In a lot of countries in Western Europe, for example in Belgium, there is nowadays a lively debate about women wearing headscarves. Some people would prefer to see the headscarf disappearing out of public space, based on feminist, nationalistic, republican or other ideas. Other people relate to the Enlightenment for their arguments. There has been argued (quickly summarized) that the Age of Enlightenment freed the West from the suppressing religion that kept the people from being individuals and that now it is time for the West to help Muslim women freeing their individual minds from the prison that the headscarf is supposed to be. Often, there is added that the Enlightenment separated Church and State. Because of that, there is argued that we should prohibit those religious symbols in State environments (including public schools and so on). Enlightenment is seen here as a general freeing of the individual from being suppressed by their religion, no matter the time or the geographical context nor if the ‘Enlightenment’ is bottom-up or top-down.
The Enlightenment has been a very important movement for the history of Europe and especially in the ideologies and sciences. As we could see in the example, there is often referred to it today in relation to debates about the Islam. Very generally and simplified, this comes down at one side to the question if the Islamic world has known something comparable to the Enlightenment and at the other side, if this is not the case, whether the Islamic world needs such a comparable movement – as referred to in the example above. But we have to be very careful at one hand not to overestimate the meaning of this movement in European history and at the other not to use this concept in the wrong context. Because of different meanings given to the concept of Enlightenment conclusions and arguments that make use of this concept are often not valid or not well-explained. I will try to shortly find out here in which different ways we can look to this concept and in what situations it is used. This will also show the, sometimes negative, consequences of some used meanings, directing towards a more nuanced notion of the concept of Enlightenment in the context of Islam today.
Historically, the Islam is more or less connectable to the Enlightenment-concept in two different ways: once when the Islam went to a period with the same premises of the Western Enlightenment in the period of the Abbasid caliphate and once when it experienced the consequences of the Western Enlightenment. In the second association there is a stress on the pure historical context of the Enlightenment, as a Western idea-movement with influences in time and space. This is historically correct since it is not taking the concept out of its spatial or temporary context.
In the first association, the Enlightenment is something definable as an ideology, characterized mainly by the primacy of reason (above religious, more dogmatic ideas), happening in a certain period and a certain time frame but also applicable to another region in another time. For as the time under the Abbasid Caliphate is known as the golden age of Islam when Islamic philosophy knew influences from all over the world and was very open to divergent ideas without repression, this primacy of reason is applicable to this period. Therefore is the use of Enlightenment as an ideology historically correct, if the context where it is applied to has the same characteristics, first of all primacy of reason. It is valid for the Abbasid Caliphate, but often not for other periods were it is applied to. For example, when there is said ‘the headscarf is not in line with our enlightened ideology, so it must be abolished’, there is no real primacy of reason as this ‘ideology of enlightenment’ is here seen as more important than reason: no other arguments are given. There is another contrast to be remarked between this example and the 17th and 18th Century movement. Namely one of the fundaments of the movement is the bottom-up aspect: if ‘Enlightenment’ (in this case the abolishing of the headscarf) is implemented from above, there is no freedom or primacy of reason of independent thinking; instead it can be seen more as a return to the historical characteristics of the period before the Age of Enlightenment. To the interpretation as an historical ideology can be referred in again another approach, insisting on reactivation. In this approach, there is argued that the earlier Islamic ‘Enlightened’ period should happen ‘again’ today, adding a sort of superior value to the concept: it is better to be ‘enlightened’. Europe is sometimes used as example for this so-called needed reactivation in the Islamic world.
In this image of Enlightenment as an ideology, there are thus two distinguishable directions to be deduced. The first one sees it also as a period in time, for example; Islam could have passed a period from the 8th till 12th Century that can be compared to the Enlightenment: it had a comparable ideology. The other one sees it more as a state: ‘Europe is enlightened’, cause Europe had an Enlightenment in his history. Islam should also reach or reactivate this state, is often argued in this view. This use, as a state of a region, suggests a feeling of superiority: ‘We are enlightened and the others are not, so we should help enlighten them’, is a not seldom heard opinion. A region can never just have the status of enlightened (as an ideology) and keep it forever and even more: base rules on this claim of enlightenment. It creates the opposite of the principles of Enlightenment: an institution imposing a top-down ideology. Instead it has to maintain its reason, what cannot be said about Europe all the time – but that is another question not to be solved here.
So how should we look at the concept of Enlightenment in today’s Islamic context? First of all, there has to be awareness that the Enlightenment was a historical period. If it is applied to Islam, it is taken out of its historical and geographical context, but it still needs the same ideological characteristics and the bottom-up aspect to be compared to the Enlightenment or to be in line with the principles of it. Furthermore, we should be careful not to attach this superiority feeling to the concept of Enlightenment, as has been done before in history. Try to make people conform to a before-determined freedom in the veil of Enlightenment is not equal at all to try to give them chances to think more freely.