The Islamic Road to the Modern World

Château de Versailles
Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt; painting by Louis-Charles-Auguste Couder, 1840

Soon after Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, Bashir Shihab II, the Maronite ruler of Lebanon, sent his court poet Niqula al-Turk to Cairo to see what the French were up to. Al-Turk noted that after the French had defeated the Mamluk rulers of Egypt (in a battle in which they slaughtered some one thousand Mamluk knights wearing magnificent turbans and armed with jeweled scimitars, while losing just twenty-nine of their own men), they erected a “long decorated pillar” in Cairo’s Azbakiyya park near the Nile where the Mamluks had their palaces. The French, al-Turk wrote, called this pillar “the tree of freedom, but the people of Egypt said: this is the sign of the stake that impaled us in the occupation of our kingdom.”

The poet’s observation encapsulates the dilemma that has faced Muslim peoples since the middle of the eighteenth century, when Islamic states headed by the three “Gunpowder Empires” of Ottoman Turkey, Qajar Persia, and Mughal India proved incapable of resisting not just European arms, but changes in ideas and social institutions that followed Western conquest. Napoleon claimed Egypt in the name of “freedom and equality,” but the Cairene chronicler Abdul Rahman al-Jabarti took exception to the assumption that all people are equal, stating: “This is a lie, ignorance and fatuity. How could that be right when God favored [certain] people over others.”

In Mamluk Egypt, the idea of “freedom”—hurriya—had been associated with the manumission of slaves, which was recommended by Islamic teaching (though slavery was still in place) and seemed less challenging than the idea of equality. In The Islamic Enlightenment, Christopher de Bellaigue gives an absorbing account of Napoleon’s conquest—which, he argues, shattered contemporary Muslims’ “fiction of Christian deference to Muslim superiority”—and of al-Jabarti’s relation to it. Al-Jabarti, he writes, “finds it impossible to appreciate freedom of the political and social kind that the French claim to have established in their nation, while the idea of stretching hurriya to mean emancipation from God—atheism—is too horrendous even to consider.”

De Bellaigue takes Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt as the point of departure of his book, which aims to address a bias he perceives among general readers about the history of Islamic political liberalization. According to widespread assumptions, efforts to transform Islamic nations into modern societies were mainly imposed “from above” by Western-leaning autocrats—such as the Albanian autocrat Muhammad Ali (1769–1849) or his nominal sovereign, the Ottoman sultan Mahmud II (reigned 1808–1839)—the underlying premise being that the Enlightenment was an exclusively Judeo-Christian (or post-Christian) movement that had no parallel in Islamic societies. This “historical fallacy,” in de Bellaigue’s view, has led “triumphalist Western historians, politicians and commentators, as well as some renegade Muslims who have turned on the religion of their births,” to insist that “Islam [still] needs its Enlightenment.”

By contrast, de Bellaigue argues convincingly that efforts to bring modern political ideas to the Muslim world had a “natural constituency” among the educated minority and that, despite opposition, they slowly gained general acceptance:

Although the principles of modernity and progress were introduced to the Middle East from the West, the fact that they had originated elsewhere was not in itself an obstacle to their adoption in this new environment. Contradicting assumptions of willful Muslim backwardness, Islam did not show any more opposition to modernization than Judaeo-Christian culture had done to its earlier iteration in the West….

The sovereignty of the individual, the usefulness of hygiene and the fallibility of a crowned head (to name but three [ideas originating in the West]) carry no brand of exclusivity but can be understood by all. In fact, the Muslim world adapted itself to these values and many others much more rapidly than the West had devised them, albeit with changes of emphasis.

Embracing the ideas of liberty and equality together, concepts that derive variously from the writings of Hobbes and Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau, would doubtless have been challenging in most parts of the world at the time of the Napoleonic invasion. As de Bellaigue points out, there had been no Gutenberg revolution in Ottoman lands. The literacy rate in Turkey, Egypt, and Iran at the turn of the nineteenth century was around 3 percent, compared with England’s rate of 68 percent for men and 43 percent for women, with much higher figures in places like Amsterdam. In the Muslim world, the small class of scholars known as the ‘ulama (learned men) had rejected the printing press on the grounds that “making the Quran accessible would only enable the ignorant to misinterpret it.” Printing in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa was a capital crime, and there were no newspapers to report on such world-changing events as America’s rejection of British rule in 1776 and Ireland’s 1798 “Year of Liberty.”

