An old story: Looking for a Muslim Voltaire

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

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.


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