Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Islamic Enlightenment

I missed this when it first came out, but there's a Guardian long read purportedly about Islam and the Enlightenment. It's a slightly odd read, because its title, and presumably its intended point is:
Stop calling for a Muslim Enlightenment
The basis in the article itself for this is as follows:
Whenever jihadi groups carry out an atrocity, or – as is happening a lot these days, western foreign policy failures lead to large areas of the world coming under the sway of oafs who claim to be acting for God – the call goes up for a Muslim Enlightenment. The imputation of Védrine, the French schoolteachers, and thousands of other commentators is that various internal deficiencies have excluded Islam from this indispensable cultural and intellectual event, without which no culture can be considered modern. Such views cut across political borders; they would find sympathy at the BBC as well as in the editorial offices of the Sun. Islam needs to get with the programme.
This call, ubiquitous as it is, is wrongheaded, de Bellaigue argues, because Islamic countries have in fact embraced modernity, on their own terms, at least since the 19th century. In support of this he enters into a (genuinely) very interesting discursion into the paths towards modernity taken by Persia, Iraq & Egypt, including early travellers to the West and later innovations like newspapers and street lighting, munitions factories and nascent rights for women. To the extent that modernisation failed it was thanks to Western imperialism (and the establishment of Israel, natch). The article makes a point reasonably well - that countries in the Middle East have adopted the trappings of modern life.

But that's not what the article set out to argue. The intended argument was that Islam is in no need of an Enlightenment. Throughout the piece, Enlightenment and modernity are treated as synonyms. They are not. I am no philosopher, still less a theologian, but although the Enlightenment is seen as a precursor to the modern era in the West (the 18th century is often known as the Early Modern Period), it was a distinct philosophical movement with two key ideas: that reason and empirical observation should be preferred to deference and divine revelation; and that being human itself brought inalienable rights, distinct from traditional divisions of nationality or religion.

How is this relevant to Islam? This was, I think, best put by the Pope Emeritus in his speech at Regensburg in 2006 (about which I wrote this, 9 bloody years ago). The Pope was discussing the role of reason (more strictly, of the interplay of Christianity's hellenistic roots with Enlightenment thinking) in religion. He noted that the central plank of the Gospels is from the first verse of John. "In the Beginning was the Word". Logos, which means both 'word' and 'reason' is the essential nature of God. As the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologus put it "not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God's nature". This does not, however, read across to Islamic theology:
But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.
The argument that Islam (not Muslim countries, but Islam itself) needs an Enlightenment is based on the perception that Islam requires submission to faith (that's what the word means), not engagement with it. Its Holy Book is seen as direct divine revelation and therefore incapable of error (whereas Christian texts, albeit divinely inspired, are the work of men). While the direction of travel within Christianity has overwhelmingly been away from literalism, within Islam Quranic literalism is mainstream. Reason, which is so central a part of the 'Judaeo-Christian tradition', needs to play a much greater part in Islamic theology. If it did, then the more murderous aspects of Islamism would have an antipathetic force within Islam.

This may or may not be right (it's an argument for a theologian to make not me), but it is not an argument that can be refuted by the presence of street lamps in Cairo, or munitions factories (or centrifuges) in Tehran.

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