Beware of the myth

Anyone in Europe calling for Islam to finally go through a phase of enlightenment should first pause for critical reflection on our own concept of Enlightenment, writes the prominent Islamic studies expert Ulrich Rudolph

By Ulrich Rudolph

The current debate around Islam has led to repeated calls for Muslims to (finally) go through a phase of enlightenment. These calls usually combine two complementary assumptions: one diagnostic, which says that numerous problems in the Islamic world can be traced back to the fact that no enlightenment has taken place there yet; and one therapeutic, according to which "catching up with" the process of enlightenment will sooner or later provide solutions to these problems.

These are both bold assumptions, resting as they do on a one-dimensional construction of history, entirely focused on the European model of epochs (Middle Ages; Renaissance; Reformation; Wars of Religion; Enlightenment etc.). But even so, we cannot simply reject this call. The requirement linked with the concept of "enlightenment" is a categorical one. Strictly speaking, it is not founded in historical considerations, but applies fundamentally to all people.

On top of this there is the fact that many present-day Muslims share this same desire, hoping it will bring release from fossilised thought patterns that one-sidedly glorify an idealised past and are thus committed to a discourse that is mythical rather than rational. 

The striving for emancipation and maturity must not only be identified with the West

Admittedly, in the current debate we should take care not to let enlightenment itself become a myth. That is exactly what happens when it is made an absolute and invoked as a general master-key, almost automatically opening the gate to intellectual and social progress. Enlightenment, too, is subject to preconditions and limitations. But these must be exposed if the debate surrounding it is to fulfil its own critical claims and not degenerate into simple lesson-learning. In this sense it seems imperative to look more closely at how the conditions for using the term "enlightenment" apply to the Islamic world and the following three considerations are made with this aim in mind.

The first problem with the current debate is that "enlightenment", meaning the human striving for emancipation and maturity, is exclusively identified with 18th-century Europe. But as we now know, in Europe alone enlightenment passed through various different phases and initiatives.

Wood engraving showing Arab astrologers with measuring devices, Venice 1513  (photo: picture-alliance)
The heyday of Islam: intellectual and scientific thought flourished during the Abbasid period (749-1258). The imperial capital, Baghdad, became a centre of discovery and learning

These include the Renaissance, possibly the 13th century (if you agree with Kurt Flasch's theory), Greek Sophism and above all the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, the aims of which are nothing less than man's independent use of reason and are therefore classed as enlightenment by Jurgen Mittelstraß among others.

Then there are similar tendencies in other cultural circles and of course in the Islamic world. There – depending on how the term "enlightenment" is understood – various thinkers are described as enlighteners: philosophers such as Abu Nasr al-Farabi, Avicenna and Averroes for their advocacy of independent reason; Abu Hamid al-Ghazali for his critique of reason; Abu Bakr ar-Razi for his plea for a rational religion; but also some political thinkers of the Ottoman period like Hasan Kafi al-Aqhisari, for his critique of government. Thus there are Islamic authors who have clearly articulated human striving for emancipation and maturity and who are ripe for rediscovery by both Muslims and non-Muslims.

No one todayn would say that the consequences of the Enlightenment in Europe were all positive

But at the same time – and this is a second important point for the debate – acknowledging multiple phenomena of enlightenment certainly does not mean lessening the significance of the European Enlightenment of the 18th century. On the contrary: it is precisely when enlightenment is understood as a universal concept that it is also possible to accord a general validity to each individual manifestation of it and to call on today’s Muslims to engage with it intellectually. Some present-day Muslims may take that as an imposition, but it corresponds to an attitude that has long been held in the Islamic world.

The background to this offers another social challenge, namely the question of how Muslims of the early years were to deal with the intellectual legacy of antiquity. The answer to this was a self-conscious one. As Abu Yusuf al-Kindi put it, as early as the 9th century: "We must not be ashamed to acknowledge and adopt the truth, wherever it may come from, even if that be from distant races and other peoples."

