Enlightenment’s Islam: A “Necessary Fiction”

August 1, 2014

WASHINGTON—For a third day, protesters have blocked the entrance of the Library of Congress, demonstrating against plans for a controversial, Islamic-themed mural. Bearing signs reading “No Islamization – USA,” the protesters called for government action to defund the proposed mural, which would occupy a prominent space on the dome of the library’s Main Reading Room, and is set to depict a turbaned figure holding scientific implements and labeled “Islam.” Library administrators argue that the mural acknowledges Muslim contributions to the history of science, and that the Islamic world will be only one of many cultures recognized in the finished work.

Critics, however, object to what they call government endorsement of Islam at a national landmark. In a weekend public appearance, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said, “There should be no artwork glorifying Islam within sight of the U.S. Capitol….The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over.”

Others consider the mural especially objectionable in light of the fact that the Capitol building, yards from the site of the proposed artwork, was an intended target of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Rudy Giuliani, mayor of New York City during the attacks, is calling the mural “a desecration.” And former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin tweeted that the “Muslim Mural is UNNECESSARY provocation.”

Tempers are running even higher online, where noted blogger and Islam critic Pamela Geller called the mural “a stab in the eye”….

None of the above is really fictional. All of the quotes are authentic; I just borrowed them from the “Ground Zero Mosque” saga. The “Islam” mural is real, too. You can see it for yourself in a proud spot on the dome of the Library of Congress, part of a series called “Human Knowledge.”

The only things I changed were the dates. The furious quotes come from 2010 (and could have been swapped for equally paranoid quotes from any month in the past several years). The mural, though, went up in 1897—and, as far as I can tell, it took up residence in that prime real estate without a hint of controversy. Can we imagine that happening today?

Glance at one of Geller’s subway ads juxtaposing a Quranic quote with the burning Twin Towers, find MUSLIM RAGE at the newsstand, or listen to protesters cheering the burning of a Tennessee mosque earlier this month, and it’s easy to imagine that Islam and the West are eternal enemies, fated to default again and again to the same unending clash. Accordingly, Islam’s harshest American critics—such as Geller and Gingrich, or Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes—hold themselves out as the last few champions of Enlightenment values in the face of a Dark-Ages religion and its apologists. But they are scrubbing from our history the ways in which the Enlightenment itself, as it redefined the modern West, was also characterized by a remarkably admiring embrace of Islam and its founder. They’re missing the extent to which the fathers of the modern West consciously modeled themselves on Islam as they saw it.

The library dome is one fairly late relic of that ecumenical attitude. But in a larger sense, so is America itself. The qualities sought by Enlightenment thinkers to define a new world—tolerance, rationalism, egalitarianism, relative secularism—were exactly the qualities they found (or convinced themselves they found) in the Muslim world. There was no better way to demonstrate that they were deadly serious about their world-changing aims than a daring revaluation of the West’s ancient adversary—than the case that we in the West would be better off if we were more like Muslims.

All He Says is True

To appreciate the magnitude of the Enlightenment leap, it helps to understand the starting point. It was a major step, for instance, simply to acknowledge the existence of Islam. “Far from being prepared to recognize any merit or authenticity in Islam as a religion,” writes historian Bernard Lewis, “Christendom had been unwilling to take cognizance of the fact that it was a religion, as is shown by the persistence of European Christians designating the Muslims by names which were ethnic rather than religious in connotation”: Arabs, Persians, Tatars, Moors, Turks, Saracens, and so on. The poet Dante drew on that tradition for his Inferno. He assigned Muhammad a place in Hell among the Sowers of Discord, on the apocryphal theory that Muhammad was an Eastern bishop who broke away from the Church.

