Islam and the Enlightenment: Between Ebb and Flow*

Abdelwahab Meddeb

Islam can be doubly associated with the spirit of the Enlightenment.  Long before, as early as the middle of the eighth century, it produced the premises of the Enlightenment; afterwards, starting in the nineteenth century, it experienced its effects.

Between 750 and 1050, authors made use of a surprising freedom of thinking in their approach to religions and to the phenomenon of belief.  In their analyses, they bowed to the primacy of reason, honoring one of the basic principles of the Enlightenment.  This phenomenon took place during a period of effervescence, of intense intellectual exchange, that Islam experienced a little more than a century after its advent, when its followers were seeking to develop a tradition capable of confronting much more sophisticated systems of thought.  This was also a time when newcomers to Islam continued to remember theological systems and questions raised by the beliefs that had seen them come into being or evolve (like Judaism, various Christian sects, Manicheism, or Zoroastrianism).

Ibn al-Muqaffa’ (720-756) was the first of these thinkers.  Iranian by birth, and still influenced by the Mazdean and Manichean traditions, he was one of the first to create Arabic literary prose, especially by adapting, in his Kalila wa Dimna [Kalila and Dimna], a Pahlavi version of the Indian fables going back to the Panchatantra [Five Discourses] and the Tantrakhyayka.  In his introduction as Persian translator to this collection, Ibn al-Muqaffa’ criticizes religions and praises reason.  For him, morality is independent of belief, and the mulhid[i] can be virtuous.  Despite their multiplicity and their disagreements, all faiths have three kinds of followers:  those who inherited their faith from their father; those who were forced to believe; and those who adhere to a religion in order to satisfy their worldly ambitions.  Furthermore, Ibn al-Muqaffa’ notes that few people are capable of justifying their belief.  After this criticism, our author reins himself in and accepts the minimum about which different beliefs agree, which is reduced to moral principles hovering around negative virtues (“do not kill, do not lie, do not speak ill of others, do not deceive, do not steal…”), stipulations that announce the ethical strategy of an Enlightenment philosopher like Kant with his “postulates of practical reason.”[ii]

In another book, The Epistle on Friendship, Ibn al-Muqaffa’ addresses the caliph on the subject of politics.  He suggests that the cleric must submit to the prince:  the law must be taken away from the religious sphere and be under the control of political power, but, since it is impossible to reduce religion, it should be subordinated to the authority of the prince.  Several orientalists, including Goitein and Gabrieli, thought that if Ibn al-Muqaffa’ had been followed on this point, Islam would have experienced an early secularization that would have spared it the traps in which it continues to this day to get caught.  With Ibn al-Muqaffa’, we discover the same premises of the great Western problematic that crystallized around dual authority, the prince and the pontiff.  To ponder such a duality would constitute the great philosophical design that would lead the West to the Enlightenment, passing through many stages, including Dante’s On Monarchy (1304) and Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), as well as Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651).  Despite the difference in context, issues, and aims, following the example of Ibn al-Muqaffa’, all of these thinkers create a hierarchy of these two powers:  either they call for the autonomy of both the temporal and the spiritual, or else they make the latter subordinate to the former.  I do not think the actual force of Ibn al-Muqaffa’s propositions should be slighted by linking them to power as it was exercised in the Persian Empire, where religion and royalty were concentrated in one single person.

Ibn al-Muqaffa’ also carried on a radical critique of the Koran, and fragments of his work have reached us through the refutation of it by a nineteenth-century author.  First of all, al-Muqaffa’ quotes a number of Koranic examples that can be conceived of by neither reason nor intuition.  He then declares that the anthropomorphisms applied to God contradict his invisibility and his mystery.  He goes on to insist on the imposture of the prophets, one of the demonstrations of which is the overzealous battle of the founder of Islam to conquer the earthly kingdom.  Finally he undertakes a critique of monotheism in general, which cannot escape dualism, because of the question of evil and of its presence in the world and inside men.

