Islam and the Enlightenment
Feature by Neil Davidson, March 2006
The intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th century that
became known as the Enlightenment helped a new class to come to power in
In the current Western controversy over Islam, one theme recurs with increasing predictability. Many writers are prepared to acknowledge Muslim cultural and scientific achievements, but always with the caveat that Islamic civilisation never experienced an equivalent to the Enlightenment. "Islam never had to go through a prolonged period of critically examining the validity of its spiritual vision, as the West did during the 18th century," writes the historian Louis Dupre. "Islamic culture has, of course, known its own crisis... yet it was never forced to question its traditional worldview."
The same view has also been expressed by individuals who were originally from Muslim backgrounds but have subsequently abandoned their religious beliefs. Salman Rushdie has recently argued that Islam requires "not so much a reformation... as an Enlightenment".
Muslims have responded in different ways to the claim that their religion has never produced an Enlightenment. Ziauddin Sardar has criticised it in the New Statesman on two grounds. On the one hand, "It assumes that 'Islam' and 'Enlightenment' have nothing to do with each other - as if the European Enlightenment emerged out of nothing, without appropriating Islamic thought and learning." On the other, "It betrays an ignorance of postmodern critique that has exposed Enlightenment thought as Eurocentric hot air." So Islamic thought was responsible for the Enlightenment but the Enlightenment was intellectually worthless. This is not, perhaps, the most effective way of highlighting the positive qualities of Islamic thought. Sardar's incoherence is possibly the result of his own critical attitude towards Islamism. More mainstream Muslim thinkers generally take one of two more positions.
The first is that Islam did not require the Enlightenment, because unlike Christianity its tenets do not involve the same conflict between religion and science. As the Egyptian scholar AO Altwaijri has written, "Western enlightenment was completely opposed to religion and it still adopts the same attitude. Islamic enlightenment, on the contrary, combines belief and science, religion and reason, in a reasonable equilibrium between these components." Islam is certainly less dependent than Christianity on miracles or what Tom Paine called "improbable happenings", but ultimately, because it counterposes reason to revelation, Enlightenment thought casts doubt on all religions - Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism alike.
The second position is that, although the Enlightenment represented progress for the West, it was a means of oppressing the Muslim world. A Hussain asks, "Given that our people have been victims of these developments, then why should we appreciate them?" It is also true that both the Islamic world and Muslims in the West have suffered and continue to suffer from imperialism and racism. But this is not the fault of the Enlightenment as such. Rather, it is an outcome of the failure of Enlightenment ideals to find their realisation in socialism, and the way they have been harnessed instead to the needs of capitalist expansion. In the hands of a resurgent movement of the working class and the oppressed, these ideas can be turned against the warmongers and Islamophobes who falsely claim them as their own.
The history of the Islamic world shows that it also raised
many of the themes which later became associated with the Enlightenment, and
did so earlier in time. The issue is therefore why the Enlightenment became
dominant in the West and not in the Islamic world - or indeed in those other
parts of the world, like
The comparative basis for the critique of Islam is the
Enlightenment that occurred in Europe and
A Christian Enlightenment?
The assumption is that the Enlightenment, like the Renaissance and Reformation before it, emerged out of what is usually called the "Judeo-Christian tradition". In other words, Christianity was intellectually open and tolerant enough to allow critical thought to emerge, with the result that religion could gradually be superseded, and the separation of church and state brought about. The implication of course is that Islam has been incapable of allowing the same process to take place. The fate of Bruno (who was burned at the stake by the Holy Inquisition) or Galileo (who was threatened with the same fate) for daring to question the doctrines of the Catholic church casts some doubt on the claim that Christianity is intrinsically open to scientific rationality.
