Enlightenment’s Dusk? The West’s Decline and Islams Stormy Rise

The topic at hand is of grave concern for all of us, irrespective of what faith-tradition we adhere to, or even if we choose not to belong to one. Its importance does not merely arise from the events of September 11, 2001, but these events, what followed and where we find ourselves have given greater credence to Samuel Huntington’s prognosis of the “clash of civilizations” than the efforts of those to be dismissive of his analysis and warnings.

We need to pay close attention to the role of ideas in shaping history even as the unfolding of events shape ideas in ways unanticipated. I like the phrase Richard Holbrooke used in introducing Paul Berman’s book, Power and Idealists, “the savage intersection where theories and personalities” collide. “Enlightenment’s Dusk? The West’s Decline and Islam’s Stormy Rise,” I take to mean as that moment in our contemporary history when we stumbled into the “savage intersection” where ideas that went into the building of the modern world of science and liberal-democracy are in collision with other ideas hostile to this world as represented by the West. In this collision to which we are witness there will be unforeseen consequences as there were in past collisions, and unanticipated developments will place tomorrow’s generation into situations resulting from decisions of the present generation in response to the events of 9/11.

In the millennium year of 2000 Jacques Barzun published his chronicle of ideas in the making of the West over the past five hundred years titled From Dawn To Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. Barzun’s narrative begins with the generation to which Martin Luther belonged. Luther’s posting of his 95 theses on the door of All Saints’ church at Wittenberg in October 1517 was a seminal moment in the history of the making of the modern world, sparking as it did the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was carried forward into the period known as the Enlightenment and then followed by what Marshall Hodgson, in writing The Venture of Islam, described as the “great western transmutation” that placed Europe ahead of all other existing civilizations. Barzun’s choice of the word “decadence” instead of “dusk” is pregnant with allusions that would have been otherwise missing, for “dusk” foretells of the “night” ahead arriving as a closure to any history with a distinct beginning. “Decadence” suggests that closure is not a given, that though age brings infirmity and the passage of time breeds corruption, that ideas and the accompanying human spirit can become revitalized, and that in the Biblical sense an Abraham of much advanced age can still bring off-springs into the world and with them his world’s renewal.

The slogan of Enlightenment was given by Kant. “Enlightenment is humanity’s departure,” Kant declared, “from its self imposed immaturity. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause is not lack of intelligence but failure of courage to think without someone else’s guidance. Dare to know! That is the slogan of Enlightenment.”1 Not only man alone without intermediaries may reach God directly as Luther proclaimed, but man alone aided only by rational thinking can unlock the mysteries of God’s creation as Newton demonstrated.

Enlightenment was the opening wide of human intellect to reach for the stars and beyond. Its premise was the unlimited power of unfettered reason among free individuals. Reason and Freedom would be the two faces of the Enlightenment’s coin, each supporting and enhancing the other’s widening horizon. Both on their own were fragile and precariously situated; but together they would be nearly invincible in the making of the modern world. In the five centuries since this adventure began the ideas of Reason and Freedom have had innumerable collisions with countervailing and hostile ideas. There would be moments of grave doubts about the survival of Enlightenment’s ideas from enemies who placed the authority of the collective – be it of the church, the general will, class or race – ahead of individuals to be free and to think for themselves in constructing a society where Reason and Freedom remain protected and are unassailable.

Of the West’s decline and Islam’s stormy rise, I will place “decline” and “rise” within quotation marks. For the past century, at least since Oswald Spengler’s pessimistic ruminations in The Decline of the West published in 1918, western historians and philosophers in regular intervals have speculated on West’s passage to some end state of irreversible weakening. The story of ancient Rome’s decline and fall stalks such speculation which, ironically, is also an attribute of the modern West’s resilience. Hence, “decline” is more apparent than real, though concerns about the loss of vitality are genuine.

Islam, unlike Christianity, has yet to have its own reformation. Here it should be noted that “reform” of a faith-tradition accompanying an institutional framework of order is neither an event nor an instant in time but a process deeply frustrating, confounding, ugly, prone to violence, and of end state not entirely predictable. Luther posting his 95 theses stands out in the flow of that long winding process of Reformation in Europe as does the royal prerogatives of Henry VIII’s break with Rome when refused annulment of his marriage to Queen Catherine and establishing the Anglican Church, and so does the Reign of Terror in France that made a mockery of a revolution in the name of the Rights of Man.

