The Islamic Enlightenment: Christopher de Bellaigue and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in conversation

Christopher de Bellaigue talks about his book, The Islamic Enlightenment, with journalist and broadcaster Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Christopher de Bellaigue in conversation

In his new book The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason, Christopher de Bellaigue explores how modern ideas transformed the Muslim world from the 19th century to the present day – contradicting perceptions that the Muslim milieu is static or regressive. Focusing on Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran, and highlighting key individuals in this transformation, he explores the ways in which their legacy is threatened in the 21st century.


The history of the Middle East is a common thread throughout the work of British historian and journalist de Bellaigue. His previous books include In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran (HarperCollins, 2004) and Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup (Bodley Head, 2012).

De Bellaigue met the author and journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to discuss the themes and concerns of his book. Alibhai-Brown is a frequent commentator on issues of multiculturalism and international relations, and has written for publications including The New Statesman and The Independent.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: This isn’t a book that can be easily summarised, but can you briefly outline the main argument you’re making?

Christopher de Bellaigue: The premise is that there’s a gap in the general historical understanding of what happened in the central lands of Islam, which has led to a perception of Muslims – and Islam in general – as impervious to change and resistant to modernisation. Generally, the counter-argument to that perception harks back to Baghdad in the ninth and tenth centuries, and the wonderful efflorescence of Islamic culture and the contribution that it made to world culture at that time.

But people ask: “Well, what happened after that? We don’t see much evidence for a progressive and pro-change agenda in the Muslim world.” However, if you look at the central lands of Islam in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as I do in this book, you find a very vital and real engagement with modern ideas, modern technology and modern conundrums that really belies that whole image. You find people engaging – sometimes with difficulty, sometimes with perplexity, but sometimes joyfully – with ideas and technologies that they considered to be universal and not simply foisted upon them or imported from the west.

YAB: People from the west did visit these countries, and understood that the Muslims were very innovative. But in a way the period you’re handling is the most problematic, because so many of the Islamic rational and free thinkers who managed to live within their faith were considered suspect – part of the colonial ‘brain-washing mission’.

CdB: I think you’re right, and you’re also right to bring up the early instances of fruitful co-operation and admiration going in both directions.

When you look at the 19th century, though, I think there was an acceleration of contact that makes processing all the things crossing between the west and the Islamic world much more fraught. As you say, those who were trying to bring in ideas – particularly those who had been to the west – were always vulnerable to the charge that they were furthering a sinister agenda of colonial exploitation.

And there definitely was a colonial agenda. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, for instance, was part of a much broader strategy to go on all the way to India. This agenda continued into the 19th century – but it didn’t go forward to such an extent that these joyful and interesting contacts were cut off, and that’s an important point in my story.

YAB: Your book introduces many fascinating characters. I’m really interested in Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, for instance – can you expand his story a little?

CdB: Tahtawi was a 19th-century Egyptian cleric who fulfilled the role of chaplain to the army of Muhammad Ali, the first great authoritarian moderniser of the Middle East after the end of the Napoleonic invasion. Tahtawi came from a tradition of clerical authority that had exercised enormous authority, partly because of their monopoly over knowledge and the written word.

Ali sent educational missions to Europe, and Tahtawi went on one such mission to France. At the end he produced a travelogue – a kind of summation of his view of what he’d seen. He came away with a very vivid admiration for a great deal about France. That view was completely unencumbered by a sense of inferiority or resentfulness, because he saw these values as something that Egypt could learn from and also grow with. He became, in some ways, one of the founding fathers of the modern Egyptian nation state, but not in a prickly or xenophobic form – because in his history writing he went all the way back to pre-Islamic Egypt and acknowledged the debt that Egyptian culture owed to other cultures.

YAB: He’s an amazing character about whom I knew nothing…

CdB: Well, if I may say so, if you don’t know anything about him, imagine how much the majority of people know about such people! The characters in this book are lamentably ill-known, and yet had a formative influence.

YAB: You start the book with the character Jane Eyre, and then compare her to Fatma Aliye, a Turkish writer who was also completely unknown to me. How are the two similar?

