In the hope of resuming the stalled project for an Arab Renaissance, we must ask at the outset: What do we mean by renaissance?
Given the association of this term with several rarely differentiated concepts, such as reform, enlightenment, and modernity, this question is vital. A reader of the literature of contemporary thought might note that these terms, which hail from distinct historical and semantic origins, are often used in the same sense, typically falling under the umbrella of the renaissance.
Let us defer our discussion of the methodological and terminological differences between the aforementioned terms to a later time, attending in this space to the fundamental question related to the nuances and experiences of the European Renaissance. The following question may describe the problem: Why have the dynamics of renaissance and modernisation presented themselves in European societies since the 15th century, enabling these societies to dominate and control the world, all while completely eluding other non-Western civilisations and cultures?
This question is not novel, and approaches to answering it are varied and conflicting, some focusing on the role of economics and commerce in the formation of Western capitalism in contrast to the values of Islamic asceticism, which go against the profit motive and the principles of methodological individualism (Max Weber), and others on the effects of religious reform, which has succeeded in the Christian tradition but failed in the medieval Islamic. Some have attributed the latter to the absence of an interpretive aspect to Islamic texts (Bernard Lewis), while others have attached it to the discovery of new trade routes and a shift in the political composition of the state (Alain Touraine).
These different interpretations converge on two main hypotheses: Firstly, the structural dissimilarity between the Arab–Islamic tradition and the European social and doctrinal context, and secondly, the historical and geographical discrepancy between the two. These two hypotheses, however, do not withstand criticism and scrutiny.
In response to the first hypothesis, it should be noted that the semantic and cultural framework of the European and Arab–Islamic domains is one of many overlapping spheres and components, evident in the two traditions’ shared understanding of the creation creed as the point of origin for humanity’s morals and message; as the background to the hermeneutic dimension of texts and its deeply-rooted teleological conceptions, themselves references of modern evolutionary historicism. The question, however, remains: Why has this web of shared semantics and values resulted in different historical and societal results?
Furthermore, and in response to the second hypothesis, studies in intellectual history have attributed the extensive overlap in the perceptions, concepts, and theories of the Arab–Islamic and Western European traditions to the profound religious, philosophical, and scientific acculturation between the two as the main actors of the medieval Mediterranean theatre. We realise, then, as suggested by the studies of Alain de Libera, Marwan Rashed, and others, the limitations and shortcomings of this hypothesis. The foundations of European modernity cannot be separated from the scientific and epistemological advancements of the Islamic tradition in fields such as mathematics, naturalism, and astronomy, all of which have greatly influenced the rupture with Aristotelian cosmology and its philosophical and societal structures.
The popular interpretation of the dynamics of the European Renaissance is that it is a linear line that extends from a cultural and literary rise to religious reform and enlightenment, concluding with industrial and technological revolutions with enormous political and societal repercussions.
This interpretation, however, rarely addresses the causal link between these milestones, leaving it with complex social and historical imputations evident in the experiences of non-European (Japanese, Indian, Chinese, and other) modernisation efforts that did not follow this linear path nor its successive stages.
We note in the Arab–Islamic experience the distinctive set of problems surrounding renaissance, enlightenment, and modernity in contemporary thought, which revolved in its first theoretical formulations around ideals of reform and progress (or urbanisation). If the notion of renaissance was generally confined to linguistic and lexical introspections aimed at revitalising and developing the Arab cultural system, the issue of enlightenment remained absent from the minds of Arab reformists who turned to the discourse of religious renewal and political and social reform.
Since the second half of the 1960s, contemporary Arab thought (pioneered by intellectuals such as Abdallah Laroui, Yassine el-Hafez, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, and others) turned its focus to the theoretical and cultural obstacles to achieving the Arab Renaissance. Nevertheless, within this radical critique, which was preoccupied with issues of religious reform and social structures and systems, the question of enlightenment remained secondary.
Naturally, the issue of enlightenment was never prominent nor specifically present in contemporary Arab discourse, in which the literature of social revolution had dominated. Enlightenment was viewed as a point that had already been reached during the historical transformation of modern societies.
It is true that the political writings of European Enlightenment thinkers were early on translated into Arabic, as was the case with the works of Rousseau and Montesquieu. Yet, the profound philosophical basis of Europe’s Enlightenment remained marginal in contemporary Arab thought.
Truly, the fundamental question about the possibility of formulating a modernist renaissance project without a component of enlightenment has been entirely absent. This shall be the case for as long as the enlightenment is the theoretical and moral value of modernity in its rational and human dimensions.
German–American philosopher Leo Strauss differentiated in his works on classical religious and political thought between what he called the Medieval Islamic-Jewish Enlightenment and the Modern Radical Enlightenment, asserting that what connects them is the same critical and rational ethos that varies from an interpretive tendency freely practised from within the text (as in Ibn Rushd and Ibn Maymun) to a secular historical one to replace religious references with self-sufficient human subjectivity.
The question posed thus becomes: Will the possibility of enlightenment in the project for an Arab Renaissance become available through a return to this decisive milestone of modern Arab consciousness, even if at the expense of rupture with current philosophical and societal critiques of the European Enlightenment and its legacy? Conversely, will it become available by continuing the medieval efforts for enlightenment in rationality and hermeneutics, which seems to be the option many Arab Renaissance thinkers wish to explore?