Enlightenment as an Islamic Concept
By Dr. Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri
The imprecision of the word ‘enlightenment’ in term of linguistic and cultural meanings resulted in a confusion that has gone beyond cultural and intellectual contexts and has become a political issue. Enlightenment has therefore been used as an excuse to achieve certain goals that have nothing to do with culture.
This confusion, which was deliberately created by some people, has lead to great errors. It is worth mentioning that the propagation of the term enlightenment has coincided with the failure of material and atheist currents in modern societies, including the Arab and Islamic ones, and that the insistence on using this term coincides with the domination of globalization over cultural and cultural particularities of peoples.
Enlightenment also coincided with the intellectual currents that appeared in the Arabo-Islamic world in the last decades of the 20th century with more intensity than in the previous decades, although it was presented in different terms such as ‘intellectual freedom’, ‘free thought’, ‘the renaissance’. Enlightenment, as a contemporary term, is in part related to neocolonialism.
It is used to mislead the public opinion and create cultural instability and conflicts. This requires rectification and adjustments.
It would be more appropriate to elucidate the issue of enlightenment before we tackle it from an Islamic point of view.
I- Enlightenment as a linguistic term :
In Lissan El Arab (Arab Tongue) of Ibn Mandour, enlightenment means dawn. “Dawn has enlightened” means that the light of day has come. It is also said: “one has prayed at enlightenment time”, that is near dawn.
In Mouaajam Al-Wassit, ‘to enlighten’ means to shed light. People have been enlightened’ means that they have become more cultivated. “God has enlightened one’s heart” means that God has given him/her guidance(1). Enlightenment also means guidance, as in “God guides the believers from darkness to light”. “We resurrect the dead and guide them to light” and “God is the light of the earth and the sky”.
In El Kaffoui’s book Al Koulyate, we read: “Light is the enlightening core. It is the opposite of obscurity”. Guidance, whether it means belief or religion, is one entity. Belief is apparent and religion is a set of rules. As for misguiding, it comes in several ways because of the great number of wrong beliefs(2). This corresponds to Al Kafoui’s idea that light is one unity and obscurity comes in several representations.
In the lexicon of the terms used in the Quran, light is described as: knowledge, truths and proofs that dispel doubt and assert belief in religion(3). Light is not illusions. It is proven truths.
II- Enlightenment as a philosophical term :
The term ‘enlightenment’ appeared in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries to express liberal and bourgeois trends that were characterized by humanist, logical, scientific and empirical reasoning. These trends favored materialism at the expense of religion and used nature and reason instead of theology and mythology to explain natural phenomena and set the rules of the universe(4).
Enlightenment, as a cultural trend, dominated Europe in the 18th century. European intellectuals such as Voltaire, Diderot, Condorset, Holbagh and Picariah promoted it. These intellectuals were influenced by rational philosophers such as Descartes, Spinosa, Leipniz and Lock, who dominated the cultural trends of the 17th and 18th centuries and gave birth to the ‘Age of Reason’.
The Idea of enlightenment can be divided into three categories (reason, nature, progress)(5). These constitute natural philosophy and virtues based on science. The idea of enlightenment appeared in an atheist European environment. It was the enemy of the church, the state, superstition, ignorance and poverty.
Enlightenment philosophers called for a return to nature. In European philosophy, enlightenment meant abandoning old teachings that constituted an authority and a reproduction of life on a rational basis(1).
European enlightenment endeavored to liberate civilization of the church’s dominance and of superstitious beliefs. It sought to achieve the progress of humanity through scientific research(2).
The German philosopher Kant was the first to use the term ‘enlightenment’ to refer to the rationalist movement that started in Europe in the 17th century and flourished in the 18th century, influencing European and non-European civilizations(3).
Enlightenment as a cultural term was therefore born in Europe, bearing European meanings and references. It was also the guideline of a cultural current that dominated Europe at a certain period of its history that was called ‘the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ and was characterized by the emergence of the enlightenment philosophers(4).
The historical context of enlightenment :
We can say that enlightenment is a purely European issue that appeared as a reaction to the church’s dominance over the cultural life in Europe. It was therefore logical that European enlightenment should fight against religion, given the superstition that the church represented. Europe then lived in the age of darkness whereas the Arabo-Islamic world enjoyed cultural prosperity.
