Economist: The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason. By Christopher de Bellaigue. Bodley Head; 398 pages; £25. To be published in America by Liveright in April; $35.
FEW topics are as bitterly contested today as the nature of Islam. America has just elected a president who speaks pointedly of “Islamic terrorism”; his predecessor balked at connecting Islam with violence and said those who did, including terrorists, were misreading the faith.
In Western intellectual debates, meanwhile, some maintain that Islam stultifies its followers, either because of its core teachings or because in the 11th century Islamic theology turned its back on emphasising human reason. Others retort indignantly that the Islamic world’s problems are the fault of its Western foes, from crusaders to European colonists, who bruised the collective Muslim psyche.
A new book by Christopher de Bellaigue, a British journalist and historian of the Middle East, hews to the latter side, but with an unusual twist. He describes how Islam’s initial encounter with modernity, two centuries ago, had some benign consequences and he sees that as a basis for hope. Sceptics will inevitably call the book’s title, “The Islamic Enlightenment”, naive or oxymoronic.
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