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Third Meditation on Democracy [written Saturday, August 18, 2007] REPUBLISHED

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https _s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com_736x_ee_59_33_ee593300e425c02784549e0228c025e1In the begin­ning years of this blog, I pub­lished a series of arti­cles called “Med­i­ta­tions on Democ­racy and Dic­ta­tor­ship” which are still reg­u­larly read today, and have had some influ­ence. They still elicit inquiries from remote cor­ners of the globe. They are now buried in the back pages of the blog, so I’m mov­ing them up the chrono­log­i­cal counter so they can have another round of vis­i­bil­ity, espe­cially (I hope) with younger read­ers. I am re-posting them in their orig­i­nal sequence over part of 2018. Some ref­er­ences in these “med­i­ta­tions” will date them to 2007–2008, when they were writ­ten. But I will leave them un-retouched, though I may occa­sion­ally append some ret­ro­spec­tive notes. Mostly, they deal with abstract issues that do not need updating.

A convivial gathering of men and women in ancient Pakistan. The style of art, known Gandharan, drew on influences from India, Persia and Greece.

A con­vivial gath­er­ing of men and women in ancient Pak­istan, dur­ing the Gand­ha­ran era, a time of intel­lec­tual and artis­tic syn­the­sis. Gand­ha­ran art, drama and phi­los­o­phy drew on influ­ences from India, Per­sia and Greece.

West­ern Europe, and lands cul­tur­ally derived from it, have made some rel­a­tively suc­cess­ful approx­i­ma­tions of democ­racy and civil soci­ety, and com­bined them with notice­able pros­per­ity. Peo­ple both inside and out­side this favoured zone won­der why, and they have often sought the answer in two par­tic­u­lar areas: reli­gious tra­di­tions, and the dra­matic intel­lec­tual era called “the Enlight­en­ment”. As some­one who has writ­ten about the uni­ver­sal aspects of democ­racy, I’ve often felt some annoy­ance at what I con­sider parochial views of his­tory, and dubi­ous ideas of causal­ity. I feel great sym­pa­thy for peo­ple out­side the favoured zone, who are hope­ful that they can have a demo­c­ra­tic future, but are dis­com­fited by the “second-banana” sta­tus that it seems to imply for their cul­tural her­itage. This is espe­cially true in the Islamic world, where past cul­tural glo­ries and present embar­rass­ments com­bine to make the search for demo­c­ra­tic reform a touchy sub­ject. I think that an exces­sively car­toon­ish view of the Enlight­en­ment, and of the rela­tion­ship between reli­gion and democ­racy, is part of the problem.

I recently read two arti­cles by Tas­saduq Hus­sain Jil­lani, a supreme court jus­tice in Pak­istan. Though Pak­istan has mil­len­nia of cul­tural achieve­ment — it was one of the ear­li­est cen­ters of urban civ­i­liza­tion — and it has a well edu­cated pop­u­la­tion, it lan­guishes under a crude mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship. It has expe­ri­enced much strife from con­flict­ing reli­gious fac­tions. While its econ­omy is a sham­bles, the mil­i­tary thugs who run the place take pride in their pos­ses­sion of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Jil­lani makes no spe­cific ref­er­ence to cur­rent events in Pak­istan, but it’s obvi­ous from the con­tent of his arti­cles that he belongs among the small num­ber of peo­ple in Pak­istan who hold posi­tions of respon­si­bil­ity and influ­ence, but are not cor­rupt, and who would like to see the best future for their coun­try. Such peo­ple don’t wield real power, but they can’t be eas­ily dis­posed of, and they com­mand pub­lic respect. There are peo­ple like this every­where in the world, strug­gling to encour­age a civil soci­ety under dif­fi­cult circumstances.

To this end, Judge Jil­lani has attempted to demon­strate that democ­racy is com­pat­i­ble with his Islamic faith. In one arti­cle [1] he argues that the Islamic world actu­ally began with some sig­nif­i­cant advan­tages for devel­op­ing demo­c­ra­tic ideas.

Euro­pean thinkers had to over­come a series of obsta­cles, many reli­gious in ori­gin, or at least pre­sented in reli­gious lan­guage, before they could “put across” any ideas of rep­re­sen­ta­tive and elected gov­ern­ment, human rights, and equal­ity. Even the idea of using rea­son to solve prob­lems had to con­tend with pow­er­ful notions of rev­e­la­tion and mir­a­cles. Islam, on the other hand, devel­oped a strong and influ­en­tial tra­di­tion of ratio­nal­ism (Ijte­had) in its ear­li­est phases.

Chris­t­ian churches, whether Catholic, Protes­tant, or Ortho­dox, were mod­eled on author­i­tar­ian polit­i­cal struc­tures, and endorsed them in real life. The Enlight­en­ment took place within the con­text of an explicit state ide­ol­ogy of “the Divine Right of Kings.” Jil­lani points out that this par­tic­u­lar idea had no real equiv­a­lent in the Islamic world. Cer­tainly, none of the large Islamic states were able to call upon any direct divine sanc­tion for auto­cratic rule. This put the Islamic world, at least the­o­ret­i­cally, in a bet­ter posi­tion to develop polit­i­cal democ­racy than West­ern Europe.

The Quran con­cerns itself pri­mar­ily with pro­vid­ing a pro­gram for the indi­vid­ual to live a just and pious life, and pro­vides no polit­i­cal pro­gram beyond admon­ish­ing the faith­ful to cre­ate a soci­ety where the poor and vul­ner­a­ble are pro­tected, and all are treated with respect. As he points out, despite the cur­rent pub­lic obses­sion with “Islamic states”, the Quran has few verses that deal with legal ques­tions, or the state.

I would add that those few verses are not sys­tem­atic, and that it’s their very spar­sity which has enabled so many con­flict­ing and con­vo­luted schools of Sharia to flourish.