It might also be said that 9/11 for what it now has come to represent, an episode of the intensity of turmoil inside the world of Islam, is indicative of the unpredictable nature of the reform process at work. The stormy “rise” of Islam is the action-reaction of Muslims as they seek either to embrace or to resist and reject the modern world. Europe’s reformation process took place over a period when boundaries separating civilizations and continents were impenetrable to a sufficient degree, and even adjacent cultures could be closed to each other. The squeezing of the world of Islam is taking place in the full glare of globalization, and the world that Canada’s Marshall McLuhan imagined as a “global village” is one we inhabit in which boundaries have dissolved and no culture can remain unaffected by what occurs in another.

When we speak and write of Islam, as we do for example of Christianity, we mean simultaneously a faith-tradition with its non-negotiable core doctrine and an institutional framework of socio-political order built by human enterprise in the name of that faith-tradition. This distinction needs to be kept in perspective for much confusion is generated by conflating the two. In discussing Islam we mean generally more or less what Muslims do in practicing their faith-tradition as they variously understand its meaning provided primarily in the Koran taken by them to be divinely revealed words to Muhammad. But the practice of Islam comes in great variety as there is much diversity in ethnicity among Muslims. The world of Islam is not monolithic though its domain is vast. Yet Islam as a monotheistic faith-tradition belongs to the family of faith-traditions which includes Judaism and Christianity. We know from experience that no quarrel tends to be more difficult than the quarrels within a family as what is common gets neglected and differences are amplified.

Mohammed Arkoun of Berber-Algerian origin and professor of Islamic studies at Sorbonne, Paris, observed, “Christianity in its Catholic and Protestant forms is the only religion which, in what it has rejected and what it has accepted, has been continuously exposed to the challenges of a modernity which was forced and which developed in Europe and exclusively in Europe until the Second World War.”2 Arkoun will not quibble if I extended Europe to include the United States and Canada. The point to note in Arkoun’s observation is that Christianity’s experience in the development of the modern world has important lessons for other faith-traditions whose followers are in various degrees yet to make as full a transition from pre-modern to modern world as Christians of Europe did. This lesson bears upon Muslims with urgency and with demands that Jews do not confront in the like manner.

Christianity influenced and shaped the moral foundation of the modern world even as it retrenched and conceded space to secular thought in the realm of politics. Rodney Stark in The Victory of Reason contends, “Christianity created Western Civilization… Without a theology committed to reason, progress, and moral equality, today the entire world would be about where non-European societies were in, say, 1800: A world with many astrologers and alchemists but no scientists.”3 Stanley L. Jaki, the Hungarian-born scientist and Benedictine priest, similarly but less stridently has pointed out the “science” we are familiar with and which has been central in the making of the modern world is uniquely European, and this “science” owes its “viable birth in a Europe which Christian faith in the Creator had helped to form.”4

In the long arc of history the world of Islam for several centuries in the medieval period, from the 8th to the 12th, stood ahead of Christian Europe in terms of civilization. This was the period dominated by Muslim thinkers of Arab, Persian, Turkish and Afghan origins within the commonwealth of Islam. But within this period a confrontation among Muslims took place between men of doctrinaire faith and men of rational thought, and the doors of reasoning in matters of faith and law were closed. It brought to an end development in science within the world of Islam situated at the crossroads of civilizations and the role of Muslims as the bridge between the ancient world of Greece and the modern world’s awakening in Europe.

The world is constructed and reconstructed by ideas. This notion is inherent in Islam as the Koran insists people observe nature and its working and see in them signs pointing to God as the Creator of the universe and the world in it. But once the dictates of authoritarian politics in the Muslim world shut the door on speculative reasoning, the creative impulse dwindled at a time when Europe was to take its “great leap” forward. The result was a breach opened between Europe and the Muslim world; it would soon become a chasm and the present widening distance between these two worlds – one modern and the other pre-modern – seems insurmountable. Abdus Salam, the first Muslim scientist to win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979, reflected upon this parting of ways. Salam remarked,

[A]round the year 1660, two of the greatest monuments of modern history were erected, one in the West and one in the East; St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and the Taj Mahal in Agra. Between them, the two symbolize, perhaps better than words can describe, the comparative level of architectural technology, the comparative level of craftsmanship and the comparative level of affluence and sophistication the two cultures had attained at that epoch of history.

