Muhammad Abduh, Egypt’s senior judicial authority at the start of the twentieth century and an admirer of Darwin. He is now ­recognized, according to Christopher de Bellaigue, ‘as one of the most influential liberal Islamic thinkers.’

During the spring of 1910 a young Iranian who was studying to be a mullah would climb to the roof of his house to observe a mysterious projectile as it moved across the night sky. Ahmad Kasravi did not know what he was seeing but he was instinctively skeptical of the belief, prevalent in his poor, backward province, that this “tailed star” was somehow connected with Iran’s political turbulence, and that it augured the destruction of the earth.

On the contrary, Kasravi’s nocturnal observations filled him with happiness, and he was even happier when he came across an Arabic journal, al-Muqtataf (“The Digest”), that told him that the object was not an augury but a comet whose mysteries had been solved by an earlier English astronomer, Edmund Halley. Kasravi was already known in the seminary for his scornful manner; his discovery of the comet confirmed in his mind the stupidity of his teachers and the backwardness of their methods. “It was this star,” he would recall, “that set me on the road of European learning.”

The story of Kasravi’s epiphany is perhaps too small and anecdotal to be included by Marwa Elshakry in her dense, scholarly, and rewarding book on the diffusion of Western scientific knowledge in Arabic, but it shows the human consequences of what she describes. Descended from a line of provincial mullahs, Kasravi had grown up in an environment that was distrustful of modern ideas. Four centuries after Copernicus, the astronomy taught at the seminary was stubbornly Ptolemaic, while the medical care Kasravi received after catching typhus consisted of an almost fatal course of bloodletting, a technique that the West had discarded long before, together with Galen’s theory of the humors.

And yet Iran—in common with much of the rest of the region—was changing faster than Western visitors usually realized. Kasravi’s observation of Halley’s comet coincided with the aftershocks of Iran’s constitutional revolution in 1906. Proponents of the divine right of kings were in conflict with democrats, including Kasravi, who were inspired by Western forms of government. Later, beginning in the mid-1920s, when a program of secular modernization was launched by the authoritarian monarch Shah Reza Pahlavi, and carried on by his son Mohammad Reza, Kasravi would become his country’s leading anticlericalist, a scourge of mysticism, and a barely concealed freethinker. In 1946 he was killed by a fanatic’s bullet.

Dramatic changes of belief of the kind experienced by Kasravi were becoming commonplace in the Middle East, not only because Western thinkers were conceiving new ways to human fulfilment—positivism, secular spiritualism, social evolutionism—but because of the quickening effect of technology. Only a few decades earlier the clerics and copyists of Islam had conceded defeat in their centuries-old battle to contain the corrupting effects of the printing press, and it is hard to exaggerate the significance of the explosion in publishing that ensued. Along with expanding secular education, printing transformed an overwhelmingly illiterate society into a partly literate one. The slave trade was outlawed, although it continued illegally.

In the past, the sheikhs and the government had exercised a monopoly over knowledge. Now an expanding elite benefited from a stream of information on virtually anything that interested them. Between 1880 and 1908, Elshakry tells us, a total of more than six hundred newspapers and periodicals were founded in Egypt alone.

The most prominent among them was al-Muqtataf, whose readership greatly exceeded its circulation of three thousand. A group of enthusiasts in Baghdad, for example, banded together to buy a single subscription. Al-Muqtataf was the popular expression of a translation movement that had begun earlier in the century with military and medical manuals and highlights from the Enlightenment canon. (Montesquieu’s Considerations on the Romans and Fénelon’s Telemachus had been favorites.) Al-Muqtataf supplied its readers with articles, many of them lifted without attribution from journals like Popular Science, on subjects as diverse as glassmaking, microscopes, and maintaining a thick head of hair, and it introduced them to scientists like Thomas Huxley, Ernst Haeckel, and Louis Pasteur.

