Islam and the Enlightenment

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Islam and the Enlightenment

Knowing that the world has experienced European imperialism, African slavery, two world wars and chemical weapons after the European Enlightenment, today, the West's accusation that Muslim communities are violent and ignorant does not hold water

The growing spectacle of violence led by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), al-Qaida, Boko Haram and others usually ends up with calls for an Islamic enlightenment. A movement of enlightenment in Islam, it is argued, would lead to less violence, more tolerance, rationality and freedom. This seems to be based on the secularist-humanist assumption that religion breeds violence and secularization secures peace. But things are not as simple, and the history of modern violence presents a far more complicated picture.

Behind sensationalist headlines, the debate about the meaning of the Enlightenment has become intertwined with a debate about Islam and the future of Islamic-Western relations. In the preface to his otherwise brilliant book "The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture," Louis Dupre, "stunned by the attacks on September 11, 2001," wondered "if there was any purpose in writing about the Enlightenment at a time that so brutally seemed to announce the end of its values and ideals." Dupre does not mean to declare Islamic culture unenlightened. But he notes that "Islam never had to go through a prolonged period of critically examining the validity of its spiritual vision, as the West did during the eighteenth century."

Others have been more clairvoyant in calling for an Islamic Enlightenment and Muslim Reformation. The title of a New York Times column on Dec. 16, 2001 read: "Wanted, an Islamic enlightenment to end religious intolerance." After the terrorist attacks of Sept.11, the editors of the conservative National Review expressed regret that Islam did not go through the "chastening experience" of the European Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment and modern violence

Luckily, more reasonable voices are available and they point to the internal problems of the Enlightenment project and the varieties of historical experience by Islamic and Western societies. John M. Owen IV and J. Judd Owen say that "the Enlightenment did not end violence and self-destruction in the West (see: World War I, fascism, World War II, and the Cold War), calls for enlightenment in the Islamic world typically fail to recognize a few vital facts, not least of which is that Islamic societies have been grappling for generations with the Enlightenment, both the West's and their own."

The claim that embracing the European Enlightenment would prevent violent extremism is simply not supported by facts. In her seminal work "The Origins of Totalitarianism" published more than half a century ago, Hannah Arendt traced the origins of modern totalitarianism, represented by Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, and explained how it came out of the modern political order that the Enlightenment envisaged. From anti-Semitism and concentration camps to the use of the atomic bomb, forces of evil converged to create one of the most catastrophic periods in recent human history. European imperialism, African slavery, the two world wars, the horrors of the Holocaust, ethnic cleansings in the Balkans and Africa and the use of chemical and biological weapons have all taken place with great horror in the aftermath of the Enlightenment.

Few of these catastrophes are related to religious faith per se. Recent studies reveal a similar pattern. According to the Global Terrorism Index 2014: "Homicide claims 40 times more people globally than terrorism with 437,000 lives lost due to homicide in 2012, compared to 11,000 terrorist deaths in 2012." The report also notes that "religious ideology as the motivation for terrorism is only partly a global phenomenon. While it is predominant in Sub-Saharan Africa, MENA [Middle East and North Africa] and South Asia, in the rest of the world terrorism is more likely to be driven by political or nationalistic and separatist movements."

Studies have shown that right-wing extremists in the U.S. have killed more people than al-Qaida-related extremists since 2001.

But the disparity between media coverage of different types of terrorism is a common phenomenon. For instance, PKK terrorism, which has claimed more than 40,000 lives since the 1980s, has surged in Turkey in recent weeks. Yet the PKK's Marxist-Leninist and nationalist ideology is hardly invoked to explain its terrorist tactics. What is more insidious is the attempt of the major Western media outlets to whitewash the PKK's terrorist acts in the name of fighting ISIS in Syria.

The fact is that one does not need religious faith to justify violence. While it is true that violence is committed in the name of Islam, Christianity, Judaism or Buddhism, religion is not the sole driver of violence in the modern world. If one of the promises of the Enlightenment was more peace and less violence through rationalism and secularization, it has hardly come true.

