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Islam and the Enlightenment

Feature by Neil Davidson, March 2006


The intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th century that became known as the Enlightenment helped a new class to come to power in Europe. Neil Davidson asks why the more advanced civilisations of the Islamic world did not develop a similar movement of their own.


In the current Western controversy over Islam, one theme recurs with increasing predictability. Many writers are prepared to acknowledge Muslim cultural and scientific achievements, but always with the caveat that Islamic civilisation never experienced an equivalent to the Enlightenment. "Islam never had to go through a prolonged period of critically examining the validity of its spiritual vision, as the West did during the 18th century," writes the historian Louis Dupre. "Islamic culture has, of course, known its own crisis... yet it was never forced to question its traditional worldview."



The same view has also been expressed by individuals who were originally from Muslim backgrounds but have subsequently abandoned their religious beliefs. Salman Rushdie has recently argued that Islam requires "not so much a reformation... as an Enlightenment".



Muslims have responded in different ways to the claim that their religion has never produced an Enlightenment. Ziauddin Sardar has criticised it in the New Statesman on two grounds. On the one hand, "It assumes that 'Islam' and 'Enlightenment' have nothing to do with each other - as if the European Enlightenment emerged out of nothing, without appropriating Islamic thought and learning." On the other, "It betrays an ignorance of postmodern critique that has exposed Enlightenment thought as Eurocentric hot air." So Islamic thought was responsible for the Enlightenment but the Enlightenment was intellectually worthless. This is not, perhaps, the most effective way of highlighting the positive qualities of Islamic thought. Sardar's incoherence is possibly the result of his own critical attitude towards Islamism. More mainstream Muslim thinkers generally take one of two more positions.



The first is that Islam did not require the Enlightenment, because unlike Christianity its tenets do not involve the same conflict between religion and science. As the Egyptian scholar AO Altwaijri has written, "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." Islam is certainly less dependent than Christianity on miracles or what Tom Paine called "improbable happenings", but ultimately, because it counterposes reason to revelation, Enlightenment thought casts doubt on all religions - Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism alike.



The second position is that, although the Enlightenment represented progress for the West, it was a means of oppressing the Muslim world. A Hussain asks, "Given that our people have been victims of these developments, then why should we appreciate them?" It is also true that both the Islamic world and Muslims in the West have suffered and continue to suffer from imperialism and racism. But this is not the fault of the Enlightenment as such. Rather, it is an outcome of the failure of Enlightenment ideals to find their realisation in socialism, and the way they have been harnessed instead to the needs of capitalist expansion. In the hands of a resurgent movement of the working class and the oppressed, these ideas can be turned against the warmongers and Islamophobes who falsely claim them as their own.



The history of the Islamic world shows that it also raised many of the themes which later became associated with the Enlightenment, and did so earlier in time. The issue is therefore why the Enlightenment became dominant in the West and not in the Islamic world - or indeed in those other parts of the world, like China, which had previously been materially more advanced than the West.



The comparative basis for the critique of Islam is the Enlightenment that occurred in Europe and North America between the mid-17th and early 19th centuries, but the terms of the argument are changed in relation to Islam. No one refers to a "Christian Enlightenment". If the Enlightenment is given any specificity at all, it is in relation to individual nations. Why then is territoriality the basis for discussion of the Enlightenment for the West, but religion for the East?



A Christian Enlightenment?



The assumption is that the Enlightenment, like the Renaissance and Reformation before it, emerged out of what is usually called the "Judeo-Christian tradition". In other words, Christianity was intellectually open and tolerant enough to allow critical thought to emerge, with the result that religion could gradually be superseded, and the separation of church and state brought about. The implication of course is that Islam has been incapable of allowing the same process to take place. The fate of Bruno (who was burned at the stake by the Holy Inquisition) or Galileo (who was threatened with the same fate) for daring to question the doctrines of the Catholic church casts some doubt on the claim that Christianity is intrinsically open to scientific rationality.