Jil­lani points out that sev­eral key con­cepts in Islamic phi­los­o­phy can eas­ily be inter­preted as sup­port­ive of democ­racy, includ­ing: Tauheed, which denies arbi­trary author­ity in the exer­cise of power; the Prophet’s advo­cacy of con­sul­ta­tion as the pri­mary mode of decision-making; Ijma, usu­ally trans­lated as “con­sen­sus”, which has been inter­preted by some Islamic schol­ars as “the per­fect jus­ti­fi­ca­tion or prece­dent in Islam for elec­tive democ­racy” [2]; and Ijte­had (“striv­ing”), which urges that pub­lic issues be decided by log­i­cal rea­son­ing and informed judgment.

These con­cepts cer­tainly pro­vide a more than ade­quate foun­da­tion for build­ing demo­c­ra­tic insti­tu­tions. They are clearer and more explicit than any­thing in Chris­t­ian scrip­ture and theology.

Jil­lani goes through the tra­di­tional names asso­ci­ated with the Enlight­en­ment, see­ing them as the orig­i­na­tors of demo­c­ra­tic thought, with a bow to the power and influ­ence of the print­ing press, not­ing that the Ottomans sup­pressed the print­ing press, effec­tively keep­ing it out of the hands of most of the world’s Mus­lims. He assumes that the Enlight­en­ment, and the demo­c­ra­tic ideas that he asso­ciates with that period, remained a Euro­pean dis­cus­sion among Euro­peans. He sim­ply sees it as ironic that it took place in a soci­ety whose reli­gious basis was less fer­tile to it than Islam, at least in abstract theology.

He next out­lines, as many oth­ers have, the his­tory of plu­ral­ism and tol­er­ance in Islamic soci­eties [3]. This would eas­ily come to mind for some­one who lives, as he does, sur­rounded by the mon­u­ments of the Mughal court, which presided tol­er­antly over a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population.

Finally, he comes to the con­clu­sion that the despo­tism, vio­lence and intol­er­ance that char­ac­ter­ize so much of the Islamic world today have very lit­tle to do with reli­gion. The decline of mid­dle east­ern states, such as the Ottoman empire, can be more eas­ily explained by more straight­for­ward eco­nomic and polit­i­cal processes. Islam presents no sig­nif­i­cant doc­tri­nal bar­rier to devel­op­ing democ­racy, and it would behoove Mus­lims every­where to encour­age that process, if only to more com­pletely and securely prac­tice their faith.

Jil­lani describes his mus­ing as an “odyssey”, and the metaphor is apt. After vis­it­ing strange and dis­tant lands, one can return to Ithaca and turn the par­a­sitic suit­ors out. The Pak­istani poet Moham­mad Iqbal, wrote:

Among the stars there are still other worlds
Other fields to test the human heart.
Filled with life, these open spaces are,
And to them many car­a­vans depart

[Bal-e-Jibril. This is my own “poet­is­ing” of the verse from a lit­eral prose translation]

Iqbal him­self was a man of broad and cos­mopoli­tan expe­ri­ence, also a lawyer, and demo­c­rat, and no doubt Jil­lani feels a sense of con­ti­nu­ity with this man from an ear­lier gen­er­a­tion. He quotes him in his arti­cle. There is noth­ing new about these issues for a Pakistani.

Nev­er­the­less, I feel that some aspects of the dis­cus­sion need a fresh look. There are sev­eral assump­tions here that need to be questioned.

The first assump­tion is one that comes nat­u­rally to any­one who’s been given a course in Euro­pean his­tory, where a stan­dard­ized “connect-the-dots” story of the devel­op­ment of democ­racy focuses on the Enlight­en­ment, reduced con­ve­niently to a hand­ful of authors (Descartes, Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau). This is the con­ven­tional view that demo­c­ra­tic ideas were cre­ated “from above”, that they were the prod­uct of a small num­ber of polit­i­cal actors inspired by the intel­lec­tual works of Enlight­en­ment philoso­phers. But the story is just that — a story. It bears as much resem­blance to what hap­pened as the bib­li­cal cre­ation tale does to the processes of plate tech­ton­ics and bio­log­i­cal evolution.

Demo­c­ra­tic ideas and demo­c­ra­tic prac­tices have a long his­tory, much longer than the scholas­tic time-line that sees them emerg­ing from the Enlight­en­ment, and longer even than the the one that asso­ciates them with ancient Greece.

No Enlight­en­ment fig­ure used the term “democ­racy” in a pos­i­tive sense, or used the term to describe their polit­i­cal ideals. The word only began to acquire its pos­i­tive con­no­ta­tions in the 19th Cen­tury. We have ret­ro­spec­tively asso­ci­ated the word with these philoso­phers, because we feel that their quest for a ratio­nal world-view, their oppo­si­tion to tyranny, and their ten­dency to sup­port more inclu­sive and rep­re­sen­ta­tive solu­tions to polit­i­cal prob­lems ulti­mately facil­i­tated the cre­ation of mod­ern demo­c­ra­tic institutions.

How­ever, the inclu­sive and rep­re­sen­ta­tive insti­tu­tions, and the demo­c­ra­tic tech­niques that make them work, were not their pri­mary con­cern, and were cer­tainly not their inven­tion. New Eng­land vil­lagers had more prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence of demo­c­ra­tic tech­nique a cen­tury before the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, than most of the philosophes would have approved. So did the mem­bers of many abo­rig­i­nal North Amer­i­can coun­cils, or, for that mat­ter, the par­tic­i­pants in Bud­dhist san­gas.

For the most part, the Enlight­en­ment thinkers them­selves did not believe that they were orig­i­nat­ing a novel sys­tem of gov­ern­ment Some thought that they were reviv­ing the insti­tu­tions of an ear­lier time, of the Clas­si­cal ages they admired, or of a “prelap­sar­ian” state (pre­vail­ing in the gar­den of Eden, before the fall of Adam and Eve from grace), or still exist­ing in the Far East, or per­haps among the natives of the New World. Even when more accu­rate knowl­edge pre­cluded some of these fan­cies, the ancient ori­gins of rep­re­sen­ta­tive insti­tu­tions remained appar­ent to them. Thomas Jef­fer­son believed, for exam­ple, that every key ele­ment of a praise­wor­thy repub­lic as he con­ceived it, had existed among the ancient Anglo-Saxon tribes. His famil­iar­ity with tribal coun­cils among the native peo­ple of Amer­ica pre­sented itself as a con­firm­ing parallel.

