Some analysts have explained the Islamic world’s “intolerance” as resulting from historical forces: unlike Europe, the Middle East did not experience the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason. Christopher de Bellaigue, a journalist and long-time student of Islam, turned these ideas on their head with his 2017 book, The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times. It won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction. The New York Times calls the book a “fascinating and elegantly written account of the impact of modernity on the Islamic world…Far from spurning or avoiding modernity, Muslims are “drenched in it,” as de Bellaigue points out, and in tracking the sinews of enlightenment through the last two centuries of Islamic thinking, this brilliant and lively history deserves nothing but praise.”
The (UK) Guardian characterizes the book as “a celebration of an age of reformers in Istanbul, Cairo and Tehran provides a powerful corrective to lazy, prejudiced thinking.”
“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,” writes Politics and Prose books. “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…”
“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.”
In this video, Bellaigue discusses how he came to write the book after working as a journalist for a long time in the Middle East and how he wanted to interrogate the idea that there had never been an enlightenment. More videos.