BOOK REVIEW: European Enlightenment thinkers and the Qur’an

27th Feb 2015

The Enlightenment Qur’an: The Politics of Translation and the Construction of Islam, by Ziad Elmarsafy. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. 2009. pp269. PB. £19.99

The author of this book is an academic and writer specialising in English and related literature. He is currently a Senior Lecturer at the University of York and author of several books on Western, Middle Eastern and North African religious, philosophical and literary topics. In addition to the book under review, he is author of Freedom, Slavery and Absolutism (Bucknell University Press, 2003) and Sufism in Contemporary Arabic Novel (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Fluent in Arabic, French and English, the author combines his extensive knowledge of both European and Islamic literary history to explore relations between the West and the Muslim world highlighting how one has invariably influenced the other intellectually as well as culturally.

At a time when the champions of so-called ‘clash of civilisations’ and supposed ‘incompatibility between Western and Islamic values’ are working overtime to divide humanity into two diametrically opposing blocs, it is refreshing to learn that the leading figures of European Enlightenment (during eighteenth and early nineteenth century), the founders of modern European thought and culture, were profoundly influenced by Islam’s sacred book.

European Enlightenment was the ‘Age of Reason’ when religion in general and Christianity in particular was subjected to critical analysis and scrutiny as rationality became the final arbiter of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, and reality and illusion. During such a fiercely iconoclastic and rationalistic period in modern European history and thought, prominent Enlightenment figures like Voltaire, Rousseau, Goethe and Napoleon were profoundly influenced – not by Christianity or the Bible – but by their encounter with the translated Qur’an.

This came about “…at times and places that look, in retrospect, like turning points: Rousseau’s construction of the legislator and the social contract, Voltaire’s denunciations of fanaticism and nascent anti-clericalism, young Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt, the young Goethe’s oscillation between poetry and prophecy as literary paradigms, and the older Goethe’s theorization of world literature.

In all of these cases, the engagement with Islam enables a radical break with past traditions and the conception of something entirely new: a legislator who owes nothing to traditional contract theory (Rousseau), a view of universal history that goes well beyond the received idea of God’s plan unfolding in human affairs, and in so doing inaugurates a new vision of modernity (Voltaire), a vision of a secular republic expanding outside Europe and into the Middle East and North Africa (Napoleon), a model of global literary production based on translation rather than creation (Goethe). Of the developments that brought about these shifts of perspective, the new translations of the Qur’an that were being produced in Europe after the mid-seventeenth century must take pride of place.” (pp.x-xi)

Consisting of seven enlightening chapters covering ‘Translators and translations of the Qur’an’ (pp1-36) to ‘Goethe: Poetry and Prophecy, from Mahomet to World Literature’ (pp158-179), a short Preface and an Afterword, in this book the author shows that modern Western thought, culture and values have more in common with the Islamic worldview than the contemporary peddlers of ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis would have us believe.

In the author’s own words, “Then as now, the Western world seems extremely reluctant to let go of the intellectual hooks by which its view of Islam is suspended. It is to be hoped that, by studying the period during which some of those cherished misconceptions were released, we can bring about a better understanding of the Muslim-Western dynamic today…” (p.xii)

This is a timely, refreshing and persuasive book, covering an important period in Western intellectual history by throwing new light on the complex background to the formation of our intellectual, cultural and political worldview and reality. Highly recommended reading.

Muhammad Khan, author and researcher – This is dedicated to Mohammad Ali Qayyum, in appreciation.

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