And this was the spirit in which people acted, with many texts by Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle, being translated into Arabic. The attitude to "foreign" knowledge is interesting here. It was not seen as "cultural property" which could be attributed to a particular nation or religion, but as a universal legacy for mankind. That is why in the 11th century Sa'id al-Andalusi was able to compile a genealogy of peoples to whom he attributed important contributions to the development of scientific studies. These included Indians, Persians, Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Arabs and the residents of Spain, whose particular cleverness, he said, was that Muslims, Jews and Christians worked together there. This is to say: Sa'id al-Andalusi recognised that knowledge, reason and maturity are universally valid and should not be exclusively ascribed to one particular people.

Thirdly: the fact that pleas for enlightenment can be greeted with mistrust is also to do with how they are framed. And this leads us back to a point already articulated at the start of this essay: the demands being put to Muslims in the current debate often rest on a mythical image of enlightenment.

This is surprising inasmuch as the Enlightenment, when it comes to Europe itself, ceased to be glorified a long time ago. No one would still claim today that its consequences in Europe were purely beneficial: the last two centuries of European history and the theoretical objections that have been voiced again and again since Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno‘s "Dialectic of Enlightenment", both speak against the idealisation of this epoch.

Boy studying the Koran in Tripoli (photo: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images)
"Over the course of the Enlightenment, the intellectual traditions of the Islamic world were markedly devalued in Europe. This devaluation continues to have an effect today, when some Europeans present Muslims with the ultimatum of orienting themselves by "our Enlightenment" or, even more high-handedly, claim that Islam is simply not capable of enlightenment," writes Rudolph

But how do things stand when we cast our gaze beyond Europe? How did the exponents of enlightenment in other societies and cultures see things? And what were the consequences for those affected by them? Here we can also see fractures in the image put forward by some prominent thinkers, which should be more clearly articulated and revealed. As a rule, the early enlighteners had no problem with traditions from outside Europe. They valued an Arab philosopher like Abu Bakr Ibn Tufail and studied works from different cultural circles. This enabled Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, for example, to write at the start of the 18th century: "If the Latins, the Greeks, the Hebrews and the Arabs should ever be exhausted, the Chinese... will take their turn and provide material for the intellectual curiosity of our critics. Not to mention some old books by the Persians, the Armenians, the Coptics and the Brahmins, which in time will be pulled out of obscurity, so that no enlightenment is neglected..."

The idea that Islam is not capable of enlightenment is a high-handed claim

Later, by contrast, the acknowledgement of other philosophical traditions did become a problem. Immanuel Kant concentrated entirely on his own philosophy, which to him represented not only the goal, but also the measure of all rational cognition. In his successors, this led to the history of philosophy as a whole containing a teleological tendency, which is conspicuous in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, among others.

For him, there was only one single philosophy, the history of which was synonymous with the self-revelation of reason and ultimately led up to his own philosophical system. Beside this, other ways of thinking could be "only preliminaries", as Hegel writes, particularly "Oriental philosophy" (by which he meant Chinese and Indian philosophy). And "the Arabs", who may have transmitted Greek thought to the Latin Scholastics, but otherwise had "nothing of their own" to show.

Judgements like these dogged European research all the way into the 20th century. And they were not only applied to the history of philosophy; they mark a fundamental attitude that was only developed with full clarity as the Enlightenment progressed. The more self-assured Enlightenment thinkers were in formulating their own concepts, the more critically they expressed themselves with regard to the thought of others. Or, to adapt an adage from the "Dialectic of Enlightenment": the fully enlightened European shines in the sign of his triumphal judgement, passed on all those who cannot, as he sees it, stand up against his own insights.

This is also something to bear in mind for anyone wanting to enter into a debate on enlightenment with Muslims. Over the course of the Enlightenment, the intellectual traditions of the Islamic world were markedly devalued in Europe. This devaluation continues to have an effect today, when some Europeans present Muslims with the ultimatum of orienting themselves by "our Enlightenment" or, even more high-handedly, claim that Islam is simply not capable of enlightenment.

Ulrich Rudolph

© Sueddeutsche Zeitung 2016

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

The author lectures in Islamic Studies at the University of Zurich.