Book Review: Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age

Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798 1939Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798 1939 by Albert Hourani
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a great book, and I can see why it is a classic in the field. Hourani explains the thought of the major Arabic thinkers in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries and details their interactions with European thought during this time. Europe was the gold standard of civilization and progress not only for Europeans, but for many thinkers from other civilizations, and European ideas were seen as a source of strength by those who admired it. Interestingly, several Egyptian thinkers in the 19th century believed that Islam could take on European science, social thought (esp. Comte), nationalism, and secular reason and give them their proper place. By the twentieth century, Arabic secularists emerged who were reversing the relationship, with secular thought and nationalism in control and Islam (or Christianity, for Arabic Christians) along for the ride. Here’s a quote that illustrates this transition:

“The writers of the school of [Muhammad] `Abduh saw themselves as a middle group, steering a careful course between extremes: on one side the traditionalists, on the other side the secularists. Their object was to accept and encourage the institutions and ideas of the modern age but link them to the principles of Islam, in which they saw the only valid basis for social thought, the ‘political law accepted by all’ of which Bakhit spoke. In the process they were led ever nearer to the second of the two extremes [the secularists], simply because it was this and not the first which presented the real danger. Rigid conservatism would in due course show its incapacity to understand and therefore to control the modern world, and in the end might just wither away. But the ideas of the modern world, precisely because they were irresistible, had the power both to destroy and to remake Islamic society–to destroy it if left unchecked, to remake it if harnessed to the eternal purposes of Islam–; and in the attempt to harness them, more and more concessions were made to them” (193).

Those influenced by modern European thought dominated the political scene in Egypt from the rise of Muhammad Ali (not the boxer) in the early 1800s until the rise of the Muslim Brothers in the 1930s, and even today the government is still secular, for now. Secular nationalists and socialists also dominated other Arabic lands outside of the Arabian peninsula for a long time. Since Hourani’s book was originally written in the 1960s, his epilogue looks at the Sharia as the law of Arabic lands as a thing of the past, which is ironic given the rise of Islamist movements in the 1970s. He didn’t realize then, understandably, what has become clear now, that the failure of secular nationalist regimes in governing and in wars against Israel helped to make Islamism an option.

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