Muslim Enlightenment: How do we know when it happens?

This paper is an expanded version of a presentation by the author at International Conference of Critical Thinkers for Islamic Reform, Oxford University June-11-13, 2010

Every once in a while a new study surfaces in the United States or some other western country, indicating that the attitude towards Muslims is not only negative but is trending worse over time. A tiny minority in some of these countries even believe that Muslim civil liberties should be curtailed. The response of established Muslim organizations as well as some individual Muslims, generally, is outrage sprinkled with accusations of Islamophobia.
A prime example is the protest in London and elsewhere against the Danish Cartoonists or the murder of Theo Van Gogh the creator of the 10 minute movie “Submission.” In Pakistan, several people died during demonstrations against the cartoonists, and in London one could hear crowds of protestors chanting slogans such as “Behead those who insult Islam” and “Europe is the cancer, Islam is the Answer.” Such behavior not only lends support and credibility to the critics of Islam but, rightly so, brings into question the peaceful nature of Muslims–and as a result Islam.
This further gives rise to frequently asked questions such as: Why are such violent reactions as described above rare among Jews and Christians? How many people in this century died because somebody drew a cartoon of Jesus or burned a Bible as a political statement? How many Christians or Jewish coverts to Islam have had their lives threatened by their former congregants? Why do many Muslim countries not allow churches to be built? Why are Jews and Christians not allowed in Mecca whereas Muslims have no problem visiting almost all the holy places belonging to Jews and Christians? Why are many subjects such as archeological research related to the Quran and Islamic history viewed as “off limits” or if not proscribed, why does one rarely see scholarly works critical of the Quran by Muslims unless the author has been branded “mahareb” or the one who turned away from Islam?
Many Muslims in an attempt to answer these questions resort to apologetic tactics combined with poor excuses in the hope that the problem will go away quickly. All this brings us to the question of this commentary–at what point in time will the Muslims be enlightened enough to accept responsibility for their behavior and condemn these actions en masse? In addition, what factors are needed to bring about this enlightenment and how will we recognize that Muslims have embarked on this journey when it begins?
There are several examples throughout history to look at for clues. The best way, perhaps, is to consider the period of Christian enlightenment. By some accounts the age of reason or enlightenment in the West is pegged around the 18th century although some believe it started earlier in the 15th century and sprang up as a consequence of Luther’s Protestant movement. However, many believe the greatest contributing factor to what made Christian enlightenment possible was the attack on religion. Paul Hazard the 19th century French Scholar states that the aim of the Enlightenment was to ‘put Christianity on trial’. Similarly, Peter Gay Professor of History at Yale (The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (1969), described the Enlightenment as a ‘war on Christianity, and liberation of man from the tyranny of myth.’
When analyzing the Christian example these questions come to mind. Are the right factors in place for an Islamic enlightenment? Considering recent events, particularly after September 11, it is difficult to argue Islam and by association Muslims are not on trial. Muslims have been involved in many high profile indiscriminate attacks in the west not mentioning thousands of Muslims killed and tortured in Muslim countries at the hands of Muslims. It was Muslim terrorists, who bombed a train in Madrid Spain; who held a school hostage in Russia, killing scores of children or attacked a subway in London resulting in 55 people dead.
For Karl Popper, enlightenment is “the effort of men to free themselves to break out of the cage of the closed society, and to form an open society.” It would be short sided and mistaken to assume that the majority of Muslims have an aversion to western globalization and structural changes required for modernity and an open society. However, Muslims have to face the fact that in the twentieth century some of the most oppressive and inhumane societies happen to a be in Muslim countries; the Taliban being a good example. Today, there are still Muslim societies that consider the West the greatest threat to their existence and root their survival in opposing an open society. The philosopher, Henri Bergson who coined the term “closed society” in his writing in 1932, suggested that the reason societies are unable to evolve into “open”, is because religion acts as a mental habit binding human intellect. Some societies are just simply incapable of freeing themselves from the chains of their “cultural constraints.” One can see examples of these mini societies in some Muslim enclaves in Europe and elsewhere where repression of women and forced marriages are the norm.
