Christopher de Bellaigue, a journalist who has spent much of his working life in the Middle East, has grown tired of people throwing up their hands in horror at Isis, Erdogan and Islamic terror, and declaring that the region is backward and in need of a thorough western-style reformation.
As he argues in this timely book, the Islamic world has been coming to terms with modernity in its own often turbulent way for more than two centuries. And we’d better understand it, because it’s an interesting story, and often a positive one — the way vast crowds streamed onto the streets of Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran in demonstrations against authoritarian rule over the past decade, for example. Western-style participatory democracy remains the dream of the man and woman in the souk. Globalisation means that technical innovation and modern ideas cannot help seeping across borders. And Islam is a notably broad church, by no means totally uncompromising: witness the popularity of the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen who, from American exile, preaches inter-religious accord while being accused of trying to overthrow the Turkish state.
De Bellaigue approaches his subject largely through those three cities — Cairo, Islam’s intellectual centre with its famous though often sclerotic Al Azhar university; Istanbul, once capital of the vast inter-denominational Ottoman empire which straddled Europe and Asia; and Tehran, the furthest from the West, with its powerful Shia tradition.
Back in our own Dark Ages, Abbasid openness to science and philosophy provided a bridge between ancient Greece and Renaissance Europe. However, these advances were reversed as ijtihad, or independent reasoning, gave way to taqlid, or emulation of authority. The razing of the Galata Observatory in Istanbul in 1580 epitomised a waning intellectual curiosity.
The Islamic world was forced to deal with the post-Enlightenment West after Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798. His ambitious Description of Egypt signalled purpose, which bore lasting fruit in developments such as a medical college in Cairo, run by the French surgeon Antoine Barthélemy Clot.
Stung by a sense of cultural inadequacy, the cleric Hassan al-Attar was one of several Egyptians who travelled in search of knowledge to Europe, where he concluded that the Quranic ban on body dissection was wrong. The scholar Rifaa al-Tahtawi oversaw the translation of over 2,000 European and Turkish books. Rulers like the Khedive Ismail Pasha underpinned such initiatives with infrastructural projects, including hospitals, railways and the Suez Canal. But he also copied the West’s baser habits in his profligacy. The country’s parlous finances allowed Britain and France to extend control, sparking incipient nationalism which led to Colonel Ahmed Urabi’s revolt in 1879. Opposition to western intellectual and economic hegemony has played a significant part in the Islamic revival ever since.
It was a similar story with the Tanzimat reforms in Turkey and the progressive teachings of Babi and his successor Bahaullah, the founder of Bahaism, in Iran, which enjoyed a constitutional revolution in 1905.
The first world war boosted national awareness across the region, confirming, from an Islamic perspective, the West’s appetite for territorial and economic gain at the expense of the rights of the populations involved.
The convulsions of 1914–18 proved particularly important in Turkey, which, shorn of an empire, underwent a secular nationalist catharsis under Ataturk. Leaders such as Reza Shah in Iran and Colonel Nasser in Egypt followed similar paths: western-style development was still the aim. But as de Bellaigue points out, the aspirations of potentates were not always shared by the masses.
In charting the emergence of an alternative Muslim approach to the world, he summons up intriguing characters such the canny Iranian born Jamal al-Din Afghani, who travelled the world developing a spirit of pan-Islamism. Out of Egypt came Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Conan Doyle-loving Sayyid Qutb, whose studies in innocuous sounding Greeley, Colorado, left him frothing about American permissiveness while developing incisive ideas about the lack of spirituality at the heart of western civilisation.
In Iran a different spin came from Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, a former communist whose 1962 book Gharbzadegi (variously translated as Westoxication, Westernstruck and Occidentosis) has, de Bellaigue says, taken its place with Qutb’s Milestones and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth as one of the three most influential anti-western political tracts. Al-e-Ahmad argued that the West’s cult of the machine had undermined traditional village-based Quranic values.
Add to this a strong Shia sense of resistance to injustice, articulated by the sociologist Ali Shariati, and you have the wellsprings of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in 1979. Meanwhile, Qutb’s ideas were steeled by the concept of takfir, which held that a state or individual could be declared apostate and deserving of death. This disputed theory was adopted by al-Jihad, the group responsible for the assassination of President Sadat in 1981, and, more recently, by Isis.
De Bellaigue is happy to describe this as Counter-Enlightenment. But he is convinced there is a parallel story, and developments such as the moderate Hassan Rouhani becoming President of Iran show an underlying respect for democracy and the individual. He skilfully conveys the curious game – part confrontation, part balancing act — which has been played out between western dominion and Islamic Renaissance. While generally critical of the former, he has written a sweeping and hugely engaging book that throws much-needed light on modern Islam.