The Enlightenment in Islam Then and in Judaism Now

The journalist Christopher de Bellaigue just came out with a fascinating, if heavy, tome entitled The Islamic Enlightenment. The book’s subtitle describes its wide scope: The Struggle between Faith and Reason 1798 to Modern Times. As I have been reading passages from this book, I have been continually struck by inexact parallels between that struggle as it plays out in Islam, and as its analogue plays out in the more Orthodox parts of Judaism today.

Enlightenment figures in Islam range from frank secularists, who wish to free themselves from the faith, to advocates for a secular society in which adherents feel welcome to practice Islam in private, to faithful Muslims who long to update the faith, to fideists who wish to restore secular studies to the Islamic curriculum.  Their opponents rally around a vision of the faith that must control the public sphere as well as the private, or that admires authoritarian leaders, or that needs no input from the secular world.

Issues of contention include the literal truth and historicity of the holy Quran, the role of women, the rights of non-Moslems, respect for competing traditions of Islam, the role of non-practicing Muslims, and the desirability of popular elections.

In his introduction, de Bellaigue asserts that “Muslim conservatives and reactionaries,” when they fought back against modernization, discovered “the seductive idea that modernity could be reduced to a limited series of propositions (and gadgets) that would invigorate the body of Islam without changing it” (xxi).

I can think of some parallels in the contemporary Jewish world.

Reading some of the terms of the Islamic struggle, I find myself thinking of the Jewish equivalent.  A Muslim in good standing is a member of the Ummah. Some Muslims claim to power to issue a Takfir, declaring an apparent member of the Ummah or even an entire state as apostate, subject to the death penalty.   Other Muslims consider this madness, according to de Bellaigue: “For the vast majority of Muslims, including today’s Muslim Brotherhood, Takfir is un-Islamic and unacceptable, but without it there would be no Islamic terrorism as we know it – Takfir is integral to the armoury of the modern Islamic terrorist” (328).

Some rabbis specialize in the Jewish equivalent of Takfir, unmasking observant Jews as unbelievers.  These rabbis even use the Hebrew cognate, calling each target a “Kofer.” It gives me satisfaction that, thankfully, I have not heard any rabbis calling for the death penalty’; but they would probably not tell me.

Centuries ago the schools of Islam debated how to apply the holy Quran and the hadith, the traditions of Muhammad and his followers, in practice.  Among other techniques, scholars relied on the “the exercise of independent reasoning,” in Arabic, Ijtihad, on this body of literature to turn it into practice.  Gradually, over the centuries, open questions became settled by the process of Taqlid, tradition, or “emulation of those in religious authority.”  Eventually, Ijtihad “was no longer considered an acceptable way to determine God’s will” (xxxii).

So, too, the range of thought on a great many issues seems, in the modern Yeshiva world, narrower than the range of thought of the early rabbis.  One of my teachers in Yeshiva, many years ago, presented an opinion of Rabbi Yosef Albo, and commented that the idea was no longer part of normative Judaism.  I have since heard other speakers assert, about one opinion or another of the early rabbis, “They could believe that, but we may not,” or “There was once a dispute about that, but we have since reached a consensus.”

The medieval Islamic philosophers, Faylasufs, wrote works that intrigued Jewish thinkers, among them Rav Saadyah and Rambam. In the Maimonidean controversy, traditionalist, mystic and literalist Jews proposed banning or at least limiting the study of philosophy. Opposition to the Faylasufs came from the analogous Islamic sources, who recommended the spirit of Bila Kayf, “without asking how” (xxx).  Even today in the Jewish world, rabbis write with pride of their freedom from secular knowledge.

Looking at de Bellaigue’s sympathetic portrayal of champions of Islamic enlightenment feels like looking at a slightly distorted mirror of our own struggles with enlightenment.

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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