Enlightenment in Western and Islamic traditions

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Enlightenment in Western and Islamic traditions:
Which tradition provides greater Enlightenment?

In the world we live, we are always faced with conflicting ideologies that influence our thinking. This is certainly true about Islam and secularism. In my case and in the case of most Muslim individuals who live in a modern society, society sometimes demands us to reject secular Western values and follow Islamic values and vice versa. Due to such conflicting influences on our thinking, we are sometimes confused as to which tradition to adopt as a transcendental decision: the Islamic tradition or the Western tradition?

To help decide which tradition to follow, I am going to investigate which tradition provides greater enlightenment. I will do this by breaking the paper into the following parts:

1. General concept and definition of the word enlightenment.
2. The Age of Enlightenment in the West.
3. Enlightenment in Islam.
4. Successes and Failures of enlightenment in the West.
5. Why Islam is more enlightened than the Western ideology of enlightenment and should be promoted?

General concept and definition of the word enlightenment.

The word ‘enlightenment' has many different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. If we look at the literal meaning of the word enlightenment, we will find that it comes from the verb to lighten. The prefix ‘en' means to make or become and the suffix ‘ment' means a state of being. Therefore if we join the components of the word ‘enlightenment' together, we will find that it literally means to become brightened.

However the broad definition of the word ‘enlightenment' according to most cultures and societies is “the acquisition of new wisdom or understanding” (Wikipedia, 2006, Enlightenment (concept) section, ¶1). If we look at this definition, we will find it is very similar to the literal definition of enlightenment. When we say a person has become brightened, we mean he has become wiser (more intelligent) or has acquired new wisdom.

In general, there are two different concepts of enlightenment: religious/spiritual enlightenment and intellectual/secular enlightenment. Both concepts of enlightenment are strong opposites of each other. This is why most people that believe in secular enlightenment often reject religious enlightenment and vice versa. Secular enlightenment is enlightenment that is not regarded as religious, spiritual or sacred, whereas religious enlightenment is the opposite. According to Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher of the enlightenment, the Enlightenment was the period in the development of European civilization when “Mankind grew out of its self-inflicted immaturity” (as cited in Davies, 1996, p.596) or it is “man's release from his self-incurred tutelage.” (as cited in Dupré, 2004, p.1). The concept of Secular enlightenment was important in Europe during the 18th century, because it caused a dramatic change in the everyday thinking of Europeans. The characteristics of Secular enlightenment were the rejection of old dogmatic beliefs, which were replaced with the belief in reason as a measure over all things. The Enlightenment was in fact the intellectual movement that advocated this concept.

The Age of Enlightenment in the West.

The Age of Enlightenment refers to the 18th century in American and European philosophy or according to some scholars it also includes the seventeenth century and the Age of Reason. This was the period where innovative and intellectual ideas were being propagated so as to challenge traditional dogmatic ideas and beliefs. During this period an intellectual movement known as The Enlightenment advocated reason as a method to investigate and study all the various scientific fields, which included the social sciences (aesthetics, ethics, philosophy, logic, economics), literature and natural sciences (physics, biology, chemistry). They believed this would allow human beings to obtain objective truth about the universe.The main figures of the enlightenment were Descartes, Pascal, Bayle, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau.

Among them Denis Diderot was one of the first people to propose the six fundamental principles on which enlightenment are based in his Encyclopedie. The first principle was strong belief in human reasoning to the point, where it was considered the best measure over everything. The second principle was the belief in a Supreme Being (God), who is exalted over everything. However these enlightened thinkers also believed that God did not intervene with nature. The third principle was the rejection or less significance given to religious values and metaphysics. The fourth principle was the belief that secularism, which is the separation of the church and state, is better. The fifth principle was the strong belief in the scientific method, which lead to extreme materialism. The last principle was the expectation of unlimited progress.

Enlightenment in Islam

Even though in Islam there is no concept of enlightenment, Islam came as an enlightened religion and way of life for the whole humanity. During the time the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was born, which was in the year 570 A.D., the whole world lived in the Dark Ages. Belief in superstitions, myths, common practices of black magic, idolatry (polytheism) and paganism was common. One of the major concerns of that time was the loss and alteration of the original Holy Scriptures such as the Bible and Torah and the increased power of the Church, which dictated its own version of religion and was mainly responsible for altering the Holy Scriptures. In Arabia polytheism and paganism was the dominant religion of the Arabs. Ignorance towards science and illiteracy were rampant among the people. The Holy Kaabah, which was built by Prophet Abraham and Ishmael was filled with hundreds of idols. Also dark customs and traditions such as the female infanticide and ritual gambling (Maysir) on camels were common.

When the Prophet Muhammad started his mission of preaching Islam, which was propagating the Oneness and Unity of God (monotheism), he was met with extreme resistance. However as he kept his preaching consistent with the same rigor, the number of his followers increased dramatically till they were able to completely change the cultures of Arabia and the rest of the world.