While the 17th century saw the first European versions of the Quran, one of its first translators wrote it off as “so manifest a forgery.” And when the preachers of the day turned to Islam, it was as an object lesson in the vices of the infidel—or occasionally, by way of analogy, the vices of the Catholic or Protestant, depending on who was doing the preaching. Popular sermon titles of the day included “Of the Impiety and Imposture of Paganism and Muhammadanism” and “The True Nature of Imposture Fully Displayed in the Life of Mahomet.” If Muhammad was not a heretic, then he was a mountebank, a cunning impostor. When the English poet John Dryden needed a simile to illustrate evil counsel, he looked to Mecca:

Such as the Meccan prophet used of yore,
To whisper councils in their patron’s ear
And veiled their false advice with zealous fear.

And yet, just a generation later, European thinkers were producing treatises on Islam that read almost as if they’d been written by devout Muslims. One of the earliest of these was The Life of Mohammad published in 1730 by Henri de Boulainvilliers, a French count and early Enlightenment philosophe. The count’s biography is full of acclaim for Muhammad as both political revolutionary and religious visionary, describing him as “an incomparable statesman, a lawmaker superior to all those produced by ancient Greece.” Boulainvilliers’ admiration for Muslim doctrine gets only the barest and most perfunctory of Christian fig-leaves: “All he says is true…Without the grace of the Christian Revelation… there would be no system of doctrine so plausible as his, so conformable to the light of reason, so consoling to the righteous.”

What explains this remarkable turn of thought? Above all, it was driven by hostility to the Catholic Church; the count digresses from the biography long enough to accuse the Church of lust for blind obedience and worldly domination. Enlightenment antagonism toward established Christianity is well-known—but less so is the way that such criticism often went hand-in-hand with pointed praise of Islam. No longer the scourge of Christendom, Islam was transformed in the Enlightenment mind into the perfect foil for the Church: a creed “without mortification or whips,” free from abstruse theology and hierarchies of priests. Enmity for the Church also led Voltaire, in 1772, to praise Islam “because it does not descend into the folly of giving God any assistants, and it has no mysteries.”

This new view of Islam, particularly as expressed in Boulainvilliers’ biography, was a decisive influence on Edward Gibbon, who had already cultivated a lifelong interest in the Muslim world before turning to his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in full by 1789. By the time the history reaches the fall of Rome, it’s only halfway over. The book’s second half narrates the collapse of the Byzantines and, since their fall can only be understood in the context of the rise of Islam, Gibbon devotes an entire lengthy chapter to Muhammad’s life and the early years of the faith.

A religious skeptic, Gibbon cannot concede that Muhammad was a genuine prophet; in Gibbon’s view, “genuine prophet” is a contradiction in terms. But, rather sympathetically, he allows that the life of Muhammad, like the life of Socrates, demonstrates “how a wise man may deceive himself, how a good man may deceive others, how the conscience may slumber in a mixed and middle state between self-illusion and voluntary fraud.” If Islam was a deception, it was among history’s most useful deceptions: Gibbon credits it with wiping out idol worship and human sacrifice, mandating charity, uniting the warring factions of Arabia, minimizing the blood feud as the dominant institution of justice, and exalting the conscience of the believer over the authority of a priesthood.

Above all, Gibbon praises Islam as the minimalist faith. Rather than obedience to reams of catechisms or hundreds of laws, it shrinks the confession of faith to the simplest possible point: the unity of God and the prophethood of Muhammad. For Gibbon, Islam was a faith without mythology or miracles, the religion most compatible with human reason:

The prophet of Mecca rejected the worship of idols and men, of stars and planets, on the rational principle that whatever rises must set, that whatever is born must die, that whatever is corruptible must decay and perish. In the author of the universe, his rational enthusiasm confessed and adored an infinite and eternal being, without form or place, without issue or similitude, present to our most secret thoughts, existing by the necessity of his own nature, and deriving from himself all moral and intellectual perfection. These sublime truths, thus announced in the language of the prophet, are firmly held by his disciples, and defined with metaphysical precision by the interpreters of the Koran. A philosophic Theist might subscribe the popular creed of the Mahometans: a creed too sublime perhaps for our present faculties.

