It is a practice that has become all too familiar in recent years: in the wake of a terrorist attack Muslims scramble to distance their faith from the violent acts being carried out in its name. They feel compelled to defend Islam from accusations that it is inherently violent or anti-modern.
This tendency to explicitly connect Islam with violence has had very real consequences, most recently with Donald Trump’s executive order banning refugees and immigrants from multiple Muslim-majority countries from entering the US. This act has caused outrage among Muslims across the globe as they again reiterate that Islam is not the cause of extremism.
But this phenomenon is hardly a recent one. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, writers from across the Islamic world felt the need to defend Islam to a European audience. This period saw the popularisation of supposedly scientific explanations for the racial and cultural superiority of Europe. Muslim writers of the time vigorously challenged the prevailing sentiment among many European thinkers that Islam was backwards and incompatible with reform.
These Muslim writers were part of a generation of modernisers that emerged across the Islamic world in the 19th century who believed that their societies would benefit most from reform along broadly European lines. Yet they maintained that this did not require a rejection of their Islamic identities. Like their counterparts today, these writers knew that whatever their personal beliefs about religion, to accept this narrative of Islam’s inherent backwardness would be to accept a narrative of European supremacy.
One of the most well-known examples of this was an article in May 1883 by the Muslim thinker Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani in the French Journal des Débats. It was in response to a lecture delivered by the French scholar Ernest Renan in which he stated, among other things, that Islam was incompatible with science. In his response, al-Afghani pointed to the scientific advances of the early Islamic period, arguing that rigid orthodoxy could be overcome through education and development.
The answer isn’t always Islam
But this was just one example of a common trend during this period as Muslim writers worked to respond directly to European writers who were critical of Islam.
One such figure was the Ottoman intellectual Ahmed Rıza, a member of the Young Turk movement that opposed Sultan Abdülhamid II in the late 19th century. Rıza was a positivist who believed in the supremacy of rational and scientific knowledge, but strongly defended Islam and its compatibility with reform. He criticised those European writers that blamed Islam for all of the problems of the Islamic world. He felt that the Ottoman Empire could fully embrace reform without rejecting its essential Islamic character.
Rıza echoed many of the same points made by commentators today in an 1896 article La Tolérance Musulmane. He asked why European writers insisted on solely blaming Islam for violence in the Ottoman Empire, but refused to see Christianity as a cause for violence in their own countries. He also blamed the European press for fanning the flames of anti-Islamic prejudice to serve their own interests.
Like many of his contemporaries, Rıza highlighted the accomplishments of Muslim scientists and intellectuals and the important contributions made by Islamic civilisation over the centuries. He also pointed out the Islamic roots of consultation and representation that underpinned many Ottoman reforms in the 19th century.
The colonial context
In French North Africa in the early 20th century similar defences were presented by the Algerian essayist Ismael Hamet and the Tunisian writer and politician Abdelaziz Thaalbi. Both refused to accept that their countries’ Islamic character presented a barrier to full equality with France.
In his 1905 book, L’Esprit Libéral du Coran, Thaalbi declared that the idea of tolerance was the leitmotif of the Qur’an. Like commentators today he stressed the importance of the political context that produced certain actions done in the name of Islam. For him, the “wars of early Islam had purely political reasons”. Islam itself was not inherently violent or opposed to modernisation and was, as he showed, perfectly compatible with the values of pluralism and tolerance.
Hamet held the same beliefs and saw education as the key. In Les Musulmans Français dans le Nord de l’Afrique in 1906 he stressed that Islam was not the problem. Rather, the problem lay in the manipulation and distortion of Islam by certain religious leaders. Superstition and ignorance had warped Islam beyond recognition. Only through education and equality could these elements be eliminated.
Talking in circles
All of these writers sincerely believed in the benefits of societal reform and they refused to accept the characterisation of Islam as fundamentally opposed to this aim. A final quote from Thaalbi highlights how, in many ways, we are still having the same conversation today as we were in 1905:
At the moment when the railroad, the post and the telegraph create bonds between all peoples, at the moment when men are sympathetic to the pains of other men, at the moment when universal peace is demanded and demanded by society as a whole, to bring all the elements of humanity closer together, will this hateful, intolerant, anti-liberal and fanatical interpretation of the Qur’an be a cause that will prevent this universal rapprochement?
Perhaps it’s time that we appreciate the exasperation that many Muslims feel when they are constantly called upon to defend the decency of their faith to the West. They have been doing it for a very long time.