But about the same time there was also created – and this time only in the West – a third monument, a monument still greater in its eventual import for humanity. This was Newton’s Principia, published in 1687. Newton’s work had no counterpart in the India of the Mughals. I would like to describe the fate of the technology which built the Taj Mahal when it came into contact with the culture and technology symbolized by the Principia of Newton.

The first impact came in 1757. Some one hundred years after the building of the Taj Mahal, the superior firepower of Clive’s small arms had inflicted a humiliating defeat on the descendants of Shah Jahan. A hundred years later still – in 1857 – the last of the Mughals had been forced to relinquish the Crown of Delhi to Queen Victoria. With him there passed away not only an empire, but also a whole tradition in art, technology, culture and learning.5

The emergence of the Muslim world into independence and statehood in the middle years of the 20th century after over two hundred years of European control is one motif of Islam’s “stormy rise” and Europe’s retrenchment, not “decline.” But the Muslim world was not alone in this emergence into independence and statehood; India’s independence, China’s nationalist revolution under the banner of Marxism, and the gradual withdrawal of European powers from Africa are all part of this singularly over-arching narrative. What makes Islam’s “stormy rise” noteworthy is the close proximity of the central core of the Muslim world, the Arab-Muslim Middle East, to Europe geographically and historically, and its many threads of relationship with Europe. This intricate web of history places the Middle Eastern societies in a special tension with Europe that is not similarly present in the story of modern India, nor China.

There is the memory – however vague, uncertain or imprecise – recalled when a Muslim mind is scratched of a past when the Islamic world was at par with Europe, and even in some respect ahead. This memory works in many different ways to question, obstruct, rattle, and also defeat efforts of that segment of Muslims who want to engage with the modern world, learn from it, adopt its ways and make the social transition from the traditional pre-modern arrangements to the modern world of science and democracy. This is what we are witnessing in large measure in Iraq and Afghanistan where the collision between the modern and the pre-modern world due to circumstances that brought about 9/11 has been the most dramatic. This is in part what Mohammed Arkoun was referring to for Muslims to learn from Christianity’s long standing experience with modernity and the process of modernization; instead openness to learning in the Muslim world is under siege.

Let us take the past fifty years. In 1957 Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Canada’s foremost scholar of Islam and comparative religions, published Islam in Modern History. Smith had traveled in the Middle East before the Second World War, and lived and taught in Lahore of pre-1947 India. He witnessed India’s partition, followed closely the developments in Pakistan, and his book was an effort to put in perspective history’s challenge for Muslims as they were beginning to work out their place in the modern world. Smith wrote,

The massive certainties of the nineteenth century have given way to the bewildering complexity of the twentieth. The resurgence of Asia has included the strenuous, gradual emancipation of Asian countries from European political control, an emancipation now almost but not quite complete. A radical modernity in living, Western in provenance, has shown a continually expansive, determined, seemingly irresistible penetration of all areas, including the Muslim. In this process it would be difficult to overestimate how fundamentally involved the Islamic societies are; in the cities psychologically and culturally, in all parts economically and administratively.6

Smith was a student of Sir Hamilton Gibb, the doyen of Anglo-Islamic scholars of the first half of last century. In 1932 Gibb published a study, Whither Islam, in which he wrote,

The most remarkable feature of the Moslem world in these early decades of the twentieth century is not that it is becoming westernized, but that it desires to be westernized. It would be difficult to point to a single Moslem country which entirely rejects the contributions of the West in each and every field of life and thought.7

Between the two observations of Gibb and Smith the world was politically wrenched out of its moorings as a result of wars and revolutions. The Muslim world was deeply affected by these events as were other cultures. Independence came, or was won as in Algeria, and the ruling class in the Muslim world made a bid to establish political order and engage with tasks that Smith described. But other forces were also at work abroad and domestically. Cold War logic on either side of its divide lent support to ruling elites across the Muslim world as they placed their survival in power ahead of the need to work out some institutional arrangement allowing for participation of the widest segment of the population in meeting the requirements of democracy and socioeconomic progress. Domestically the ideas of secular nationalism morphed into the politics of religious exclusion, and the insistence of religious authorities that the political order of Muslim societies conform with the legal principles of Islamic law (shari’ah) worked out in the early centuries of Islam between the 9th and the 11th century.

