‘Oriental history ,’ the German philologist Johann Jakob Reiske wrote in 1747, ‘is very worthy of the study of an honest mind, and does not deserve any less than European history to be taught publicly in universities.’ The book in which these words appear – Dissertatio de Principibus Muhammedanis qui aut eruditione aut ab amore literarum et literatorum claruerunt (‘Dissertation on Islamic princes who shone for their erudition or for their love of letters and lettered men’) – was short, widely available and accessible to any European man or woman who could read Latin. As Alexander Bevilacqua shows in his erudite and eloquent book The Republic of Arabic Letters, Reiske was just one of a number of European scholars in the hundred years or so after 1650 who devoted a good deal of their time to learning Arabic and other Near Eastern languages, to reading and publishing Arabic, Turkish and Persian texts, and to revising the negative view of Islam that Europeans had inherited from the medieval period.
Bevilacqua refers to that period as the Enlightenment. As the intellectual historian John Robertson pointed out in The Enlightenment: A Short Introduction (2015), two distinct conceptions of the European Enlightenment are currently in circulation. According to the first, commonly held by philosophers and public intellectuals, the Enlightenment was a coherent project of religious secularisation, philosophical and scientific modernisation, and political liberalisation. For some, this metanarrative is a cause for celebration (Steven Pinker, for example, in his recent book Enlightenment Now); others – religious opponents of secularisation (Alasdair MacIntyre), or Marxist critics of liberal modernity (Theodor Adorno) – are more condemnatory. The second conception is typically held by historians, who have largely abandoned grand narratives of the Enlightenment. As they see it, the evidence is too complicated, and the totalising approach conflates political and intellectual developments that often had little to do with each other; indeed, many of those we refer to as Enlightenment thinkers were not politically or religiously ‘progressive’ in any way. Some historians have gone so far as to suggest that ‘Enlightenment’ should be abandoned as a term of historical explanation.
Bevilacqua uses the term, but if he were to replace it throughout his book with ‘18th century’, it would make little difference. What his meticulous scholarship reveals is that between the mid-17th and mid-18th centuries, the engagement with Islam really did transform Europeans’ understanding not only of Islam but also of their own Christian faith. Since the 14th century, European elites had been engaged in a process of intellectual recovery: first of the Latin classics of antiquity, and then the Greek. In the 16th century, partly in response to the Reformation, they studied Hebrew just as intensively, not least to obtain a proper historical understanding of Judaism, from which, as they gradually came to appreciate, Christianity had emerged.
In the 17th century, it seemed that the study of Arabic – as well as other languages, including Syriac, Ge’ez and Coptic – was a natural, even essential, continuation of this process. Scholars believed that a knowledge of these languages would enhance their understanding of Hebrew, but Arabic was also vital for missionary activity, which greatly intensified in the 17th century. Pioneers such as the Dutch Thomas Erpenius and Jacob Golius – with the help of native speakers, usually Arab-speaking Christians from North Africa – learned Arabic and produced the first usable grammars and dictionaries. In the generation that followed, an enormous amount of work was undertaken. As Bevilacqua notes, while ‘attaining an objective view of Islamic culture was not an explicit goal,’ it was nonetheless the case that ‘in their explorations, scholars roamed well beyond the dictates of “utility”, narrowly construed.’ This is an important insight. The familiar story of the Enlightenment is one of brave, heterodox pioneers battling to introduce innovations against the repressive forces of Christian orthodoxy. Bevilacqua, in line with other recent scholarship, takes a different view. The true story was ‘one of confessional, erudite scholars, both Catholic and Protestants, who, as an outgrowth of their learned interests, laboriously reinterpreted the history and meanings of Islam’. The image of Islam inherited from medieval writers was polemical and inaccurate. The Quran was barely known (only partial or poor translations were available), and mocked when it was. Muhammad was routinely dismissed as an ‘impostor’ who had tricked his followers into slavish submission with a mixture of base incentives – the sensual paradise – and lies. The story of one such lie survives in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part I: ‘Was Mahomet inspired with a dove?/Thou with an eagle art inspired then.’ Muhammad was said on one occasion to have put corn into his ear to attract a dove, which he then claimed was the Holy Spirit delivering him prophecies.
