Saturday, 10 February 2018

"The Islamic Enlightenment" by Christopher de Bellaigue

Recently read "The Islamic Enlightenment - The Modern Struggle between faith and reason" by Christopher de Bellaigue, and bought from Five Leaves Bookshop.

The book looks at the how the three cities - Cairo, Istambul and Tehran, reacted to - and were affected by - the European Enlightenment.

This this post paints a timeline of the three cities, covering some of the facts and comments in the book that most caught the attention of BFTF, together with some linkage as jumping off points for more information. Although the book covers both the 19th and 20th Centurys, this post only really covers up to the early part of the 20th Century.

The Islamic Enlightenment

1798- The "Battle of the Pyramids" saw firearm equipped Mamluk cavalry forces destroyed by Napoleons disciplined military squares.

1812 - Muhammed Ali Pasha, governor of Egypt (nominally under Ottoman control but actually almost completely independent) - recalling the effectiveness of Napoleons army - began building an army and navy modelled on European military priciples.

1830s : Pasha ordered large public works, including canals that brought a million acres under cultivation, telegraph lines and textile factories. However, these came at a cost, with many deaths from forced labour. Pasha also confiscated some 600,000 acres of land from religious Waqf, resulting in a number of rebellions led by Sheikhs that were, according to Bellaigue "ferociously put down". Over time this transfer resulted in increased income to the state, and reduced income to the religious institutions. A government printing press was installed in Cairo (only the third in the country) and on which the first printed Quran was published.

Bellaigue mentions Hassan Al-Attar, an Al-Azhar graduate as someone who tried by bring changes to areas of Egyptian academia, including allowing human dissection as part of training for medical students in Egypts first medical college, against protests from the religious authorities.

Antoine Barthelemy Clot, a french surgeon , was instructed to set up the college, and commented that:

"To begin with we carried out the autopsies without the knnowledge of the public, and surrounding the amphitheatre with guards who would perhaps have been the first to attack us is they had known what was going on. Little by little, the students got over all their prejudice and abhorrence and were convinced of the indispensible necessity of the study of anatomy. They took this conviction to their parents, sharing it with them, and nowadays the public is competely at ease with the idea of the dissection of corpses"

A colleague of Clot also reported that :

"First of all, said [Clot], 'let us get a dog and dissect him - not even a Moslem's dog, but a Jew's dog or a Christian's dog' and after a little grumbling they consented. Then at a cemetary outside of the town some skeletons and skulls were scattered about. 'Really,' said Clot, to his pupils...'what harm if we get a few of these skulls and bones for the sake of explanation to you; they may as well lie upon my table, as lay bleaching in the sun.' This point was acceded to, but when he proposed to come to the dissection of bodies, there were some murmers. 'Well!' said he, 'we will not take a free white man, but a black slave.' Again, at length, the point was given up; and thus, by one step after another, the educated Egyptians have arrived at a knowledge of anatomy."

1826: Egypt sent its first educational mission to France, with 43 men going to France, each being tasked with learning about a particular disciple. An account of the time in France by one of the students "The Travelogue of Rifaa Bey" was published in Arabic and Turkish and became well known across the Ottoman Empire.

1897 : Sheikh Muhammed Abduh, who held a number of high offices in Egypt, wrote "The Theology of Unity", described by Bellaigue as a "manifesto for modernist Islam". He also introduced the study of subjects including maths, geography and composition into the Al-Azhar syllabus, allowing its gratuates to also obtain employment at state schools.However, he later faced a backlash against his reforms from conservatives. Bellaigue later also mentions one of Adbuh's students, Taha Hussein.

Muhammed Abduh

According to Bellaigue, military concerns were also the primary driver for reforms in the Ottoman empire, who had lost wars to Russia and had recently seen Napoleon rampaging around Europe. However, to implement reforms, the Caliph first had to overcome the resistance of the Janissary troops, who tended to riot and depose Caliphs who they disagreed with, and were wedded to obsolete fighting equipment and tactics.

1807 : Initial Janissary reaction at the Caliph Selim III's "New Order" force of 27,000 men was to depose Selim.

1826 : Two Caliphs later, however, Caliph Mahmud II raised a modern force similar to the New Order, taking care to also win over the minds of key religious officials. The Janissaries stated that "our ancient practice and drill for war is to hit earthenware jugs with our rifle shot, and to hack at felt matting with our sabre. We want [to lay our hands on] those responsible for this innovation". Unfortunately for the Janissaries, those responsible came to them, with the new forces marching on the Janissaries barracks and killing some 6,000 in an artillery barrarge - an event that became known as the "auspicious incident"


Although not one for representative government, Mahmud, cultivated an atmosphere of reform. One of the those who thrived in these circumstances was Sanizadeh Ataullah who had been educated at a religious college in Istambul and then furthered his learning to become a polymath who knew Latin, French and Italian as well as writing on mathematics, history and the natural sciences. But he is best remembered for his work in the field of medicine, including the ~1815 book of anatomy, based on texts he had seen in Vienna, called "Mirror of the Body". Incrementally, further information from western Europe was translated into Turkish.

