The Renaissance of Islam

In Western accounts of the Middle East since 1789, Islam is often treated as a primary impediment to the spread of technology, science, and modern democratic values in the region. As a review of the historical record demonstrates, nothing could be further from the truth--for Islam encourages, and even demands, that Muslims acquire knowledge and reform society.

In this respect, the modern Middle Eastern experience stands in stark contrast to that of medieval Europe, where Christianity was indeed a real obstacle to intellectual progress. In Europe, where it first arose, the ideology of 'secularism' gave direction to a lengthy effort to emancipate humans from the hold of a corrupt religious institution. When the same ideology was belatedly introduced into the Middle East late in the nineteenth century, it became a tool of domination used to weaken local religious institutions as part of an effort to consolidate the cultural and social power of despotic authorities.

 There was nothing inevitable about this development, as the record will show. In the first half of the nineteenth century, a variety of Muslim intellectuals responded warmly to the prospect of spreading technology, science, and democratic values into the Middle East, believing that modernization did not conflict with the established values and principles of Islamic law (Shariah). It was only later, and under the influence of a small group of Christian Arab intellectuals, that secularism was cast as the enemy of Islam--and turned into a tool of domination.

As a result of this unhappy experience with 'secularism,' the Middle East today is at a historic crossroads. A resurgent Islam at home with modernization promises a revival of free inquiry and technological progress. But it has been impeded by local despotic regimes that cling to the ideology of secularism--and by an American regime that feels threatened by any signs of a Muslim renaissance.

The first efforts to modernize the Middle East were a by-product of European involvement in the region. Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt between 1798 and 1801 dealt a humiliating blow to the Muslim Ummah, rather reminiscent of the Crusades more than five centuries earlier. Though it was brief, the French 'incursion' into the heart of the Arab world, the very center of darul-Islam, exposed the weakness of the Ottoman Empire and her scandalous retardation behind Europe.

The task of regaining Egypt and expelling the French expedition was assigned by the Ottoman sultan to an Albanian task force led by a former cigarette seller named Muhammad Ali (1769-1849). Egyptians greeted Ali as a liberator not only from the French but also from the tyrannical Ottoman governor, Khurshid Pasha. Thanks to his military successes, first against the French at Abu Qir in 1799 and then against the Fraserled English expedition in 1807, Ali emerged as Egypt's new governor. He promptly proceeded to establish a dynastic autocracy, one of the first in the Middle East to explicitly devote itself to 'modernization.'

Perhaps because he was European himself, or perhaps because he had vanquished two European armies, Muhammad Ali became obsessed with the pursuit of science, technology--and political power. Like two more recent Arab leaders, Jamal Abd al-Nassir of Egypt and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Ali embarked on a variety of ambitious industrialization projects. He dug irrigation canals, promoted cotton as a cash crop for export, centralized taxes, and established monopolies in industry and foreign trade. He hired European experts and professionals who helped him set up special schools and training facilities to educate and train army officers, state officials, and technicians.

In the meantime, on behalf of the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul, Ali sent his son Ibrahim to crush the expanding Wahhabi movement in Arabia between 1811 and 1819. He conquered the Sudan and quelled a rebellion in Greece. Emboldened by these successes, he seized Palestine and Syria. Alarmed by his growing power, French and British forces returned to the Middle East. In exchange for the hereditary governorship of Egypt for his line, Ali agreed to pare down his army.

At the same time, something similar was taking place on the eastern wing of what is today the Middle East. The second Qajar Shah Fath Ali, who ruled Iran from 1797 to 1834, found himself courted by the French and the British, who both wanted Iran to side with them against the Russians. His Azerbaijan crown prince, Abbas Mirza, sought Western training for Iranian forces and, as Muhammad Ali did, sent students abroad to improve the military. But the modernization of the military in Iran proved even more difficult than in Egypt, and under the Qajars, Iran lost more territory to the Russians.

The setbacks suffered in Iran and Egypt inevitably provoked debate over their causes. In both regions, the erratic and whimsical policies of despots made the systematic pursuit of technological capabilities difficult, if not impossible. (1) At the same time, despots like Muhammad Ali lashed out at the power of the ulama (Muslim scholars), fearing it posed a potential threat to their plans for modernization--and also to their political authority.