The scholars of the 17th and 18th centuries, writing in Latin and sometimes in the vernacular, were in a position to reject these misrepresentations of Islam not only because they had learned Arabic and other Near Eastern languages, but also because they had far more material to work with. The Oriental collections of the great European libraries expanded massively in this period, in part because of acquisitions made during trade missions by the Dutch and English East India Companies, the English Levant Company and the Chamber of Commerce of Marseille, but also because of the active involvement of powerful individuals. Louis XIV’s famous minister of finances, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, sponsored scholars to seek out manuscripts in the East. In England, Archbishop Laud insisted that every returning Levant Company ship bring with it an Arabic or Persian manuscript, a policy that helped to make Oxford one of the world’s most prominent centres of Oriental scholarship. These weren’t acts of colonial pillage of the sort that European states would conduct in the 19th century. They didn’t have to be: Istanbul had plenty of booksellers which dealt in manuscripts, as well as commercial lending libraries, which did not then exist in the Christian West.
A key figure here was Edward Pococke (1604-91). In the 1630s he worked as the chaplain to the English Levant Company in Aleppo, where he studied with local Muslim scholars and collected manuscripts; on his return, Laud appointed him the first professor of Arabic at Oxford. His Specimen Historiae Arabum (‘A sample of the history of the Arabs’) was published in 1650; it was a translation of, and commentary on, two excerpts from the Mukhtasar fî’l-Duwal, a chronicle by the 13th-century Syriac Christian Gregory Bar Hebraeus. As Bevilacqua puts it, the volume endowed the history of the Arabs and of Islam ‘with the same dignity traditionally afforded to that of the Greeks and Romans’. It was Pococke who showed that the dove story had no Arabic or Muslim source. Among those following in his footsteps were English Protestants like Simon Ockley, who wrote about Muslim expansion under the first three caliphs after Muhammad; French Catholics such as Eusèbe Renaudot, whose manuscript histories of Islam contain a positive assessment of the 12th-century Kurdish prince Saladin, who fought Richard the Lionheart; and Reiske, who called for the incorporation of Islamic history into university curricula. ‘We wonder at the rapid progress of the victories of Alexander the Great, greater than anyone might conceive,’ he wrote in 1747. ‘Yet why do we not wonder at the much greater men than Alexander in the Orient, not just one or another, but several in number, such as Tughril [the founder of the Seljuk Empire], Gengis Khan, Timur [Tamerlane], two great conquerors of the whole Orient from farthest China to Egypt.’
Bevilacqua writes that such scholars ‘decentred their own history’ and ‘raised questions about the undue neglect of non-Western traditions and the place of the West in human history writ large’. But they did so without being irreligious or anti-Christian. They treated other religions sympathetically because ‘to be effective, polemic needed philology,’ philology that would then take on a life of its own. It is an instance of the humanities, rather than the natural sciences or philosophy, being at the heart of intellectual change. Nowhere is this clearer than in the history of European engagement with the Quran. After many failed attempts, the first full Arabic Quran with a translation and notes was published in Padua in 1698, by the Catholic priest Lodovico Marracci. He undertook the task – which took up much of his long life – out of a belief that it would help missionaries to refute Islam, yet his rigour, and his insistence that anti-Islamic argument should be based on informed dialogue rather than easily dismissed polemic, led him to produce the first philologically sound treatment of the Quran in the West. Marracci put Christian sources to one side in favour of a wide range of Islamic materials, made available to him primarily in Rome, then the most Arabophone city in Christian Europe owing to the presence of Levantine Christians brought there by the Catholic Church. He even argued that Islam was more ‘rational’ than Christianity, in that it didn’t contain among its fundamental truths anything like the mystery of the Trinity. The influence of Marracci’s edition was far-reaching; it informed the English translation produced in the 1730s by George Sale, which was read by such figures as Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson.