At this point the argument usually shifts from Christianity
in general to the role of Protestantism in particular or, more narrowly still,
that of Calvinism. But this is no more convincing. Writers as politically
different as Antonio Gramsci and Hugh Trevor-Roper have explained that
Protestant thought was in many respects a retreat from the intellectual
sophistication of late medieval Catholic thought, as characterised by, for
example, Erasmus. Certainly 16th century
Enlightenment thinkers also took a far more complex attitude to Islam than their present day admirers would have us believe. As Jonathan Israel recounts in his important history, Radical Enlightenment, "On the one hand, Islam is viewed positively, even enthusiastically, as a purified form of revealed religion, stripped of the many imperfections of Judaism and Christianity, and hence reassuringly akin to deism. On the other, Islam is more often regarded with hostility and contempt as a primitive, grossly superstitious religion like Judaism and Christianity, and one no less, or still more, adapted to promoting despotism." Edward Gibbon wrote in a remarkably balanced way about Mohammed and the foundation of Islam in The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, particularly given his generally critical attitude to Christianity. In general, then, the Enlightenment did not regard Islam as being any better or any worse than Christianity.
Perhaps we should therefore consider the possibility that
the decisive factor in both the emergence of Enlightenment in the West and its
failure to do so in the East may not be religion as such, but the kind of
societies in which their respective religions took root, and which these
religions helped to preserve. We will in any case have to qualify the claim
that Islam knew no form of scientific rationality. After all, it was Muslim
scholars who translated and preserved the philosophy and science of
But Muslim achievements in scientific thought were not
simply archival. The 13th century Syrian scholar and physician Ibn al-Nafis was
first to discover the pulmonary circulation of the blood. In doing so he had to
reject the views of one of his predecessors, Avicenna - himself an important
medical thinker who, among other things, identified that disease could be
spread by drinking water. Ibn al-Nafis died in his bed at an advanced age (he
is thought to have been around 80). Compare his fate to that of the second
person to propose the theory of circulation, the Spaniard Michael Servetus. In
1553 he was arrested by the Protestant authorities of
The Islamic world did not only produce scientific theory,
but its philosophers also considered the social role of religion. According to
the Marxist historian Maxine Rodinson, the Persian philosopher and physician,
Rhazes, held the view "that religion was the cause of wars and was hostile
to philosophy and science. He believed in the progress of science, and he
considered Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates much greater than the holy
books." No comparable figure in, say, 10th century Normandy in the same
era could have openly expounded these views and expected to live. In some
Muslim states comparable positions were even held at the highest level of the
Clearly, then, there is nothing intrinsic to Islamic society which prevented Muslims from rational or scientific thought. Yet these intimations of Enlightenment, which occurred at an earlier historical stage than in the West, never emerged into a similar full-blown movement capable of contributing to the transformation of society. Ibn al-Nafis was untroubled by authority, but his ideas had no influence on medicine in the Islamic world. In the West, where similar ideas were initially punished by death, they were rediscovered and within 150 years were part of mainstream medical thought. Ideas, however brilliant, are by themselves incapable of changing the world - they must first find embodiment in some material social force. But what was this social force in the West, and why was this missing in Islamic and other countries?
The nature of Islamic society
Clearly there were great transformations in Islamic society
between the death of the Prophet in 632 and the fall of
But what was the basis of the underlying economy - the
"mode of production"? Feudalism, the mode which dominated in Western
Attempts have been made to present the Enlightenment as a pure expression of scientific rationality which coincidentally appeared in the epoch of the transition from feudalism and the bourgeois revolutions. But it must rather be understood as the theoretical accompaniment of these economic and political processes - though in many complex and mediated ways.
The conditions which allowed capitalist development, and
hence the Enlightenment, did not exist to the same extent in the Muslim world.
