When Islam met Western enlightenment

“The Republic of Arabic Letters” brings back to life a fascinating moment in intellectual history.
Sunday 06/05/2018
The cover of Alexander Bevilacqua’s “The Republic of Arabic Letters.”
Closely researched. The cover of Alexander Bevilacqua’s “The Republic of Arabic Letters.”

It is widely assumed that medieval misconceptions of Islam and polemics towards Muslims were only cast off with the triumph of secularism during the high tide of the European Enlightenment in the mid-18th century.

In a closely researched and elegantly written book, “The Republic of Arabic Letters,” we learn that the foundations of the modern Western understanding were laid as early as the 17th century by scholars who pursued independent research and exchanged ideas with each other and influenced prominent Enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu, Voltaire and Edward Gibbon. They assimilated the factual content of these works and then wove their interpretations into the very fabric of Enlightenment thought.

“The Republic of Arabic Letters” outlines the connections between these scholars and the Roman Catholic Church. One of the early library collections of Quranic texts was commissioned by Pope Clement XI in the early 18th century. These scholars, who included Protestants, went to great length to learn Arabic, Persian and Turkish and acquire, study and comprehend Arabic manuscripts.

Beyond the holy books of Islam, the translations, compilations and histories they produced include those of Muslim societies and of the great dynasties of the medieval period but also the Ottomans, the Safavids and the Timurids. These efforts were not guided by a secular agenda but the scholarly commitment of a select group of Christians who cast aside inherited views that were motivated by a desire to prove Islam a profane heresy from the East and bequeathed a new understanding of Islam to the rising European powers.

In the words of author Alexander Bevilacqua: “The problem of how to classify Islam — as heresy, paganism, or alien religion — would continue into the Renaissance and after. This ambiguity, however, made religion an interesting intellectual resource for thinking about foreign faiths and their relationship to Christianity. Its ambiguous categorisation allowed the freedom to argue that considering Islam alongside the classical cultures of antiquity was more relevant than contrasting it with Judaism or with Christian heretics.” The new scholars recognised the culture of the Islamic world “as a holistic set of religious, intellectual and literary traditions deserving respect and attention, and as an object of study that would yield intellectual, aesthetic, and even moral enrichment in a variety of fields.”

The author points to the Barthelemy d’Hebertelot’s “Bibliotheque Orientale,” which, when it appeared in Paris in 1697, was “one of the crowning achievements of European Islamic scholarship at the end of the 17th century,” the most ambitious reference work on the Islamic world ever produced. It gave access to European readers to more than 8,000 alphabetically arranged articles of Arabic, Turkish and Persian authors relating to the history and culture of Muslim people.

Scholars such a d’Hebertelot, who was able to use the rich collections of Arab manuscripts in Florence and Paris, belonged to a cast of bibliophiles that included George Sale, who had translated the Quran; Simon Ockley, historian of Arab conquests and many others; and Johann Jakob Reiske, who “was also a philosophical historian: his goal was to recover for European knowledge the history of Muslim peoples and to explain their place in world history,” Bevilacqua writes. Bevilacqua points out that, for Ockley, the “cultural achievements of Muslims were as important as their military deeds.”

The most important source of d’Hebertelot was the bibliography of the 17th-century Ottoman scholar Katib Celebi, which also inspired the organisation of the Frenchman’s book but he parted ways with his English and German peers who “located the heyday of Islamic civilisational achievement in the Middle Ages; in their eyes modern Muslim dynasties like the Ottomans were not the equal of their predecessors,” Bevilacqua writes.

Overall, however, these scholars emphasised convergences between Christianity and Islam and agreed that “the study of exemplary Muslim princes also demonstrated that Muslim history contained morally inspiring examples just as much as classical history did.”

As a result of these works, “the normative evaluation of Islam underwent significant change and relied upon the European concept of ‘legislator,’ a more neutral category than ‘impostor,’” Bevilacqua writes. “Unlike ‘false prophet,’ the concept of ‘legislator’ drew on the secular analysis developed by Machiavelli… which allowed, at the very least, for neutral appraisal of Muhammad’s achievement. This change was mainly normative because there was general agreement that Mohammad was a leader who had not performed miracles. By Sale’s time, one could praise Mohammad for bringing monotheism to Arabia, as well as for founding a remarkably successful state.”

The rise of international commerce, the transport and accommodation provided by chartered trading companies and the growing activities of Christian missionaries from the 16th century all contributed to greater interaction with Muslim people. As European powers became better acquainted with the Ottoman Empire and trading companies established a growing network of links with Istanbul, Tehran and Bombay, rulers in Europe started stockpiling Oriental collections of manuscripts in their great libraries.

Bevilacqua vividly explains the link between intellectual history and the material history of books. He also explains how the Catholic and Protestant theologians, clergymen and intellectuals who pursued a better understanding of the world of Islam in no way doubted their own religion. They were simply part of “the evolution of knowledge production.”

All this is a far cry from the caricature of Islam certain self-proclaimed intellectuals in the West and radical preachers in the Middle East, who are lionised by television, promote to baying audiences today.

The story of this deep and widespread engagement with Islam seemed to the aforementioned intellectuals to “offer answers to a broad range of questions about theology and history,” Bevilacqua writes. Long after Europeans stopped believing that Islam held the answers to those questions, even after European armies in Muslim lands had entirely transformed the context of any intellectual exchange, “the knowledge produced in this period continued to inform European interpreters of Islam,” he said.

“The Republic of Letters” brings back to life a fascinating moment in intellectual history. Nearly three centuries have passed since the publication of the “Bibliotheque Orientale” and the works of d’Hebertelot’s peers but the analysis they made of conditions pertaining to the broader debate between the West and the lands of Islam remain pertinent.

“The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment,” Alexander Bevilacqua, Harvard, Belknap Press 2018.