Bevilacqua devotes a chapter to the astonishing French scholar Barthélemy d’Herbelot, whose vast Bibliothèque orientale (1697) made the writings of scores of Arabic, Persian and Turkish authors available to European writers for the first time. Edward Said, in Orientalism (1978), described it as the archetypal early example of Western intellectual imperialism: ‘The author imposes a disciplinary order upon the material he has worked on … Not only is the Orient accommodated to the moral exigencies of Western Christianity; it is also circumscribed by a series of attitudes and judgments that send the Western mind, not first to Oriental sources for correction and verification, but rather to other Orientalist works.’ Bevilacqua doesn’t refer to Said directly, but his painstaking reconstruction of the composition of d’Herbelot’s book is a corrective to Said’s hastiness. As he shows, d’Herbelot consciously sought ‘to offer a vision of Islamic history and letters as unmediated as his powers could afford’, relying on Arabic, Persian and Turkish sources and deliberately excluding almost all European books about Asian topics. The Bibliothèque’s alphabetical organisation, which Said particularly resented as a supposed Western colonial imposition, was in fact derived from the Ottoman scholar Kâtip Çelebi’s Kashf al-ẓunūn ‘an asāmī al-kutub wa‘l-funūn (‘The clearing of doubts in the names of books and arts’). Although d’Herbelot was a devout Christian, he was committed to correcting European misapprehensions: ‘The reader shall judge,’ he wrote, ‘whether the Orientals are as barbarous and as ignorant as public opinion would suggest.’
Can any historical model of Enlightenment be applied to the Islamic world itself? This is the question posed by the journalist Christopher de Bellaigue. He believes that it can, and that it should. Frustrated with today’s patronising calls in the West for an Islamic Enlightenment, he declares that ‘non-Muslims and even some Muslims who urge an Enlightenment on Islam are opening the door on a horse that bolted long ago.’ He sticks closely to the old, philosophers’ definition of Enlightenment. For him the term is more or less interchangeable with liberal modernity, and everything that entails: secularisation, democratisation, industrialisation, respect for science and evidence-based medicine, women’s rights and so on. His model for ‘modernity’ is the contemporary West, and his aim is to show that the Islamic Middle East – those areas that now form the states of Turkey, Iran and Egypt – had its own modernising Enlightenment during the 19th century.
According to de Bellaigue, the reform of the Muslim world began in earnest in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in response to a protracted military and cultural encounter with Europe. The Napoleonic conquest and short occupation of Egypt, and the Russian defeat of Ottoman and Iranian forces (followed in the Iranian case by tactical anti-Russian alliances with France and Britain) brought home the need for structural change, above all in military organisation. A series of leaders – Muhammad Ali in Egypt, Sultan Mahmud II in Istanbul, Abbas Mirza in Persia – attempted military reforms, but ran up against the need for better general education and a concerted engagement with Western ideas. The result was a series of cultural and ideological changes: in medicine, clerical opposition to dissection was overturned; the Ottomans circumscribed the powers of sharia courts; in Tunisia, slavery was abolished in 1846 (nearly twenty years before the United States). There was a steady diminishing of the harem; literate women could get jobs in nursing and teaching; by the 1890s, for the Egyptian middle classes, ‘it went from being socially unacceptable to educate one’s daughter to unacceptable not to do so.’
