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12 June 2017updated 12 Oct 2023 11:27am

The making of the Muslim world

Islam has long embraced European modernity – but its values are under threat.

By Kenan Malik

“The Turkish nation,” Mehmed Ziya Gökalp wrote, “belongs to the Ural-Altai [language] group of peoples, to the Islamic umma, and to Western internationalism.” Gökalp was an early-20th-century sociologist, writer, poet and political activist whose work was influential in shaping the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the main figure in the founding of modern Turkey. What is striking about Gökalp’s argument is that it stitches together three elements that today seem to many to be irreconcilable. “Islam” and “Western internationalism”, in particular, are often seen as occupying opposite sides in a “clash of civilisations”.

This sense of a fundamental separation between Islam and the West has been exacerbated by the rise of Islamism and the emergence of Islamic State. Some Muslims are attracted to IS because of a deep loathing for the West. Many in the West regard that support as evidence for the incompatibility of Western and Islamic values. Christopher de Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment and Cemil Aydin’s The Idea of the Muslim World, in very different ways, try to explain the historical shifts that have made what once seemed necessary and rational now appear impossible and self-deluding.

The starting point of de Bellaigue’s luminous work is the oft-made claim that “Islam needs its Enlightenment”. The author argues, on the contrary, that for the past two centuries, “Islam has been going through a pained yet exhilarating transformation – a Reformation, an Enlightenment and an Industrial Revolution all at once.” What is distinctive about the Islamic world today, he writes, is that it is under the heel of a counter-Enlightenment, a development visible in particular through the emergence of Islamism, of which Islamic State – the group that has claimed responsibility for terror attacks in Europe, including the latest atrocities in London and Manchester – is the most grotesque expression.

The Islamic Enlightenment explores the complex relationship between Muslim-majority countries and modernity, a relationship mediated largely through its relationship with Europe, and more generally the West. De Bellaigue begins in three of the great cities of the Muslim world – Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran – and guides us through the transformation of their intellectual, political and social worlds in the 19th century. He is a wonderful narrator, and these chapters burst with colour and detail.

Each city and nation confronted modernity and the West in distinctive ways. However, in all cases, de Bellaigue observes, “The world of Islam was only ready to shed its superiority complex once its supports were revealed to be rotten.” In Egypt, that rottenness was laid bare by Napoleon’s invasion of 1798. In the shadow of the Pyramids, as the French destroyed the Egyptian forces, “the fiction of Christian deference to Muslim superiority fell away”.

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Napoleon brought to Egypt not only soldiers but scholars, too. In Cairo he set up the Institute of Egypt, which became the meeting point for Islam and the Enlighten­ment. One of the first Egyptians to visit the institute was Hasan al-Attar, who later became Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, among the most important clerics in Sunni Islam. Egypt’s “first modern thinker”, in de Bellaigue’s words, al-Attar was a polymath who became intoxicated by the learning he found at the institute. He transformed al-Azhar, one of the oldest centres of Islamic learning, into a vibrant university and encouraged a new generation of thinkers versed in Western thinking.

Most notable of this new generation was Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, another Egyptian cleric who made it his life’s work to prove that reason was compatible with Islam. After spending time in Paris, al-Tahtawi returned home in 1831 to help lead the statewide effort to modernise Egypt’s infrastructure and education. He founded the school of languages in Cairo and supervised the translation of over 2,000 foreign works into Arabic – the greatest translation movement since that of the Abbasid period, a millennium earlier. His own works introduced to a new audience Enlightenment ideas about secularism, rights and liberties.

It was not just the intellectual sphere that was upturned. The physical and social worlds were transformed, too, at a pace undreamt of in Europe. From the printing press to female graduates, from steam trains to oppositional newspapers, from the abolition of slavery to the creation of trade unions, in the space of a few decades in Egypt, modernity wrought changes that had taken more than a century to happen in Europe, and transformed Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran from semi-medieval markets into modern, semi-industrial cities. “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned,” Marx observed of the disorienting effect of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution in Europe. How much more so that must have seemed in Islamic states.

Inevitably there was a backlash, as there was in Europe. Yet unlike in Europe, those who promoted Enlightenment values in the Muslim world faced another problem: that of the European powers themselves. European nations may have basked in the light of the Enlightenment but they also insisted that pursuit of ideals such as liberty or democracy should not get out of hand and threaten European imperial interests.

