'At a time of profound suspicion and mistrust between the West and the Muslim world, this is an important, beautifully written book that offers a powerful corrective to the notion that Islam contains an inbuilt prejudice against modernity. It strikes a blow, as the most readable writers do, for common humanity.' Justin Marozzi, Sunday Times
'De Bellaigue's...book is an Enlightenment in itself, and a salient one in this age when everyone seems to feel entitled to a firm opinion about Islam and Muslims.' David Aaronovitch, The Times
THE ISLAMIC ENLIGHTENMENT: THE MODERN STRUGGLE BETWEEN FAITH AND REASON, THE BODLEY HEAD (UK), liveright (US), 2017.
The Muslim world has often been accused of a failure to modernize, reform and adapt. In fact, from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present day, Islamic society in its Middle Eastern heartlands has been transformed by modern ideals and practices, including the adoption of modern medicine, the emergence of women from seclusion, and the development of democracy. Islamic civilization has been undergoing an anguished transformation, and the violence of an infinitesimally small minority is the blowback from this process.
Here, in majestic prose, Christopher de Bellaigue tells the story of the scholars and scientists, writers and statesmen who brought about these remarkable changes across society, politics, and the arts. Structuring his groundbreaking history around Istanbul, Cairo, and Tehran, the three main loci of Islamic culture, de Bellaigue introduces us to key figures and reformers, from Egypt's visionary ruler Muhammad Ali to radicals like Iran's first feminist Qurrat al-Ayn and the writer Ibrahim Sinasi, who transformed Ottoman Turkey's language and literature. In doing so, he challenges the ossified perceptions in Western culture that self-righteously condemn the Muslim world as hopelessly benighted. The final chapter of the book shows how the legacy of the region’s modernizers has been threatened by an Islamist movement that is in large part a response to western intervention.
By describing the region’s linguistic and cultural modernisers, its early feminists and its champions of national identity and political pluralism, The Islamic Enlightenment shows the folly of Westerners demanding modernity from people whose lives are already drenched in it. It also demonstrates that we must look beyond sensationalist headlines if we are to arrive at a genuine understanding of modern Islam and Muslim culture, and is essential reading for anyone interested in the state of the world today.
'Christopher de Bellaigue has long been one of our most resourceful and stimulating interpreters of realities veiled by fear and prejudice. In The Islamic Enlightenment, he cuts through the complacent opposition of Islam-versus-modernity to reveal a fascinating world: one in which complex human beings constantly change, improvise and adjust under the pressures of history. It is the best sort of book for our disordered days: timely, urgent and illuminating.’ Pankaj Mishra
'Wonderful...a dazzling feat of erudition and storytelling.' New Statesman
'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.' David Gardner, Financial Times
'de Bellaigue takes his readers on a fascinating journey through the summits and valleys along the Islamic road to the modern world...brilliantly done.' Malise Ruthven, New York Review of Books
'His style is somewhat in the tradition of Gibbon and Strachey. Both Edward Gibbon and Lytton Strachey were very funny writers, they liked to make jokes and exercise their wit. And Bellaigue also has that spare wit that I like.' Sir Peter Bazalgette, chairman of the jury, Baillie Gifford Prize
'A brilliantly learned and entertaining study of a topic that is of far more than merely antiquarian interest: the encounter between the Islamic world and the post-Enlightenment West.' Tom Holland
'That there has been an Islamic Enlightenment at all will come as news to many. De Bellaigue’s account of the 'very broad church' of Islam in the modern world is splendid and timely.' Anthony Gottlieb
'Timely, thoughtful and provocative.’ Peter Francopan
'A highly original and informative survey of the clashes between Islam and modernity in Istanbul ,Cairo and Tehran in the last two hundred years..Brilliant!' Orhan Pamuk
'A refreshingly optimistic counterpoint to the idea that Muslim and Western world-views are doomed to clash.' The Economist
'A sweeping and hugely engaging book that throws much-needed light on modern Islam.' Andrew Lycett, The Spectator
Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a very British Coup, Bodley Head (UK) / HarperCollins (US), 2012
The first general biography of one of the heroes of the anti-colonialist movement, winner of the Washington Institute Prize for books on the Middle East.
