Dreams of Islamic Liberalism

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…

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