The rulers of the Muslim world in the decades after Smith’s landmark book was published went into retreat from their early adherence to the “desire,” as Gibb had written, of making their societies “westernized” or “modernized” in the vocabulary of later times. The retreat was occasioned by military defeats in Muslim encounter with non-Muslim countries – Israel and India, for instance – due to inherited grievances from colonial years. It was also as a result from the loss of legitimate authority, as in Iran of the Shah, of those in powers confronted by populist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan.

By the end of the last century the guarded optimism of Gibb and Smith had faded. Paul Kennedy, a Harvard historian, in Preparing for the Twenty-First Century published in 1994, summarized differently the situation of the Muslim world. Kennedy observed,

It is one thing to face population pressures, shortage of resources, educational/technological deficiencies, and regional conflicts which would challenge the wisest governments. But it is another when the regimes themselves stand in angry resentment of global forces for change instead of (as in East Asia) selectively responding to such trends. Far from preparing for the twenty-first century, much of the Arab and Muslim world appears to have difficulty in coming to terms with the nineteenth century, with its composite legacy of secularization, democracy, laissez faire economics, transnational industrial and commercial linkages, social change, and intellectual questioning. If one needed an example of the importance of cultural attitudes in explaining a society’s response to change, contemporary Islam provides it.8

Those Muslims most acutely tormented by the collision of their inherited world with the modern world are, and not surprisingly as witnessed in similar circumstances with other people, members of the social elite educated in the traditional value system of their society and exposed to the currents of modern thinking. It is from this class the opposition has come to the modern world based on identity politics. It is the much privileged children of this class whose alienation morphed into the politics of terror. Their rage would have been of little consequence but for the upheavals inside the traditional world of Islam resulting from the relentless pressures of globalization. They succeeded in fusing their anger and resentment against the modern world born of failure and defeats with the protests of uprooted peasantry and unemployed workers in sprawling urban ghettoes of failed economies into the making of populist movements within the Muslim world.

Khomeini and Osama bin Laden are the two faces of Muslims irrespective of their differences joined together in the fight against the modern world, as are the faces of Mohammed Atta, the lead pilot of one of the hijacked airplanes on 9/11, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the al Qaeda mastermind of global terrorism in the name of Islam. In the opposite end are Muslim faces in the crowd of those rallying in support of democracy and the modern world as in Turkey and Lebanon, Indonesia and Iraq, or forced into silence as in Iran. Marshall McLuhan would remind us, what occurs in one corner of the global village will invariably affect other corners since the global village is now wired and connected. This was the lesson of 9/11. This is the struggle in which the West has been drawn: its battlefields today are in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the West can no more afford to turn its back on this struggle in our interdependent world than Muslims can opt out of being engaged in bringing their societies to adapt to the requirements of science and democracy.

For the West the confusion is how to assist Muslim countries make the transition into modernity as much out of historical necessity as self-interest in terms of security. For Muslims the confusion is how to restore the centre to their civilization that collapsed a long time ago, and to reconstruct it in harmony with the modern world. So long as the world was predominantly an agrarian economy, Muslim civilization maintained vitality. Once the Europeans pioneered the making of the industrial civilization, the Muslim world fell behind. For Muslims the need is to acknowledge that they have to learn in new ways how to hear and understand the words of the Koran in the dramatically altered conditions of the world they inhabit if they are going to contribute as a people positively to its advancement as once in the past other Muslims did.


This paper was originally presented as a talk at the 2007 Civitas Annual Conference, May 4-6, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Mr. Mansur is a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario and a syndicated columnist in Canada and the United Kingdom.  A Muslim native to Calcutta, India, and a noted Islamic scholar, Prof. Mansur has written extensively on Islamic extremism and the challenges facing contemporary Islam.



1. Quoted in Barzun’s From Dawn To Decadence (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), p. 441.

2. M. Arkoun, “Is Islam Threatened by Christianity?” in Hans Kung and J. Moltmann (eds), Islam: A Challenge For Christianity (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1994), p. 54.

3. R. Stark, The Victory of Reason (New York: Random House, 2005), p. 233.

4. S.L. Jaki, The Road of Science And the Ways To God (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 243.

5. Z. Hassan & C.H. Lai (eds), Ideals and Realities: Selected Essays of Abdus Salam (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. Ltd., 1984), pp. 48-49.

6. W.C. Smith, Islam in Modern History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 298.

7. H.A.R. Gibb, Whither Islam: A Survey of Modern Movements in the Moslem World (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1932), p. 319.

8. P. Kennedy, Preparing for the Twenty-first Century (Toronto: HarperPerennial, 1994) p. 208.


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