At this point the argument usually shifts from Christianity in general to the role of Protestantism in particular or, more narrowly still, that of Calvinism. But this is no more convincing. Writers as politically different as Antonio Gramsci and Hugh Trevor-Roper have explained that Protestant thought was in many respects a retreat from the intellectual sophistication of late medieval Catholic thought, as characterised by, for example, Erasmus. Certainly 16th century Geneva and 17th century Edinburgh were not places in which rational speculation was encouraged. The intellectually progressive role of Protestantism lies in the way in which some versions of the faith encouraged congregations to seek the truth in their individual reading of the Bible, rather than from received authority - an approach which could be carried over into other areas of life. But the teachings themselves did not point in this direction. Justification by faith is an enormously powerful doctrine but not a rational one, since it rests on the claim that the ways of god are unknowable to man. Edinburgh did later become the centre of perhaps the greatest of all national Enlightenments, but in order to do so it had first to abandon the "theocratic fantasies" of the Church of Scotland. And this was true across Europe and in North America. Whatever the specific religious beliefs of individual Enlightenment thinkers, and however coded some of their arguments, the movement as a whole was at war with the Judeo-Christian tradition. It represents not the continuity of Western culture but a profound break within it. Far from being the apotheosis of Western values, the Enlightenment rejected the values which had previously been dominant.



Enlightenment thinkers also took a far more complex attitude to Islam than their present day admirers would have us believe. As Jonathan Israel recounts in his important history, Radical Enlightenment, "On the one hand, Islam is viewed positively, even enthusiastically, as a purified form of revealed religion, stripped of the many imperfections of Judaism and Christianity, and hence reassuringly akin to deism. On the other, Islam is more often regarded with hostility and contempt as a primitive, grossly superstitious religion like Judaism and Christianity, and one no less, or still more, adapted to promoting despotism." Edward Gibbon wrote in a remarkably balanced way about Mohammed and the foundation of Islam in The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, particularly given his generally critical attitude to Christianity. In general, then, the Enlightenment did not regard Islam as being any better or any worse than Christianity.



Perhaps we should therefore consider the possibility that the decisive factor in both the emergence of Enlightenment in the West and its failure to do so in the East may not be religion as such, but the kind of societies in which their respective religions took root, and which these religions helped to preserve. We will in any case have to qualify the claim that Islam knew no form of scientific rationality. After all, it was Muslim scholars who translated and preserved the philosophy and science of Greece and Persia, which would otherwise have been lost. It was they who transmitted it to their equivalents in Europe, who came to be educated by Muslim hands in Spain and Sicily.



But Muslim achievements in scientific thought were not simply archival. The 13th century Syrian scholar and physician Ibn al-Nafis was first to discover the pulmonary circulation of the blood. In doing so he had to reject the views of one of his predecessors, Avicenna - himself an important medical thinker who, among other things, identified that disease could be spread by drinking water. Ibn al-Nafis died in his bed at an advanced age (he is thought to have been around 80). Compare his fate to that of the second person to propose the theory of circulation, the Spaniard Michael Servetus. In 1553 he was arrested by the Protestant authorities of Geneva on charges of blasphemy, and was burned for heresy at the insistence of Calvin after refusing to recant.



The Islamic world did not only produce scientific theory, but its philosophers also considered the social role of religion. According to the Marxist historian Maxine Rodinson, the Persian philosopher and physician, Rhazes, held the view "that religion was the cause of wars and was hostile to philosophy and science. He believed in the progress of science, and he considered Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates much greater than the holy books." No comparable figure in, say, 10th century Normandy in the same era could have openly expounded these views and expected to live. In some Muslim states comparable positions were even held at the highest level of the state. In India the Mughul Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) emphasised "the path of reason" rather than "reliance on tradition", and devoted much consideration to the basis of religious identity and non-denominational rule in India. His conclusions were published in Agra in 1591-2, shortly before Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome. Akbar's minister and spokesman, Abu'l Fazl, included several exasperated passages in his book A'in-i Akbari bemoaning the constraints imposed on scientific endeavour by religious obscurantism: "From time immemorial, the exercise of inquiry has been restricted, and questioning and investigation have been regarded as precursors of infidelity. Whatever has been received from father, kindred and teacher is considered as a deposit under divine sanction, and a malcontent is reproached with impiety or irreligion. Although a few among the intelligent of their generation admit the imbecility of this procedure in others, yet they will not stir one step in this direction themselves."



Clearly, then, there is nothing intrinsic to Islamic society which prevented Muslims from rational or scientific thought. Yet these intimations of Enlightenment, which occurred at an earlier historical stage than in the West, never emerged into a similar full-blown movement capable of contributing to the transformation of society. Ibn al-Nafis was untroubled by authority, but his ideas had no influence on medicine in the Islamic world. In the West, where similar ideas were initially punished by death, they were rediscovered and within 150 years were part of mainstream medical thought. Ideas, however brilliant, are by themselves incapable of changing the world - they must first find embodiment in some material social force. But what was this social force in the West, and why was this missing in Islamic and other countries?