But the ideas that came to Egypt during the brief and turbulent months of the French occupation of Cairo were planted in fertile ground. After defeating the Mamluks, Napoleon introduced an administrative crash program in the form of a council, or “Diwan,” that included sheikhs, notables, and ‘ulama. More ambitiously, he went on to organize a General Diwan with representatives from different provinces. Engineers cleared canals, built windmills, and improved defenses against flooding along the Nile. In Cairo construction began on new hospitals and libraries, and the streets were cleared of garbage. De Bellaigue shows how disruptive yet enticing these changes must have been in part through the story of the cleric Rifaa al-Tahtawi (1801–1873), who spent five years in Paris in the late 1820s teaching religion to a group of Muslim students. Al-Tahtawi’s account of his sojourn, which proclaimed the benefits of “civilization” and “progress,” was widely circulated in Ottoman lands.

After returning from Paris to Cairo with the encouragement of Muhammad Ali, who had made himself all-powerful as the official Ottoman viceroy of Egypt after massacring the restored Mamluks, al-Tahtawi became head of the new school of languages. There, he embarked on what amounted to an intellectual revolution by initiating a program to translate some two thousand European and Turkish volumes, ranging from ancient texts on geography and geometry to Voltaire’s influential biography of Peter the Great (the archetypical reforming autocrat), along with the “Marseillaise” and the whole of the Code Napoléon. (Happily al-Tahtawi may not have been aware of Voltaire’s play Le Fanatisme, ou Mahomet le prophète (1741), a coded attack on the Catholic Church designed to mislead the French censors, in which the Islamic prophet is depicted as a scheming, ambitious, and wicked tyrant, an impostor motivated by lust.*) As de Bellaigue explains, the translation program initiated

the biggest and most meaningful importation of foreign thought into Arabic since Abbasid times [750–1258]. These translations made a huge impact on the engineers, doctors, teachers and military officers who were beginning to form the elite of the country; they were the forerunners of the secular-minded middle classes that would dominate public life for much of the next two centuries. To them ancient history expanded the meaning of the instructive past, which had hitherto been confined to the Islamic period. Reading about the feats of the infidel suggested an alternative story of talent and achievement, disregarding conventional faith-based partitions.

In France al-Tahtawi had been struck by the way the French language he had mastered was constantly renewing itself to fit modern ways of living. Yet Arabic has its own sources of reinvention. The root system that Arabic shares with other Semitic tongues such as Hebrew is capable of expanding the meanings of words using structured consonantal variations: the word for airplane, for example, has the same root as the word for bird.

In his new book, Freedom in the Arab World, the scholar Wael Abu-‘Uksa of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem offers a much more detailed examination of the work of al-Tahtawi and his successors. His monograph is aimed at specialists in political thought rather than general readers, and its arguments require some sensitivity to fine points of Arabic. Abu-‘Uksa shows how the sacred language of the Koran and other Muslim scriptures came in these years to accommodate new concepts such as freedom, progress, science, and civilization, sometimes by adopting neologisms, but often by expanding formerly religious usages. “By breaking the monopoly” of religion over knowledge, he writes, the new language of science could absorb the modern disciplines.

‘Persian lady in indoor costume’; from Ella C. Sykes’s Through Persia on a Side-Saddle, 1898

The process was carefully calibrated. For example, during his time in Paris al-Tahtawi observed that people were free to practice any religion they chose, without any constraints, but it is significant that in the Arabic text of his travelogue he uses the word yubah, “permitted,” rather than hurr, “free,” exposing what Abu-‘Uksa calls “a vast conceptual gap” between a notion of authority lying outside the individual’s will, usually possessed by rulers or clerics, and the Enlightenment concept of “right” that “stemmed from the civil perception of the individual’s status in a polity.” Despite his lengthy sojourn in the French capital, al-Tahtawi’s notion of freedom was closer to al-Jabarti’s than to Rousseau’s:

What they [the French] desire and call freedom (al-huriyya) is precisely what we [the Muslims] designate as justice and that is because the meaning of freedom is equality before the law in which the rulers do not discriminate between human beings but apply the state of law [as the highest value].