As a European concept, enlightenment enlightened Europe after the age of darkness. It is worth mentioning here that only Europe and the West were concerned with the term ‘Mediaeval Ages of Darkness’ after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. Muslims, on the contrary, have brought light to humanity since the advent of Islam in the 6th century. They brought light back to the East and the West(5).
In Europe, enlightenment was a reaction to the church’s despotism and repression of reason. The Islamic civilization has never experienced such a situation(1).
Logic and rational thinking represented an emancipation of the church and the clergy. Enlightenment rejected the hegemony of religion and feudalism. It adopted the slogan ‘There is no master over the mind but reason’(2). The church’s despotism and repression of intellectual freedom was the driving force behind enlightenment, which makes it a purely European issue that should be studied as such.
This issue was clear in Europe: Church against reason. The church, with its spiritual, financial, political and scientific despotism, stood against political and social reform. ‘Free intellectuals’ were right in opposing the church and its system, but they were wrong in fighting religion and calling for the use of reason instead. God has blessed mankind with mind so that they can know Him, not in order to negate Him(3). Therefore, it is not logical nor scientific to impose the European concept of enlightenment on Arabo-Islamic societies and to resort to pressure –to the point of intellectual terrorism- to impose this concept that does not belong to our Islamic culture and civilization. We will detail this point when we examine enlightenment as referred to in the Quran to explain the Islamic concept of enlightenment.
Enlightenment in the Holy Quran :
The term ‘enlightenment’ was not mentioned in the Quran, but the stem ‘light’ was mentioned 43 times, as in these verses :
-“Allah is the protector of those who have faith: from the depths of darkness He will lead them forth into light. Of those who reject faith, the patrons are the Evil Ones: from light they will lead them forth into the depths of darkness. They will be Companions of the Fire, to dwell therein (forever)”.(4)
-“Wherewith Allah guideth all who seek His good pleasure to ways of peace and safety, and leadeth them out of darkness, by His Will, unto the light, guideth them to a Path that is Straight”(5).
-“O People of the Book! there hath come to you Our Messenger, revealing to you much that ye used to hide in the Book, and passing over much (that is now unnecessary): There hath come to you from Allah a (new) light and a perspicuous Book”(1).
These verses show that bringing mankind out of obscurities (not only one obscurity) to light (not lights) cannot be achieved without God’s guidance to man. An enlightened man is one whom God saves of the darkness of ignorance, non-belief and superstition and brings out to the light of belief, science and true knowledge. In this sense, enlightenment is God’s guidance to man. The Quran, the Bible and the Torah were a light and guidance from God, as in “It was We who revealed the Law (to Moses): therein was guidance and light. By its standard have been judged the Jews, by the Prophets who bowed (as in Islam) to Allah's Will, by the Rabbis and the Doctors of Law: “for to them was entrusted the protection of Allah's Book, and they were witnesses thereto: therefore fear not men, but fear Me, and sell not My Signs for a miserable price. If any do fail to judge by (the light of) what Allah hath revealed, they are (no better than) Unbelievers”(2).
“And in their footsteps We sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming the Law that had come before him: We sent him the Gospel: therein was guidance and light, and confirmation of the Law that had come before him: a guidance and an admonition to those who fear Allah”.(3)
“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass; the glass as it were a brilliant star: lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the East nor of the West, whose Oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His Light: Allah doth set forth Parables for men: and Allah doth know all things”(4).
The holy scriptures were messages from God to His prophets to bring mankind out of darkness to light.