Islam brought enlightenment in the Arab world by positively changing the dark customs and attitudes of society such as abolishing female infanticide, slavery, gambling and alcohol addiction.

Islam also brought justice and provided human rights for each individual. In Islam, the life and property of all citizens in an Islamic state are considered sacred, whether Muslim or not. Islam also protects the honor of every individual. It does not allow insulting or making fun of others. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had said: “Truly your blood, your property, and your honor are inviolable” (as cited in Ibrahim, 1997, p.61).

Islam also abolished Racism and brought human equality. The Quraan speaks of human equality in the following words:

“O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female and have made you into nations and tribes for you to know one another. Truly, the noblest of you with God is the most pious. Truly, God is All-Knowing, All-Aware” (1997, p.61).

Islam rejects that an individual is superior to another individual by his wealth, power or race. God created human beings as equal to one another. One is only better than the other if he has greater faith or piety (taqwa). A person who greater taqwa is one who prevents himself from all types of sins, performs good deeds that God commands us to do, and fears and loves God. Concerning equality our Prophet Muhammad also said:

“O people! Your God is one and your forefather (Adam) is one. An Arab is not better than a non-Arab and a non-Arab is not better than an Arab, and a red (i.e. white tinged with red) person is not better than a black person and a black person is not better than a red person, except in piety” (1997, p.62).

Concerning the status of women, Islam has from the very beginning given women equal rights as men. In the Holy Qur'aan, God says “O Mankind, keep your duty to your Lord who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate (of same kind) and from them twain has spread a multitude of men and women” (as cited in Badawi, 1971, p.11). El-Khouly Al-Bahiy, a scholar who pondered about this verse states: “It is believed that there is no text, old or new, that deals with the humanity of the women from all aspects with such amazing brevity, eloquence, depth, and originality as this divine decree” (1971, p.11). In other verses, the Qur'aan also expresses clear-cut evidence about the equality of women such as: “…So their Lord accepted their prayers, (saying): I will not suffer to be lost the work of any of you whether male or female. You will proceed one from another….” (1971, p.13). Also, according to the Qur'aan, woman is not solely blamed for Adam's mistake of eating from the forbidden tree in Paradise. Both Adam and Eve jointly committed the mistake, repented and were forgiven by God. Concerning religious obligations in Islam such as praying, fasting, giving charity and pilgrimage, women are no different than men. In fact, in some cases women are more exempted from obligatory duties than men. When a woman has menstrual periods or is pregnant during the past forty days, she is exempted from fasting and prayers. Concerning the pre-Islamic custom of burying female infants alive at birth, the Qur'aan clearly forbids it and considers it a crime like murder. It is said in the Qur'aan concerning this crime: “When news is brought to one of them, of (the Birth of) a female (child), his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief! With shame does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain her on (sufferance) and contempt, or bury her in the dust? Ah! What an evil (choice) they decide on?” (1971, p. 15).

Another reason why Islam is an enlightened religion is because of the greatness of the Qur'aan in terms of its scientific soundness and being the best masterpiece of Arabic literature. The Qur'aan was not authored by the Prophet as he was illiterate and did not possess the intelligence shown by the Qur'aan. The Holy Qur'aan was only authored by God. The Prophet Muhammad only received divine revelation from God and then communicated it to his people.

Concerning the soundness of scientific facts, the Qur'aan mentions some scientific miracles that have been discovered recently in the past 100 years, even though the Qur'aan was revealed 1400 years ago. For example, the Qur'aan speaks about the stages of embryonic development: “We have created man from an extract of clay, Then made him as a drop in a place of settlement, firmly fixed. Then We made the drop into an alaqah (leech, suspended thing, and blood clot), then We made the alaqah into a mudghah (chewed substance)….” (as cited in Ibrahim, 1997, p.6). The scientific details expressed in this verse were put forward to Professor Emeritus Keith L.Moore. Dr. Keith Moore is one of the world's most leading scientists in the field of anatomy and embryology. He was impressed after studying and conducting scientific research on them and when present at the Seventh Medical Conference in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, he said “It has been a great pleasure for me to help clarify statements in the Qur'aan about human development. It is clear to me that these statements must have come to Muhammad from God, because almost all of this knowledge was not discovered until many centuries later. This proves to me that Muhammad must have been a messenger of God” (1997, p.10). He also said that the Qur'aan must be the word of God and proposed that a new system of classification could be developed on embryonic knowledge using the Qur'aan and Sunnah (traditions).

Other scientific miracles that the Qur'aan mentions are about the origins of the universe, that the heavens and earth were one connected entity, that there is a barrier between two different seas when they meet, that the mountains are pegs that stabilize the crust of the earth and that as you go deeper down the sea it gets darker.

Successes and Failures of Enlightenment in the West.