Later on, Baghdad in the ninth century saw, from its very beginning, the emergence of the Mu’tazila [‘those who withdraw themselves’], theologians who spread the light of reason.  Returning God to his transcendence, they withdrew Him from the world, so to speak, and the earthly sojourn was returned to the responsibility of man, who was supposed to confront evil by using his free will.  But this movement distanced itself from the spirit of the Enlightenment by allying itself with the power of the caliph, who declared their doctrine the ideology the State sought to impose by the constraint and violence of an inquisitorial institution appointed to pursue contradictors and convert them.

The era remained open, however, to discussions and exchange between supporters of diverse beliefs.  Among the great minds of that era, we will note the Christian Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (808-873) who played a major role as a transmitter of the Greek scientific and philosophical corpus.  This multidisciplinary, polyglot intellectual, familiar with three cultures (Syriac, Greek, Arabic), well-informed about two others (Persian, Indian), reminds us of the great European figures of the Renaissance, the intermediary sequence that would lead to the Enlightenment:  wasn’t he comparable to Erasmus? In one of his books, transcending his own faith, freeing himself from apologetics and polemics, using the instrument of logic, he seeks to understand how truth can be grasped in religions, and how error is introduced and then imposed on the believer.

We will also note, among these first “freethinkers,”[iii] Abu ‘Isa al-Warraq (died circa 861), who criticized his own religion (Islam) and all the others, revealing their contradictions and their implausibilities after passing them through the sieve of reason to end up finally at a logical monotheism that goes beyond established beliefs and cannot be authenticated by them.  This critical approach to established religions places its author in surprising proximity to the Deism of the Enlightenment.

Many other authors bear witness to a like judgment that is critical, if not marked by skepticism.  But undoubtedly it is Abu Bakr Al-Razi (circa 854-circa 925) who seems closest to the spirit of the Enlightenment.  He was a famous doctor and philosopher, known in the Latin-speaking world by the name of Rhazes.  In a controversy with another Razi (Abu Hatim ar-Razi, a Shiite theologian and an Ismaili preacher), one of the most famous debates ever produced in the Islamic theater, our doctor-philosopher asserts that, in order to acquire knowledge, divine gift and reason suffice; there is no need to believe in a particular Revelation, bearer of discords, disputes, and wars.  In the best case, prophets are impostors, agitated sick men.  Ordinary humans do not need to be guided by a divine law.  They can think on their own, inspired by their theoretical and practical intelligence.  Razi asserts that the philosophical horizon can only be darkened by a belief founded on superstitions, legends, and contradictions, to which ignorance compounded with dogmatism is added.  He also criticizes ritualism, which creates maniacal beings obsessed with imaginary impurities.  He thinks that he himself is worth much more than religious men:  as a doctor and a man of science, doesn’t he render an outstanding service to humanity by relieving his fellows of the evils and sufferings that overwhelm them when they are eaten away by disease? He was a man who believed positively in progress; convinced of having improved the knowledge he inherited from Galen, he was certain that the scholars and practitioners who followed him would in their turn improve the science and knowledge he bequeathed to them.  He also thought that scientific truth is provisional, endlessly evolving, destined to be perfectible. 

We would be right to wonder why this chain of critical thought was interrupted, why it did not have the necessary continuators who could have led it to have an effect on common ideas, in the realm of political realization, and why this precocious foreshadowing of the forerunners of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment remained futureless, without any practical realization in society, and without transforming collective imaginations. 

Not that the intersection of ideas didn’t have ideological effects or didn’t result in political events.  Still, very often, theological controversy experienced only two paradigmatic types of political effect:  one destined to legitimize the seizure of power by one or another of the competing parties (as in the beginning of Islam in the opposition between the Umayyads and the ‘Alids, between Sunnites and Shiites); and the one (analyzed by Ibn Khaldun, 1332-1406), that repeatedly sought to establish a purifying reform in order to reestablish power according to the vision people had of its prophetic origin (as illustrated by the Almoravids and the Almohads in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the Muslim West).  That seems to be the historical structure where the link between thought and State, between ideology and power, theology and politics, can be found.