The nature of Islamic society



Clearly there were great transformations in Islamic society between the death of the Prophet in 632 and the fall of Constantinople in 1453, but some underlying characteristics remained throughout. The Islamic world rested on a series of wealthy cities ranging from Baghdad in modern Iraq, through Cairo in modern Egypt, to Cordoba in modern Spain. Connecting these urban centres was a system of highly developed desert and sea trade routes, along which caravans and ships brought luxury goods like spices and manufactured goods like pottery. The richness and the opulence of this civilisation stood in stark contrast to impoverished, backward Europe.



But what was the basis of the underlying economy - the "mode of production"? Feudalism, the mode which dominated in Western Europe and Japan, was of minor importance in the states of the Muslim world, with the major exception of Persia (modern day Iran) and parts of India. Instead, the dominant mode was what some Marxists, including the present writer, call the tributary mode. In Europe the feudal estate monarchies presided over weak, decentralised states. Power was devolved to local lords based in the countryside, and it was here, in their local jurisdictions, that exploitation was carried out through the extraction of rent and labour services. But precisely because of this fragmented structure it was possible for capitalist production to begin between these different areas of parcellised sovereignty. The towns varied in size and power, but some at least were free from lordly or monarchical domination, and provided spaces where new approaches to production could develop.



Attempts have been made to present the Enlightenment as a pure expression of scientific rationality which coincidentally appeared in the epoch of the transition from feudalism and the bourgeois revolutions. But it must rather be understood as the theoretical accompaniment of these economic and political processes - though in many complex and mediated ways.



The conditions which allowed capitalist development, and hence the Enlightenment, did not exist to the same extent in the Muslim world. In the Ottoman Empire, which lay at its heart, there was no private property in land, no local lordship, and therefore little space for new approaches to production and exploitation to arise. The state was the main exploiter and its officials displayed a quite conscious hostility to potential alternative sources of power, hence the bias it displayed towards small-scale commerce and the hostility it displayed towards large mercantile capital. Consequently, merchants tended to be from external "nations" - Jews, Greeks or Armenians - not from the native Arab or Turkish populations. There is nothing inherently stagnant about Islamic societies, but they stand as the best example of how ruling classes are consciously able to use state power, the "superstructure", to prevent new and threatening classes from forming, with all that implies about the thwarting of intellectual developments. "Asking why the scientific revolution did not occur in Islam", writes Pervez Hoobdhoy, exaggerating only slightly, "is practically equivalent to asking why Islam did not produce a powerful bourgeois class."



This lack of the development of a new, more advanced economic class meant that Islamic theorists had no material examples to look to. Take the Tunisian writer Ibn el Khaldun (1332-1402), author of the Kitab Al-Ilbar or Book of Examples (usually referred to in English as The Muqaddimah or Introduction to History). His sociological insights identified the continuing struggle between civilisations based, on the one hand, on towns and traders (hadarah) and, on the other, on tribes and holy men (badawah), the two endlessly alternating as the dominant forces within the Muslim world. Adam Smith and his colleagues in the Historical School of the Scottish Enlightenment could develop a theory that saw societies develop and progress upwards from one "mode of subsistence" to another because they had seen this movement in England, and wished to see it reproduced in Scotland. Ibn el Khaldun saw only cyclical repetition in the history of Islamic society, and could not envisage any way to break the cycle. His work could not transcend the society it sought to theorise.



In the face of this, the doctrines and organisation of Islam are difficult to separate. In Christian Europe, church and state were allied in defence of the existing order. In the Islamic world they were fused - there was no separate church organisation. There were of course differences between branches of Islam - Shias favoured rule by charismatic imams, Sunnis a consensus among believers - but in neither was there an overarching church organisation comparable to that of Christianity. Instead a federal structure arose which adapted to the individual states. It is difficult, therefore, to dissociate reasons of state from reasons of religion. A belief in predestination implied that it was impious or even impossible to attempt to predict future events. A belief in utilitarianism focused intellectual investigation or borrowing only on what was immediately useful. Finally, as the boundaries of the Islamic world began to run up against the expanding European powers from the 16th century on, the idea of drawing on their methods and discoveries became all the more painful to contemplate for ruling elites accustomed to their own sense of superiority. As the Western threat grew, the control over what was taught became even more extreme.