In this way, God’s guidance is closely linked to light(5), that is a guidance to Mankind. “Or (the Unbelievers' state) is like the depths of darkness in a vast deep ocean, overwhelmed with billow topped by billow, topped by (dark) clouds: depths of darkness, one above another: if a man stretches out his hand, he can hardly see it! For any to whom Allah giveth not light, there is no light!”(1). We notice here that light is mentioned in the Quran as a singular noun, whereas obscurities are mentioned as plural. This is a very exact description because God is the source of every light. Therefore, light must be singular, unlike obscurities. A man whom God guides to light lives in permanent enlightenment. God’s light is like no other light(2). “Whatever beings there are in the heavens and the earth do prostrate themselves to Allah (acknowledging subjection) - with good-will or in spite of themselves - so do their shadows in the mornings and evenings”(3). In this analogy, God compares non-belief to obscurities and belief to light. In his book entitled ‘The Synthesis of Eloquence’, Essabouni says: “this is one of the best analogies because non-belief is like the obscurity where the confused is lost, and belief is like light, where the confused is guided. Belief is rewarded with paradise and non-belief is punished with hell”. The meanings of the Quran are the best illustration of the Islamic concept of enlightenment.
Enlightenment as an Islamic concept :
The Islamic concept of enlightenment is based on a solid foundation of belief and science. It is a Quranic concept that sheds light on the reality of enlightenment that combines the enlightenment of mind and that of the heart through belief in God and in science. A mind is useless if the light of Islam does not guide it in thought and behavior. Sheikh Mohamed Abdou says: “Islam liberated the mind of its shackles and of slavery. It enabled it to submit to none but God and His teachings”(4). Islamic enlightenment is based on free will and independent intellect. Mohamed Abdou also said: “Mankind have achieved their freedom through free will, opinion and logic. These complete their humanity and help them reach the happiness that God offers them”(5).
The high stature of reason in Islam has made it possible for intellect to play its role in the scientific and cultural spheres in Islamic societies. In this way, the reasons that allowed one institution to dominate in the name of religion have been omitted and the excuses that were used to oppress the freedom of mind have been outdone(1).
For these reasons, the conflicts between science and religion that Europe underwent in the dark mediaeval ages did not take place in Islam. In Europe, these conflicts led to the emergence of the idea of enlightenment. This was a war that free intellectuals, the tenors of the movement of enlightenment, waged against the clergy.
The conflict between science and religion is a Western issue that is proper to the Europeans and their attitude towards the church and religion. This issue was erroneously raised in the Muslim context. There has never been a conflict between Islam and science. Western scientists discovered contradictions between their holy books and scientific facts. Therefore, they opposed their religion. The Quran, on the contrary, does not state facts that are contradictory with science. Many scientific concepts are rather stated in Islam’s holy Book(2).
The issue of European enlightenment, which discredits religion and adopts science and nature to understand the secrets of life and organize society, was erroneously raised in Islamic societies. Western enlightenment was completely opposed to religion and it still adopts the same attitude. Islamic enlightenment, on the contrary, combines belief and science, religion and reason, in a reasonable equilibrium between these components.
Used alone, reason did not enable those who used it to discover the truth. Likewise, those who ignored reason and sought intuition and spiritual knowledge were misled. The Islamic theory of knowledge combines the mind and the heart, the spiritual and the material(3).
Unlike Europe and the West, Islam has never imposed restrictions on reason. Therefore, the European experience cannot apply outside its context(4). Those who seek to apply European enlightenment to an Islamic context only try to mislead people because European enlightenment completely ignores religion. European enlightenment is contradictory with the Islamic one and does not express the Islamic perspective. The reasons behind the decline of the Islamic nation were different from those that led to Europe’s decline during the Dark Ages. The church imposed restrictions on reason and adopted the slogan “believe and do not discuss”. This attitude resulted from an erroneous interpretation of religion of which the clergy claimed to preserve the secrets. Anyone who would discuss the clergy was considered as hallucinating and was “deprived of God’s mercy”, if not killed. This oppression, not religion, propagated obscurity over European thought in the mediaeval ages.
In Islam, all mankind worship one God without intermediaries or tutors. This religion calls for good deeds and for meditation in the universe and the creatures with reason to achieve happiness in life and heaven. It criticizes those who do not use reason.
Islamic enlightenment enlightens with the light of Islam. It promotes the use of reason to understand religion. European enlightenment, on the contrary, rejects religion.
