Friday, May 04, 2012

Radical Enlightenment and its connection to Islam

by Salman Hameed

Here is a fascinating talk by Jonathan Israel about how Radical Enlightenment scholars viewed Islam. First of all, he cautions against considering the Enlightenment as a unified movement. He includes Voltaire, Locke, Hume, and Motesquieu in Moderate Enlightenment while Spinoza, Bayle, and Diderot as part of Radical Enlightenment. The latter was mostly underground in the 18th century but its ideas included not only a fundamental primacy of reason, but it also called for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of conscious, and considered democracy as the best form of government.

What is interesting is that these Radical Enlightenment scholars looked up to medieval Muslim freethinkers, and considered Islam to be a tolerant and progressive religion. These connections were sometimes accurate and deep, and sometimes not - but it gives a broader sense of how these set of scholars viewed Islam. About 40 minutes into the lecture, Jonathan Israel talks about the references to al-Warraq, al-Rawandi, and al-Razi and also about the positive perception of Ibn-Rushd. In addition, he suggests that al-Arabi's sufi ideas of unity may have inspired pan-theistic philosophies in the 17th century (for Spinoza?). Here is an illustration from 1727 by Bernart Picart for an encyclopedia of comparative religions - the first of its kind, and note that the person at the front-right is a Muslim scholar, depicted in a positive light (the first few minutes of the lecture are dedicated to this image):

Also, check out the last couple of minutes of the lecture video. In answering one of the questions, Israel once again draws a line between moderate and radical Enlightenments. While Voltaire, Hume etc. were okay with racism and an the basic imperial ideas, much of the values of the modern world have been shaped by this underground movement of the 18th century.

Here is the video of the talk (Sorry - I can't embed it): The Islamic World and the Radical Enlightenment: Toleration, Freethinking and Personal Liberty by Jonathan Israel.

Also, the Warburg Institute is hosting a series of talks this month on the theme of Islam and the Enlightenment. Here is the schedule:

Thursday 3 May, 6.15 - 7.45 p.m.Jan Loop (The Warburg Institute), Islam and the Enlightenment. An introduction.
Wednesday 9 May, 4.15 - 5.45 p.m.Rolando Minuti (Florence), Islam in Montesquieu’s writings and thought.
Monday 14 May, 4.15 - 5.45 p.m.Jonathan Israel (Princeton), An Islamic Radical Enlightenment? The Philosophes and their perceptions of the Arabic world.
Thursday 17 May, 6.15 - 7.45 p.m.Maurits van den Boogert (Leiden), Sir James Porter (1710–1776) and his 'Observations on the Religion, Law, Government, and Manners of the Turks' (1768)
Tuesday 29 May, 6.15 - 7.45 p.m.Simon Mills (Cambridge), Joseph White (1745-1814) and Arabic Studies in eighteenth-century England.
This is very cool! Hope there are videos of these talks.

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