It was in this context that intellectuals in the Arab world began to debate the causes of the difficulties Muslim countries were having with modernization. Religion was of interest to such intellectuals--but not, oddly enough, as a barrier to progress.

Take the case of an Al-Azhar scholar by the name of Rifa'ah al-Tahtawi (180l-1873). His preoccupation with the question of modernization grew out of a stay in France, where he served as a religious guide for a group of Egyptian army cadets who were studying science and modern military technologies. The scion of a scholarly family, Tahtawi threw himself into the study of European culture with enthusiasm. He acquired a precise knowledge of the French language and read books on ancient history, Greek philosophy and mythology, geography, mathematics, logic, and, most importantly, the French thought of the eighteenth century--Voltaire, Rousseau's Social Contract, and other works. (2)

Returning home after five years, Tahtawi made no secret of his admiration for what post-revolution France had accomplished. He advocated introducing democracy into the Middle East. And he criticized those who opposed the idea of taking knowledge from Europe, saying: "Such people are deluded; for civilizations are turns and phases. These sciences were once Islamic when we were at the apex of our civilization. Europe took them from us and developed them further. It is now our duty to learn from them just as they learned from our ancestors." (3)

Still, as a religious scholar, Tahtawi insisted that Muslims should only borrow elements of European culture that did not conflict with the established values and principles of Shariah. In 1834, shortly after his return to Cairo from Paris, Tahtawi published his first book, Takhlis al-Ibriz Ila Talkhis Bariz. This summarized his observations of the manners and customs of the modern French, (4) and praised the concept of democracy as he saw it in France and as he witnessed its defense and reassertion through the 1830 revolution against King Charles X. (5)

Trying to show that democracy was compatible with the laws of Islam, he compared political pluralism to forms of ideological and jurisprudential pluralism that existed in Islam itself: "Religious freedom," he wrote,



 is the freedom of belief, of opinion and of  sect, provided it does not contradict the  fundamentals of religion. An example  would be the theological opinions of the  al-Asha'irah and the al-Matiridiyah; another  would be the opinions of leading jurists  within the doctrine of the branches. For  by following any one of these schools, a  human feels secure. The same would apply  to the freedom of political practice and  opinion by leading administrators, who  endeavor to interpret and apply rules and  provisions in accordance with the laws of  their own countries. Kings and ministers  are licensed in the realm of politics to pursue  various routes that in the end serve  one purpose: good administration and justice. (6)    Tahtawi was not an isolated figure. Other nineteenth-century Islamic reformists--including Khairuddin Al-Tunisi (1810-1899), Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani (1838-1897), Abdel Rahman Al-Kawakibi (1854-1902), and Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905)--were often referred to as 'Muslim modernists' and followed Tahtawi in stressing that Muslims could benefit from European successes without undermining Islamic values or culture. (7) Typical of this generation of Muslim modernizers was Al-Tunisi, leader of the nineteenth-century reform movement in Tunisia. In 1867, he formulated a general plan for political and administrative reform in the Arab world in a book entitled Aqwam al-Masalik fi Taqwim al-Mamalik (The Straight Path to Reformation of Governments). He appealed to politicians and scholars to explore all possible means to improve the status of the community and develop its civility, and cautioned the general Muslim public against shunning the experiences of other nations on the misconceived basis that all the writings, inventions, experiences, and attitudes of non-Muslims should simply be rejected. He further called for an end to absolutist rule: "Kindling the Ummah's potential liberty through the adoption of sound administrative procedures and enabling it to have a say in political affairs," he argued, "would put it on a faster track toward civilization, would limit the rule of despotism, and would stop the influx of European civilization that is sweeping everything along its path." (8)

Another of the Muslim modernizers, Al-Afghani, called for adherence to Islamic fundamentals combined with a repudiation of despotism. In his view, a key cause of the decline in the Muslim world was the absence of 'adl (justice) and shura (council). (9) The remedy, he believed, was republican government: the people of the Arab world ought to be allowed to assume a larger political and social role by participating through shura and elections. (10) "For those governed by a republican form of government," argued Al-Afghani, "it is a source of happiness and pride. Those governed by it alone deserve to be called human; for a true human being is only subdued by a true law that is based on the foundations of justice and that is designed to govern man's moves, actions, transactions, and relations with others in a manner that elevates him to the pinnacle of true happiness." (11)

From Tahtawi to Al-Afghani, Muslim scholars of the nineteenth century seemed to have had no doubt that the failure of the Muslims to modernize had more to do with a lack of freedom than a lack of technology. The latter was seen as a fruit of the former, and in any case Islam was not responsible for the absence of either.

