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‘The Islamic Enlightenment’ by Christopher de Bellaigue

Blog • Religion • Christopher de Bellaigue

The Islamic Enlightenment by Christopher de Bellaigue was shortlisted for our 2018 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize, along with five other non-fiction works that promote global cultural understanding. Taking us through 200 tumultuous years of Middle Eastern history, de Bellaigue looks beyond sensationalist headlines to foster a genuine understanding of modern Islam and Muslim culture.


One of the tensions that one meets repeatedly in the story of the Islamic Enlightenment is that between a progressive despot and a benighted popular will. In the case of the plague the benefits of the former become apparent. Without Muhammad Ali’s absolutism the plague could not have been eradicated in Egypt because the majority deplored the methods he employed and did much to obstruct them. In the event, his system bore fruit in barely a dozen years, as the figures showed (reliable body counts were a crucial part of the struggle against the plague). In 1841 the number of deaths in Alexandria from the plague was down to 5,848; for years later the figure was zero. With the suppression of the plague, of course, the obscurantists fell silent. Islam came onto the side of prevention, and the selfsame sanitation measures that had been denounces as heretical entered the routines of life.

Across the Mediterranean in Istanbul, Sultan Mahmoud had long meditated a campaign against the ‘angel of death’, but it wasn’t until the outbreak of 1836, which caused around 125,000 deaths in the empire’s European provinces alone, that he acted decisively. Remarkably, he enjoyed the support of several members of the ulema, including his own former doctor and the head of the imperial printing press, who had published arguments, religious and logical, in favour of quarantine. An even more decisive clerical intervention came in 1838, when the empire’s highest-ranking cleric, the sheikh ul-Islam, declared that ‘when a town has the plague, it is permitted to avert it from the wrath of God and take refuse in the bosom of his mercy’. With this fatwa, one of the most significant of Mahmoud’s reign, and coming just a year before his death, the bubo of fatalism was well and truly lanced. Measures derived from Europe – quarantine stations, plague hospitals and fumigation – were immediately put into action, with dramatic effects on mortality rates after 1844.

The plague had been a feature of Ottoman life for five hundred years. By around 1850, with a suddenness that must have been stunning, transforming attitudes to life and longevity, the Ottoman Empire became a plague-free zone. The end of the plague was bound up with the modernisation of medicine more broadly, fed in turn by the growing currency of secular views of mundane knowledge. In the words of a government report from the end of Mahmud’s reign:

All arts and trades are products of science. Religious knowledge serves salvation in the world to come, but science serves perfection of man in this world. Astronomy, for example, serves the progress of navigation and the development of commerce. The mathematical sciences lead to the orderly conduct of warfare as well as military administration. Innumerable new and useful inventions, like the use of steam, came into existence in this manner… through science one man can now do the work of a hundred. Trade and profit have become difficult in countries where people are ignorant of these sciences. Without science, the people cannot know the meaning of love for the state and fatherland. It is evident that the acquisition of science and skill comes above all other aims and aspirations of a state… nothing can be done without the acquisition of science.

This remarkable statement of faith in the aims of the Industrial Revolution, allied to a very Anglo-Saxon mercantilism, would not have been out of place in a speech at London’s Royal Society. But the principles of the Victorian age had taken two hundred years to form; for the Ottomans, old assumptions tumbled down in decades. Who would have thought that science would in so short a time divest itself of its ancient function as an aid to faith, and come to justify itself? Astronomy, for instance, had served the needs of prayer and the Ramadan fast – when not lurching into the dangerous territory of astrology. For a growing number of the sultan’s subjects the seven pillars of wisdom were no longer a literal truth; they had become a figure of speech.


From The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason, Vintage. © Christopher de Bellaigue, 2017

The Islamic Enlightenment was shortlisted for the 2018 Al-Rodhan Prize. Find out more about how to nominate for the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize 2019.

Christopher de Bellaigue previously worked as a journalist in south Asia and the Middle East, writing for the Economist, the Guardian and the New York Review of Books. He has written four books and has made several BBC television and radio programmes.

Blog • Religion • Christopher de Bellaigue