This literary and journalistic output was partly an offshoot of official reform efforts, encouraged by the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul and his rebellious vassal the Egyptian khedive, and aimed at modernizing their respective armies, expanding education and health care, and assimilating technology from Europe. There were some successes, such as the eradication of the plague and a slow improvement in literacy rates, and the Ottoman Empire soon had railway and telegraph lines. For many traditionalists, however, reform was a financially ruinous delusion, exemplified by the declaration of the ruler of Egypt, Khedive Ismail, in 1878 (before an international bankruptcy commission) that “my country is no longer in Africa; we are now part of Europe.”

By then, tatawwur, a neologism popularized by al-Muqtataf and meaning “evolution,” was increasingly used by Ottoman Muslims, as was darwiniya, or Darwinism. (The movement to translate English and European texts was transforming Arabic and Ottoman Turkish, with new words, simplified syntax, and directness prized over the old convolutions.) The masses remained pious and superstitious, but educated Arabs and Turks in the new professions and the modernized civil service expressed skepticism with a freedom that is rarely witnessed today.


Istanbul in particular had been a hotbed of atheists ever since the 1840s—the medical students were notorious—and in 1887 the former military officer Besir Fuat committed suicide as a “scientific experiment.” Egypt’s best-known advocate of materialism, Shibli Shumayyil, was a prominent doctor and the translator of the German Darwinist Ludwig Büchner. Shumayyil described the soul as the result of material processes and reveled in the odium he received, for, as he wrote, “all this fuss made me want to slap people awake from their deep slumber…housed in stasis, and on the margins of life, neither dead nor alive.”

In this unpredictable environment, the editors of al-Muqtataf, Yaqub Sarruf and Faris Nimr, pointedly chose not to present Darwinism as the profoundly subversive doctrine it was. The full Arabic translation of On the Origin of Species only became available in 1918; until then the book was known through synthesizers and commentators such as Sarruf and Nimr. They softened Darwin’s beliefs by using those of his contemporary the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace—in particular, Wallace’s belief that “all animals evolve one from the other except humans.” Sarruf and Nimr agreed with Wallace that human consciousness and qualities such as wit or artistic aptitude could be ascribed not to natural selection, but rather to an “unseen universe of Spirit.” This formula allowed them to accept much of what Darwin proposed, but without toppling man from his pedestal next to God.

Just as Darwinism had been involved in political controversies in Britain, drawn on by Malthusians, white supremacists, and abolitionists alike, so darwiniya had its own effect on Egypt’s situation. The country was colonized by Britain in 1882, prompting a “scramble for Africa” in which some 80 percent of the continent came under European rule. In 1898 General Herbert Kitchener defeated the Sudanese Mahdists at Omdurman and annexed what the Egyptians regarded as their natural hinterland; it was a particularly bloody demonstration of European military might, with the British losing forty-seven dead and an estimated 10,000 Muslims killed.

“The law of natural selection,” observed a demoralized Egyptian nationalist, Qasim Amin, had impelled the Europeans, “powered by steam and electricity,” to seize the wealth of any country weaker than them. “For Amin,” Elshakry writes, “like so many other Arab thinkers at that time, the encounter with the Western world was itself an example of the ‘struggle for life’ between nations.”

Japan, which had industrialized rapidly, unexpectedly defeating tsarist Russia in the war of 1904–1905, provided evidence that Eastern countries were not excluded from modern technology and progress. The editors of al-Muqtataf regretted that while the Japanese devoted their energies to advancing science, “most of our [clerics] are still saying a thousand times over what they have been saying for the last thousand years, like cattle chewing their cud; it makes the heart sick.”

By this time, Elshakry tells us, fewer people were listening to Sarruf and Nimr; their good relations with Egypt’s British rulers were anathema to the new breed of Egyptian nationalist. “Look out for your slaughter, oh son of a she ass,” ran a letter to the editors; “soon you will see yourself smitten and the printing office of your vile paper lying in ruins.”

By now it may be apparent that Reading Darwin in Arabic is about more than its title suggests. It describes the intellectual ferment in Egypt as the country grappled both with Darwinism and colonial rule, and an Islamic liberalism shone briefly before being all but extinguished by the brutal ideologies of the twentieth century.