What was the Enlightenment?

The definition of the Enlightenment had caused considerable perplexity when the question was first put forward in the 18th century. Kant defined it as "man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another." Man's immaturity has created much of the oppression and ignorance in human history. Kant characterizes the essence of the Enlightenment as the "courage to think" for oneself freely. "Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own reason! That's the motto of enlightenment."

This gives us two essential features of the Enlightenment, the use of reason and a critical attitude toward tradition and authority. Both played a key role in the rise of the modern world. Yet it did not take long for the first principle to regress into a crude rationalism and the second into a destructive anti-traditionalism. The new Enlightenment reason recognized no authority other than itself, replacing the religious centrism of the medieval ages with a modern self-centrism.

Interestingly enough, the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary captures this aspect of the Enlightenment when it defines it as shaped by a "shallow and pretentious intellectualism, unreasonable contempt for tradition and authority." The authors of the dictionary had obviously no flattering view of the Enlightenment, but their critical attitude reveals the self-limiting nature of the Enlightenment's most cherished principle of critical thinking. If one is to be critical of all received traditions, religion, history or society, should not this principle apply to the Enlightenment itself?

Furthermore, Enlightenment rationalism and anti-traditionalism have become intertwined with global capitalism over the last century with far reaching consequences for our material as well as mental-moral world.

Does Islam need an Enlightenment?

While keeping an open horizon, the Muslim world needs to recover its own intellectual tradition and moral compass. Since the 19th century, Muslims have been engaged in a heated debate about the relevance of their faith and heritage in an aggressively secularizing and relativistic world. The traditional Islamic ontology that had shaped the worldview of Muslims is at loggerheads with the anti-foundational ontologies and subjectivist epistemologies of late modernity. The Muslim notion of placing everything within a larger context of transcendence has little appeal in modern, capitalist societies. Muslims themselves are torn between a glorious past, a depressing present and an uncertain future.

Contemporary Muslims should certainly study the experience of the European Enlightenment and learn from its gains and losses. But the more critical task is to uncover the notions of reason and tradition as developed by centuries of Muslim scholarship and thinking in a way that will guide the Muslim world today.

The Islamic intellectual tradition rejected subverting reason in the name of faith, on the one hand, and divinizing it in the name of emancipation on the other. Instead, reason was placed within a larger context of being and thinking, which gave meaning to man's life and the universe of which he is a part. It functioned in unison with knowledge, wisdom, prudence and virtue. As I elaborated in my "Reason and Rationality in the Quran," it produced both logical-philosophical knowledge and ethical-spiritual refinement without creating a crisis of knowledge and faith.

In regard to the tradition, its total rejection in the name of freedom and autonomy leads to a crisis of authority and legitimacy. Many Muslim scholars, scientists and philosophers have maintained a healthy dose of critical distance vis-a-vis the scholarly intellectual tradition to which they belonged. In fact, this is how they maintained the vitality of the tradition over the centuries. The fact that modern fanatics subvert and distort this tradition does not take away from its essential significance.

A critical engagement with both Islamic traditions and the Enlightenment is key to overcoming the current problems facing the Muslim world. If the Muslim world is to address its intellectual and social problems in a creative and constructive manner, it will happen only by recovering the core notions of reason, faith and freedom from within its rich tradition.

In short, the Muslim world cannot be content with the ontology of a civilization that sees the world as an end in itself. It cannot ground its notions of knowledge, faith and virtue in an epistemic system that is based on materialistic reductionism and positivism, on the one hand, and anti-realism and subjectivism on the other. It cannot embrace an instrumentalist notion of ethics that accepts utility as the only virtue.

The arduous task of keeping an open horizon while remaining anchored within the tradition falls on the shoulders of Muslim scholars and intellectuals. Their task is made harder by the fact that they have to fight against the insanities of the modern world, on the one hand, and modern religious fanatics on the other. Yet this is not an impossible goal to reach; a goal that can enlighten our minds and hearts.

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