“Those who brought us the tools of modernity did not afford us the time and bitter-sweetness of evolution.”—Ahmad Shawky 1868–1932
If any quote could encapsulate a book, this one does this book. Shawky, living and writing at the cusp of the tumultuous epoch Christopher de Bellaigue chronicles in his book, bemoans the pace of the modernization inflicted on the region and identifies the kernel of the problem: that change is a process of transformation that needs to happen organically over time to be successful. Christopher de Bellaigue’s book is an account of the delayed entry of Muslim lands into “modern times” and, as the title declares, a refutation of the charge that Islam has not experienced a modern enlightenment. The author also rightly acknowledges the early Islamic Enlightenment that stretched from the 9th century to the 12th century.
De Bellaigue tells a captivating story focused on three centers of Islam: Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran. His prose is masterful, bringing the places and times into clear relief. One feels the languidness of the era as the region stumbles into the early 1800s and the beginnings of modernity.
But there is more to this book than a historical tale. It manages to weave together narrative history, social commentary and political analysis to give its reader a nuanced picture of the changes the Muslim world underwent as it entered modernity. It is a complex account narrated with deserved depth and complexity.
The author frames the discussion in terms of specific elements of “modern times,” a notion described by Samuel Huntington as “characterized by the tremendous accumulation of knowledge … and by the diffusion of this knowledge through society by means of literacy, mass communicat ions and education.” If anything exemplified the torpor that Muslims lived in at the time, it was their chronic illiteracy. De Bellaigue cleverly uses an extract from Jane Eyre to show that it could not have been conceptualized, written or even read in many parts of the contemporary Muslim realm—a tangible illustration of the degree to which subjects of the Ottoman Empire lagged behind their European neighbors.
The early chapters center on key figures in the region, identified by the author as modernizers. These include reforming rulers who, encouraged by European “advisors,” often imposed change autocratically and at times violently. This group also included a few elite men, whose education and life-altering contact with European ideas became the catalyst triggering a modernizing tendency in the political and intellectual life of the region. That, however, leaves the reader wondering what role ordinary people played in changing their own conditions, as they invariably must have done. It also gives the impression that the modern Muslim enlightenment was confined to a few charismatic persons, predominantly male, who were invariably set on a reforming path by contact with Europeans.
But do not let that put you off. This book is not simply an account of the allegedly civilizing influence of the advanced “West” on a backward “East.” It is a considered and thoughtful examination of how the relationship between both entities was fundamentally transformative; how it contributed to the intellectual reawakening of Muslims in the Middle East and led to a reconnection with some of the ideas of the Islamic Enlightenment of earlier centuries.
The story charts the spasmodic lurches into reform in the three named cities and the role Western powers invariably played in obstructing it, in some instances through military and administrative interventions. This culminated in the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and the direct imposition by European powers of political, military and economic structures on the region.
De Bellaigue skillfully weaves the threads of political analysis with meticulous cultural and historical storytelling. The struggle to modernity is multifaceted, and he presents it as such. In one respect, it is a psychological battle to reconcile the Islamic faith with modern living, but one played out in the life of both individuals and nations. And certainly one that continues to this day, albeit with a different emphasis. It is the struggle to define a modern sense of being and belonging in the world, to forge a modern identity that still maintains an Islamic essence.
Early Muslim reformers, such as Rifaa Tahtawi of Egypt, advocated an Islamic framework for reform in the comforting certainty of belonging to a Muslim geographic and political entity. As the Ottoman Empire slowly fragmented, it left later would-be reformers such as Jamal al-Din Afghani scrabbling for a faith anchor: “Jamal al-Din did not have the leisure to tease pleasing doctrine from the bramble of ideas. He was negotiating an emergency passage to survival for a civilization that might disappear at any moment.”
As the modern world finally enveloped the Muslim one in the early 20th century, Muslim reformers and thinkers adopted polarized positions in their attempt to secure a place in it. Some like Ataturk, who declared that “Civilisation is a fearsome fire which consumes those who ignore it,” banished public religious practice and rigidly enforced a secular democracy on a nascent Turkish state. Others, like Al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, rejected Western notions of modernity and maintained that only the revival of an Islam true to its fundamental tenet s, unadulterated by Western ideas, would secure a civilized modern Muslim society. As de Bellaigue concludes, the Muslim world continues to tussle with both positions, yet many individual Muslims manage to successfully negotiate a path between modern life in a culturally and technologically interconnected world and the values and tenets of their faith.
History never ended as Francis Fukuyama asserted, the world simply let go of its threads. In this book, Christopher de Bellaigue presents a tapestry woven from the many threads that make up the shared story of Europe and Islam. But it is not simply a record of past events. It is an insightful study of the challenges inherent in reconciling faith with reason and modernity. The challenge is to understand it and together strive for universal enlightenment.
Christopher de Bellaigue
(Liveright, 2017, 560 pp)