CdB: Set around 1820, Charlotte Brontë’s novel describes Jane as making her own decisions, working as a teacher, using modern technologies, changing her situation without obtaining permission from a father or any other male figure, and falling in love with who she wants to. And I asked: what was the situation in the Islamic world at that time? Would a Jane Eyre character have been feasible? I quickly came to the conclusion that it would have been unfeasible. Yet by the end of that century, you have Fatma Aliye. In common with many other early feminists around the world, she was upper class, given an education and the opportunity to learn French – though she had to do so in secret, because her mother considered it to be a kind of Trojan horse for all kinds of infidel and impious thoughts.

Aliye started to use the nascent medium of the press to get her ideas out. This was in the Ottoman empire in the 1880s and 1890s, when the telegraph and the press were arriving in Istanbul. Aliye’s demands gradually grew bolder: she was an early proponent of what later became a major movement among Ottoman, Iranian and Egyptian women to express desires and thoughts that had never been publicly debated before. The nature of female society was of segregation, of discussing these things behind closed doors – but suddenly their articles could be translated and discussed in Alexandria or Beirut. We can really see an acceleration of the transfer of ideas.

Ideas of 'usness' in the west are also being answered in the Islamic world. It’s a spreading movement of reaction to globalisation

YAB: This is a prime example of modernity coming in and being grasped. What is interesting is that these ideas weren’t seen as a threat to Islamic civilisation; instead, many were seen as enriching. Today we are living in times in which there is a growing idea of ‘them’ and ‘us’ – and that any cultural or scientific borrowings weaken us or take away our ‘usness’. 

CdB: That’s the first time I’ve heard that word ‘usness’, which I think is fabulous because the word ‘authenticity’ is so much more boring. ‘Usness’ is very good: what constitutes ‘us’ and what is threatening our ‘usness’? Those ideas are not only present in the west, but are also being answered in the Islamic world. It’s a spreading movement of reaction to globalisation or the erosion of ‘usness’.

YAB: I think it’s important for readers to understand how colonialism at its ugliest, particularly French and British, made it impossible for enlightened Muslims to flourish. Such Muslims could so easily be accused of being stooges or tools of empire – or of having been educated in the west and therefore not being ‘properly’ Muslim or Arab. That idea – that colonialism interfered with what was a very positive process – is important, isn’t it?

CdB: Yes, it is. The process of modernisation is something that clearly had universal appeal – but because it was being propagated by a machine that was at the same time a machine of political and economic domination, it obviously became extremely easy to call anyone involved in that process a stooge. A lot of careers were damaged and hopeful beginnings ended because of this easily levelled accusation.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Christopher de Bellaigue in conversation
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Christopher de Bellaigue discuss the cultural evolution of the Middle East. “Look at the central lands of Islam in the 19th and early 20th centuries and you find a very vital and real engagement with modern ideas, modern technology and modern conundrums,” says de Bellaigue. (Image by Fran Monks for BBC World Histories)

YAB: You argue that the First World War was the great break from modernisation and the end of the spread of unplanned, holistic cultural exchanges. What happened?

CdB: Before the First World War, there was what we could call a liberal moment in the Middle East. Turkey and Iran had both undergone revolutions that brought in and established a form of parliamentary democracy – one which clearly had a very strong liberal component, was interested in broadening the franchise, and in limiting the powers of the crowned head. Egypt had had a similar revolution that had been thwarted only by British invasion in 1882. There was a strong sense that the direction of society was heading towards a liberal interpretation of freedoms – political and personal autonomy.

The First World War obliterated physical geography. The mobility that was so notable in the armies in the Middle East in the First World War contrasted so very strongly with the immobility of the armies on the western front. Thousands of miles were crossed; crops were destroyed; famines were induced; borders were transgressed and redrawn with absolute impunity. The war ended with a kind of tabula rasa in which Britain and France had essentially created new states. Egypt remained under British supervision; Iran and Turkey could avoid subjugation as they saw it only by instituting a very illiberal form of western civilisation and modernisation that drew from the example of Mussolini in Italy.

What we find as a result is, I think, broadly two strands of opinion that rose in the Middle East. The first was authoritarian westernisation; the second was what we now consider to be the progenitor of the worst forms of Islamism that we see today.

The Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, did not start as a political movement; it started as a movement of self-realisation, patriotism and an effort to ‘get the Brits out’. It was essentially an effort to return self-respect to Muslims – not by aping the British administrators but by returning to their ‘roots’. From here the process began, and it evolved and developed new forms because, even after independence in the Middle East, western penetration and interventions did not cease.