Considerable historical importance should also be attributed to the defeat of the Mu’tazila in the middle of the ninth century, some forty years after their triumph; their expulsion from the heart of the State occurred with an Inquisitorial violence that was just as radical and ferocious as the violence they had cause to exercise at the time of their hegemony.  And their theories, which could have been precious for the evolution of Islam, were defeated forever.  In fact, the theory of the “created Koran” could have taken part in a process that relativizes the sacrality of the Law and makes it less untouchable; and their theses on freewill, choice, and human responsibility faced with evil, could have led the follower of Islam to become acclimated to those key notions of modernity, freedom and the individual, which have been erased from his mental horizon.

It is through this episode that we see the absence of a notion of freedom in the social and political sense, that we observe the failure to emerge of any rudiments that might lead to the crystallization of the notion of the individual.  The praise of reason, or its triumph over dogma, did not take notice of the warning signs of the problems to come.

One quality deserves to be recalled, which is probably at the source of these early tentative impulses:  tolerance, that other Enlightenment notion.  Islam recognizes a place for other monotheistic beliefs based on Revelation (the Jews, the Christians and the enigmatic Sabians, who have been linked to the Neo-Platonics, the Zoroastrians, or the followers of the Buddha).  This disposition, along with some other Koranic principles (like the verse that says, “No constraint in religion,” II, 256), encouraged the liberal tendency to self-expression and, in the atmosphere of cosmopolitan Baghdad (ninth-tenth centuries), to arrange conferences for theological debates where followers of the various sects could exhibit their points of view without being harassed; in fact the Manicheans were very active in this kind of debate.  It was especially through this sort of “disputation,” and through the literary genre that emerged from them, that testimonies have reached us concerning the critical and rational approach to religion and to the phenomenon of belief.

This tolerance in Islam, relative as it may be, was in fact pointed out in the famous essays that discuss it in the Age of Enlightenment:  both Locke and Voltaire perceived in it a lesser evil compared to the triumphalist exclusivism they were familiar with, which made no place in the afterlife for members of other sects even though they shared one’s evangelical beliefs.

Moreover, during the first four centuries after the Hegira, Islam, as it was developing, was marked by the dynamism such a phase requires.  It was in the process of constructing itself as a religion, a theology, a culture, a civilization.  It did so in the effervescence of exchange with and adaptation to the many traditions that preceded it and that had produced a profound body of work.  This time of ingestion, assimilation, and enrichment could only be open.  It was starting in the fifth century of the Hegira (eleventh century) that the tendency to rigidity began to triumph.  At that time, all work on the Koran stopped; its definitive form was adopted.  From that decision onward, the competing recensions and textual variants, which had given rise to heated debates – the very ones that the modern historical sciences are now trying to reconstitute and reopen – were blocked out. 

At that time too, the notion of innovation (bid’a) became tainted with a paralyzing negativity, so much so that, to translate the word, Orientalists added a pejorative adjective to it (“blameworthy innovation”).  This notion, however, had been necessary to legitimize the adoption of new things that had been discovered via contact with other civilizations that were complex in different ways, much more developed in various areas compared with the restrained archaism of Medina.  It is as if they thought that whatever had already been constructed was adequate.  So the effort of theological construction was replaced by the rigor of orthopraxis, of control and conformity to the rules of worship, as an identitarian reference-point subject to social censure. 

In this context, vast syntheses would be composed, combining theology, mysticism, and philosophy, elaborating on practical morality, a kind of how-to-live based on the primacy of the religious, syntheses that seem definitive.  The most eloquent of these is the one by Abu Hamid Ghazali (1058-1111), Ihya’ ‘ulum ad-Din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences).  

It is as if the literate members of Islam thought that their edifice was complete, that it had reached an unparalleled perfection, and that it was appropriate ever after to fix it in place and conserve it, to preserve its memory, remote from any dynamic or change.  Hence the profusion, starting with that era, of encyclopedias and dictionaries concerning all the fields of knowledge.

But the worst was yet to come, at the end of the thirteenth century, with the Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyya (died 1328), who would radicalize even more the notion of bid’a, whose noxious presence he would index, all the way up to the already restrictive syntheses of the eleventh century.  He never stopped hunting for what he considered intruders into the original home:  he would denounce the introduction of Jewish, Christian, Greek, Manichean, Mazdean, and Hindu motifs in constructs that ought to have been induced only by the Koran alone.   He would lambaste the echoes of philosophy (Greek), of mysticism (Christian, Hindu), of the worship of saints (polytheist), of visiting graves (pagan) – so many borrowings that, according to him, disfigure the original building.  This author would produce the pattern from which all future fundamentalism would derive; he was a sworn enemy of the Enlightenment, of its premises and its effects on Islam.