De Bellaigue combines accounts of structural change with tales of individual Enlightenment. His favourite examples involve men like the well-travelled Persian journalist Mirza Saleh, who went to England on a state-sponsored trip in 1815 and wrote a journal about his experiences in London and Devonshire – including a breathless description of holding hands with his host’s daughter – before returning home to become a teacher, diplomat and newspaper proprietor. The Egyptian Rifaa al-Tahtawi, a theologian, was also sent on an official mission to Europe, in his case to Paris in the 1820s – its postal system was, he wrote in his travelogue, ‘one of the most magnificent things imaginable’. He went on to found Egypt’s first newspaper and a school of languages, as well as starting up an extensive translation project. He advocated gender equality in education, citing Hadiths indicating that the Prophet’s wives had been literate.
Rifaa’s faith wasn’t troubled by his experiences. As far as he was concerned, French Catholicism ‘was a tissue of logical impossibilities presided over by a sexually repressed priesthood that has unaccountably given itself the right to forgive sins’. The French Revolution had, he thought, been basically anarchic. But like the European scholars considered by Bevilacqua, Rifaa’s commitments did not prevent him from expressing genuine curiosity about the innovations of foreigners, whose benefits he promoted on his return to Cairo. ‘Although the intellectual relationship between France and Egypt had been established on unequal terms,’ de Bellaigue writes, ‘the assumptions of European colonisation and its effects had not yet taken hold.’
Intellectual and cultural innovation must, however, coexist with hard economic reality. The rapid expansion of such public utilities as railways, water and gas often relied on European private investment; rulers wishing to modernise paid for arms, palaces and trips abroad by means of credit that heavily indebted the whole region. In the final quarter of the 19th century, Turkey and Egypt defaulted and their economies were seized by foreign officials; Egypt was occupied by the British in 1882. This, along with the importing of European-style nationalism, stirred anti-Western sentiment. Yet de Bellaigue insists that this was a golden period of Enlightenment in the Middle East. ‘A steadily growing elite of professionals and administrators perceived that the terms of human existence were being drafted anew,’ he writes, ‘and it is a remarkable fact that in Cairo in particular it was easier then to put forward radical and irreligious views that it is now.’
This striking conclusion is an implicit response to two rival claims. The first is that there hasn’t been an Islamic Enlightenment, and that Islam remains in need of fundamental reform of the sort that Europe underwent between the 16th and 19th centuries. (De Bellaigue doesn’t tell us who he thinks makes the first claim, but one candidate is the Somali-born Dutch-American activist and former politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who in Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, published in 2015, argued that the atrocities committed by today’s jihadis are of a piece with Islam as it has been for much of its history.) The second claim de Bellaigue opposes is that the importing of Western values was always a form of cultural imperialism. Here, to take one example, he discusses the Persian periodical Kaveh, founded in 1916 by ‘a group of like-minded émigrés’, which dealt mainly with scientific, historical and literary topics concerning Iranian cultural heritage. As he says, when Kaveh referred to works of Western Orientalist scholarship, it wasn’t ‘with the intention of denouncing their authors as part of a sinister plot of subjugation, but out of regret for the lack of Iranian researchers with similar competences and interests’. This should not be understood as an instance of Westernisation; rather, it was one of cultural mixture and adaptation. Some of de Bellaigue’s most interesting passages chart the mutation of European political terminology as it was incorporated into Arabic; the ways, for example, in which ‘freedom’ was initially associated with the term hurriya, recommended by Islamic tradition in relation to the manumission of slaves. In this and other respects, ‘an Islamic Enlightenment did indeed take place, under influence of the West, but finding its own form.’
De Bellaigue is most comfortable in the 19th century, where his account is nuanced and rich in detail. By contrast, he can be dismissive of pre-19th century Islamic intellectual culture, especially under the Ottomans, reiterating Western clichés in his assertions that ‘Islam fell victim to the same superstition and defensiveness that had beset much of Europe in medieval times,’ and that ‘the civilisation of Islam mouldered and decayed.’ Such views were rejected even by 17th-century Europeans, as Bevilacqua’s book documents. Some of his remarks about the supposed Counter-Enlightenment of the 20th century are disputable too. Why, he asks, didn’t Middle Eastern Islam take the path of Western liberalism? The first decade of the 20th century had, after all, seen moves towards constitutionalism in Iran and Turkey. His answer is that the First World War, the subsequent dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and the increasing resentment of Western colonialism halted this progress in its tracks. Cycles developed in which power alternated between military strongmen and religious fanatics, and militarised Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood began to spring up.