Thinkers like Jef­fer­son were not naïve in their analy­sis of the ori­gins of their own ideas. When the sage of Mon­ti­cello attrib­uted his con­cep­tion of an hon­ourable polity to the Anglo-Saxon tribes, he was speak­ing from a cer­tain amount of author­ity. Jef­fer­son was one of the few peo­ple alive at the time who could actu­ally read the old Anglo-Saxon lan­guage, and was famil­iar with its sur­viv­ing lit­er­a­ture. In the 18th cen­tury, a fair amount was known about Anglo-Saxon his­tory, the analy­sis of his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments and philol­ogy was fairly sophis­ti­cated, and Jef­fer­son had read prodi­giously from many sources. To an edu­cated per­son of today, vil­lage coun­cils and small scale self-government do not loom large. But to an Eigh­teenth cen­tury savant, the inter­con­nect­ed­ness, cross-cultural valid­ity, and his­tor­i­cal con­ti­nu­ity of all such local insti­tu­tions was plainly evi­dent. A man like Jef­fer­son, Franklin, or Thomas Paine (raised in a self-governing Quaker con­gre­ga­tion in a self-governing East Anglian vil­lage), could see ordi­nary men and women gov­ern­ing them­selves, using the most sophis­ti­cated intel­lec­tual tools for that pur­pose. They had no dif­fi­culty rec­og­niz­ing the same ele­ments in the coun­cils of the Delaware, Seneca and Mohawk. They could rec­og­nize them with equal facil­ity in what they knew of the ancient republics or the tribal insti­tu­tions of their most dis­tant ances­tors. For this rea­son, it was easy for them to see the pre­ten­sions and priv­i­leges of aris­toc­racy as a mere par­a­sitic infec­tion, crudely super­im­posed on some­thing which they felt to be a solid bedrock of human practice.

The idea of the “divine right of kings” was more of an ide­o­log­i­cal posi­tion con­trived by kings and their lieu­tenants, than it ever was a com­po­nent of Chris­t­ian the­ol­ogy, and it faced more hos­til­ity from churches than alle­giance. But it def­i­nitely was some­thing that Enlight­en­ment thinkers felt they had to dis­credit and over­come. In this, they prob­a­bly didn’t depart much from the com­mon sen­ti­ment. There is lit­tle evi­dence that ide­olo­gies of divine right, or of a nat­ural aris­to­cratic order, or of God’s sanc­tion­ing injus­tice, were taken seri­ously by any­one but the aris­toc­ra­cies them­selves. Huge masses of mono­lith­i­cally unde­mo­c­ra­tic lit­er­a­ture, sur­viv­ing over cen­turies, might con­vey the impres­sion that egal­i­tar­ian thought did not exist before the Enlight­en­ment intro­duced it. But when the bulk of the peo­ple are illit­er­ate, or not in a posi­tion to write things that will be pre­served, and those who can write are likely to ben­e­fit from inequal­ity, you can’t expect such lit­er­a­ture to con­vey any­thing else. On the rare occa­sions when we are able to get some glint of the polit­i­cal ideas of peas­ants, shep­herds and fish­er­men from any pre-modern period, schol­ars are usu­ally aston­ished to dis­cover that sup­pos­edly uni­ver­sally accepted notions of rank and author­ity were, in fact, regarded with con­tempt. In many cases, we find folk of hum­ble sta­tion pos­sess­ing a sophis­ti­cated grasp of the issues of jus­tice, rep­re­sen­ta­tion, legal­ity, priv­i­lege, and right that were rel­e­vant to their sit­u­a­tion. This is not sur­pris­ing, because this knowl­edge is the key to sur­vival in com­mu­ni­ties that have no way of phys­i­cally resist­ing the pre­da­tions of a well-armed, vio­lent, and rapa­cious aris­toc­racy. In the chaos of peas­ant rebel­lions, irra­tional pan­ics and hopes in super­nat­ural sal­va­tion often over­took more rea­soned tac­tics. But more often, the strug­gle con­sisted of a cau­tious and log­i­cal attempt to maneu­ver one’s extended fam­ily, clan, or vil­lage into some less exploited posi­tion. The bulk of the world’s human beings have been in this sit­u­a­tion. To sur­vive at all, they must have had some basic notions of equal­ity, co-operation, jus­tice, and proto-democratic techniques.

My col­league, Steven Muhlberger, has pointed me to the sur­viv­ing lit­er­a­ture of the Eng­lish “Dig­gers” and “Lev­ellers” of the mid-seventeenth cen­tury. The “Dig­gers” were peas­ants who unlaw­fully planted crops on their own vil­lage lands, which had been seized and “enclosed” by the gen­try. Con­sider this peti­tion signed by com­mon­ers in the parish of Wal­ton, Sur­rey, in 1649. Their demands make no bones about their rejec­tion of servility:

And the Rea­son is this, Every sin­gle man, Male and Female, is a per­fect Crea­ture of him­self; and the same Spirit that made the Globe, dwels in man to gov­ern the Globe;so that the flesh of man being sub­ject to Rea­son, his Maker, hath him to be his Teacher and Ruler within him­self, there­fore needs not run abroad after any Teacher and Ruler with­out him, for he needs not that any man should teach him, for the same Anoynt­ing that ruled in the Son of man, tea­cheth him all things. [4]

Per­haps the most strik­ing of Lev­eller doc­u­ments is An Arrow Against All Tyrants, writ­ten by Richard Over­ton in 1646. Overton’s ori­gins are unknown, though it is assumed he had some edu­ca­tion. The lan­guage of his many pam­phlets make the more respectable Enlight­en­ment fig­ures seem rather tame:

For every one, as he is him­self, so he has a self-propriety, else could he not be him­self; and of this no sec­ond may pre­sume to deprive any of with­out man­i­fest vio­la­tion and affront to the very prin­ci­ples of nature and of the rules of equity and jus­tice between man and man. Mine and thine can­not be, except this be. No man has power over my rights and lib­er­ties, and I over no man’s. I may be but an indi­vid­ual, enjoy my self and my self-propriety and may right myself no more than my self, or pre­sume any fur­ther; if I do, I am an encroacher and an invader upon another man’s right — to which I have no right. For by nat­ural birth all men are equally and alike born to like pro­pri­ety, lib­erty and free­dom; and as we are deliv­ered of God by the hand of nature into this world, every one with a nat­ural, innate free­dom and pro­pri­ety — as it were writ in the table of every man’s heart, never to be oblit­er­ated — even so are we to live, every­one equally and alike to enjoy his birthright and priv­i­lege; even all whereof God by nature has made him free. [5]

The Lev­ellers pro­duced many such doc­u­ments, many of which are cur­rently being made acces­si­ble online. John Row­land, in his pref­ace to the Con­sti­tu­tion Society’s data­base of such lit­er­a­ture, com­ments that “Their pro­pos­als con­tin­ued, how­ever, to inspire polit­i­cal philoso­phers and future gen­er­a­tions of reform­ers. They appear to have influ­enced their con­tem­po­rary, Thomas Hobbes, and later writ­ers such as James Har­ring­ton and John Locke. Their pro­pos­als were revived dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion of 1688 to pro­duce the Eng­lish Bill of Rights in 1689, which led to the Whig party in Britain that sup­ported many of the reforms for Britain sought by the Amer­i­cans dur­ing the War of Inde­pen­dence.” [6]

The Lev­ellers spoke the lan­guage of the Protes­tant Ref­or­ma­tion, but their atti­tudes were not new. Eng­land expe­ri­enced a vio­lent peas­ant upris­ing in 1381, and we have some records of what the rebels said. Here is a justly famed quo­ta­tion attrib­uted to John Ball, one of the rebellion’s leaders:

When Adam dalf, and Eve span, who was thanne a gen­til­man? From the begin­ning all men were cre­ated equal by nature, and that servi­tude had been intro­duced by the unjust and evil oppres­sion of men, against the will of God, who, if it had pleased Him to cre­ate serfs, surely in the begin­ning of the world would have appointed who should be a serf and who a lord” [7]

It seems doubt­ful to me that there ever was a period, such as rul­ing classes like to imag­ine, when those at the bot­tom of the heap accepted their posi­tion as divinely ordained, with unques­tion­ing piety and self-abnegation. And it seems equally doubt­ful that peas­ants in any age could not for­mu­late some the­ory of equal­ity. They did not need leisured philoso­phers to think it up for them. Con­ceiv­ing of equal­ity is not the hard part. The dif­fi­culty lies in devis­ing a viable strat­egy to achieve it. The prob­lem appears to be iden­ti­cal for the poor and oppressed within Chris­t­ian, Mus­lim, Bud­dhist, or any other reli­gious tra­di­tion. I see no rea­son why the solu­tion should depend on some par­tic­u­lar faith.

I’m reminded of a sequence of inter­views I once saw in a doc­u­men­tary pro­duced by Cana­di­ans vis­it­ing a small West African coun­try. The local dic­ta­tor assured them that none of his sub­jects had any knowl­edge of democ­racy, or wanted to have any. A pow­er­ful busi­ness­man dis­missed democ­racy as a con­cept com­pletely “alien” to the local cul­ture. A pres­ti­gious aca­d­e­mic explained that the pop­u­la­tion had never heard of it, could not grasp it, and wouldn’t want it if they could. It was a mere “West­ern idea”, they all explained, of no use to the com­mon peo­ple. Then the doc­u­men­tary crew inter­viewed an old man, an elder in a tiny, remote, and impov­er­ished vil­lage. After being told what the crew had heard from the oth­ers, he spoke patiently in slow, and thickly accented French. “Of course we know what democ­racy is,” he said. “What’s so dif­fi­cult to under­stand? Do you think we’re so stu­pid that we can’t fig­ure out that we’re being screwed?”

We must address the his­tor­i­cal record with the same deter­mined skep­ti­cism as that doc­u­men­tary crew. We should ques­tion the clichés for­mu­lated by those who ben­e­fit from injus­tice. One of the things that I learned, as a child, when I first read Fred­er­ick Dou­glas, was that there’s a great dif­fer­ence between what the slaves on a plan­ta­tion think, and what their mas­ters think they think.

To repeat a cru­cial point, think­ing up ideas of jus­tice and equal­ity is not dif­fi­cult. Achiev­ing them is dif­fi­cult. A long and painful his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence has demon­strated that the most oppressed seg­ments of soci­ety rarely improve their sit­u­a­tion with rebel­lion alone. His­tory is lit­tered with failed peas­ant upris­ings, which were either ruth­lessly crushed, or where quickly hijacked by ide­ol­o­gists bent on installing them­selves as a new aris­toc­racy. The less com­mon suc­cesses occurred when the idea of equal­ity found its way into the hearts of many dif­fer­ent “stake­hold­ers”, includ­ing some who were not among the most des­per­ate or oppressed. As with all com­plex prob­lems, you are more likely to get a solu­tion when it’s being exam­ined by a vari­ety of peo­ple with a vari­ety of per­spec­tives and a vari­ety of skills.

What made the Enlight­en­ment a remark­able period was not that ideas of equal­ity, rights, and democ­racy were being invented for the first time, but that they were being argued and writ­ten about by a greater num­ber and vari­ety of peo­ple, with more time and resources to explore them philo­soph­i­cally, includ­ing some peo­ple who lived in com­fort and priv­i­lege. West­ern Euro­pean and North Amer­i­can soci­ety had grown so eco­nom­i­cally com­plex that there was room to have peo­ple who were edu­cated and leisured, but not com­mit­ted by self-interest to the idea of inequal­ity. It became pos­si­ble for a landed gen­tle­man, who grew up on a slave plan­ta­tion, to ques­tion the moral­ity of slav­ery (at least the­o­ret­i­cally). It became pos­si­ble for a petty aris­to­crat or a coun­try squire to toy with the idea that his crofters might be his equals. More impor­tant still, some places had a large num­ber of lit­er­ate peo­ple of hum­ble ori­gins, but com­fort­able means. They pro­vided a pay­ing audi­ence for self-made writ­ers and artists. An intel­li­gent appren­tice corset-maker, such as Thomas Paine, could run off to Lon­don, edu­cate him­self from pam­phlets, books, and cof­fee­house chat­ter, and turn him­self into an famous intel­lec­tual. A woman like Mary Woll­stonecraft, who began by eking out a liv­ing as a children’s tutor and gov­erness, could do the same [8]. Ams­ter­dam could turn any pen­ni­less refugee into a suc­cess­ful painter, a scrib­bler of sedi­tious porno­graphic nov­els, or a philoso­pher. And some places, such as New Eng­land vil­lages, had already enough expe­ri­ence of decen­tral­ized and egal­i­tar­ian democ­racy to enable a smith or a cowherd to pub­lish essays on meta­physics in the local journal.

