Mr. de Bellaigue, the finest Orientalist of his generation, does the world a great service by charting the attainments of the region’s long 19th century ... This ultimately is the big question, today as in 1831. Is there a link between Islam and the nature and performance of Islamic societies? Here we see another of Mr. de Bellaigue’s strengths, a respectful frankness about the nature of the faith ... Cherry-picking is always a danger when it comes to textual quotation on religious questions. Mr. de Bellaigue, a remarkably fair observer, never falls victim to the temptation.
His cast of characters — 'the Muslim pioneers we never thought existed' — is presented with flair and an acute eye. There are several classic accounts of Islam’s engagement with modernity, but the originality of this book is to tie together the Arab Awakening or Nahda with the Persian and Turkish enlightenment of the 19th century ... This is a civilised and beautifully written story of the advances and reverses of a great civilisation that lost its own way, was shunted into cul-de-sacs by predatory European imperialists — and yet was and is constantly searching out ways to bounce back.
The author has a keen eye for a story, and our companions as we follow his argument are those vivid heroes (and occasionally heroines) who had the vision and the guts to bring about reform ... As well as big history analysis there are delightful incidental details ... This book also elegantly offers a reminder that we are the stories that we tell about ourselves ... One question this book doesn’t fully answer – and it is a crucial one – is why this kind of liberality was followed by centuries of retrenchment ... Yet De Bellaigue has written a (beautifully illustrated) book that prompts an important conversation, and is extremely useful for our times. As well as introducing neglected histories and characters about which and whom we need to care, the work itself incarnates the essence of enlightenment.