In the later years of the nineteenth century, a quite different analysis of how to modernize the Middle East was elaborated by a smaller but quite influential group of Christian modernists. Among them were such important figures as Shibli Shumayyil (1850-1917), Farah Antun (1874-1922), Georgie Zaidan (1861-1914), Ya'qub Suruf (1852-1917), Salama Musa (1887-1958), and Nicola Haddad (1878-1954). The real problem with the Arab world, they argued, was its culture--and, specifically, its dominant religion. Most of these men had been educated at the Syrian Protestant College and then settled in Egypt, which was the cultural hub of the Arab world. Their ideas were propagated through Al-Muqtataf and Al-Hilal, Arabic publications founded respectively in 1876 and 1892. These journals promoted a brand of aggressive nationalism, in which love of country and fellow countrymen would transcend all other social ties, even those of religion. (12)

Through their copious writings, these thinkers laid the foundations of an indigenous brand of secularism in the Arab world. Praising the liberal thought of France and England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and condemning the hegemony of tradition over the human mind, they stressed that reason should set the standard for human conduct. For modernization to take place, they demanded that only traditions that were compatible with this objective should remain. (13) The main aim of these intellectuals was to lay the basis of a secular state in which Muslims and Christians could participate on a footing of complete equality. (14)

After graduating from the Syrian Protestant College, the oldest member of the group, Shibli Shumayyil, went to Paris to study medicine. He is reputed to have first introduced the theories of Darwin to the Arab world through his writings in Al-Muqtataf. He belonged to the late nineteenth-century movement that saw science as the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe, even as a form of worship. He believed that the religion of science necessitated a declaration of war on older religions. For him, social unity was essential for a general will to exist and involved the separation of religion from political life, since religion was a cause of division. He insisted that nations grew stronger only as religion grew weaker, and pointed out that this was true of Europe, which had only become powerful and truly civilized once the Reformation and the French Revolution had broken the hold of religious leaders on society. (15) He criticized both shuyukh (Islamic scholars) and Christian priests for resisting progress and development. (16)

Farah Antun, who migrated from Tripoli to Cairo in 1897, claimed that the conflict between science and religion could be solved--but only by assigning each to its proper sphere. He dedicated his book to "those men of sense in every community and every religion of the east who have seen the danger of mingling the world with religion in an age like ours, and have come to demand that their religion should be placed on one side in a sacred and honoured place, so that they will be able really to unite, and to flow with the tide of the new European civilisation, in order to be able to compete with those who belong to it, for otherwise it will sweep them all away and make them the subjects of others." (17) Antun laid special emphasis on the separation of temporal and spiritual authorities. If European countries were now more tolerant than Arab, he argued, it was not because they were Christian, but rather because science and philosophy had driven out religious fanaticism and a separation of religion and politics had taken place. (18)

By the end of the nineteenth century, a growing number of Muslim intellectuals fell under the influence of the Christian modernizers. For example, Qasim Amin (1865-1908) argued that the problem with the Muslims was their backwardness and resistance to social change. "Perfection," he wrote,