The dis­cus­sions that took place among the philosophes were both more intri­cate and more exten­sive than any­one would guess from merely read­ing a hand­ful of works ear­marked by pos­ter­ity as “impor­tant” ones. Our edu­ca­tion gives us the impres­sion that it was a dis­cus­sion tak­ing place among a few dozen peo­ple, like some arcane debate about the rel­a­tive mer­its of a high-order global states inter­pre­ta­tion and a het­erophe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tion of the global neu­ronal work­space model of con­scious­ness, tak­ing place in a mod­ern uni­ver­sity. This was far from the case. The Enlight­en­ment was a vast and poly­glot dis­cus­sion between tens of thou­sands of peo­ple. Vil­lage curés, linen whole­salers, and petty bureau­crats earnestly debated issues of rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment, the proper role of the Estates, the nature of man, equal­ity and inequal­ity, fis­cal pol­icy, and lib­erty. This was a state of affairs that held true for two cen­turies, or more. The works that were widely dis­cussed and influ­en­tial were not nec­es­sar­ily those that have come down to us as the impor­tant ones Thinkers like Bec­ca­ria, Grotius, Ser­van, and Gassendi loomed much larger than the present taste sug­gests. Some names have been inflated ret­ro­spec­tively because they appealed to later gen­er­a­tions. Rousseau may have had a “pop star” vogue among many aris­to­crats, pre­cisely because of his per­sonal eccen­tric­ity and because his ideas were patently imprac­ti­cal. But he seems to have had lit­tle influ­ence on the sober men who rebelled against tyranny in the real world. The idea of the “social con­tract” was com­mon­place long before Rousseau, and it’s doubt­ful that his rather bizarre ver­sion of it was cen­tral to any his­tor­i­cal events.

The philo­soph­i­cal side of the Enlight­en­ment was not a leisurely debate between a hand­ful of philoso­phers. It was a rau­cous, many-sided, free-for-all dis­cus­sion, among a diverse and cos­mopoli­tan pop­u­la­tion. While it took place in a pri­mar­ily “Chris­t­ian” sphere, that sphere con­tained such an extreme diver­sity of inter­pre­ta­tions of Chris­tian­ity that it’s mean­ing­less to speak of it as being shaped or lim­ited by specif­i­cally Chris­t­ian doctrines.

This brings us to the sec­ond ques­tion­able assump­tion, which is that the devel­op­ing demo­c­ra­tic ideas of the Enlight­en­ment were an exclu­sively Euro­pean event that occurred in iso­la­tion from the rest of the world, as a self-contained devel­op­ment of Euro­pean cul­ture. This idea still remains a very strong one, and under­lies both the trendy notion of a “clash of civ­i­liza­tions” and the cliché that democ­racy is a “West­ern idea”.

But this is an entirely fal­la­cious view of how the intel­lec­tual fer­ment of the Enlight­en­ment came into being.

The Chris­t­ian doc­trine of West­ern Europe, at the dawn of the Enlight­en­ment. was already the prod­uct of an intense inter­play between Chris­tian­ity and Islam. Post-Classical West­ern Europe, in its ear­li­est phase, was far too poor and back­ward to have much in the way of sci­ence or sophis­ti­cated phi­los­o­phy. For cen­turies, Chris­t­ian thought west of Byzan­tium was dom­i­nated by hagiog­ra­phy, the fix­ing of rit­u­als, and the retelling of mir­a­cles. Out­side of Italy, there were few towns, and the largest of them would have been dwarfed by the great Mus­lim cities. The Islamic world was over­whelm­ingly richer in sci­ence, med­i­cine, art, lit­er­a­ture, tech­nol­ogy, and hard cash. A sin­gle library in a middle-sized Mus­lim town would have had more books than the entirety of West­ern Chris­ten­dom. [9]

When this back­ward area devel­oped itself suf­fi­ciently to engage the Mus­lim world (in the form of the Cru­sades and the Recon­quista) the result was that Mus­lim learn­ing, Mus­lim sci­ence, and Mus­lim con­sumer prod­ucts swept over West­ern Europe like an avalanche. The traf­fic was pretty much on a one-way street. Europe had lit­tle it could give in return. In the intel­lec­tual sphere, this meant the absorp­tion of Mus­lim learn­ing, includ­ing the Greek knowl­edge that Islam had absorbed and elab­o­rated. By the end of the mid­dle ages, the offi­cial the­ol­ogy of the Catholic Church was a body of rea­son­ing and argu­ment that had been bor­rowed directly from Islamic the­ol­ogy. In many cases, com­plex works had been dupli­cated point-for-point.

What thrilled the Chris­t­ian schol­ars who devoured Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina, apart from the new knowl­edge, was that at last they were exposed to a high level of rea­son­ing. Save for a few shreds of old Roman phi­los­o­phy, their cul­ture did not have access to much dis­ci­plined, rea­soned thought, and had not placed a great value on logic. Sym­pa­thetic magic, mir­a­cles, para­bles and par­al­lels to bib­li­cal sto­ries were the stuff of seri­ous thought. Solv­ing a con­crete prob­lem by Ijte­had was not the pre­ferred approach. Before West­ern Chris­tian­ity could even begin to address seri­ous issues, it had to undergo a com­plete over­haul by expo­sure to Islam.

