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An Enlightening Account of Islam's Entry to the Modern World

Aug. 1, 2017
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Outside the Islamic world, commentators as far back as the 18th century have wondered whether Islam and modernity are compatible. Within the faith, some Muslims have despaired at the question—or turned to militant fundamentalism in a doomed bid to cancel the past three centuries.

As Christopher de Bellaigue writes in his unfailingly witty, often wise account, The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times (Liveright), “There is something wonderfully earnest and yet wholly irrelevant about westerners demanding modernity from people whose lives are drenched in it.”

During the Middle Ages, Islamic civilization was one of the lights of the world, de Bellaigue reminds us, only to dim under the long reign of the Ottoman Empire and shrink from the technological and social advances of post-Enlightenment Europe. By the time Napoleon conquered Egypt in 1798, the Muslim world was militarily weak, intellectually feeble and socially anemic. Fatalists among the faithful resigned themselves to God’s will. Reactionaries plotted vainly. But in many places, especially Egypt, Turkey and Persia, the intelligentsia (often led by open-minded clerics) and the rulers (fearful of Western conquest) began to propose and implement reforms. Sometimes they moved cautiously and incrementally so as not to alarm sleepy reactionaries and sometimes they acted in broad strokes backed by a heavy hand.

One problem—and it persists into the present day—was that the world-shaking prowess of the modern West had been achieved through centuries of organic social as well as scientific growth. Panicked by the unexpected strength of the infidel, Islamic rulers determined to catch up by any means necessary, erecting modern institutions, “but the ethos inside them was not always modern,” de Bellaigue writes. Coercive modernization was met with populist resistance. The dangerous fault lines apparent in many 21st-century Muslim states began to appear as early as the 19th century.

A writer for The Economist, de Bellaigue’s particular bias seems transparent: One imagines that for him, liberal democratic capitalism is the best of all possible worlds. He is too good a historian, however, to entirely discount the thinking of those who might conclude otherwise or to undervalue the positive collaboration between the conservers and the innovators. The project of modernity, in Islamic states and elsewhere, often claimed tens of thousands of lives in schemes to build a “better,” more efficient world.

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