Summary and book reviews of The Islamic Enlightenment by Christopher de Bellaigue

The Islamic Enlightenment

The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times

by Christopher de Bellaigue

The Islamic Enlightenment by Christopher de Bellaigue
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  • Published:
    Apr 2017, 432 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts

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Book Summary

A revelatory and game-changing narrative that rewrites everything we thought we knew about the modern history of the Islamic world.

With majestic prose, Christopher de Bellaigue presents an absorbing account of the political and social reformations that transformed the lands of Islam in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Flying in the face of everything we thought we knew, The Islamic Enlightenment becomes an astonishing and revelatory history that offers a game-changing assessment of the Middle East since the Napoleonic Wars.

Beginning his account in 1798, de Bellaigue demonstrates how Middle Eastern heartlands have long welcomed modern ideals and practices, including the adoption of modern medicine, the emergence of women from seclusion, and the development of democracy. With trenchant political and historical insight, de Bellaigue further shows how the violence of an infinitesimally small minority is in fact the tragic blowback from these modernizing processes.

Structuring his groundbreaking history around Istanbul, Cairo, and Tehran, the three main loci of Islamic culture, de Bellaigue directly challenges ossified perceptions of a supposedly benighted Muslim world through the forgotten, and inspiring, stories of philosophers, anti-clerics, journalists, and feminists who opened up their societies to political and intellectual emancipation. His sweeping and vivid account includes remarkable men and women from across the Muslim world, including Ibrahim Sinasi, who brought newspapers to Istanbul; Mirza Saleh Shirzi, whose Persian memoirs describe how the Turkish harems were finally shuttered; and Qurrat al-Ayn, an Iranian noble woman, who defied her husband to become a charismatic prophet.

What makes The Islamic Enlightenment particularly germane is that non-Muslim pundits in the post-9/11 era have repeatedly called for Islam to subject itself to the transformations that the West has already achieved since the Enlightenment?the absurd implication being that if Muslims do not stop reading or following the tenets of the Qur'an and other holy books, they will never emerge from a benighted state of backwardness. The Islamic Enlightenment, with its revolutionary argument, completely refutes this view and, in the process, reveals the folly of Westerners demanding modernity from those whose lives are already drenched in it.

Introduction

At Lowood School for girls, in the reign of King George III of England, an ill-used, orphaned teacher called Jane Eyre lies abed thinking about her future.

'I have served here eight years; now all I want is to serve elsewhere. Can I not get so much of my own will? Is not the thing feasible? Yes – yes – the end is not so difficult; if only I had brain active enough to ferret out the means of attaining it.'

I sat up in bed by way of arousing this sad brain: it was a chilly night; I covered my shoulders with a shawl, and then I proceeded to think again with all my might.

'What do I want? A new place, in a new house, amongst new faces, under new circumstances . . . How do people do to get a new place? They apply to friends, I suppose: I have no friends. There are many others who have no friends, who must look for themselves and be their own helpers; and what is their resource?'

I could not tell: nothing answered me; I then ordered ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

In this comprehensive and well-researched history, de Bellaigue examines the evolution of Islamic thought and Mideast politics over almost two centuries, viewed through the eyes of some of its most revolutionary thinkers. This remarkably vivid account has something for Islamic scholars and lay readers alike. It is accessible, not requiring a wealth of prior knowledge, and detailed, populated by many lesser-known historical personages. Those seeking to understand the hornet's nest of Middle Eastern politics, conceived from the union of Islamic dogma and Imperialist meddling, could certainly opt to start here.   (Reviewed by Lisa Butts).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

...this is a text that demands attention for its splendid prose, command of an entire treasury of history, and ability to undermine the misplaced patronization of Middle Eastern Muslim nations over the last 300 years.

Library Journal

Recommended for historians, religious scholars, or anyone interested in relations between the Middle East and the West.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A nonscholarly work that lay readers will find especially engaging.

Author Blurb Orhan Pamuk, author of My Name Is Red
A highly original and informative survey of the clashes between Islam and modernity in Istanbul, Cairo, and Tehran in the last two hundred years. Brilliant!

Author Blurb Anthony Gottlieb, author of The Dream of Enlightenment
That there has been an Islamic Enlightenment at all will come as news to many. De Bellaigue's account of the 'very broad church' of Islam in the modern world is splendid and timely.

Author Blurb Pankaj Mishra, author of From the Ruins of Empire


Christopher de Bellaigue has long been one of our most resourceful and stimulating interpreters of realities veiled by fear and prejudice ... It is the best sort of book for our disordered days: timely, urgent, and illuminating.

Author Blurb Tom Holland, author of In the Shadow of the Sword
A brilliantly learned and entertaining study of a topic that is of far more than merely antiquarian interest: the encounter between the Islamic world and the post-Enlightenment West.

Author Blurb Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads
Timely, thoughtful, and provocative.

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Beyond the Book

Halide Edib Adivar

The Turkish author and activist Halide Edib (also sometimes spelled as Edip) Adivar is one of the influential women highlighted by de Bellaigue in The Islamic Enlightenment, for her literary talent as well as her ardent nationalist allegiance. She published two memoirs and 19 novels, and was an outspoken voice of support for women's rights and Turkish independence.

Halide Edib Adivar Edib was born in Istanbul in 1882 and educated at Istanbul's American Girls College at a time when most girls did not attend school. After graduating, she married a mathematics professor from the school, and had two sons with him before they divorced in 1910. She worked as a journalist and published her first two novels in 1909-1910. In 1911 she traveled to London, where ...

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