This was not a one-time event. In the first phase, Europe trans­formed itself by open­ing itself up to the Islamic world, and the Clas­si­cal and Hebraic her­itage that the Islamic world had inher­ited and extended. In the next phase, Europe was to trans­form itself by open­ing itself up to the rest of the world, with a spe­cial empha­sis on India.

The Age of Explo­ration is thought of, today, in terms of the dis­cov­ery of the West­ern Hemi­sphere. That adven­ture led to Euro­pean con­quests and expan­sion into a huge area. How­ever, in the begin­ning, the New World was just a side-show to Europe’s main focus. Euro­peans had a des­per­ate desire to gain access to the wealthy civ­i­liza­tions of the East. It would be cen­turies before Euro­peans would be able to have any seri­ous mil­i­tary, eco­nomic, or cul­tural impact on these civ­i­liza­tions. In the mean­time, their efforts would have to be con­fined to shop­ping, or when that was not viable, piracy. West­ern Europe did have some prod­ucts and ideas that made their way east­ward, but, as with the inter­ac­tion with Islam a few cen­turies before, the traf­fic was mostly one way. Along with the lux­ury goods and tech­ni­cal inno­va­tions, they absorbed new reli­gious and philo­soph­i­cal ideas.

The debates of the Enlight­en­ment took place in a soci­ety that was being bom­barded by new expe­ri­ences. Every Euro­pean trav­eler brought back infor­ma­tion from another exotic locale. By the 17th Cen­tury, the ini­tial adven­tur­ous voy­ages of dis­cov­ery had been replaced by elab­o­rate diplo­matic and trade arrange­ments. Keen Euro­pean observers were flood­ing the read­ing pub­lic, back home, with detailed descrip­tions of folk cus­toms, reli­gious prac­tice, pol­i­tics, art, and lit­er­a­ture from around the globe. The audi­ence for these won­ders was huge, and appar­ently insatiable.

When Enlight­en­ment thinkers engaged in debate on philo­soph­i­cal, reli­gious, sci­en­tific, or aes­thetic issues, they did so in a global, not a purely Euro­pean or Chris­t­ian con­text. This is an aspect of the Enlight­en­ment that most mod­ern read­ers either under­es­ti­mate, or miss entirely.

Let’s look at a work that had an big influ­ence on Euro­pean thought for more than a cen­tury after its pub­li­ca­tion, at the end of the 17th Cen­tury. It was called Let­ters Writ by a Turk­ish Spy. The first vol­ume of this mas­sive work was writ­ten by a rather shad­owy Genoese named Gio­vanni Paolo Marana, appar­ently while in prison. Seven sub­se­quent vol­umes were added by Eng­lish authors, the last one pos­si­bly being Daniel Defoe. It was very, very pop­u­lar. It was reis­sued 37 times, and avail­able in Ital­ian, French, Ger­man, Eng­lish and Russ­ian. It trig­gered numer­ous imi­ta­tions, amongst them Montesquieu’s Let­tres Per­sanes.

Let­ters Writ by a Turk­ish Spy is a fic­tional com­pi­la­tion of let­ters from an imag­i­nary Ottoman spy oper­at­ing in Paris. It’s a fairly sophis­ti­cated polit­i­cal thriller. The hero, Mah­mut, expe­ri­ences the siege of Vienna from the Turk­ish view­point, and sends intel­li­gence dis­patches from Euro­pean courts to the Sub­lime Porte. The book con­tains lengthy rumi­na­tions on Mahmut’s lone­li­ness and alien­ation, as a devout Mus­lim liv­ing secretly among Chris­tians. Mah­mut strug­gles with a failed mar­riage to a Greek woman. He indulges in acer­bic dis­cus­sions of com­par­a­tive reli­gion. Much thought is devoted to Deism, Epi­cu­ri­an­ism, and to a Mus­lim Neo­pla­ton­ist sect from Abbasid Iraq called the Brethren of Sin­cer­ity [Ikhwan al-Safa (االصف اخوان) ]. The book’s pic­ture of Mus­lim life is sym­pa­thetic and, much more accu­rate than you would expect. As Mah­mut sys­tem­at­i­cally exam­ines many reli­gious faiths, he comes to the con­clu­sion that, if arbi­trary cus­toms and localisms were cleared away, then uni­fy­ing prin­ci­ples might be found. Among such prin­ci­ples he selects the Golden Rule (“the Fun­da­men­tal Law of Nature, the Orig­i­nal Jus­tice of the World”), a psy­chol­ogy of “uni­ver­sal sym­pa­thy”, and veg­e­tar­i­an­ism, which he feels is implicit in the Jew­ish and Mus­lim tra­di­tions of kosher and halal, in Pythagore­anism, and most explic­itly in Brah­manic ahimsa. In one charm­ing pas­sage, he chal­lenges Descartes and Hobbes, who insisted that ani­mals had nei­ther feel­ings nor rights because they could not speak. Mah­mut declares that “I con­tract famil­iar­i­ties with the harm­less ani­mals. I study like a Lover to oblige and win their hearts, by all the ten­der offices I can per­form… then when we once begin to under­stand each other aright, they make me a thou­sand sweet returns of grat­i­tude accord­ing to their kind” [10] .

Works exhibit­ing such sen­ti­ments, and draw­ing on a broad cross-cultural expe­ri­ence, were quite com­mon dur­ing the period. They reflected a pub­lic exhaus­tion and dis­en­chant­ment with the bru­tal reli­gious con­flicts that had torn Europe apart. The jour­ney towards tol­er­a­tion, sec­u­lar­ism, and abstract Deism began with a num­ber of works, pub­lished in Hol­land, which crit­i­cized the valid­ity of mir­a­cles and witch­craft. The com­par­a­tive study of world reli­gions, and the attempt to find under­ly­ing prin­ci­ples for them, was the next step, as exem­pli­fied by this pop­u­lar work. And this process can­not log­i­cally be called Eurocentric.