Partial reform



The example of China also tends to support the view that the key issue is not religion but the nature of the economy and the "corresponding form of the state". Like Islamic societies, China encompassed a great civilisation with important scientific and technical accomplishments, surpassing those of Europe. But here too there was a bureaucratic tributary state acting to suppress emergent class forces and their dangerous ideas. Reading the work of one leading intellectual in 17th century China, Wang Fu-Chih (1619-92), it is difficult not to see him as a predecessor to Adam Smith in Scotland or the Abb Sieyes in France, but unlike them his thoughts led to no immediate results. In China, as in the House of Islam, the state acted to control the spread of dangerous thoughts. But China was not an Islamic country - the similarities lie not in religion, but in economy and state, and it was these that led them to a common fate.



So was it possible that Enlightenment ideas could be forced onto these societies from without? The temporary conquest of the Ottoman province of Egypt by French revolutionary armies in 1798 led to an attempt, first in Egypt and Turkey, to adapt at least some of the technical, scientific and military aspects of scientific rational thought. Many of the aspects of Islam which are ignorantly supposed to be "medieval" traditions are products of this period of partial reform. As one historian notes, "The burqa was actually a modern dress that allowed women to come out of the seclusion of their homes and participate to a limited degree in public and commercial affairs". Another points out, "The office of ayatollah is a creation of the 19th century, the rule of Khomeini and of his successor as 'supreme Jurist' an innovation of the 20th." The imperial division and occupation of the Middle East after the First World War froze, and in some cases even reversed, the process. It should not be forgotten, in the endless babble about Western superiority, that feudal social relationships - against which the Enlightenment had raged - were introduced into Iraq by the British occupiers after 1920 to provide a social basis for the regime.



The subsequent history has been told in remorseless detail by Robert Fisk in The Great War For Civilisation and cannot even be attempted here. The question is, after over 100 years of imperialist intervention, does the Islamic world today have to reproduce the experience of the West, from Renaissance to Reformation to Enlightenment? In 1959 one Afghan intellectual, Najim oud-Din Bammat wrote, "Islam today has to go through a number of revolutions at once: a religious revolution like the Reformation; an intellectual and moral revolution like the 18th century Enlightenment; an economic and social revolution like the European industrial revolution of the 19th century." History, however, does not do repeats. Leon Trotsky's theories of uneven and combined development and permanent revolution argue that these revolutions do not have to follow each other, but can interlock and be compressed in time. Christian Europe, after all, was incomparably less developed than Arab or Persian civilisation in the 10th or 11th centuries. But its very backwardness allowed it to incubate a far higher form of class society - capitalism - and hence to "catch up and overtake" its former superiors and in the process fragment, occupy and destroy them.



When the Enlightenment ideas came to the masses of the Islamic world, they came not as a recapitulation of the European experience of the 17th and 18th centuries, but in the form of Marxism - the radical inheritor of that experience. Unfortunately the theoretical and organisational forms in which Marxism made its impact were Stalinist and consequently carried within them the seeds of disaster - most spectacularly in Iraq during the 1950s and in Iran during the 1970s, but more insidiously almost everywhere else. It is because of the catastrophic record of Stalinism, and more broadly of secular nationalism, that people who would once have been drawn to socialism see Islamism as an alternative path to liberation today.



What future, then, for Islam and the Enlightenment? We should remember the experience of the West. Our Enlightenment occurred when Christianity was older than Islam is now and did not occur all at once. People did not simply become "rational" and abandon their previous views because they heard the wise words of Spinoza or Voltaire. It happened over time, and because the experience of social change and struggle made people more open to new ideas that began to explain the world in a way that religion no longer did.



Socialists in the West today have to begin with the actual context of institutional racism and military intervention with which Muslims are faced every day. The absolute obligation on socialists is first to defend Muslims, both in the West and in the developing world, and to develop the historic alliance at the heart of the anti-war movement. To say to that they, or people of any faith, must abandon their beliefs before we will deign to speak to them is not only arrogant but displays all the worst aspects of the Enlightenment - "Here is the Truth, bow down before it!" Why should Muslims listen to people whose self-importance is so great they make agreement with them a precondition of even having a conversation? Enlightenment cannot be imposed by legal fiat or at the point of a gun. The real precondition of debate is unity in action, where discussion can take place secure in the knowledge that participants with different beliefs nevertheless share goals as a common starting point. It is, I suspect, more than a coincidence that those who are most insistent on the need for Islamic Enlightenment are the voices crying loudest for war. The original Enlightenment will never recur. However, we may be seeing the first signs of a New Enlightenment, not in these voices but in the actions of those - Muslim and non-Muslim alike - who have taken to the streets to oppose them.




Neil Davidson was the joint winner of the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize in 2003.


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