In August 1953 the British and US intelligence services launched a desperate coup against a cussed, bedridden 72-year-old. His name was Muhammad Mossadegh and his crimes had been to flirt with Communism and nationalise his country's oil industry, for forty years in British hands. To Winston Churchill, the Iranian prime minister was a lunatic, determined to humiliate Britain. To President Dwight Eisenhower, he was delivering Iran to the Soviets. Mossadegh must go. And so he did, in one of the most dramatic episodes in modern Middle Eastern history. But the countries that overthrew him would regret their actions. Mossadegh was one of the first liberals of the Middle East. He wanted friendship with the West - not slavish dependence. Patriot of Persia is the story of a man who embodied his nation's struggle for freedom - and the coup that undid him.
‘A compelling biography…de Bellaigue…writes with economy and a lightly ironic touch.’ Wall Street Journal.
‘For the past century, the West has handled its relationship with Iran about as badly as possible, running the gamut of folly from condescension through exploitation to oppression…it is notably unfortunate that we have so little leverage with its people. Christopher de Bellaigue’s book goes far to explain why.’ Max Hastings, Sunday Times.
‘Until now, no biography in English has caught the personality and significance of Muhammad Mossadegh...unsurpassed.’ Times Literary Supplement.
‘Authoritative…a politically astute biography.’ Pankaj Mishra, London Review of Books.
Rebel Land; Unravelling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town, Bloomsbury (UK)/Penguin Press (US), 2009
My exploration of a remote, forgotten, impossibly conflicted part of the world was shortlisted for the 2010 Orwell Prize.
In the mid-2000s I spent three years exploring eastern Turkey, travelling to the remote district of Varto and delving into the centuries-old conflict between Turks, Armenians, and Kurds. Rebel Land turns over little-known massacres and acts of treachery and love, and shows how memories are protected, for I was constantly reminded that I was an unwelcome outsider, distrusted by local people and impeded by the law enforcement agencies.
‘Varto looked bare in November, the sky unimpeded and the earth sleepy and black, the leaves in drifts and the flocks huddling in the pens. We had forty-eight hours of freezing rain and then, after a glorious sunlit pause when the winds died and the robins gossiped, the skies grew black and the snow began to fall…’
‘Brilliant.’ William Dalrymple.
‘A fascinating book – the secret, and shocking, history of both a Turkish town and Turkey itself.’ Paul Theroux.
‘A finely written, brave and very personal book.’ Orhan Pamuk
‘A brilliant literary thriller, an incursion into forbidden territory that is all the more gripping for being true.’ Maureen Freely, The Times.
In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs. HarperCollins. 2004.
My first book, shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize, depicts post-revolutionary Iran through the eyes of one of the very few Westerners to live there.
The recent history of Iran is a chronicle of religious fervour and violent change–from the Islamic Revolution that ousted the Shah in favour of an Islamic Republic to the bloody eight-year war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But what happened to the hostage-takers, the suicidal holy warriors, the martyrs, and the mullahs who participated in these agonizing convulsions, and how have they changed as the country has? In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs prises the door open onto this most inscrutable of societies.
‘Impenitently stylish and arresting…pitches us into the very heart and streets of the Iranian revolution today…Part of the power and richness of de Bellaigue’s account comes from his sense that history is alive and bleeding for Iranians…but the strength of his book lies mostly in its sense of unofficial history, the whispers and unscripted mutterings of a proud, suspicious, highly cultured and elegiac people.’ Pico Iyer, New York Times Book Review
‘Fascinating…this book helps us to understand the ‘enigma inside a puzzle’ that is Iran today.’ Financial Times
‘Draws the reader irresistibly into the psychology of Iran.’ Victoria Glendinning.
The Struggle for Iran. New York Review Books, 2007
A collection of essays from the New York Review of Books, the Guardian, the Economist and Harper’s Magazine.
When I first visited Iran, in 1999, I was twenty-nine and the stiff and distant place that I had expected to find turned out to be irresistibly alive. Over the next few years, as a reporter and a resident, I observed as George Bush’s War on Terror drew the country, its politics and society and its culture, into the wider ambit of a tumultuous world. Political, cultural and social, the essays in this volume attempt to capture the country at a thrilling, uncertain moment in its history.
‘Watch out for the definitive book on the new Iran, The Struggle for Iran…by young British writer Christopher de Bellaigue, one of the best of the new generation of middle east experts writing in English.’ Prospect Magazine