Notwithstanding al-Muqtataf’s gloomy view of the clerical mentality, there had been a huge expansion in the secular knowledge to which educated Egyptians (including many sheikhs) were exposed. No longer was legitimate knowledge defined by texts in the religious schools, interpreted for the most part with stultifying literalness. It had come to include virtually any intellectual production anywhere in the world.

At the time of the French invasion, in 1798, Egypt’s leading divines had reacted to the scientific endeavors of Napoleon’s savants with a mixture of scorn and incomprehension. One of them had disapproved of the French naturalists’ practice of preserving unknown species for further study. The Prophet was reported to have declared that there were 10,000 kinds of beast above the water and 20,000 kinds of fish below. There seemed to be no point in going to further trouble simply to confirm what was already known, and on far better authority.


A century later, the country had changed to such an extent that its senior judicial authority—its chief mufti—was an admirer of Darwin, corresponded with Tolstoy, and used his knowledge of European languages to absorb as much as he could of infidel learning. The mufti, Muhammad Abduh, is now recognized as one of the most influential liberal Islamic thinkers. Elshakry deals with him at length.

Abduh’s reformist instincts had been sharpened while he was a student at Al-Azhar, Cairo’s ancient school of Islamic learning, which was then known for being squalid, disorganized, and ferociously hostile to modern science. (Abduh said later that whatever small knowledge he possessed had come “through ten years of sweeping the dirt of Al-Azhar from my brain.”) One of his early mentors was the maverick pan-Islamist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, whom he followed to Paris during the latter’s exile there; but Abduh also learned much from Western thinkers, including the British philosopher and educationalist Herbert Spencer. Spencer’s view of society as an organism with its own laws of evolution and his rejection of pure materialism paralleled Abduh’s own ideas.

In 1903, during one of the European trips that led critics to accuse him of being more interested in Western civilization than his own, Abduh visited Spencer at his home in Brighton. The Englishman listened to Abduh’s comments on God (“a Being, not a Person”), before observing that the mufti and his allies were “Agnostics of the same kind as our agnosticism.” Twenty years earlier Abduh had advised al-Afghani to conceal his criticism of the intellectual torpor of Islamic society, admonishing him that “we do not cut off the head of religion except with the sword of religion.” Abduh’s religious sincerity was constantly questioned by his opponents, one of them accusing him and his allies of trying to “turn the mosque into a school of philosophy and literature to put out Islam’s light.”


Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images

A giraffe from the ninth-century naturalist al-Jahiz’s Book of Animals, which Marwa Elshakry notes in Reading Darwin in Arabic ‘was frequently likened to Darwin’s Origin of Species’

In fact, he was both a puritan and an innovator. Abduh deplored what he saw as popular deviations from the pure Islam of the Prophet’s time. He objected to worship at Sufi shrines, which he saw as a later, sectarian heresy. This put him in surprising company, for his point of view was shared by the Wahhabis of Arabia, whose doctrines are nowadays associated with the bleak, legalistic Islam of the modern Saudi state.

At the same time, he boldly opposed centuries of clerical literalism by interpreting religious texts allegorically. An example was the Koranic reference to the creation of all people “of one soul.” The soul in question did not refer solely to Adam, Abduh argued, but to humanity: “All men are brothers in humanity…which is why it matters little if they claim their father is Adam or a monkey or something else.” A critic quipped, “If you asked him to perform a marriage contract, he would write the contract according to the [school] of Darwin.”

Abduh deplored his fellow clerics’ refusal to use independent reason, known as ijtihad, in the interpretation of Islamic law. The “gates” of ijtihad, these sheikhs claimed, had been shut hundreds of years before, but Abduh declared them open again, issuing fatwas of scandalous novelty, such as one that overturned the Islamic prohibition on interest payments. This ruling fostered a still-unresolved debate in religious circles over what constitutes illegal usury, and whether under certain conditions interest payments are permissible. Egypt’s recent Muslim Brotherhood government, for instance, divided clerical opinion when it decided in principle to accept an IMF loan—before President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in 2013.

In common with other Muslim reformers, Abduh believed that a reformed Islam would be a truer friend to science than Christianity, whose doctrines of transubstantiation and God’s paternity of Christ seemed to exclude it from all rational discussion. In his zeal to demonstrate this compatibility, Abduh practiced a kind of backward interpretation—starting with a scientific truth and then finding an allusion to it, however veiled, in Islam.

