In This Review

The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times
The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times
By Christopher de Bellaigue
Liveright, 2017, 432 pp

De Bellaigue is an erudite journalist and historian who takes on a vast subject: the Middle East’s incomplete coming to terms with the Enlightenment. His book tells a sweeping story of how the three great centers of Middle Eastern society and religion—Cairo, Istanbul, and Tehran—have ridden a roller coaster in dealing with the West, and he peppers his tale with marvelous portraits of leaders, thinkers, and activists. De Bellaigue blurs the plot a bit by using terms such as “Enlightenment,” “modernity,” and “liberal values” interchangeably. But he makes a strong case that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Middle East has not suffered from intellectual torpor but in fact often creatively incorporated and developed many ideas that originated in the West. He also describes, however, a reactionary “counter-Enlightenment” that is now more powerful than ever and whose origins he locates in the 1928 founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. De Bellaigue posits that the intellectual history of the region has been too often told by “triumphalist” Western historians and “renegade” Muslims who have turned on their religion. But his references suggest otherwise, and his own arguments echo those of advocates of “defensive modernization,” who in the 1950s and 1960s argued that the main problem facing the Middle East was how to absorb the military and engineering prowess imported from an aggressive West.