pan-Germanism or Pan-Slavism. Author reviews in live and ideas of one of the most important founding fathers of Islamism Jamal Al-Din Afghani (1838-1897). The main ideological point that he promoted was necessity to return to one worldwide community of Muslims (umma) directed against the West. It follows by review of multiple revolutions and insurgencies that continued until the brink of WWI when Ottoman Empire was very much weakened, Egypt under British occupation, and Iran under Russian semi-occupation. However liberal modernization was quite powerful in all three centers of Islam and even some democratic ideas took roots elsewhere.

6: Counter-Enlightenment

This chapter is reviewing the story of Islamic world in XX century after WWII. The initial consequences for this war were movements to secular nationalisms as continuation of enlightenment of XIX century. Elsewhere it brought to power secular autocrats who were at best indifferent to Islam and whose objective was to bring their countries to modernity at par with the West. However since they tried to do it without any serious support from majority of population and often without any interest in developing such support, they had to rely on police and military to remain in power. These cruel methods caused disaffected intellectuals, brought up in Islamic tradition who could not see decent place for themselves in this new world, to start Islamic supremacist movements like Muslim Brotherhood. Eventually by the end of XX and early XXI century these movements took power either via revolution as in Iran or via elections during temporary democratization of the country as in Turkey and Egypt. They were pushed back in Egypt by military and still did not achieve complete theocratic power in Turkey and Pakistan, but at this point they still are on the rise overall.


In the conclusion of this book author states that he believes that he demonstrated that Western ideas of individualism, representative government, and law took root in Islamic societies so its enlightenment did not disappear. However author does not demonstrates a lot of optimism stating at the end that Islam will remains contradictory and will continue perplex us.


I think it is a very good and detailed review of Islamic history that provides a lot of insight in current condition and functioning of these societies. Unfortunately it confirms that current upsurge of totalitarian Islamism in various forms from terrorism to ISIS caliphate to Iranian attempts to obtain nuclear weapons is consistent with typical Islamic tradition when response to falling behind is highly aggressive and based on believe that the very reason for decline is dissatisfaction of Allah with insufficient aggressiveness in promoting Islam. Correspondingly the proper response that will be rewarded by prosperity is an attack by all conceivable methods either peaceful via use of mass immigration to promote Islam and suppress resistance of native population of infidels by ideological action in alliance with leftovers of socialist and communist movements; or via direct military action and terrorism. It is possible that West will develop mass rejection of Islamic supremacy in time to defuse this bomb peacefully, but I would give it 50-50 chance that it would not happen and the growth of Islamic supremacist movement will continue until its leaders feel powerful enough to demand mass conversion under thread of mass annihilation probably with Iranian nuclear weapons used in terrorist attacks. I do not think such massive conversion will occur, so humanity will have to deal with it in usual way via war and massive loss of live, but it proved to be resilient enough before, so it will get it done and then move on after cleaning some radioactive debris and resolving issue with Islam either via annihilation of this system of believes as it happened with National Socialism or relegation it to much less influent and benign condition as it happened with formerly aggressive and militant variations of Christianity.


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