This lack of the development of a new, more advanced
economic class meant that Islamic theorists had no material examples to look
to. Take the Tunisian writer Ibn el Khaldun (1332-1402), author of the Kitab
Al-Ilbar or Book of Examples (usually referred to in English as The Muqaddimah
or Introduction to History). His sociological insights identified the
continuing struggle between civilisations based, on the one hand, on towns and
traders (hadarah) and, on the other, on tribes and holy men (badawah), the two
endlessly alternating as the dominant forces within the Muslim world. Adam
Smith and his colleagues in the Historical School of the Scottish Enlightenment
could develop a theory that saw societies develop and progress upwards from one
"mode of subsistence" to another because they had seen this movement
In the face of this, the doctrines and organisation of Islam are difficult to separate. In Christian Europe, church and state were allied in defence of the existing order. In the Islamic world they were fused - there was no separate church organisation. There were of course differences between branches of Islam - Shias favoured rule by charismatic imams, Sunnis a consensus among believers - but in neither was there an overarching church organisation comparable to that of Christianity. Instead a federal structure arose which adapted to the individual states. It is difficult, therefore, to dissociate reasons of state from reasons of religion. A belief in predestination implied that it was impious or even impossible to attempt to predict future events. A belief in utilitarianism focused intellectual investigation or borrowing only on what was immediately useful. Finally, as the boundaries of the Islamic world began to run up against the expanding European powers from the 16th century on, the idea of drawing on their methods and discoveries became all the more painful to contemplate for ruling elites accustomed to their own sense of superiority. As the Western threat grew, the control over what was taught became even more extreme.
The example of
So was it possible that Enlightenment ideas could be forced
onto these societies from without? The temporary conquest of the Ottoman
The subsequent history has been told in remorseless detail by Robert Fisk in The Great War For Civilisation and cannot even be attempted here. The question is, after over 100 years of imperialist intervention, does the Islamic world today have to reproduce the experience of the West, from Renaissance to Reformation to Enlightenment? In 1959 one Afghan intellectual, Najim oud-Din Bammat wrote, "Islam today has to go through a number of revolutions at once: a religious revolution like the Reformation; an intellectual and moral revolution like the 18th century Enlightenment; an economic and social revolution like the European industrial revolution of the 19th century." History, however, does not do repeats. Leon Trotsky's theories of uneven and combined development and permanent revolution argue that these revolutions do not have to follow each other, but can interlock and be compressed in time. Christian Europe, after all, was incomparably less developed than Arab or Persian civilisation in the 10th or 11th centuries. But its very backwardness allowed it to incubate a far higher form of class society - capitalism - and hence to "catch up and overtake" its former superiors and in the process fragment, occupy and destroy them.
When the Enlightenment ideas came to the masses of the Islamic world, they came not as a recapitulation of the European experience of the 17th and 18th centuries, but in the form of Marxism - the radical inheritor of that experience. Unfortunately the theoretical and organisational forms in which Marxism made its impact were Stalinist and consequently carried within them the seeds of disaster - most spectacularly in Iraq during the 1950s and in Iran during the 1970s, but more insidiously almost everywhere else. It is because of the catastrophic record of Stalinism, and more broadly of secular nationalism, that people who would once have been drawn to socialism see Islamism as an alternative path to liberation today.
What future, then, for Islam and the Enlightenment? We should remember the experience of the West. Our Enlightenment occurred when Christianity was older than Islam is now and did not occur all at once. People did not simply become "rational" and abandon their previous views because they heard the wise words of Spinoza or Voltaire. It happened over time, and because the experience of social change and struggle made people more open to new ideas that began to explain the world in a way that religion no longer did.
Socialists in the West today have to begin with the actual context of institutional racism and military intervention with which Muslims are faced every day. The absolute obligation on socialists is first to defend Muslims, both in the West and in the developing world, and to develop the historic alliance at the heart of the anti-war movement. To say to that they, or people of any faith, must abandon their beliefs before we will deign to speak to them is not only arrogant but displays all the worst aspects of the Enlightenment - "Here is the Truth, bow down before it!" Why should Muslims listen to people whose self-importance is so great they make agreement with them a precondition of even having a conversation? Enlightenment cannot be imposed by legal fiat or at the point of a gun. The real precondition of debate is unity in action, where discussion can take place secure in the knowledge that participants with different beliefs nevertheless share goals as a common starting point. It is, I suspect, more than a coincidence that those who are most insistent on the need for Islamic Enlightenment are the voices crying loudest for war. The original Enlightenment will never recur. However, we may be seeing the first signs of a New Enlightenment, not in these voices but in the actions of those - Muslim and non-Muslim alike - who have taken to the streets to oppose them.
Neil Davidson was the joint winner of the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize in 2003.
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