Thoughts on Islam and the English Enlightenment

The following response is written based on my reading of the introduction to the book Islam and the English Enlightenment, 1670-1840. I might post more thoughts if I finish other chapters of the book.

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Dr. Humberto Garcia’s introduction to his book, which includes a brief discussion on British Radicalism, is interesting. He stresses how Islamic republicanism provided British radicals to denounce their opponents, such as the Trinitarians. The radicals saw a connection between Islam and Christianity as they would like it to be (e.g., Deism). But to what extent does his text speak to Islamic intellectual history? I remember in another history class at Tufts, when I was arguing for an understanding of the ulema within each specific context (rather than positioning it as a universal category), a person commented that the ulema is just like the Catholic clergy, implying that they were the ruling class opposed to general interest of the people. I do not know what Garcia thinks about the Islamic ulema, but this view is definitely still common and simplifies the complexity of Islamic thought. If Islam once served as a placeholder for British radicals to envision Christianity without a clergy, it can also easily become another placeholder for other purposes.

My second point of uneasiness with Garcia’s treatment of Deism is in his easy acceptance of its ahistorical claims. Concepts of time are a crucial difference that proponents of deism conveniently glide over: They reiterate that the Prophet Muhammad is merely another Luther who came centuries earlier. Yet they fail to see how the richness of Islam encompasses both linear as well as non-linear time. Garcia does not discuss the role of prophets. According to Islam, Jesus is another prophet of the same God’s message, which Muhammad was asked by God to deliver for the last time. While Muslims and deists would be similarly opposed to Trinitarian creed that Jesus is the son of God, what do deists have to say about humanity’s constant need for prophets throughout (secular-historical) time? In Colin Jager’s concept of romantic secularization, who Garcia cites, religions become more concerned regarding issues within this world rather than the hereafter; this concept is another phenomenon of the same issue regarding time.

The final concern I have with Garcia's treatment of Deism lies in the lack of discussion in regards to Deism's attitude towards “heathens.” As Dr. Tomoko Mazusawa, author of The Invention of World Religions, succinctly summarizes on page 188, “Measured against the trio of monotheisms, all forms of Gentile polytheism were deemed no match, however grand and Olympian they might be, not to mention more humble instances of heathen idolatry, fetishism, or any other veneration of limited and particularistic deities and spirits. … any serious challenge to Christian supremacy could come only from other monotheisms.” It is worth mentioning here that the word “Gentoo,” which the British used for non-Muslims in India, was possibly derived from the Portuguese word Gentio: a gentile, a heathen, or native. Prof. Jalal shows in her book Partisans of Allah that there were many Sufis in Mughal South Asia under who promoted the oneness of God after interactions with Hindu practices. Yet how monotheistic does any deism have to be? And to whose monotheism is one measuring one’s belief? It is indeed a fine line. In terms of discursive power, waḥdat al-wujūd, deism and Brahmo are not the same.  Except in the case of Iqbal, deistic ideas of the British variant seem to have been much more prevalent than Sufi ones among colonial Indian intellectuals. To quote from page 283 of The Invention of World Religions: “According to [Rammohun Roy, Keshub Chunder Sen, Debendranath Tagore, and Swami Vivekananda’s] projective view, ‘Hinduism,’ though the term itself may be a neologism, refers to the ancient faith of India, a religion that was essentially monotheistic, and whose ancient wisdom is encapsulated in certain select but voluminous canonical texts, which were beginning to be known in the West as early as the eighteenth century...”  In this context where monotheism is the hegemonic discourse, it would be interesting to discuss Rammohan’s role in our class next week.

C.A. Bayly’s project in Recovering Liberties links these ideas with social realities. He relates that there were many sources for deciding the rights (adhikar or haq) of Indians under colonialism. Yet he is also acutely aware of the colonial conditions which bring these issues to rise: extraterritorial subjects such as lascars or Parsi merchants brought liberalism to the foreground of debate. The British administration’s reaction was to create separate courts for separate believers. In socio-legal reality, there seems to have been many gods in India indeed.

Some more of my thoughts during Prof. Jalal's classroom discussion on the 18th century:
  • One needs to be careful in separating "the West" and "colonialism." I would argue that many people in European countries became entangled with colonial systems much later than the process of colonial domination. For example, maps served as tools of colonial domination long before they became Victorian household objects. While there are many linkages between "the West" and "colonialism" found by methods a la Said's Orientalism, the connections are less well established in social history. In my opinion, that is the complex contribution of the Early Modern historiography--if one can start to think of a world before Western dominance, then one can see how history was not pre-determined. 
  • Once one can perceive of a world prior to "the West" as the hegemonic power (militarily and ideologically) know today, then one can see how the contestations within "the West" during the 18th century. What Locke, Montesquieu, or Rousseau wrote became a Western canon much later than their publication. Similarly, the dating of Sunni and Shi'a orthodoxies is also important for one to understand what one means when one discusses what is Islam. In this regard I am in agreement with Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush that Sunni and Shi'a orthodoxies only become known categories after the first thousand years since the Prophet Muhammad (in Gregorian calendar, approximately 1600s).
  • "Colonialism" as an idea and "colonialism" as a social reality should be disentangled. I think many works use an analytical shorthand to mean both at the same time. We can see quantitatively in English publications how the emergence of "Colonialism" as a published word is rather recent, happening around the same time as decolonization in the 1960s. One can argue that others have been discussing colonialism in other languages much before that, but this post is primarily discussing the English-speaking academy. 

The frequency of "colonialism" in English books uptick in the 1960s, correlating to the process of decolonization.

Comparing the frequency of "colonialism" with the word "colonies."

Obviously there are other usages of "colonies" beyond the meaning of those of colonial domination, but the gap between the two vocabularies' frequencies is still quite significant. One additional objection to the significance of the comparison of these two words might be that the culprits of colonialism would not want to use the word to describe their activities at least when writing in the English language. Thus, there is even more burden of finding "proof" and labor required of those who choose to write critical histories of colonialism, such as learning (academic) English.