Take Iran. In August 1906, a year-long popular struggle for democracy against the shah and his autocratic government succeeded in establishing an elected national assembly and a new constitution. The radical democrats looked to Europe for their ideals. “Iran must both in appearance and reality, both physically and spiritually, become Europeanised and nothing else,” claimed one of the leading constitutionalists, Hassan Taqizadeh. But the European powers were fearful that the new, democratic Iran would no longer be a pliant creature, acting in the interest of the West. In August 1907, Britain and Russia signed an accord dividing Iran into two zones of imperial influence. Russian troops invaded Iran, dissolved parliament, and arrested and executed many deputies. Britain established a de facto colony in its area of influence in the south-east of the country.

Four decades later, after democracy had been restored in Iran, Western powers again intervened to destroy it. In 1951 the democratically elected prime minister Muhammed Mossadeq nationalised the oil industry. Britain and the United States engineered a coup d’état that, two years later, overthrew Mossadeq and returned the shah to power – and Iran’s oil industry to Western control.

Such actions of European powers led many people in Muslim countries to see the modernising project as an imperialist imposition. It also led many to elide opposition to imperialism, and defence of the nation, with opposition to Enlightenment ideas of liberty, equality and secularism. Hence the growth of popular support for Islamist groups. The eventual consequence of Western attempts to suppress democracy in Iran was the revolution of 1978-79 – and the ­seizing of power by Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters.

The Islamic Enlightenment is a dazzling feat of erudition and storytelling. It is also a necessary work, challenging many of the assumptions that animate contemporary narratives about Islam. But for all that it unpicks the myths woven into the conventional narratives, de Bellaigue’s own narrative weaves in its own myths.

Consider the very notion of the “Islamic Enlightenment”. The European Enlightenment did not emerge ex nihilo. It was the culmination of centuries of development and struggle and the starting point for a new set of struggles and developments. Those struggles gave meaning to the ideas that flowed out of the Enlightenment.

In Egypt, Turkey and Iran, the outpouring of new ideas in the 19th century came suddenly, largely through confrontation (both physical and existential) with Europe. Intellectuals, social reformers and political revolutionaries found hope and inspiration in the same set of ideas as their peers in Europe. And, as in Europe, these ideas became central to the reach towards modernity.

Yet to call this the “Islamic Enlightenment” is to mistake what the European Enlightenment was about. I am not suggesting that the Enlightenment in some sense “belongs” to Europe, or that Enlightenment values do not apply to non-Europeans. Far from it. And yet, there are important differences in the historical trajectories that led to the Enlightenment in Europe and those which led Egypt, Turkey and Iran to adopt those ideas. To call the social and intellectual changes of which de Bellaigue writes so eloquently “the Islamic Enlightenment” is to erase those differences – and hence to undermine his own aim of looking more ­rationally at the Muslim world.


If de Bellaigue wants us to have a more nuanced understanding of the Islamic world, Cemil Aydin of the University of North Carolina challenges the very idea that such a world exists. The expression “‘Muslim world’ does not derive from umma, a concept as old as Islam, which refers to the Muslim religious community”. Rather, it “began to develop in the 19th century and achieved full flower in the 1870s”. Nor is it the case that “Muslims were united until nationalist ideology and European colonialism tore them apart”. The truth, he suggests, is the very opposite:

“Muslims never dreamed of global political unity until the peak of European hegemony in the late 19th century, when poor colonial conditions, European discourses of Muslim racial superiority, and Muslims’ theories of their own apparent decline nurtured the first arguments for
pan-Islamic solidarity.”

For much of the history of Islam, Aydin writes, Muslim leaders had no sense of loyalty to fellow Muslims. He tells the story of Tipu, the sultan of Mysore in southern India who in 1798 sought allies to help push back the forces of the British East India Company. He appealed to the Ottoman caliph Sultan Selim III, in the name of Muslim solidarity; and to Napoleon, to help forge an alliance against a mutual enemy. The French were willing to be allies. The Ottomans were not. “Shared religion and culture could not sway the Ottomans from their strategic interests, allied as they were with Britain and Russia against Napoleon, who had just invaded Ottoman Egypt,” Aydin writes.

The following year the British invaded Mysore – in consort with Indian Muslim leaders whose troops joined battle against fellow Muslims. “Muslim political experience from the 7th through the 18th century,” Aydin notes, “tells a story of ­multiplicity, contestation and change, leaving the idea of the Muslim world to emerge later.”

