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Islamic Freethinking and Western Radicalism

By Kelly Devine Thomas Published 2008

Cliff Moore

Professors Patricia Crone and Jonathan Israel

To what extent did Islamic freethinking contribute to the development of Western Radicalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? Or how far were Islamic and European freethinking simply parallel developments on the basis of similar heritages? These questions were the focus of “Islamic Freethinking and Western Radicalism,” a conference organized by Andrew W. Mellon Professor Patricia Crone and Professor Jonathan Israel of the School of Historical Studies with Martin Mulsow, a former Member (2002–03) in the School, who is currently Professor of History at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

The conference, which was attended by experts in Islamic and European medieval and early modern history from diverse parts of the world, and an associated public lecture given by Israel, were made possible with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Dr. S. T. Lee Fund for Historical Studies. “We spent several days very intensively in discussion,” said Israel of the conference, which was held in April. “A lot of extremely interesting insights and perspectives emerged that, I think, were new for both the Islamicists and the early modernists.”

The conference continued and to some extent built upon shared research from an earlier workshop held at the Institute in May 2007, “The Materialistic Worldview from Late Antiquity to Islam,” which was organized by Crone and Professor Heinrich von Staden and focused on freethinkers in the early Islamic world up to the ninth century.

“Radical freethinking was quite a prominent feature of the first centuries in the Islamic world and probably also later, at the time of the European Radical Enlightenment,” explained Crone. “Some ideas expressed by early Islamic freethinkers are very similar to later Enlightenment ideas. A few of them had passed to Europe well before the Enlightenment without their Islamic origin being known. Others, which were well known to be of Muslim origin, were not actually radical back home, only in a European setting. Given that Enlightenment thinkers themselves were convinced that they had predecessors in Islam, it made sense to consider precisely where and how the neighborhood with the Islamic world made a difference.”

In his lecture, Israel discussed the Radical Enlightenment, the part of the Western Enlightenment that from around 1660 onward, pushed for full freedom of thought, religious freedom, and personal liberty together with democracy and the principle of equality. This part of the Enlightenment, which might be broadly termed the Democratic Enlightenment, has come to be much more intensively studied and better understood in recent years than it was before the 1990s. One of its characteristic features is its interpretation of medieval Islamic freethinkers and their ideas, which were used to illustrate and broaden arguments for transforming the Western world.

“From the late seventeenth century to the Napoleonic period there is a continuous and pronounced tradition amongst the radical writers and thinkers in Europe, a preoccupation with certain figures, texts, and legends in medieval Islam,” said Israel.

Conference participants looked at the possibility that Islamic freethinking ideas were transmitted through the medical or Arabic astrological and alchemical traditions that were eagerly adopted in medieval Europe and during the Renaissance. They also looked at how Enlightenment authors arrived at the idea that they had predecessors in the Islamic world, how far the thought rightly or wrongly associated with these predecessors actually served to radicalize these authors, on what sources the Enlightenment authors based these narratives, and their accuracy by modern standards. “What we, in this conference, were trying to do was to discover what the sources of information were behind some of these legends and these topoi,” said Israel, “and what specific knowledge Enlightenment thinkers had about some of the Islamic stories and narratives that they bring up.”

The Dr. S. T. Lee Fund for Historical Studies has been endowed to support an annual symposium or workshop on a topic within the fields of Historical Studies represented at the Institute for Advanced Study.

The Director of the Lee Group of Companies, a Singapore-based conglomerate of firms in industries that include rubber, pineapple, banking, and investments, Lee is well known for his philanthropy. A patron of the arts with a lifelong commitment to the support of educational and social programs in Asia, he is a noted bibliophile and an amateur naturalist who has made significant contributions to higher education worldwide.

Lee is a graduate of the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and a recipient of its Distinguished Service Award. He is also an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy, a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the Advisory Committee of the East Asia Institute. Lee holds honorary fellowships at Oriel College, University of Oxford; Wolfson College, University of Cambridge; the Needham Research Institute at Cambridge; and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Kelly Devine Thomas is Editorial Director of the Institute for Advanced Study.

Published in The Institute Letter Fall 2008