When the historian looked at Islam he saw a reflection of his own Enlightenment Deism: rational faith in an intellectual God, who rules the laws of nature but makes no appeal to the human senses and demands little-to-nothing in the way of ritual. And when he looked at the contemporary Muslim world, Gibbon found a faith that had maintained the vision of its founder in a surprisingly uncorrupted form. If Peter and Paul were to stumble into the modern Vatican, he sardonically notes, they would have to ask which God was being worshipped on the premises. In Islam, however, “the intellectual image of the Deity has never been degraded by any visible idol; the honours of the prophet have never transgressed the measure of human virtue; and his living precepts have restrained the gratitude of his disciples within the bounds of reason and religion.”

In all this, Gibbon set the tone for the Enlightenment embrace of Islam: alienated from Western religion, it was a movement that looked to a foreign faith and saw its own reflection. And this version of Islam took its place in the Enlightenment’s common shorthand, in which the wise and rational “Musulman” (Muslim) stood beside the “noble savage” as a rebuke to the dominant culture.

So it’s not surprising that, along with the sanctification of reason and equality, the version of Islam pioneered by Boulainvilliers and Gibbon continued to echo throughout Enlightenment culture. When Napoleon’s army invaded Egypt in 1798, the Muslim world’s moment of “first contact” with the modern West, its better-read officers would have known Condorcet’s Progress of the Human Mind. Published just three years earlier, it singled out Islam among the world’s religions as “the simplest in its dogmas, the least absurd in its practices, and the most tolerant in its principles.”

Faith in progress was axiomatic for all of these thinkers, and they implanted that faith deep in our own worldview. But it can jar our sense of progress just to read their words today. When we read Gibbon’s effort to reimagine a centuries-old enemy of the West—alongside, say, the fact that outgoing Rep. Michele Bachmann raised more than $1 million in 25 days from a Muslim-themed witch-hunt—it’s easy to ask how such openness could curdle into such paranoia.

But that would be too simple. It would miss the ways, small and large, in which Gibbon and his allies were ignorant of Islam; the ways in which they constructed a pure, exotic religion to fit their prejudices. In a case of what Edward Said would come to call “Orientalism.” Bernard Lewis (who himself was sharply criticized by Said for his Orientalism) is just one of the modern historians to catalogue the errors made by Gibbon, who had no firsthand knowledge of Islam. It had not remained pristinely unchanged from the faith preached by Muhammad, no more than any faith can remain frozen for a millennium and more; even in Gibbon’s day, its local diversity, and the multitude of doctrines and customs that grew from its original creed, rivaled anything in Christendom.

Islam was not exempt from bloody schisms; its intramural wars could be just as devastating as the Christians’. Islam did lack the hierarchy of the Catholics, but stopping there dramatically underplayed the influence of imams, religious jurists, and Quranic scholars in the Muslim world. As Lewis sums up, “much of [Gibbon’s] praise would not be acceptable in a Muslim country.” Islam was not Deism. But none of those complexities kept the Enlightenment thinkers from finding in Islam just what they wanted to find: an idealized construct that meant far more to them as a weapon in their polemics against Christianity than as a living human faith.

So, from Gibbon to Geller, this is not exactly a story of regress. It is, somewhat depressingly, a story of stasis. The constant is the Western tendency to treat the idea of Islam—whether as paragon or bogeyman—as useful. As tolerance has surged and receded, one venerable tradition has remained standing: using the faith of a billion to score points on our enemies, whether they’re a competing Christianity, the forces of organized religion more generally, or supporters of President Obama—who is more widely perceived as a Muslim the lower his approval rating gets.

Yet its failure to take Islam on its own terms doesn’t entirely negate Enlightenment thinkers’ positive deployment of Islam: it was integral to their case that a more rational world was not only desirable, but achievable. Perhaps we, the beneficiaries of that hard-won argument, can consider Gibbon’s words on the two-part Muslim creed as better applied to the Enlightenment project itself: it was “compounded of an eternal truth, and a necessary fiction.”