‘O people of the Book! Come let us join together on the ‘word’ (Unity of God), that is common to us all.’ [Quran, 3:64].
With so much talk about seeking greater harmony between Islam and the West in our times, perhaps we need to think again about a very strong bridge that has already been existing between the two cultures for the last three hundred years.
Three hundred years ago, Europe was witnessing the great intellectual revolution that was later remembered as the Age of Englightenment (roughly between 1715 and 1789, but other dates have also been suggested). The leaders of European Enlightenment revolutionized their societies. In many ways, this was the birth of the modern West as we know it today – the home of such ideals as solidarity, equality and liberty, belief in the goodness of human nature, lack of reliance on miracles in proving an idea or belief, and so on.
Interestingly enough, many of the radical writers of European Enlightenment admitted freely that these ideals could be traced back to the original teachings of Islam, although not the contemporary practices of the Muslim society. Europeans who credited Islam with these ideals at that time or a little later are too numerous to be listed here, but it may be mentioned that they included the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the German poet and philosopher Wolfgang von Goethe.
Those who wish to find some more detail of this can look up the highly readable article ‘Rousseau’s Turban’ by Ian Collar (a modification of his paper originally published in a research journal in 2014). Of course, a lot more can be found in the excellent book by Jonathan Israel, Enlightenment Contested (2006).
Hence, we have to politely disagree with Karen Armstrong when she argues that ‘Freedom of expression was an Enlightenment ideal’ and therefore, the Muslims who attacked ‘Charlie Hebdo’, were practically saying, ‘You attack our sacred symbol (the Prophet Muhammad); then we will attack yours!’
The truth is that the Enlightenment ideals were actually Islamic ideals according to some of the greatest leaders of Enlightenment itself. We can show respect to people like Edward Said, Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Karen Armstrong but we have to ask, with all due respect, if these noble intellectuals have not been denying history by presenting Islam and the modern West as two essentially different worldviews.
Not only Rousseau and Goethe would disagree with such a proposition but also some of the most influential Muslim writers of modern times, such as Iqbal. As he stated in his famous lectures in 1930, ‘European culture, on its intellectual side, is only a further development of some of the most important phases of the culture of Islam.’
Other Muslims who, according to him, held the same point of view included Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Jamaluddin Afghani, Zaghlol Pasha, Mufti Alam Jan, Said Haleem Pasha, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar, Aga Khan III, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Reza Shah, King Amanullah Khan of Afghanistan, King Nadir Shah of Afghanistan and others.
These are the people who, between 1887 and 1946, practically shaped the Muslim world as we know it now. Even if one disagrees with them, one cannot deny the hard fact that both the modern West and the present-day world of Islam have been shaped by those who perceived these two cultures as two branches growing out of a single tree.
Does our education give us this awareness at any level anywhere in the world? Do we find it reflected anywhere in the interfaith dialogue? In the enormous literature published in the so-called ‘impact journals’? In the schools, colleges and universities in Europe and America? These are some of the questions that may be asked. From what little I know, all these questions are likely to be answered in the negative.
The point is not whether we agree with Rousseau, Goethe and Iqbal, or whether we take sides with Said, Nasr and Armstrong. What is important is that we should know both sides.
Perhaps it is more important to know the first side. It is no disrespect to Said, Nasr and Armstrong to say that the world we live in has not been shaped by them or even by the likes of them. It has been shaped by people like Rousseau, Goethe and Iqbal. To be unaware of the common worldview of those who shaped our world is to live in a complete delusion.
In case you are wondering if it is a far-fetched idea for Islam and the West to have a common worldview, you may like to consider the following clip from the mainstream British movie The Kingdom of Heaven (2006).