 is not to be found in the past, even the Islamic  past; it can only be found, if at all, in  the distant future. The path to perfection  is science, and in the present age it is Europe  which is most advanced in the sciences  and therefore also on the path to  social perfection. Europe is ahead of us in  every way, and it is not true that while  they are materially better than us we are  morally better. The Europeans are morally  more advanced; their upper and lower  classes, it is true, are rather lacking in sexual  virtue, but the middle class has high  morals in every sense, and all classes alike  have social virtues. (19)    Educated in law in France, and a judge by profession, Amin became famous for his campaign for the emancipation of women. His call on women, in his 1899 book entitled Tahrir al-Mar'ah (The Emancipation of Women), to take off the traditional Islamic head cover, which he believed obscured their intellectual as well as physical abilities, invited angry response from the ulama of late-nineteenth-century Egypt. He responded to his critics in 1906 with a book entitled Al-Mar'ah al-Jadidah (The Modern Woman). Amin's contemporary Ahmad Lutfi Al-Sayyid (1872-1963) was similarly eager to leave Islam behind. Religion, Islamic or not, was relevant to his thought only as one of the constituent factors of society. (20) Seen as a leading figure in the national movement in Egypt, Al-Sayyid made a significant impact on the agendas of social and educational institutions in modern Egypt. A lawyer and a judge by profession, he served in successive Egyptian governments in various positions, and his ideas first found a platform when he became chief editor of Al-Jaridah in 1906. In 1925, he was appointed dean of Egyptian University and, three years later, education minister. Moving back and forth between the government and the university, he was appointed minister of foreign affairs in 1946 and, immediately afterward, deputy prime minister. 
But the most important of the indigenous Muslim secularists, by far, was Ali Abdel Raziq (1888-1966), a graduate of Al-Azhar and Oxford whose key work appeared one year after the abolition of the caliphate in 1924. This work--Al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukm: Bahth fil-Khilafah wal-Hukumah fil-Islam (Islam and the Fundamentals of Governance: A Thesis on Caliphate and Government in Islam)--turned out to be one of the most controversial works in modern Islamic history. In it, Raziq denied the existence of a political order in Islam and claimed that the Prophet had never established one, that it had not been part of his mission to found a state. In turn, Raziq's work became a main source of ammunition in the vigorous campaign, launched by 'secularists' in later times, against the validity of Shariah. The book pioneered the idea of rejecting conventional interpretations and replacing them with innovations based mostly on Orientalists' opinions and writings on Islam. (21)

But the pioneers of Arab secularism founded the principles of their thought on a number of incorrect assumptions. They likened Islam to Christianity and assumed it to be just another religion that could, or even should, be restricted to the spiritual sphere of human life. They assumed Islam's spiritual authority hindered progress and prohibited freedom of thought, and should therefore be prevented from interfering in temporal matters. But these assumptions about Islam's conflicts with logic or science were merely extrapolations from the Euro-Christian context. The presupposition that Islam and Christianity held identical positions on the freedom of thought and the emancipation of the mind led to the conclusion that, just as Europe had rid itself of the influence of religion as a prelude to progress, the Arabs needed to constrain Islam. And Westernization was said to be the sole means of modernization, which further blurred the distinction between secularization and modernization. (22)

What the secularists have advocated has been pursued with varying intensity across the Muslim world since the start of the twentieth century. Secular nationalist elites took over from the colonial authorities and claimed to embark on a quest for progress, development, and industrialization. In territorial states created within artificial borders, mostly by colonial power at the turn of the twentieth century, Islam has been nationalized, marginalized, and suppressed in the name of reaching out to modernity and catching up with the advanced world. If anyone is in doubt, consider the achievements of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk of Turkey (1881-1938), Ahmad Sukarno (1902-1970) and then Suharto of Indonesia (1921-), Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia (1903-2000), Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt (1918-1970), Houari Boumedienne of Algeria (1925-1978), Hafiz Asad of Syria (1930-2000), and Saddam Hussein of Iraq (1937-).

What do they share in common? They are secularist dictators who succeeded in building huge corrupt bureaucracies and failed miserably in their fiscal and industrial policies.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Arab writers, who could see salvation in nothing short of espousing European modernity, failed to recognize that Islam is a religion that continues to shape and influence the lives of its adherents, who believe its values and principles are aimed at liberating mankind, establishing justice and equality, encouraging research and innovation, and guaranteeing freedom of thought, expression, and worship.

Like their nineteenth-century Muslim forebears, many contemporary Arab intellectuals believe that Islam is not incompatible with modernization. We argue that the scientific and technological underpinnings of modern civilization are reducible to categories of knowledge and practice that Muslims can learn and benefit from without having to give up their cultural identity. (23) We also believe that Islam is consistent with republican and democratic forms of self-rule.

