It is often assumed that enlightened ideas are anathema to Islam. And yet it was Islamic thought that gave rise to many of the principles which were central to the Enlightenment, a century or more before Voltaire. During the first four centuries after the Hegira (the emigration of Muhammad and his followers to the city of Medina in 622), Islam was marked by openness and intellectual dynamism. It was in the process of constructing itself as a religion, a theology, a culture, a civilisation. Between 750 and 1050, authors across the Islamic world made use of a surprising freedom of thinking in their approach to religion and the phenomenon of belief, many accepting the primacy of reason.

For example Ibn al-Muqaffa (720-756), Iranian by birth and still influenced by the Mazdean and Manichean traditions, initiated a radical critique of the Koran and of monotheism in general, in favour of reason.  In his work we find the Islamic equivalent of the debates around church and state – prince and pontiff – which in such books as Dante’s On Monarchy (1304) and Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) led to the development of Enlightenment thought in the west. Many influential orientalist scholars, including Shelomo Dov Goitein and Francesco Gabrieli, have argued that had he been read and followed more widely Ibn al-Muqaffa might have brought about an early secularisation of Islam.

Subsequently, in ninth-century Baghdad there was the emergence of the Mu’tazila (“those who withdraw themselves”) theologians who spread the light of reason. They advocated the separation of God from the world, leaving man to be responsible for his own actions through the exercise of freewill. However this potentially radical message was co-opted by the caliph, who declared the doctrine of the Mu’tazila to be the ideology of the State and sought to impose it on the populace through institutionalised inquisitions.

Undoubtedly it is Abu Bakr Al-Razi (854-925) who comes closest to the spirit of the Enlightenment. He was a famous doctor and philosopher, known in the Latin-speaking world as “Rhazes”. In a controversy with another Razi (Abu Hatim ar-Razi, a Shiite theologian) in what has become one of the most famous debates within Islamic thought, he believed in progress and reason, regarding prophets as imposters who obstructed freedom of thought. He also thought that scientific truth was provisional, endlessly evolving. 

So why did these ideas not end up influencing the politics and culture of the Islamic world as those of the Enlightenment did in Europe centuries later? Even when rational and secular ideas returned to the Islamic world after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 they failed to produce fully democratic modern states. Indeed, the trend has been the opposite: towards literalist religion and absolutist government.

One crucial difference was that Islamic ideology offered no defined notion of the individual. So what was missing was any concept of freedom in the political or social sense. The result was that Enlightenment ideas were vulnerable to appropriation by sectional and ethnic groups who used them either to legitimise the seizure of power or to justify a purifying return to Islamic origins.

Starting in the 5th century of the Hegira (Europe’s 11th century), the tendency to rigidity began to triumph. At that time, all work on the Koran stopped; its definitive form was adopted. From then on, the competing recensions and textual variants, which had given rise to heated debates, were blocked out. 

During this period the notion of innovation (bid’a), so productive in the earlier period, became tainted with a paralysing negativity, so much so that, to translate the implications of the word, orientalists had to add a pejorative adjective to it (“blameworthy innovation”). It is as if those in power thought that whatever had already been constructed was adequate. So the effort of theological construction was replaced by the rigour of orthopraxis, of control and conformity to the rules of worship. 

A far more hostile backlash took hold at the end of the 13th century, when the Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyya (d1328) began his assault on the effects of openness. Dedicating his career to indexing the noxious influence of bid’a on the purity of the Koran, he obsessively denounced the introduction of Jewish, Christian, Greek, Manichean, Mazdean and Hindu motifs into Islam, along with the echoes of philosophy, mysticism and paganism. A sworn enemy of the Enlightenment, Taymiyya produced the pattern from which all future fundamentalism would derive.

Tamiyya helped drive out of the Islamic world the innovative ideas championed by scholars like Muqaffa and Razi. When they reappeared at the end of the 18th century, it was as an import from newly enlightened Europe, carried in the wake of Napoleon’s invading army.