Ignorance is darkness. In Islam, the quest for knowledge liberates man “Forbidden to you (for food) are: dead meat, blood, the flesh of swine, and that on which hath been invoked the name of other than Allah; that which hath been killed by strangling, or by a violent blow, or by a headlong fall, or by being gored to death; that which hath been (partly) eaten by a wild animal; unless ye are able to slaughter it (in due form); that which is sacrificed on stone (altars); (forbidden) also is the division (of meat) by raffling with arrows: that is impiety. This day have those who reject Faith given up all hope of your religion: yet fear them not but fear Me. This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion. But if any is forced by hunger, with no inclination to transgression, Allah is indeed Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful”(2).
This is the ultimate degree of Islamic enlightenment.
Islamic enlightenment and contemporary reality :
Islamic enlightenment is not a theory. It is a reality in the life of Muslims. It is a revival movement that aims at achieving the finalities of Islam in the lives of Muslims. It is a renewal of the concept and functions of religion and a bond that unites all Muslims.
An enlightened person cannot deny the urgent need to reform and change Muslim societies through Islamic action and a right understanding of religion. In facing the current reality of the Islamic world, Islamic enlightenment has to tread the right path in order to fulfill its mission. It is not a mere intellectual and cultural activity. It is a rectifying movement that aims to change erroneous ideas about religion and to promote tolerance, love, cooperation, and solidarity in Islamic societies. It encourages the quest for knowledge in order to achieve the real renaissance.
The Islamic world is now at the crossroads, and Muslims should combine their efforts to achieve their renaissance through the respect of the principles of their religion. Many obstacles impede these efforts, but they can be removed through firm will. Official and public institutions, universities in particular, should join these efforts. Islamic enlightenment is not limited to religious and human science. It covers the intellectual, scientific and cultural areas of Muslim societies. Mastering science and technology is the core of Islamic enlightenment because it sets the mind to work and uses the skills that God has bestowed on mankind. Muslim intellectuals should use these abilities to achieve progress, in an enlightened endeavor.
Our enlightened understanding of the issues and problems of society is the fruit of firm belief. The Islamic approach to Muslim reality should be elaborated on this basis.
(1) Mouaajam Al-Wassit of the Arabic Language, Cairo, vol. 2, p. 962.
(2) Al Koulyate Dictionary of Linguistic Terminology, Abou El Bakaa El Kafoui, p. 909, Arrissala editions. Beirut.
(3) The lexicon of the terms used in the Quran, vol. 6, p. 172.
(4) The Encyclopedia of General Islamic Concepts, vol. 2000, p. 169.
(5) The Encyclopedia of Philosophy and philosophers, Dr. Abdelmouniim Hanafi, vol. 1, p. 405, Madbouli Library, Cairo.
(1) Ibid., p. 405.
(2) Religion, Philosophy and Enlightenment, Dr. Mahmoud Hamdi Zakzouk, p. 79, Dar El-Maarif, Cairo 1996.
(3) Ibid., p. 79.
(4) Ibid., p. 80.
(5) The Battle of Terminology between the West and Islam, Dr. Mohamed Omara, p. 54, Cairo 1997.
(1) Maalamat Al-Islam, Dr. Anouar Al-Joundi, p. 61, Beirut 1982.
(2) Ibid., p. 54.
(3) ‘The Issue of Enlightenment In the Islamic World’, Mohamed Qotb,
p. 72, 1999.
(4) Al-Baqarah, verse 257.
(5) Al-Maeda, verse 16.
(1) Al-Maeda, verse 15.
(2) Al-Maeda, verse 46.
(3) Al-Maeda, verse 44.
(4) Al-Maeda, verse 44.
(5) Nour, verse 35.
(1) Al Koulyate, p. 909.
(2) Nour, verse 40.
(3) Erraad, verse 16.
(4) The Synthesis of Eloquence, vol. 1 p. 146.
(5) The complete works of Sheikh Mohamed Abdou, vol. 3, p. 455.
(1) Ibid., p. 455 – 456.
(2) Maalamat Al-Islam, Anouar Al Joundi, vol. 2, p. 15.
(3) Ibid., Book 2. p. 20.
(4) Ibid., Book 3. p. 117.
(1) Al-Maeda, verse 3.
(2) Question of ethics : Contribution to ethical criticism of Western modernism by Dr. Taha Abdurrahman, p. 172, Arab Cultural Center, Casablanca, 2000.
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