Westerners who have a superficial knowledge of Islam and Muslim modernists who have a superficial knowledge of Western modernity never tire of calling for reform in Islam. Lest we think this is a new debate, it suffices to remember the 19th century discussions on Islam, reform, tradition, modernity and the Enlightenment. Muslim scholars and intellectuals in that era struggled with the same questions that come up in contemporary discussions of Islamic-Western relations and the future of the modern world today. Some of their responses should have settled the debate, but this is not the case.
Those who lament that a Muslim Voltaire never came along need to study history more seriously. Their notion of reformed Islam, whatever it means, lacks religious legitimacy, moral authority and historical depth. Its political agenda is clear and requires no subtle elaboration. But its failure is clear enough and should be understood properly so that we do not repeat the same mistakes.
The Ottoman intelligentsia had a particular interest in this debate and provided a number of stimulating answers that we need to be aware of even today.
Along with Rousseau, Voltaire was probably the most popular European philosopher among the Ottoman thinkers in the 19th century. His work was translated and promoted by a number of prominent intellectuals, statesmen and journalists. They include Munif Pasha (1830 to 1910), who served as a minister of education during the reign of Abdülhamid II, Ahmet Vefik Pasha (1823 to 1891) who translated Voltaire's "Micromega" into Turkish, Ahmet Midhat Efendi (1844 to 1912), who published a novel called "Voltaire 20 Yaşında Yâhud İlk Muaşakası" ("Voltaire at 20 or His First Love"), and Besir Fuad (1852 to 1887), known as the first Ottoman positivist and naturalist. Among others, Fuad was the foremost promoter of Voltaire in Ottoman intellectual circles with his 139-page book on the French philosopher before he committed suicide at a young age.
Voltaire was an iconoclast of his time. This, rather than any of his specific ideas, seems to have captured the imagination of Muslim intellectuals in the 19th century. He was hailed as a trailblazer of free thinking, science, progress and humanism. His anti-Ottoman and anti-Islam comments were placed within the socio-political context of his time and thus made more malleable. He was even presented as a common sense defender of Islam against the deep-rooted prejudices of European religious and intellectual circles. His distaste for institutional Christianity and defense of deism was seen as a natural outcome of his struggle with papal authority and scholastic bigotry. After all, this was an internal issue for European intellectuals. Islam was not the target of such criticism because it was widely assumed it had a very different theology and institutional structure.
In a lengthy article on Voltaire, Ahmet Midhat Efendi interprets Voltaire's famous play "Fanatisme, ou Mahomet le Prophete" ("Fanaticism, or the Prophet Muhammad") in a very different light. He admits that the play has an extremely disparaging approach to Islam and its prophet, but he does not see this as an attack on Islam, per se. He rather thinks that Voltaire uses anti-Islam rhetoric as a literary tactic to criticize the Western experience of religiosity. What Voltaire cannot say directly about Christianity he says about Iwslam, but his primary target remains the Catholic Church. The fact that he presented this play to the pope carries a subtle message.
Ahmet Midhat, however, makes another more interesting point that no one should claim to be a Muslim Voltaire because the circumstances that led to his rise in Europe do not exist in the Muslim world. Islam does not have a position like the papacy nor has it had anything like the Inquisition. The wars between Catholics and Protestants cannot be compared to the relationship between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Voltaire seeks to bring Christian Europe to where Muslim civilization has already been – believing in God and morality while making full use of reason, observation, experimentation, free thinking and scientific investigation without the burdens of institutional religion. Voltaire is useful in showing the way in the 19th century for a new synthesis of faith and reason, science and morality, community and freedom. But there is no need to imitate his ways to chart a new intellectual and scientific course in the Muslim world. Islam does not need reform, but Muslims do need to update themselves. Voltaire in Istanbul, Cairo and Damascus functions as an idealized thinker to remind Muslims of their essential duty to wake up.
Like many of his contemporaries, including Namık Kemal and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Ahmet Midhat believed that Europeans made a quantum leap thanks to the works of their scientists and philosophers. This is what Muslims must do now, i.e., reclaim their intellectual tradition while keeping an eye on what is happening in Europe. He urges his readers to study both the sciences of both the East and the West.
Asking why Muslims don't have a Voltaire is like asking why Westerners don't have a Rumi or Ibn Arabi. The fact that Muslims don't have a Voltaire doesn't mean that they know nothing about critical reasoning, just like the fact that the West doesn't have a Rumi doesn't mean that it knows nothing about love.
Those who know the traditional Islamic sciences must learn the new lore of the West, and those who know Western culture and thought must train themselves in the intellectual heritage of the Muslim world – remain rooted in one's own tradition but keep an open horizon on the world. Know yourself and your own heritage but also be open to learning from others. This is what Muslims need to do rather than confusedly searching for a Muslim Voltaire.
This is what many Ottoman intellectuals thought in the 19th century. It is sad and upsetting that after a century-and-a-half the debate has not really progressed much and continues to revolve around the same false dichotomies. It is time to pay heed to history and draw lessons from it.