De Bellaigue writes that “the logic that lies behind such equivalences”—whereby Islamic justice is seen as identical to the French idea of liberty and religious zeal is understood as a form of patriotism—“seems contrived and unconvincing.” Such efforts appear to be aimed at showing that principles now considered “modern, such as pluralism, freedom and rights, existed in embryonic form in early Islam.” This tension between French Enlightenment notions of equality and Islamic conceptions of justice anticipates the political and constitutional struggles in Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and elsewhere, in the centuries that followed.

In Paris al-Tahtawi had witnessed the July Revolution of 1830, when the restored Bourbon autocracy of Charles X was replaced by the constitutional monarchy of Louis Philippe. The monarch’s title changed from “King of France,” who occupied his throne by right of inheritance, to “King of the French,” whose title embodied the principle of popular sovereignty. Al-Tahtawi used new terms to explain the rivalry between the royalist camp (malakiya) and their antagonists, the proponents of freedom (hurriya). Abu-‘Uksa suggests that the use of hurriya “gains considerable stability in Arabic during this period” as an indicator of liberal political orientation. In time the concept of hurriya and its linguistic siblings developed into the liberal constitutionalism of Egypt’s Wafd Party, which sought independence from British authority after 1919, and the more radical Free Officers Movement (Dubat al-Ahrar), which seized power in 1952 in order to expel the British from their stronghold in the Suez Canal.

The shifting meanings of Europe and European freedom in the Muslim world can be seen in the history of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The square was formerly named after the Egyptian viceroy Ismail Pasha (reigned 1863–1879), who brought his country to bankruptcy after invading the Sudan, digging the Suez Canal at vast human cost, and recasting Cairo as a brand new city, inspired by Haussmann’s Paris, which he boasted was “now part of Europe.” In 1952 the Free Officers, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew the monarchy and installed an authoritarian military state, renaming the square, with unconscious irony, Tahrir, “liberation.” When George W. Bush, in a famous speech in September 2001 after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, said, “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other,” and followed it with the “shock and awe” of invasion, Middle Easterners were more likely to recall the Lebanese poet’s “stake [of] occupation” than the tree of liberty.

In arguing his case de Bellaigue takes his readers on a fascinating journey through the summits and valleys along the Islamic road to the modern world. One of the summits is the study of anatomy—a vitally important subject, not usually considered in discussions of the “coercive modernization” imposed on the Arab world by reforming autocrats. During the French occupation Hassan al-Attar (1766–1835), a scholar and polymath who is one of the heroes of de Bellaigue’s book, may well have seen the room for animal dissection in Napoleon’s pop-up Institute of Egypt, which “boasted an aviary, a botanical garden, an observatory, various small museums, as well as workshops for the production of a wide range of scientific tools, from precision instruments to sword blades and microscopic lenses.”

Al-Attar in any case became persuaded of the necessity of studying anatomy—despite formidable religious opposition that was partly the result of the widespread Muslim belief that “the dead feel every incision inflicted upon them” and that on the Day of Resurrection bodies must be intact. When the French surgeon Antoine Clot (1793–1868) was hired by Muhammad Ali to improve the health of his subjects, he was fortunate that al-Attar, who was by then the Sunni world’s most prestigious cleric, had the clout to overrule the entrenched opposition of his conservative peers at Al-Azhar University. But it was a dangerous undertaking. As Clot reported, “We carried out [the first] autopsies without knowledge of the public, and surrounding the amphitheatre with guards who perhaps would have been the first to attack us if they had known what was going on.”

“Who imitates another people becomes one of them” runs a proverb that reflects anxieties about loss of identity that may be as strong among Muslims today as it was in the 1890s, when the Qajar ruler Nasser el-Din Shah (reigned 1848–1896) “decreed that the women of the harem should abandon their traditional attire of long, loose, embroidered trousers in favor of a kinky pastiche of the costume” that had entranced him on a visit to the Paris ballet. Absurdities such as these, however, should not detract from the impact of the real transformations in social attitudes, such as the shift from it “being socially unacceptable to educate one’s daughter to unacceptable not to do so.”