The Enlightenment as a movement of ideas was introduced into the land of Islam after Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt (1798), which provoked something like electroshock in the Arab Orient.  Islam had thought itself superior till then, or at least equal to Europe in military force, comforts, and the conditions of life produced by the achievement of civilization.  But now it suddenly found itself confronted with arms, material goods, technical methods, and scientific approaches that were unknown and in some ways more efficient.  So it wanted to understand the reasons for European advancement, for such progress that made it aware of its own historical lagging and, above all, of the balance of power that had reduced it to being in a weaker position, fated to be subjugated.  Having reached this awareness, Muslim scholars, in their various Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Asiatic spheres, would discover the Enlightenment and its principles.  Travelers from these various regions visited the European metropolises and communicated their fascination to their compatriots and coreligionists.  A veritable movement of Occidentalism, or even of Occidentalophilia, arose among the elite of these countries.  A longing for Europe was expressed in the policies of the various governments, whether through the reforms of the tanzimet introduced in the Ottoman Empire by the sultans Mahmud II (reigned 1808-1839) and Abdulmejid I (reigned 1839-1861) or in the framework of the modernization of Egypt under the initiative of Mohammed Ali (1805-1849).  The new problematic of the Enlightenment was then perceived in connection with the analogies or premises that the Islamic tradition might offer.  Thus, the deism and tolerance preached by the new Europe encountered an echo in Akbarism, which shaped the Ottoman, Arabic, and Persian elite.  Akbarism was the metaphysical and moral theory taken from texts written by the Andalusian theosophist Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), who spread his concept of the oneness of Being, and who redirected Islamic belief towards an immanentist form of deism coupled with religious relativism, making Koranic relativism even more systematic, going so far as to grant credit and a share of truth to all forms of belief, even the most pagan ones.  A European during the Age of Enlightenment, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the English ambassador to Constantinople (1717), witnessed the effect of these ideas on the Ottoman elite, for whom non-Islamic beliefs were intelligible, understandable, visitable, likeable.  What’s more, the closeness of this “deism” to the philosophy of Spinoza (who was at the source of the deism of the Enlightenment and of Romanticism) helped a number of these enlightened Muslims to receive the Masonic message and to join some of its lodges, like Amir Abdelkader (1807-1883), disciple of his medieval master Ibn Arabi, whose interpretation he put into practice, before joining Freemasonry. 

Moreover, faced with the challenge of adapting to the European novelties engendered by the Age of Enlightenment, Muslim theologians restored the primacy of reason, like Muhammad ‘Abduh (1848-1905), the Egyptian Mufti, who wrote “that in case of conflict between reason and tradition, it is reason that has the right to decide.”  They had recourse to the notion of bid’a (innovation) to restore Islam’s original positivity.  With its help, the adoption by the Ottomans of the constitutional principle was legitimized.  This notion was also combined with that of maslaha, an adaptation in the tenth century by the western Malakite school of the utilitas publica, taking into account the shared interest in the application of law, correcting the rules when it has been proven that the interest of the community calls for it (echoing the corrigere jus propter utilitatem publicam upheld by Roman law).  In this traditional perspective, Zurqani, a theologian in Cairo, proclaimed, in 1710, the necessity of taking new measures with the appearance of new events:  “One should not think it strange that laws be adapted to circumstances.”[iv]

Muhammad ‘Abduh and his disciples had recourse to these notions (bid’a, maslaha) to adopt the principles of the Enlightenment and to lead in its name political activity against both local despotism and the colonial aims of Europe.  On this point precisely, they spotted a lack of agreement between principles and deeds in the behavior of European humanity.  Such an argument was notably invoked in 1834, just four years after the Algiers expedition, in the first Francophone book that came out of the Maghreb, Le Miroir [The Mirror], in which the author, Hamdan Khodja,[v] notes in his preface how the French, by invading Algeria, were attacking the principles of 1789 and were inconsistent, since here, in Africa, they make destitute a people, a nation, and a State that were already fully constituted, while there, in Europe, they defend peoples, nations, and States that are still in the process of being established (like Greece, Poland, and Belgium).  We have elsewhere called this dishonoring of principle through action “the test of the universal” that “the Western aporia” confronts.[vi]