Each time, these interventions added to that sense that the only way to escape was to return to some kind of ‘usness’, some kind of ‘authenticity’, and often what was found was a complete distortion of that original ‘usness’. These were very modern versions: sometimes anarchic, sometimes violent, and sometimes tearing up the original Islamic texts about what constitutes justified violence, rewriting them under the guise of a stronger, more virile, more nationalistic form of Islam.

A legitimate campaign for self-determination has in many cases become infused with something that is extremely xenophobic

YAB: So you could say that the Isis and Al-Qaeda phenomena came from that source – the view that the west is interfering in matters in the Muslim world, and that the only way to confront that interference is to go back to Muslim roots. And, of course, each generation defined those roots in increasingly repressive ways. But at the same time, for me personally – someone who grew up within the British empire – it’s deeply unfortunate that a valid political struggle against domination became infused with religion, and became emotional at the expense of rationality. It feels to me that religious feelings among some Muslims were manipulated and exploited, and I find that problematic.

CdB: I think you’re right. It’s very interesting to look at the lowering of the divide between the political and the cultural. What is ultimately a legitimate campaign for self-determination, whether as a community or as an individual human being, has in many cases become infused with something that is extremely xenophobic, that rejects difference, and that has infected the cultural sphere. All of the manifestations of culture that one can enjoy in this world suddenly get boiled down and reduced to something so limited that the whole range of human experience becomes black and white instead of full of colour and vibrancy. This is what we find: the closing down of cultural avenues for different reasons across the Middle East. This return to a kind of spurious authenticity, wherever it happens, is really a return to a monochrome world.

YAB: Are you hopeful that these three places on which you largely focus your work – Cairo, Tehran and Istanbul – will reach a point where they will turn back towards the places they once were?

CdB: I think that history shows the constant ebb and flow of the ideas that I discuss in the book. There have been and always will be rebuffs, and I think it takes time for those to be absorbed and eventually overturn the status quo. I’m not sure that I believe any more in a predetermined trajectory of history; what I do believe in is the constant and often very fruitful opposition of different ideas.

If you set up on one hand the idea of looking to the future, of optimism and hopefulness, and set up on the other the idea of conservatism and fear, then that’s a division of feelings and sentiments that exists in all of us. And, as a result, it exists in all societies.

I’m not hopeful in the very short term, but in the long term I expect to see – within my lifetime – a resurgence of the ideas we have spoken about. I don’t think that resurgence will necessarily take us back to where we were: it will take us to some new form. And there will always be an intermingling of the two tendencies, because I don’t think that one is possible without the other. It’s a necessary dialectic of human existence.

YAB: Wherever you look today, you see modernism, cross-culturalism, cosmopolitanism and liberalism being rejected. What can be done to move us back into an exchange between cultures – which, I’d argue, has been the most fruitful thing for the human race?

CdB: What has happened cannot be undone, and some appalling things have been done that have meant we are where we are. We have to start by looking at civilisations and cultures as operated upon by human beings. They are human operations: nothing is determined in advance. So we have to look at the invasion of Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan, and regard them as absolutely defining events in modern Middle Eastern history that are going to be felt for a very long time. We should start by thinking that we need to avoid that kind of involvement in the future.

But there always have been (and will be) calls and appeals, sometimes from within the countries themselves, that we’re turning a blind eye to appalling events. My feeling is that we need to avoid that kind of adventure, no matter how compelling a moral argument can be made in its favour in the short term.

We have also been finding, for some time now, that what we have visited on other countries is blowing back to the west – and we have to deal with that blowback. It is no longer possible, for example, to refer to the lands of Islam without considering Britain or France to be among those lands, because Islam is an extremely important and influential minority faith in this part of the world. We cannot erect mental walls between us and other worlds because these worlds have, to a great extent, fused.

And so I am not sure that I agree that everything is all doom and gloom. You could argue that this idea of integration has come so far that what we are witnessing now is a kind of death throe – a last-gasp resistance. As I say, there will be an ebb and flow, but we need to retain a sense of our universal humanity and of the joy of communication between humanity.

Christopher de Bellaigue is a writer and broadcaster. The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason is published by Bodley Head

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist, broadcaster and author. Her books include Refusing the Veil (Biteback, 2014)


This article was taken from issue 3 of BBC World Histories magazine, published in April 2017