Karl Popper goes further in ‘The Open Society and its Enemies.’ He states that ‘closed’ societies are profoundly inimical to the idea of human freedom. A fact demonstrated over and over again in recent years in Muslim countries, which are not only slow to adopt new technologies but even try to ban the use of the technological tools of an open society such as Internet, Twitter, and Facebook . When leaders of a closed society feel threatened, technologies such as the Internet and cell phone services are often the first to be shut down, even before the expulsion of reporters. This reinforces the fact that these countries view the open society as a menace, as it encourage an informed population supporting what Kant defines enlightenment to be, “the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error–a mental liberation and human self-knowledge no less.” Open societies morph bigotry into tolerance and then to acceptance, marginalize the self righteous and are less susceptible to be tainted with self destructive dogma.
But what completes enlightenment and prevents its corruption according to the seminal 7 page essay by Kant (What is Enlightenment) in 1784 is Critical thinking, a “declaration of independence” for the open mind. Critical thinking interrupts conversation with cultural norms and moves towards independence in pursuit of intellectual freedom and enlightenment. Without a critical mind according to Kant we become “placid” and “dumb cattle” who cannot think for ourselves. Man becomes incapable of using “his understanding without direction from another”, gravitates towards accepting other’s ideas as his falling into the trap of religious emulation and blind following. “I need not think” Kant writes, “if I can only pay.” Enlightened man is not subject to any authority without the use of critical faculty and reason, will not surrender to ignorance and misguided. This brings us to the sad state of critical thinking in Muslim countries. Any critical analysis of the Quran or Islam is generally frowned upon by the Muslim establishments. Up until a few years ago the few critical publications by Muslims had to be published under pseudonyms because of the real threat of physical harm by fellow Muslims that accompanied such writings. There is not a single skeptic organization similar to the internationally known organization “Committee for Skeptical Inquiry” ( in a Muslim country. All archeological work that relates to the Quran or the Islamic theological past is either forbidden, destroyed or conducted undercover. The results are invariably not published widely. Kant correctly reminds us that the enlightened is not afraid of “shadows.” How long would Nietzsche have survived had he been living in a Muslim country today writing “God is dead?”
Considering the factors necessary for the enlightenment to take hold as outlined above namely: attack on religion, open society and critical thinking, Muslims have barely begun the journey. Although some might argue that the attack on Islam is in full swing, there has been little progress in opening Muslim societies or embarking on any form of self criticism; one of the vital ingredients of critical thinking.
However, there is hope. It took 16 centuries before the process of Christian enlightenment started and a few more centuries until as Gay describes in the “Revolution of Reason” gave way to critical thinking and open societies. Muslims are approaching the mid 14th century, according to Islamic calendar and traversing through one of the most spectacular technological era in human history that leaves little room for closed or uninformed populations. Therefore, by all indications Muslim enlightenment is not only inevitable but will come to fruition faster than it did for our Christian brothers.
How will we know that we have reached the shores of enlightenment? The answer is simple; when the large demonstrations by Muslims turn into protests against miscreants like Ben Laden and Anwar Al Awlaki. When talk of enforcing Sharia law is reserved to a few outcasts without the general support of Muslims. When there is no talk of oppression of women in Muslim countries and women are afforded equal opportunity. When burning a Quran is not worthy of news anymore and Muslims can study the book with a critical eye and without the fear of persecution. When the news of rigged elections in Muslim countries is studied in history and not as contemporary events and no Muslim can arise and declare himself representative of God on earth. When Muslims can freely condemn superstitious practices and realize salvation is through self reliance and not through reliance on a hidden Imam at the bottom of a well, as some believe. When Geert Gildner can express his opinion freely while Muslims will engage him in a lively civil discourse. When the right to choose ones path to hell is considered sacred and not interfered with. When synagogues, churches and other non Muslim places of worship can be built in Muslim countries without government opposition. When Muslims can convert to any religion without fear of being murdered. When centuries of traditions (hadith) and Quranic exegesis are openly questioned by Muslims without fear of reprisal and ultimately the final test could be when in a Muslim country a Jew or Christian candidate has equal opportunity to participate in presidential elections.

Fereydoun Taslimi


One thought on “Muslim Enlightenment: How do we know when it happens?

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  1. Hey, very interesting post. I like how you say how Muslims have much self reflecting to do, and need to embrace some self criticism. Your blog is critical, but not anti-Muslim. Often times I see people just bash Muslims indiscriminately, and this just causes fear and dissension. We need critique, but fairness. You bring up valuable points, but don’t portray anyone as some enemy, you just call for reform. Very valid. Feel free to check out my blog:

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