Indeed, today Arab secularists routinely try to justify the suppression of democratic trends. Their attitude toward the aborted Algerian legislative elections is illustrative. The victory of the Islamic Salvation Front was a clear indication that the majority of the Algerian people sought a change after three decades of enforced secularization. Free democratic elections have proved secularization to be unpopular with the masses.

Fearing defeat, contemporary secularists appealed to the army to intervene. They cheered as tanks crushed the ballot boxes and as thousands of citizens were apprehended and jailed in detention camps set up in the desert. They claimed they were protecting democracy from the majority, because according to them the majority could not be trusted.

Islam is a divinely ordained set of commandments, values, and directives. Its claims are not incompatible with those of science, technology, and democratic self-government. Its appeal is profound and profoundly popular. And it is not liable to be vanquished anytime soon by a form of secularism that has been foisted by colonizers and despots on Muslims in order to weaken, if not destroy, the basis of our social order, and render us colonizable and controllable.

(1) Antoine B. Zahlan, "The Impact of Technology Change on the Nineteenth-Century Arab World" in Charles E. Butterworth and I. William Zartman, eds., Between the State and Islam (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 31-58.

(2) Albert Habib Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1789-1939 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 69.

(3) R. S. Ahmad, Al-Din Wal-Dawlah Wal-Thawrah (Cairo: Al-Dar Al-Sharqiyah, 1989), 34. Translation from Arabic source into English is mine.

(4) Hourani, Arabic Thought, 70-71.

(5) M. S. Al-Dajani, "Tatawur Mafahim al-Dimuqratiyah fil-Fikr al-Arabi al-Hadith" in Azmat al-Dimuqratiyah fil-Watan al-'Arabi (Beirut: Arab Unity Studies Center, 1984), 121.

(6) Faruq Abdessalam, al-Ahzab al-Siyasiyah fil-Islam (Cairo: Qalyoob Publishing House, 1978). Translation from Arabic source into English is mine.

(7) R. Ghannouchi, al-Hurriyat al-'Ammah fil-Dawlah al-Islamiyah (Beirut: Arab Unity Studies Center, 1993), 252.

(8) Khairuddin Al-Tunisi, Aqwam al-Masalik fi Taqwim al-Mamalik (Tunis: Al-Dar Al-Tunisiyah, 1972), 185. Translation from Arabic source into English is mine.

(9) Al-Dajani, "Tatawur Mafahim," 123.

(10) Ahmad, Al-Din Wal-Dawlah, 44-47.

(11) Abdulbasit Hasan, Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani (Cairo: Wahbah, 1982), 267-268. Translation from Arabic source into English is mine.

(12) Hourani, Arabic Thought, 246-247.

(13) Ahmad, Al-Din Wal-Dawlah, 51.

(14) Hourani, Arabic Thought, 256-257.

(15) Ibid., 250-252.

(16) Ahmad, Al-Din Wal-Dawlah, 53.

(17) Hourani, Arabic Thought, 254-255.

(18) Ibid., 256-257.

(19) Ibid., 164-169.

(20) Ibid., 170-172.

(21) M. Al-Bahiyy, Al-Fikr al-Islami al-Hadith wa-Silatuhu bil-Isti'mar al-Gharbi, 12th ed. (Cairo: Maktabat Wahbah, 1991), 206-209.

(22) For more details see Azzam Tamimi and John L. Esposito, eds., Islam and Secularism in the Middle East (London: Hurst; New York: New York University Press, 2000).

(23) R. Ghannouchi, "Islam and the West," a lecture given at the Center for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster, October 1992.

Azzam S. Tamimi is director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London and senior lecturer at the Markfield Institute of Higher Studies in Leicester. A native of Hebron, he is a writer and commentator on Palestinian affairs and on human rights and democracy in the Muslim world. He is the author of "Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism" (2001) and the editor of four books, including "Islam and Secularism in the Middle East" (2000).


Publication Information: Article Title: The Renaissance of Islam. Contributors: Azzam S. Tamimi - author. Journal Title: Daedalus. Volume: 132. Issue: 3. Publication Year: 2003. Page Number: 51+.

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