1831 : An americal doctor, James DeKay, commented on the preventative health measures in Istambul and how the many aqueducts furnished "the capital and its suburbs with pure and wholesome water"

1836 : There had long been a fatalism towards plague epidemics in Istambul, and a reluctance to impose and preventative measures. However, following the epidemic of 1836, which claimed 125,000 in the Ottoman Empires European areas alone, measures from Europe (and previously used in Cairo) were implemented. These included quarantine stations, plague hospitals and fumigation, with the support of senior religious authorities. By 1850, the Ottoman Empire had become a plague free zone.

1838: A medical school was set up in Istambul and an imperial decree was given allowing dissection of human bodies. Students were aprehensive about this but had their fears allayed by the chief medical officer, who was also a senior cleric.

~1839 : An Ottoman government report at the end of Mahmud's reign comments that :

"All arts and trades are products of science. Religious knowledge serves salvation in the world to come, but science serves perfection of man in this world. Astronomy, for example, serves the progress of navigation and the development of commerce. The mathematical sciences lead to the orderly conduct of warfare as well as military administration. Innumerable new and useful inventions, like the use of steam, came into existence in this manner...through science one man can now do the work of a hundred. Trade and profit have become difficult in countries where people are ignorant of these sciences. Without science, the people cannot know the meaning of love for the state and fatherland. It is evident that the acquisition of science and skill comes above all other aims of a state...nothing can be done without the acquisition of science." Niyasi Berkes, "The development of Secularism in Turkey", McGill Univ.Press, 1964, p105

~1840-1880 : Further reforms in the "Tanzimat" programme, under the rule of Mahmuds sons. Secular courts were introduced and all Ottomans, of whichever faith, were given equality in law (and act which aimed, in part, to encourage an Ottoman identity as opposed to a faith based one. Freedom to change ones faith was also allowed. Bellaigue also mentions the thinker Shibli Shumayyil

1866 : Mustafa Fazil, younger brother of Ismail Pasha who ruled Egypt, and who was living in Paris at the time, wrote a famous letter to the Sultan that began "Sire, what which enters the palaces of princes with the greatest difficulty is the truth....Your subjects of all sects are divided into two classes, those who oppress without restraint, and those who are oppressed without pity". Fazil proposed that the Ottoman Empire needed a constitution (which implied curbs on the powers of the Sultan). The letter was taken up the "Young Ottoman" movement in Istambul and thousands of copies were printed and distributed. Some other key reformers of the time were Midhat Pasha (a Hafiz) and Namik Kemal (a devout Muslim who later translated the Quran into Turkish)

Mustafa Fazil

1876 : With the Ottoman empire facing significant economic problems (not least due to lavish spending by the Sultan Adul Aziz on an Ottoman navy), there was a real possiblity of outside powers imposing reforms on the Ottomans. This strengthend the hand of reformers, resulting in Abdul Aziz abdicating in favour of his nephew, who turned out to be mentally unstable and was also ousted in favour or another nephew Abdulhamid. Over the next few years, Abdulhamid outmanouevered the reformers, ensuring that there were no almost no limits placed on his power and a draft constitution was not implemented.

1887 : Death of a notable Ottoman reformer, Besir Fuad

1908 : The "Young Turk" revolution demanded a return of the constitution, a move Abdulhamid said he had wanted all along, and so parliament was recalled, censorship abolished and political prisoners freed.

1909 : Ziya Gokalp, began to develop the ideas that would make him a key figure in Turkish nationalism.

1912 : Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro ganged up on the Ottoman Empire and took over large areas of Ottoman territory, prompting the start of Turkey's alliance with the Kaisers Germany.

1919-1924 : Following the invasion of Ottoman lands by the victorious allies at the end of WWI, an Ottoman commander called Mustafa Kemal, later called Ataturk, is a key member of nationalist forces that began to raise a nationalist force from the remains of the Ottoman army.

[The nationalists then fought the Turkish War of Independence (against the forces of the Great Powers and of the Sultanate), abolished the Sultanate (1952) and negotiated the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) which defined the borders of modern day Turkey.]

1925 Bellaigue mentions the Al-Azhar thinker Ali Abdel Raziq who, in the book "The Caliphate and the Sovereignty of Nations" agued for a separation of faith and state.

Bellaigue comments that that change was a "cultural blindfold making it impossible for Turks to read the literature of their forefathers, or even their gravestones"


According to Bellaigue, as with Cairo and Istanbul, it was military defeat that gave a first initial push to reform. In this case it was defeat to a poorly equipped Russians in the wars of 1804-13. The British stepped in and offered training, muskets, sabres and even 10 Indian made cannon. Soon a foundry near Tehran was producing 30 cannon a year.