Abduh suggested that Koranic references to jinns may in fact be to “those minute living bodies made known today through the microscope and called ‘microbes,’” and a journal he had founded announced that various other aspects of modern science, ranging from the nebular hypothesis of the origin of the solar system and somnambulism to embryology, as well as technological innovations like the telephone and airplane, had also been anticipated by Islam.

In the end, domestic politics and imperial policy came together to prevent Abduh from changing Egypt and Al-Azhar as he wanted. The British, on whom he had pinned his hopes for education reform—unwisely, for the taint of Anglophilia clings to him still—were less interested in producing independent-minded Egyptians than fodder for the civil service, and the country’s overlord, the muscular Protestant Lord Cromer, in any case doubted the possibility of change for a people “heavily weighted by their leaden creed, and by the institutions which clustered around the Koran.”

Abduh died in 1905 of cancer, dispirited by the press campaigns and intrigues that had been conducted against him. For all his failure to change Egypt’s institutions, his period as its most prominent cleric was a high point of liberal thought in the modern Arab world. He introduced a new elasticity into the interpretation of Islam, while emphasizing its ability to engage fruitfully with the knowledge and politics of the world. Abduh’s vision was flexible, humane, and universal; in Darwinian terms it favored the law of mutual aid over survival of the fittest. It did not last.

After World War I, Britain and France divided up the former Ottoman Empire and it was an end to fruitful engagement. The heartlands of Islam were now dominated by Christian powers and there was an immediate reaction, with the Muslim Brotherhood emerging in Egypt, the House of Saud taking over the Hijaz, and regimes led by army officers coming to power in Iran and Turkey. Thus it can be said that both illiberal currents of the modern Middle East, Islamism and militarism, received a major impetus from Western empire-builders.

Darwiniya mutated or was superseded. Eugenics won supporters among Egyptian socialists such as Salama Musa (he advocated castration for the unfit). There was excitement over the Bolshevik Revolution and Atatürk’s social revolution in Turkey, both of which were regarded as anticolonial. Pharoanism—tying modern Egypt to the achievements of the ancient past—answered nationalists’ longing for a high position in the hierarchy of races. Patriotic Turks and Iranians also built lineages for themselves, the latter discovering Aryan “cousins” in Nazi Germany. Racial theories did not emphasize the common origins of all people, whether Adam or the apes.

“The era of Darwin’s sway over Arabic intellectual life was coming to an end,” Elshakry writes. The pan-Arabist fervor that was generated by Gamal Abdel Nasser when he took over the Suez Canal in 1956 soon fell afoul of national rivalries and the polarization of the cold war. Political Islam came to the fore, and while aspects of Darwinian science are nowadays taught in Turkey, Egypt, and Iran, they rarely challenge the Islamic account of creation—similar in most respects to the biblical version—and are in many cases colored by what Elshakry calls “transcendental positivism,” reflections on “the wonders of creation in nature—as uncovered in modern science and anticipated in the Qur’an.” Overt anti-Darwinism is a feature of fanatical groups like the Taliban and Boko Haram.

After decades of Western support for militarist rulers in the Middle East, the Arab Spring of 2011 seemed to mark the revival of the Islamic liberalism that had been elaborated by men like Muhammad Abduh. From Tunisia’s Ennahda movement to moderates within the Muslim Brotherhood (and even reformists in Shia Iran), the vision of Islam at harmony with science and modern values has broad support. But militarism and Islamism have also shown tenacity, reasserting themselves in Syria and Egypt, while Turkey, formerly a source of hope for an Abduh-style accommodation, has veered toward Islamic authoritarianism.

Darwiniya is not only a scientific system, but also a shorthand for intellectual curiosity and a progressive view of the human condition. The reverses it has suffered over the past few years are less bad than they look, not only because modern values are espoused by a great number of Muslims, but because the West no longer provides unquestioning support for the region’s dictators. The Middle East’s short-term future looks bleak, but liberalism within an Islamic framework will survive.