In a Grain of Sand – The University of the Anti-Enlightenment

Dahlia Rizk

Every Colgate student having gone through CORE 151 and 152 has been asked to make some connection between the Enlightenment and modernity. Western civilization gives most of its credit to the likes of Voltaire, Kant, Descartes and Newton. They wrote about free speech, democracy and the scientific method. And in affirming these values, they denied those that were in opposition to them: wisdom, divine illumination, the controlled destiny of mankind.

So the question is, how does the religion of Islam, which does not deny these things, fit into the paradigm of the Enlightenment? How does the fact that the revelation of the Qur’an, occurring long before Montesquieu could pick up a pen, and functions in Islam as the final affirmation of God, and arguably, human progress, play into this?

The result is that we see Islam left out of most of the discourse of the Enlightenment. For many, this seems to be enough evidence that Islam and the West are on a collision course.

But what about the affirmations of the Enlightenment? It placed an emphasis on the importance of the individual, the rule of law, and the present material world. And when looking at Western world through the lens of what it affirms, Islam can in fact communicate with these values. They are not incompatible with Islamic doctrine. In some of his political writings, Rousseau himself commented on the efficacy of Muhammad’s political system in Arabia.

But progress, even in the West, only floats in the atmosphere until it is made manifest in an institution of some kind, be it political, economic, or social. In other words, someone somewhere has to believe in them before they actually take place. The results are universities, the stock market, and parliament houses. These are the institutions that perpetuate the ideas of the Enlightenment, and they’re the difference between words on a page and the founding of whole civilizations.

What I’ve found is that Islam, according to the Prophet, was a religion very modern for its time and place. So modern, in fact, that it could not find the support it needed from the political and social structures of seventh century Arabia. Europe at the time of the Enlightenment, however, was much more industrialized and capable of financing such institutions. In fact, the major institutions of Islam, such as Al-Azhar University or the Alhambra, weren’t erected until centuries after the death of the Prophet and the Sunni-Shi’a schism. The fact that these institutions were reserved for the ruling and religious elite also didn’t help to perpetuate these “Enlightenment values” in a systematic manner.

As a result, many of the words of the Prophet that do echo those of the Enlightenment, such as reason or the human, remained words on in book, the Qur’an. Today, they get washed over by fundamentalists who are in fact providing mechanisms for “anti-Enlightenment” ideas to spread. You could say that al-Qaeda is one such institution, that took someone like Osama bin Laden and millions of dollars to fund it. But don’t expect to read Francis Bacon here.