The successes of enlightenment were of great benefit to humanity. The enlightenment's principle of using reason (logos), observation and experience to explain phenomena around us contributed to the rapid advancement of the natural sciences such as the discovery of physical laws (e.g. gravity) that govern the universe, space exploration and genetic engineering. The advancement in the natural sciences in turn led to a better standard of living for mankind for example: the invention of fractional distillation led to a greater production of petrol and gasoline which led to more efficient and convenient means of transport such as cars.

Enlightenment also led to advancement in the social sciences such as Economics. The concept that free markets maximize welfare in an economy and determine the best allocation of resources, as proposed by Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of Nations, was an example of the successes resulting from enlightenment. Some of the other fruits of enlightenment were the rule of law and liberal democracies. Despite all these successes that resulted from enlightenment, there were even greater failures resulting from enlightenment.

Most of the six elements of enlightenment led to some failure. The principle that logos (reason) is a measure over all things was overestimated as reasoning could not comprehend what is the divine or unseen. Reasoning cannot explain for example black magic that goes on in some countries such as Oman. Reasoning also cannot fully explain the existence of God. This is because we cannot see or hear God. Until we do not physically see God, we will not be able to know about his existence. Another failure of overestimating reasoning was it led to a general decline in religion. While all the main figures of the eighteenth century enlightenment were Deists, who believed in a non-interventionist cloud-maker God, their nineteenth century successors became atheists or at least agnostics.

Another failure of concept of enlightenment in Europe was the lawlessness produced from fascism and communism. This lawlessness was produced as the concept of enlightenment rejected the concept of divine law and believed that the basis of law can be found in nature. As what was called the natural law was actually made by the people, it was under the influence of either the majorities in a democratic country or brutal totalitarian rulers.

The Enlightenment's sense of unlimited progress also had negative effects. Tradition, which is the basis of all major religions including Islam, was completely abandoned. The concept of sacredness was also neglected. Rather any change was welcomed. By the end of the nineteenth century many people anticipated that the earth will become a paradise once all scientific discoveries would take place.

In the twentieth century the real failures of enlightenment showed up. The results were two world wars that destroyed most of Europe and America. The use of chemical and nuclear weapons in these wars killed tens of millions of people. In between these two world wars the fanatic totalitarian systems of communism (Russia, Eastern Europe, China, Cambodia, Congo, Vietnam and Algeria) and fascism (Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Greece) arouse. These one-party systems strongly discriminated against other parties and ethnic groups. They killed millions of people as a result of ethnic cleansing and class warfare. Examples of such brutalities include the Holocast, which was carried by the Nazis against the Jews. All these brutalities were a consequence of the inhumane rationalism that contradicted the discipline of ethics in philosophy, which in turn contradicted the ideas of the early philosophers and founders of enlightenment.

Such disasters including the possibility of a World War Three are ahead of us. However, the present negative results of enlightenment are unnecessarily high consumption patterns in Western countries, a further decline in religiosity, wide scale environmental degradation, increased inequality between the poor and rich and the negative results of globalization, which include the widening gap between rich and poor countries in terms of national income and standard of living.

Why Islam is more enlightened than the Western ideology of enlightenment and should be promoted?

When analyzing the successes and failures of Islam, I found that Islam has no failures and is a perfect way of life, which is why it is such an enlightened religion. However when I studied the successes and failures of enlightenment in the West, I noticed that there were a lot of major failures that resulted from enlightenment even though there were some great successes such as the advancement in technology.

The successes achieved from enlightenment in the West could have also been achieved by the Muslims if they had not deviated from the path of the Prophet Muhammad, which is the Qur'aan and traditions (Sunnah) of the Prophet. If we look the earlier eras in Islamic history, the Muslims were much ahead of the West in technology and sciences. The Muslims also had their own empire which extended from China to Southern France. At that time the West lived in the Dark Ages and were inspired by the Muslim philosophers and sociologists such as Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Ibn Khaldun and Avicenna (Ibn Sina). A lot of words in English and French were borrowed from Arabic such as alcohol (al-Kohol), algebra (al-Jabr), assassin (hashshashiyeen) and coffee (kahva).

Also if we look at the time period (between the 19th and 20th century), when the enlightenment was causing devastation in the West such as the two world wars and the Holocast, we will find that there were no such major conflicts in the Islam world. The Islamic countries were at peace with each other.

Also if we study the Qur'aan we will find that it provides a great deal of enlightenment even during the present day. It is sound in accordance with the latest discoveries in science. In fact the Qur'aan has been a leading guide to enlightenment for 1400 years since it begun. Since the time of the Prophet, it has been by far the best piece of Arabic literature and had a tremendous influence on the Arabic language particularly in secular (prose) and religious writing. During the time of the Prophet it challenged the best poets in Arabia to write even one verse as eloquent as the Qur'aan. Many of these poets (such as Kaab Ibn Zuhayr) accepted Islam due to the Qur'aan's eloquence and originality. In the present world, the Qur'aan is serving as a guide to scientific research and jurisprudence.


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Ibrahim, I.A. (1997). A Brief Illustrated Guide To Understanding Islam (2nd ed.). Houston: Darussalam , Publishers and Distributors.