De Bellaigue is particularly insightful about the constant tension in these societies between what he calls “a progressive despotism and a benighted popular will.” For example, when plagues devastated Ottoman lands (including Egypt) prior to the 1840s, the ‘ulama cited hadiths to the effect that plagues were the work of djinns (of which there are numerous Koranic references), and that it was therefore impious to interfere with God’s will by combating their spread. Muhammad Ali set up quarantine stations in Cairo as early as 1813, ordering people to sprinkle the streets with water and to air their clothing. In the 1830s he started a campaign in collaboration with European consuls to attack the breeding grounds of the plague bacillus by filling stagnant pools, burning garbage, and monitoring foodstuffs for freshness and quality. The reduction in mortality was dramatic. In 1841 the death toll in Alexandria was nearly six thousand; only four years later the figure was zero.

De Bellaigue observes, “With the suppression of the plague, of course, the obscurantists fell silent. Islam came onto the side of prevention, and the selfsame sanitation measures that had been denounced as heretical entered the routines of life.” The theological impact was significant, with the sheikh al-Islam—the Ottoman Empire’s highest-ranking cleric—declaring in 1838: “When a town has the plague it is permitted to avert it from the wrath of God and take refuge in the bosom of his mercy.” A government report issued the same year legitimizes the two-track epistemology underpinning the sheikh’s fatwa:

All arts and trades are products of science. Religious knowledge serves salvation in the world to come, but science serves perfection of men in this world…. Through science one man can now do the work of a hundred. Trade and profit have become difficult in countries where people are ignorant of these sciences. Without science people cannot know the meaning of love for the state and fatherland.

In sum, de Bellaigue suggests, “an Islamic Enlightenment did indeed take place, under influence of the West, but finding its own form.” It occurred “through innumerable small measures and advances, fudges and elisions” that brought the “modern principles of empiricism, observation and analysis” to some of the leading centers of the Muslim world. “The new thinking had shown itself first in military mechanics, before leaping to medicine and education.” In time “statistics, modern sociology, agricultural innovation and political theory” would all be guided by ideas of utility and progress. Certain features of the Enlightenment, he argues, are universal, such as “the defeat of dogma by proven knowledge, the demotion of the clergy as arbiters of society and the relegation of religion to the private sphere,” as well as, finally, “democratic principles and the emergence of the individual to challenge the collective to which he or she belongs.” These ideas, he insists, are “transferable across all systems of belief, and they have also entered the Islamic one. They are at work right now—even if they have suffered rebuffs.”

This is an optimistic view, suggesting that in time the power of the religious establishments in Iran and Saudi Arabia—two countries where religious authority reinforces sectarian rivalries—must fade before the logic of change. (Notably, the developments that de Bellaigue describes did not much affect the Arabian Peninsula.) At a time when anti-Muslim feeling is rising in Europe, and a US president wants to bar immigrants from a number of Muslim-majority countries on grounds of national security and has a chief strategist who is an anti-Muslim extremist, de Bellaigue’s message could not be more relevant and urgent.

De Bellaigue sets the scene for intellectual engagement between the Islamic and Western worlds in three chapters on the cities of Cairo, Istanbul, and Tehran, where the encounter with Enlightenment ideas served to generate both modernist-oriented nationalist movements and the eventual reaction to modernism he calls the Counter-Enlightenment (more usually referred to as Islamism). This is brilliantly done with fascinating details and insights. But after reading the city-based chapters one wonders: Why not add Delhi to the list? After securing Egypt, Napoleon had intended to ally himself with Tipu Sultan, ruler of the southern principality of Mysore and the most effective foe of the British in India at that time.