The negative effects of colonialism and Western opportunism have doubtless been extensive, and include their role in the rise of radical Islamism. But in focusing on these factors, there is a danger of stripping Muslims themselves of agency, and of neglecting the role of native intellectual traditions. De Bellaigue has little to say, for example, about Wahhabism, the rigid Islamism of Saudi Arabia that has had a significant influence throughout the Middle East, and which developed autonomously. When he does discuss ‘un-Enlightened’ strands of Islam, he tends to downplay the significance of religion itself in favour of psychological explanation, implying for instance that Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), perhaps the key ideologist of Sunni political Islamism and the single figure most responsible for hardening the Muslim Brotherhood into a militant movement, was driven above all not by faith but by sexual frustration. This seems to me a misrepresentation. Qutb, who was executed by Nasser, presented himself as part of a long Islamic political tradition that included the jihad against non-sharia compliant Muslims by Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), who had applied it against the Mongol conquerors. Qutb also bears a heavy responsibility for the rise of Islamist political antisemitism in the 20th century. Similarly, de Bellaigue can be cursory in his treatment of the motivations of ordinary men and women who supported either military or theocratic rule. Members of the Devotees of Islam, the Shiite fundamentalist group who assassinated the Iranian prime minister Hasan Ali Mansur in 1965 and were foot soldiers in the revolution that brought Aytollah Khomeini to power in 1979, are dismissed as ‘goons’.
It might have brought some nuance to de Bellaigue’s comparative argument if he had said more about the continuing influence of Christianity in Western Europe and America. Early Christians, of necessity, had to emphasise the submissive or apolitical nature of their movement. The consequence was that when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, its legal codes and mechanisms did not replace secular Roman law, making the later separation of church and state easier than it might have been. As de Bellaigue notes, the common Western characterisation of sharia law as totalising and inherently theocratic misrepresents a wide-ranging intellectual tradition, yet historically Muslims have tended to resist secular understandings of the relationship between law and religion even under non-religious rule. De Bellaigue cites the example of the Egyptian scholar and qadi (religious judge) Ali Abdel Razeq, who in 1925, a year after Atatürk shocked the Muslim world by abolishing the caliphate, argued that ‘Muhammad’s sole function had been a prophetic one, and that he had not made a system of law that would be the basis for human government.’ His reward was to be stripped of his degree and judicial post.
One of the most valuable lessons of both books, Bevilacqua’s especially, is that understandings of the alien are most effectively transformed not by noisy intellectuals, but by diligent scholars. It is commonly assumed that it was the great thinkers of the High Enlightenment, Voltaire and Gibbon in particular, who challenged Europeans to adopt a more positive view of Islamic history. But it turns out that both of them borrowed almost all their ideas from the scholars, now forgotten, writing in the century before (neither of them could read Arabic). When the philosophers and intellectuals added something of their own, it was often wrong, and sometimes damaging. Voltaire perpetuated the myth of Ottoman backwardness; Gibbon made his harsh judgments on Islamic civilisation – he said it lacked ‘the spirit of inquiry and toleration’ – when he departed from the findings of his scholarly predecessors. Later, in the heyday of colonialism, the worst culprits of intellectual Orientalism weren’t scholars of Islam, but armchair comparatists such as Max Weber. Intellectuals have a tendency to overrate the importance of other intellectuals in the history of social change. But to the extent that thinkers can play a part, what the history of Western Islamic scholarship teaches us is that the greatest leaps of understanding occurred not through the work of the polemicists and public intellectuals who dismiss scholarly pedantry but through the efforts of the pedants themselves.