Now let’s look at a sec­ond work, which had a sim­i­lar pop­u­lar­ity dur­ing the Enlight­en­ment. This was François Bernier’s Trav­els in the Mogul Empire AD 1656–1668. [11] . Bernier worked as a physi­cian in the ser­vice of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. His book was highly crit­i­cal of Indian soci­ety, but mostly because he felt it suf­fered from the same irra­tional beliefs that plagued Chris­tians in Europe. But he was impressed by ahimsa, the doc­trine of the trans­mi­gra­tion of souls, and the Brah­manic diet. He felt that all three con­tributed to a respect for life and a reduc­tion of cru­elty. This theme would sub­se­quently recur in Euro­pean and North Amer­i­can thought. Future gen­er­a­tions would repeat­edly look to India for some sort of wis­dom, whether ratio­nal or occult. Today’s “New Age” beliefs are lin­ear descen­dants of Bernier’s com­men­taries. Between then and now, one notes such tell-tale sign­posts as the “Boston Brah­mins” and the Tran­scen­den­tal­ists, and the dis­ci­ples of Madame Blavatsky and Gurdjief.

Bernier was no iso­lated crank. He was the pupil and inti­mate friend of the philosopher-mathematician Pierre Gassendi, who debated with Descartes on the issues of empiri­cism and the nature of ani­mals (which he would not dis­miss, as did Descartes, as “machines”). Gassendi has been pooh-poohed by most twen­ti­eth cen­tury schol­ars, but his influ­ence on the Enlight­en­ment was sig­nif­i­cant, par­tic­u­larly through Locke, Leib­niz and New­ton. A recent reap­praisal may reverse his cur­rent lack of pres­tige [12]. Bernier was also a friend of John Locke, who drew on him as a source for com­par­a­tive reli­gion in the Essay Con­cern­ing Human Under­stand­ing, Under Bernier’s influ­ence, Locke made a study of all avail­able com­men­tary on Hinduism.

No per­son is more emblem­atic of the era’s great leap of knowl­edge and insight than Isaac New­ton. His dis­cov­ery of the prin­ci­ple of uni­ver­sal grav­i­ta­tion, and his Prin­cipia Math­e­mat­ica are con­sid­ered by many to be the most impor­tant achieve­ments of the human mind. But they were work of Newton’s youth. He spent the remain­der of his life try­ing to absorb the reli­gious scrip­tures and tra­di­tions of the world, hop­ing to recon­struct a puta­tive “orig­i­nal reli­gion”, of which he con­sid­ered Chris­tian­ity to be no more than one of many derivations.[13]

These three exam­ples are typ­i­cal of the skep­ti­cal, multi-cultural, and multi-religious atmos­phere in which Enlight­en­ment think­ing flour­ished. It’s in that atmos­phere, open to non-European influ­ences, that debates about the proper rela­tion­ship of human beings to the state, equal­ity, and human rights (nat­ural or oth­er­wise) took place.

Long after the Enlight­en­ment era, when some coun­tries had devel­oped a rel­a­tively suc­cess­ful degree of demo­c­ra­tic insti­tu­tions, many peo­ple began to ask why and how that suc­cess had come into being. Some just felt that it was a side-effect of tech­ni­cal progress and pros­per­ity. Oth­ers felt that cause and effect ran the other way round. The most strik­ing suc­cess had taken place in lands that were pre­dom­i­nantly Chris­t­ian, though their state insti­tu­tions were sec­u­lar. It was easy to jump to the con­clu­sion that Chris­t­ian doc­trines must some­how have led to this out­come. But attempts to demon­strate this usu­ally col­lapsed in con­fu­sion. Either demo­c­ra­tic ideas were said to be inher­ent in Chris­t­ian doc­trine or prac­tice, or democ­racy was seen as emerg­ing from the attempts of dis­si­dents and skep­tics to free them­selves from the con­straints of Chris­t­ian cus­toms and doc­trine. While these two views are incom­pat­i­ble, they share the implicit assump­tion that the pres­ence of Chris­tian­ity is some­how nec­es­sary for the process to take place. Most inter­pre­ta­tions, on exam­i­na­tion, turn out to be jum­bles of spe­cious cau­sa­tion jump­ing back and forth between the two implied direc­tions, but always pre­serv­ing the mag­i­cal cor­re­spon­dence. This cor­re­spon­dence amounts to noth­ing more than “I was wear­ing a blue hat when I won the lot­tery, there­fore peo­ple who want to win the lot­tery should wear a blue hat”

The con­nec­tion between arti­cles of reli­gious faith, espe­cially in the form of abstract the­o­log­i­cal pre­cepts, and what peo­ple do in prac­ti­cal sit­u­a­tions, has never been obvi­ous. Paci­fism, for instance, is a pretty straight­for­ward tenet of Chris­tian­ity, rec­og­nized by most Chris­tians as cen­tral to the teach­ing of Christ. Yet how much paci­fist behav­iour has Chris­tian­ity gen­er­ated? Only a hand­ful of micro­scopic sects have prac­ticed it, and they have gen­er­ally suf­fered per­se­cu­tion in the “Chris­t­ian” world. How many Bud­dhists actu­ally make any effort to fol­low the Eight­fold Path? Even if a par­tic­u­lar reli­gion can be shown to have some abstract prin­ci­ple that sup­ports demo­c­ra­tic the­ory, it does not fol­low that the peo­ple of that faith are bound to act democratically.

Democ­racy is some­thing that peo­ple do. It’s a prac­ti­cal approach to solv­ing con­crete prob­lems. It’s evo­lu­tion can best be “explained” in terms of the nature of the prob­lems, and the oppor­tu­ni­ties that opened up to impro­vise their solu­tions. The idea of democ­racy can be con­nected to cer­tain abstract prin­ci­ples — nat­ural rights, human equal­ity, the worth of indi­vid­ual human beings — but these are not specif­i­cally reli­gious prin­ci­ples, and spe­cific faiths con­nect to them only in the gen­eral sense that any faith can be made to con­nect to them. West­ern Euro­pean and North Amer­i­can soci­eties made some notable advances in democ­racy, not because they were Chris­t­ian, but because they were diverse and mul­ti­fac­eted soci­eties exposed to a mul­ti­plic­ity of ideas. Diver­sity is the mother of inven­tion. I applaud attempts to inter­pret Islam as con­sis­tent with demo­c­ra­tic prac­tice, because I applaud anyone’s attempts to make any aspect of their lives con­sis­tent with demo­c­ra­tic prac­tice. But the exer­cise is not nec­es­sary, except in the sense that it may ulti­mately lead to peo­ple see­ing the issue in the non-religious, and non-ethnic frame­work that it prop­erly inhabits.