Their arrival provoked something like an electric shock in the Arab Orient. Until then, Islam had thought itself superior, or at least equal, to Europe in military force and the achievements of civilisation. But it suddenly found itself confronted with arms, material goods, technical methods and scientific approaches that were unknown and in many ways more advanced. Struggling to understand the reasons for Islam’s backwardness in contrast to European advancement, a new generation of Muslim scholars from the Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Asiatic worlds travelled through Europe to discover the Enlightenment and its principles and then communicated their fascination to their compatriots and co-religionists. A movement of Occidentalism, even Occidentalophilia, arose among the elite. A longing for Europe was expressed in the policies of the various governments the reforms of the tanzimet introduced in the Ottoman Empire by the sultans Mahmud II (reigned 1808-1839) and Abdulmejid I (reigned 1839-1861) and the modernisation of Egypt, under the initiative of Mohammed Ali (1805-1849). 

The rationalism and tolerance preached by the new Europe, combined with a deism similar to that of Spinoza, found an echo in Akbarism – a metaphysical and moral theory based on the writings of Andalusian theosophist Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), which was embraced by the Ottoman, Arabic and Persian elite. One European observer, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the English ambassador to Constantinople , bore witness in her Turkish Embassy Letters (1717) to the enthusiasm with which the Ottoman court embraced non-Islamic beliefs and European culture.

Muslim scholars found theological precedent for incorporating some of the insights of the Enlightenment in a restored notion of bid’a and malasha (the public interest). Muhammad Abduh (1848-1905), the Egyptian Mufti, wrote that “in case of conflict between reason and tradition, it is reason that has the right to decide.” Abduh and his disciples adapted some the core tenets of the Enlightenment to make political critiques against both local despotism and the colonial ambitions of Europe. 

Enlightenment views on women’s rights were championed by Qasim Amin in two pamphlets published in 1898 and 1900 in which he called for their full participation in education and in production. The emancipation of women, he said, requires their unveiling, their enjoyment of freedom and equality. 

Later, in 1925, Sheikh Ali Abderraziq (1888-1966) published his essay L’Islam et les fondements du pouvoir (Islam and the Foundations of Power) in which he argued that a properly Islamic state has never existed. The Caliphate, at the time of its greatness, under the Umayyads and Abbassids did not produce a new form of government. It simply adopted the imperial structures of Byzantium and then of Persia, both of which had proved their administrative and military efficacy. Thus contemporary Muslims could reconstruct their states without offending religion, even drawing inspiration from the Western example created by the Enlightenment.  Islam, Abderraziq argued, is a divine message, not a system of government; a religion, not a State. He recommended a radical separation between the spiritual and temporal in order to re-found the State and reconstruct law according to the requirements of modernity.

One of the last sustained voices in this contemporary stream of thinking was that of Egyptian writer and literary scholar Taha Hussein (1889-1973), whose Western, positivist, even modernist message was genealogically linked with the Enlightenment. Hussein drew on ancient sources to try and revitalise Islam. He reminded his compatriots of the place of Egypt in the formation of Greek culture, as well as the role of that same culture in the formation of Arabic classicism, a twofold reason that restores to Arab identity sources that it shares with the West. This sharing of roots legitimises participation in the values of the modern.

But again these ideas did not propel Islam towards a decisive mutation. Devoid of any meaningful internalised social contract, today’s modern Islamic countries are characterised by despotism, fanaticism, superstition, obscurantism, under-development and poverty. Modernising policies have by and large failed; a great fear of radical thinking has arisen and anti-western sentiment has grown. The west has made it easy for opponents of Enlightenment values because of the uneven way its leaders have applied these values to their own practice. They may be champions of liberty, freedom and the nation state at home, yet abroad they are colonisers, oppressors: the dictator’s best friend.

Europe still does have a role to play in the reactivation of Islamic Enlightenment traditions. But it has to pay more than lip service to the ideals it would like the rest of the world to adopt: those of equality, fraternity and liberty. ■

Abdelwahab Meddeb is a Tunisian writer and poet. Among his many books is The Malady of Islam