A pertinent study of how the Islamic world played quick catch-up to the West over the course of the 19th century.
Contrary to patronizing observations by Westerners when confronted in the early 19th century with the “backwardness” of the Muslim East, the three centers of Islamic culture and intellect—Cairo, Istanbul, and Tehran—were undergoing turbulent inner revolution. In this well-organized and impressively concise yet sweeping history, British journalist and author de Bellaigue (Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup, 2012, etc.) takes as his narrative point of departure the clash of East and West that occurred with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and concludes with the growing “counter-enlightenment” that has taken root since the 1980s. A brief look back reveals that what shuttered the once famously tolerant and open Islamic society of the eighth and ninth centuries, in Damascus, Baghdad, and Cordoba, was the inner schism between Sunni and Shia, the threat of the Crusades and Reconquista, and suspicion regarding rationalism. Intellectual curiosity and “a joyful engagement with the mechanics of the world” channeled into “a system for throttling human potential.” With Napoleon came the challenge of embracing new forms of knowledge and innovation—or resisting them. Most importantly, whose side was God on? In an accessible, consistently informative narrative, the author delves into the lives and achievements of specific modernizers, many of them autocrats like Egypt’s Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Ottomans’ Mahmud II, and Iran’s Abbas Mirza; and more subtle writers who helped generate their country’s sense of self, such as Rifa’a al-Tahtawi and Namik Kemal. De Bellaigue emphasizes that while the spur to modernization in Egypt was Napoleon, in the Ottoman Empire, it was defeat by the Russians, while in Iran, it was the country’s relative isolation as well as its shared Persian language. The counter-enlightenment accompanied the growing distrust of the West.
A nonscholarly work that lay readers will find especially engaging.