That is true. But it is equally true of the period from the 19th to the 21st centuries, when the notion of “the Muslim world” became entrenched. From the Muslim Brotherhood to Islamic State, Islamist dreamers of a unified caliphate are hardly reticent in attacking other Muslims. Saudi Arabia and Iran fiercely rival each other as champions of “the Muslim world”. The morass that is Syria proves that those who promote the clash of civilisations thesis are as eager to butcher those within their civilisation as those without. Aydin is right, however, that modern conceptions of “the Muslim world” and “the clash of civilisations” are different from previous notions, and are products of the changes explored by de Bellaigue.

I am sympathetic to Aydin’s basic thesis, though many of his specific claims – such as the importance of racial theory in creating the idea of unified Muslim world – are more problematic. His book, however, is more argumentative than empirical. Where de Bellaigue weaves into his narrative stories and facts to undergird his argument, Aydin is far more polemical. The Idea of the Muslim World has the feel of a work in progress rather than a properly fleshed-out thesis.

Where Aydin and de Bellaigue want to retell aspects of the history of the Muslim world, Tariq Ramadan, a professor of Islamic studies at Oxford, sets himself to describe Islam’s meaning. Islam: the Essentials is a breezy tour through theology and practice, aimed primarily, it seems, at Western liberals. It is full of vaguely New Agey phrases such as “Rediscovery of the Way, in a holistic manner, points to nothing less than an intellectual and psychological revolution”. To him, the heart of Islam is diversity. His main criticism is of “literalists” and “traditionalists” who ignore the need for the Quran and other prophetic texts to be interpreted in their social and historical context.

There is a defensive tone to the book. “I have not sidestepped a single question, no matter how challenging,” Ramadan tells us, nor has he “attempted to justify the unjustifiable or defend the indefensible”.

What he has done, however, is to wish away the difficult issues. Ramadan has two basic manoeuvres. The first is to rewrite history. Take his explanation of why slavery flourished in Muslim societies until the 19th century. “The general thrust of the Revelation is a clear requirement to bring the practice of slavery to end,” he writes, but God insisted that abolition had to take place “step by step, to enable emancipated slaves to find a place in society, rather than ending up free but marginalised and indigent”. Hence “the timescale for [the abolition of ] slavery is longer than that for alcohol for here nothing less than a thoroughgoing transformation of society was required’. This is not quite “slavery was maintained for the good of the slaves”, but it comes damn close to it.

Ramadan’s second manoeuvre is to make a distinction between religion and culture. Islamic religious norms (properly understood) are always good. What is questionable about Muslim societies comes primarily from cultural problems. “Islam has never placed any limitations on knowledge, the arts and religious diversity,” he argues. Hence the great flourishing of Islamic learning between the 8th and 11th centuries. But the cultural and historical context in which Islam found itself forced the faith to turn inwards and put up barriers. Hence the millennium of decay and decline since.

It may be a convenient argument, but it is also one that runs against his own view about the limitations of reason. Ramadan’s starting point is the revealed truth given to Muhammad, which forms the Quran. Revealed truth, as he has previously observed, is “clear and immutable” and its legitimacy cannot be challenged by reason. A few years ago, I interviewed Ramadan for a Radio 4 documentary. I asked him about one of the controversies that surround him – his refusal to call for an outright ban on the practice of stoning women for adultery, merely recommending a “moratorium”. Why won’t he call for abolition, I asked. Because, he replied, the texts that demand stoning “come from God”. But isn’t that the problem, I asked. Ramadan knows rationally that certain actions are morally wrong but will not say so, because of his attachment to the word of God. Simply to believe in rationality, he responded, is to accept the “dictatorship of intelligence” – and that is “a dominant, arrogant posture. It’s dangerous.”

It is a way of reasoning of which many of the great figures who populate The Islamic Enlightenment would have despaired. Ramadan is often referred to an Islamic “moderniser” and “bridge-builder”. Yet the chasm between the vacuity and defensiveness of a contemporary intellectual such as he and the openness and intellectual depth of a 19th-century moderniser and bridge-builder such as Rifa’a al-Tahtawi shows how much has been lost. 

Kenan Malik’s books include “From Fatwa to Jihad: How the World Changed from the Satanic Verses to Charlie Hebdo” (Atlantic)

The Islamic Enlightenment: the Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason 
Christopher de Bellaigue
Bodley Head, 432pp, £25

The Idea of the Muslim World: a Global Intellectual History 
Cemil Aydin
Harvard University Press, 304pp, £23.95

Islam: the Essentials 
Tariq Ramadan
Pelican, 336pp, £8.99

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special