...[a] fascinating and elegantly written account of the impact of modernity on the Islamic world ... The Islamic Enlightenment introduces us to a fascinating gallery of individuals who would grapple with reform and modernization in theory and practice over the next two centuries ... A book like this can only point to the sheer complexity of Muslim identities, loyalties and accommodations in the modern world, both among the hundreds of millions who lead lives of varying degrees of quiet and the troubled few. Far from spurning or avoiding modernity, Muslims are 'drenched in it,' as de Bellaigue points out, and in tracking the sinews of enlightenment through the last two centuries of Islamic thinking, this brilliant and lively history deserves nothing but praise.
Mr. de Bellaigue, the finest Orientalist of his generation, does the world a great service by charting the attainments of the region’s long 19th century ... This ultimately is the big question, today as in 1831. Is there a link between Islam and the nature and performance of Islamic societies? Here we see another of Mr. de Bellaigue’s strengths, a respectful frankness about the nature of the faith ... Cherry-picking is always a danger when it comes to textual quotation on religious questions. Mr. de Bellaigue, a remarkably fair observer, never falls victim to the temptation.
The author has a keen eye for a story, and our companions as we follow his argument are those vivid heroes (and occasionally heroines) who had the vision and the guts to bring about reform ... As well as big history analysis there are delightful incidental details ... This book also elegantly offers a reminder that we are the stories that we tell about ourselves ... One question this book doesn’t fully answer – and it is a crucial one – is why this kind of liberality was followed by centuries of retrenchment ... Yet De Bellaigue has written a (beautifully illustrated) book that prompts an important conversation, and is extremely useful for our times. As well as introducing neglected histories and characters about which and whom we need to care, the work itself incarnates the essence of enlightenment.
His cast of characters — 'the Muslim pioneers we never thought existed' — is presented with flair and an acute eye. There are several classic accounts of Islam’s engagement with modernity, but the originality of this book is to tie together the Arab Awakening or Nahda with the Persian and Turkish enlightenment of the 19th century ... This is a civilised and beautifully written story of the advances and reverses of a great civilisation that lost its own way, was shunted into cul-de-sacs by predatory European imperialists — and yet was and is constantly searching out ways to bounce back.
De Bellaigue is a knowledgeable guide through huge sweeps of cultural history. But his book gradually sinks under the weight of the many details that compose it. Focusing on a single complex and multiethnic culture over two centuries is ambitious enough; attempting to follow three such civilizations dissipates the narrative’s thematic clarity. Details proliferate, but meaning begins to recede. But the strongest sections of the book pose powerful dilemmas that are by no means resolved.
The author succeeds in his main purpose, which is to show that in Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran, prominent figures embraced aspects of Western thought and technology with discernment and gusto while remaining good Muslims ... In the book’s final two chapters, there is an abrupt change of pace as the author speeds through Islam’s dealings with European colonial powers during the late 19th and, above all, in the early 20th century. It is a fairly accomplished gallop through difficult terrain.
De Bellaigue does well to manage a wide swathe of political, economic, religious, and cultural historical personages in the vortex among Istanbul, Cairo, and Tehran, but his tone can be condescending, and his treatment of Islamic theologies of reform is overly simplistic. Even so, this is a text that demands attention for its splendid prose, command of an entire treasury of history, and ability to undermine the misplaced patronization of Middle Eastern Muslim nations over the last 300 years.