We can distinguish three sequences in which the effects of the Enlightenment are imprinted in the wake of a heritage that tends to be closely linked with Muhammad ‘Abduh.  First of all, Qasim Amin touched on the symptomatic question of women in two pamphlets, published in 1898 and 1900, where he proclaims loudly and clearly the equality of women, their liberation, their emergence from the gynaeceum, and calls for the establishment of a mixed society, for the participation of women in education, in the spread of knowledge, and in production:  the modernization of women, he said, requires their unveiling, their enjoyment of freedom and equality.  Such claims can also be illumined by a positive vision of bid’a (innovation) and of maslaha, that principle of public interest, which would be appropriate for an Islam freed of the letter so that the spirit can be found in it.

Then, Sheikh Ali Abderraziq (1888-1966) published in 1925 his essay L’Islam et les fondements du pouvoir (Islam and the Foundations of Power).[vii]  Here, the author demonstrates that the notion of an Islamic State has never existed.  He notes that the Caliphate, at the time of its greatness, under the Umayyads as well as under the 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 proven their administrative and military efficacy.  Thus contemporary Muslims should construct their State by drawing inspiration from the best examples that other nations have produced; they should therefore construct a State, inspired by the Western example created by the Enlightenment.  Abderraziq emphasizes moreover that what matters in the prophetic experience of Mohammed is spiritual and moral direction much more than giving military or royal examples; for him, Islam is a divine message, not a system of government; a religion, not a State.  And he ends by recommending a radical separation between the spiritual and temporal in order to re-found the State and reconstruct law according to the requirements of modernity.

Finally, Taha Hussein (1889-1973) would intrude on the period between the two wars with his Western, positivist message, genealogically linked with the Enlightenment.  It is Hussein who would draw the consequences of historical literary criticism so far as to perceive a legitimization and a posteriori authentication of the language and myths of the Koran in the creation of the collection of early Arabic poetry, whose roots in pre-Islamic times he considers in context.  Moreover, Taha Hussein reminds his compatriots of the place of Egypt, and Alexandria, in the formation of Greek culture during one of its final phases, 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 legitimizes participation in the values of the modern, which is of an obvious European genesis, especially in the framework of the spaces opened by the Enlightenment philosophers.

However, we still have to discover why these undeniable effects of the Enlightenment did not propel Islam towards a decisive, almost irrevocable mutation.[viii]  The present state of these countries makes it evident that the effect of the Enlightenment was not only insufficient but frankly disappointing.  Despotism, fanaticism, superstition, obscurantism, economic poverty, under-development, absence of an internalized social contract:  that is the diagnosis that keeps the countries of Islam far from the lessons of the Enlightenment.  I will suggest at least three reasons for what has ended up being thought of as a failure.

First of all, the policy of modernization that had begun in the beginning of the nineteenth century failed.  Here it is a question of a modernization determined by the assimilation of Technology, the same standard by which Japanese success is measured when it came to expression through the military victory over Russia in 1905.  This event fascinated Islam, since it revealed that Technology of Western origin can be mastered by an Eastern country on its own, through loyalty to itself alone.  However, this loyalty to self, not subject to the principles of the Enlightenment, led successful Japan towards militarist and fascist nationalism, even if the Meiji era might have been etymologically linked to the notion of light, a term whose use as trope and metaphor grants it an ambivalent, if not suspicious, polysemy.[ix]  Though the emergence of Technology is historically associated with the emergence of the Enlightenment, we should be aware of its autonomy, obvious in the Japanese example, as well as in the use to which it was put for barbaric purposes during the European twentieth century.  But at the same time it is difficult to conceive of the Enlightenment taking root in a society that drew no advantages from the comfort and material wealth that Technology brought with it.  It is necessary, then, to the advent of the Enlightenment, but it is autonomous from it.  And the defeat of the Enlightenment can be seen as much in Japan’s success as in Islam’s failure in assimilating Technology.