[1] Jil­lani, Tas­saduq Hus­sain. Democ­racy and Islam: An Odyssey in Brav­ing the Twenty-First Cen­tury. Brigham Young Uni­ver­sity Law Review. 2006.

[2] ‘Abbās Maḥmūd al-‘Aqqād (1889–1964) quoted in above
عباس محمود العقاد

[3] Jil­lani had pre­vi­ously dis­cussed this at length in the Pak­istan Daily Times, Nov.9, 2005: Plu­ral­ism and Tol­er­ance in Islam

[4] The True Lev­ellers Stan­dard Advanced: or, the State of Com­mu­nity opened and Pre­sented to the Sons of Men. Lon­don. 1649. Renais­sance Edi­tions, an Online Repos­i­tory of Works Printed in Eng­lish Between the Years 1477 and 1799. Uni­ver­sity of Ore­gon. http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/%7Erbear/ren.htm

[5] Over­ton, Richard. An Arrow Against All Tyrants. The Rota, Essex. 1976. Reprint of the 1646 ed.

[6] Doc­u­ments from The Eng­lish Lev­ellers (Cam­bridge UP. 1998) are main­tained online by the Con­sti­tu­tion Soci­ety. http://www.constitution.org/lev/levellers.htm.

[7] Dob­son, R. B. — The Peas­ants revolt of 1381. 1970, p.373–375, quotes the pas­sage from from Thomas Walsingham’s His­to­ria Anglicana

[8] Steve Muhlberger (Nipiss­ing Uni­ver­sity) sug­gested Woll­stonecraft while perus­ing a draft of this article.

[9] The size of the libraries of the great Abbasid and Umayyad cities is well-documented:

“the libraries of Moor­ish Spain con­tained close to a mil­lion manuscripts…in Cor­doba books were more eagerly sought than beau­ti­ful con­cu­bines or jewels…the city’s glory was the Great Library estab­lished by Al-HakamII…ultimately it con­tained 400,000 vol­umes” Erdoes,Richard “1000 AD” .Berkley. 1998 p.60–6.

see also
Christ, Karl. The Hand­book of Medieval Library His­tory. Metuchen NJ. Scare­crow Press. 1984. p. 172
Saun­ders. J. J. His­tory of Medieval Spain . NY. Routledge.1993. p.167;
Sordo, Enrique, Moor­ish Spain .Toronto. Ryer­son. 1963. p.55;
Tit­ley, Noram M. “Islam” in The Book Through 5000 Years ed. H. Vervliet . NY. Phaidon.1985. p.52;

Mus­lim libraries were sys­tem­at­i­cally cat­a­loged, and books were labeled with pub­li­ca­tion data, prove­nance, and a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion that the copy­ist had been trained:

C. Prince, ‘The His­tor­i­cal Con­text of Ara­bic Trans­la­tion, Learn­ing, and The Libraries of Medieval Andalu­sia’, Library His­tory, v. 18, July 2002, p. 73–87.

But there were sub­stan­tial libraries in many lesser cen­ters. Mashad, in Iran, pre­serves one of the few such that sur­vived the Mon­gol inva­sion, the Library of Astan Quds Razavi, in con­tin­u­ous exis­tence since 973 A.D. (363 A. H.) which pre­serves 32,485 rare man­u­scripts, includ­ing 17,240 early items, going back to the 10th century.

For a remark­able descrip­tion of libraries, col­lec­tions, and the book trade dat­ing from Almoravid times, in the far-from cen­tral region of Mau­ri­ta­nia, see:

Moussa Ould Ebno. The Trea­sures in Mauritani’s Dunes. UNESCO Courier. 2000. http://www.unesco.org/courier/2000_12/uk/doss4.htm ;

and Louis Werner. Mauritania’s Man­u­scripts. Saudi Aramco World. Nov-Dec 2003.

The small oasis town of Chinguetti, a minor trade cen­ter in Almoravid times, has been selected by UNESCO as a World Her­itage Site because of its extra­or­di­nary libraries, where thou­sands of medieval books are pre­served. A com­plete tenth-century edi­tion of Ibn Rushd has recently been uncov­ered in an even smaller village.

The descrip­tions of Mauritania’s libraries and pri­vate col­lec­tion resem­bles my own per­sonal expe­ri­ence of Timbuktu.

The Mus­lim world pub­lished books on paper, which was man­u­fac­tured on an indus­trial scale, espe­cially in Bagh­dad. Europe was restricted to vel­lum parch­ment until it started to import paper from Dam­as­cus, dur­ing the cru­sades. It is not known to have been man­u­fac­tured in Europe until 1400. Vel­lum (made from calf-skin) or sheep­skin parch­ment required the hides of dozens, some­times hun­dreds of slaugh­tered ani­mals to pro­duce a sin­gle book. At these costs, books could only be a rare lux­ury, and West­ern Euro­pean libraries did not exceed hun­dreds, or in some cases, a few thou­sand books.

[10] Gio­vanni Paolo Marana. Let­ters Writ by a Turk­ish Spy selected and edited by Arthur J. Weitz­man. Lon­don. 1970; Tris­tram Stuart’s The Blood­less Rev­o­lu­tion . Nor­ton. New York. 2007. led me to this passage.

[11] My local library [Metro Toronto Cen­tral Ref­er­ence] has two edi­tions of the same trans­la­tion, one edited by Archibald Con­sta­ble, the other under the title Aurangzeb in Kash­mir : trav­els in the Mughal Empire, edited by D. C. Sharma; again, Tris­tram Stuart’s book led me to them.

[12] Anto­nia LoLordo. Pierre Gassendi and the Birth of Early Mod­ern Philosophy. Cam­bridge . 2006

[13 Newton’s mas­sive body of reli­gious, his­tor­i­cal, and anthro­po­log­i­cal writ­ing, long unpub­lished, is now being made avail­able online by the New­ton Project.

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