The collapse of Muslim power in South Asia was formalized by the deposition of the last Mughal emperor in 1858, encouraging innovative approaches to received Islamic tradition, as had the defeats suffered by the Ottomans in Europe and by their Mamluk vassals in Egypt. The moral turbulence in India caused by the failure of the great rebellion of 1857, which the British patronizingly dismissed as a “mutiny,” initiated an intellectual and theological chain reaction every bit as far-reaching as defeats suffered by Muslim powers in Iran and the Ottoman West. The Indian reformer Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817–1898), a former employee of the East India Company, had witnessed the devastating effects of the reprisals, when troops under British command massacred up to 30,000 people in Delhi, the Mughal capital, and demolished nearly half of Lucknow, South Asia’s largest city at that time.

Realizing the extent of colonial power, Sayyid Ahmad concluded that a military struggle against colonial rule would be hopeless and opted for reform of clerical leadership and engagement with the British occupiers. In his commentaries on the Koran and the Bible, and in numerous papers and articles, he would argue that Islam was fully compatible with progress and knowledge of science, and that Muslims must engage with this knowledge like their forebears in the golden age of kalam, Islamic philosophy. Sayyid Ahmad’s decision to work with the British brought about the founding of the Anglo-Muslim college of Aligarh—upgraded to a university in the 1920s—to train a new generation of secular-minded Muslim elites.

Comparable developments were also unfolding in Central Asia, where Russian expansion generated a reassessment of Islamic tradition by leaders such as Ismail Bey Gasprinski (1851–1914), a Tatar from Crimea who founded the reformist Jadid movement, which influenced Muslim communities from Crimea to the Fergana Valley in Central Asia. A school instructor and onetime mayor of Bakhchyserai, his native city, Gasprinski saw the adoption of scientific knowledge from the infidel West as a prerequisite for cultural renewal. In this respect he shared the same vision as Sayyid Ahmad and other advocates of Islamic Enlightenment, such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–1897) in Iraq and his disciple the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), who feature in both of these books.

The process of broader reform in the Islamic world lies beyond the scope of Abu-‘Uksa’s work. By contrast, de Bellaigue’s title, The Islamic Enlightenment, suggests a larger theme, and the absence of figures like Gasprinski and Sayyid Ahmad may seem significant omissions. This would not matter if different regions (the Ottoman west, the Persian center, and India, with its distinctive legacy of Muslim–Hindu interaction) had been insulated from each other. But in the nineteenth century, driven by imperial competition, the process we have come to call globalization was already well underway, particularly in the growing exchange between South Asia and the Middle East.

A fuller account of the “Islamic Enlightenment” might also include the Indian poet and philosopher Mohamed Iqbal (1877–1938), who had studied in Britain and Germany, loved Goethe and admired Nietzsche, and wrote poetry in Persian that helped inspire the 1979 Iranian revolution. Likewise the Indian journalist and scholar Abu’l Ala al-Mawdudi (1903–1979), founder of the Jamaat-i-Islam, the Islamist movement that Pankaj Mishra calls, without exaggeration, “the first Leninist-style revolutionary vanguard party anywhere in the Islamic world,” drew on Western political ideas.

Al-Mawdudi is, arguably, the true founder of modern Islamism. His virulent opposition to secular nationalism as well as to colonialism drew on the communal anxieties of India’s Muslims in the years leading up to Partition. They were confronted with a movement that al-Mawdudi saw as tainted by Hindu influence, a view that came to be shared by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a former member of All-India Congress who, despairing of Hindu–Muslim unity, became the founder of Pakistan. Ayatollah Khomeini translated al-Mawdudi’s Urdu texts into Persian, and Sayyid Qutb, author of Milestones (1964), arch-exponent of modern jihadism and intellectual forefather of al-Qaeda and other radical groups, was powerfully influenced by his writings.

Just as the struggle for Indian independence was sharpened by Western political concepts, the modern jihadist discourse reveals a raft of borrowings from radical Western thought. As the British philosopher John Gray has noted, “Islamic fundamentalism” is not a wholly indigenous growth, but rather “an exotic hybrid bred from the encounter of sections of the Islamic intelligentsia with radical western ideologies”—and, one might add, with the new opportunities for propaganda and recruitment made available by social media. The Islamic Enlightenment, and the reactions it generated, were phenomena that extended far beyond the Middle East.

  1. *

    See my introductory essay to Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet, translated by Hanna Burton (Litwin, 2013).