1815 : Educational mission of five sent from Tehran to the UK, included Mirza Saleh Shirazi who wrote a travelogue. Two took courses at the Royal Military Academy, another learned modern medicine, while Mirza Saleh learnt about the natural sciences, latin french and lithography. They returned in 1820 to apply their knowledge in Istambul and to pass on their expertise to others.

1848: Amir Kabir (chief minister to new shah Nasser al-din) is known as a great reformer in Iran, although a harsh one in the way he put down revolts in the provinces. Kabir followed a similar path to reformers in Egypt and Istanbul - setting up a modern hospital, a modern polytechnic (staffed by Austrians); ordering civil engineering works; established a postal service; and introducing smallpox innoculation. However Palace intrigues, and Kabir's lack of humility, persuaded the Shah that Kabir was a threat and he was first exiled then murdered.

1910's : Bellaigue comments on how, by 1913, Egypt had some 4,300 miles of railway. The Ottoman Empire had 3,500miles of track. In Iran, however, Britain and Russia had an "unofficial veto" on the introduction of this technology.

The effects of the industrial revolution were soon being felt in the region, which had been forced to minimise import duties on western manufactured goods, as mass produced western goods undercut local producers. In 1862, for example, the number of looms had dropped from 10,000 to 2,800 and the price of British cotton cloth fell from 7 francs in 1800 to 60 centimes in 1860.

Much of the investment in the region (in railways etc) was financed by foreign capital and left the region heavily in debt. [In 1875 the Ottoman Empire defaulted on its debt, which allowed foreign powers to take over huge parts of the Ottoman infrastructure under the Ottoman Public Dept Adminisration].

Bellaigue comments that:

"This new world - the Western world - was also showing its real intentions...which increasingly centred on aquisition. At different speeds, and with differing emphases, the various parts of the Middle East were moving towards shared political and economic servitude to the West, and one can read in the humiliations of the last quarter of the nineteenth century an augury of the nationalist eruptions that would follow."

1870s : New newspapers and magazines were thriving in Istambul and elsewhere, these publications often contained a significant number of science based articles, covering biology,mathematics and much else.

~1900 : The "Nahda" or Awakening was a cultural renaissance that began in Egypt and then spread to other parts of the middle east.

Bellaigue comments that at the same time " 'pan-Islamism' had become a pormanteau to explain the political solidarity that seemed to exist across the Muslim lands in opposition to imperialism" and mentions Jamal Al Din as one of the key initial figures in this movement

Jamal Al Din

1905 : The Japanese destruction of the Russia fleet at Tsushima was applauded by many in the east as an example of how a recently modernised county (Japan) could take on and beat an established world power.

1906 : Bellaigue comments that in Iran, after the adoption of the 1906 Constitution, the new parliament devolved powers to regional assemblies, vetoed proposed loans from Britain and Russia and cut pensions to members of the royal family.

1907 : The Shah, Muhammed Ali, fought back, sending cossack troops to attack the constitutionalists in their new parliament with infantry, cavalry and artillery. Hundreds were killed and rebellions began across the country.

1909 : The Shah was forced to abdicate, which allowed elections to be held and the parliament re-established.

1911 : Morgan Shuster, described by Bellaigue as "courageous and incorruptible" was appointed as Persian Treasurer General and quickly found Britain and Russia trying to hamstring his efforts to improve tax collection. Russia soon issued an ultimatum demanding Shusters dismissal. The Persian parliament consulted with Shuster regarding how best to move forward. Shuster advised that any military move by the small and ineffective Persian forces against the 12000 Russian troops occupying the northern part of the empire would result in Russian Cossacks pouring into Persia. So, on 21st December, Persia accepted the Russian ultimatum, suspended parliament and sent Shuster and his colleagues back to the US.

According to Bellaigue :

"Russian forces spread death and terror in Tabriz, hanging constitutionalists and abrogating laws and the tzars officials began extending their authority throughout the north of Persia...In the south the British made similar strides towards establishing a de facto colony"

First Persian Parliament

Other Notes:
Post WW1 : Bellaigue comments that "Sykes-Picot was far from being the most consequential of a plethora of declarations, gentlemen's agreements and coronations that were imposed [on the Middle East]". Bellaigue also comments that the secular approaches of Ataturk (in turkey) and Reza Shah (Iran) were at odds with the spiritual views of many of their populations.

Iran : Bellaigue mentions the early 20th thinker and reformer Ahmed Kasravi

1900 : Bellaigue comments that literacy levels in Egypt, Iran and Turkey were around 7%, compared to 68% in England (for men, 43% for women)

Image Sources
Muhammed Abduh, MahmudII, MustafaAfzal, Ataturk, Al Din, Parliament