I associate this failure of the Enlightenment with the fear of radical thinking that urges separation and rupture.  The ideas and principles of the Enlightenment emerged by opposing tradition, by refuting it, by disengaging from it.  This is a phenomenon that was not conceived to accord with the legacy of religion, or even to accommodate itself to it.  The reformers and reformists of Islam did not risk the adventure of treason; timorous, they were limited by obsession with fidelity to their creed, which was not confined in a separate space, which might have trembled in the unassailable secret of the heart; it is as if they were afraid of becoming divided subjects, accepting their own dividedness.

Finally, added to this is the emergence, at the end of the 1920’s, of anti-Westernism as a combative ideology developed by Islamic fundamentalists, who revived all the traditional rejections, which they radicalized even more, drawing support especially from Ibn Taymiyya, and through hunting down all foreign influence, which was supposed to contaminate original purity.  They returned to the denunciation of the bida’, innovations understood in the most pejorative way, as it had been over-determined in its negativity in the eighteenth century by Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism, whose proselytizing aggression  would become worldwide with the influx of petrodollars into Saudi Arabia after the oil shock of 1973, entering an Islamic domain that had been vacant since the defeat of various forms of postcolonial populism.

Faced with the ebbing away of the Enlightenment, I would like to insist on the role that Europe can play in its reactivation.  I mentioned earlier that Western gap between the principles of the Enlightenment and the actions that ruined its universal dissemination.  But the European individual, in these last few decades of peace, of work on self, of ethical vigilance, seems at last capable of producing deeds that are in keeping with his principles.  I know that this good example is difficult to maintain in practice, especially when it is not easy to detach it from positions that distinguish between dominant and dominated, strong and weak, rich and poor.  But it would still be tempting to put to the test such an exemplariness to the limits of the possible and the reasonable by committing ourselves to the principle of justice.  Enacting it, the opportunity to reestablish the luster of the Enlightenment would be offered to us, and to give it back a universal credit that would help to revive its home in Islam, by supporting those who, in its heart, wish to live to their final consequences the divisions that have always agitated it, in this war of hierarchical structures, of authorities and interpretations, an incessant civil war one of the stakes of which is still winning the knowledge of the Enlightenment in a context of separation and rupture.



[i] The term means “one who deviates from the straight line,” and designates, from the ninth century on, an atheist.

[ii] Dominique Urvoy, Les Penseurs libres dans l’Islam classique [Freethinkers in classical Islam], Paris: Albin Michel, 1996, p. 40.

[iii] As Dominique Urvoy likes to call them.

[iv] Quoted by Ignaz Goldziher, Le Dogme et la loi en Islam, Paris: L’éclat/Geuthner, 2005, p. 217.  In English:  Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

[v] Hamdan Khodja, Le Miroir, Paris: Sindbad, 1985, pp. 37-38.

[vi] Abdelwahab Meddeb, Dédale, No. 5-6, Postcolonialisme, Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose, Spring 1997, p. 12.

[vii] Translated into French from Arabic by Abdou Filali-Ansary, Paris: La Découverte, 1994.

[viii] I say “almost irrevocable” to temper an absolute judgment and to remind us what experience has taught us, namely that no experience is definitive:  the Enlightenment is not safeguarded on the very soil that saw its birth; it did not keep Europe from plunging into the darkness of the twentieth century (with totalitarianisms, National Socialism, and Stalinism).

[ix] We can testify to the use of this term in ancient times, in quite different metaphysical and religious horizons, far from secular reason:  the fire cult established by Zoroaster, the Platonic duality of the brilliance of Ideas and the penumbra of the cave, the Manichean duality of the good associated with day and evil linked to night, resurgence of the metaphysics of the Ishraq, illuminism reinvented by Sohrawardi (1155-1191), which combines the metaphors of Zoroaster, Plato, and Mani with the verse on Light (“Light on light...,” Koran, XXIV, 35), to locate the gleam of dawn in the original East towards which the soul returns, in comparison with the West of the ending, prison of the body, condition of our sojourn here below.


*Translated by Charlotte Mandell