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…
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