While visiting Cairo in 1850, Gustave Flaubert wrote to a friend, “The old Orient is always young because nothing changes. Here the Bible is a picture of life today.” Flaubert’s cultural arrogance was typical of 19th-century European attitudes. He not only hazarded a vast generalization about a culture he had barely encountered, he also presumed that his inability to perceive change and dynamism meant they were in fact absent.

The historian Christopher De Bellaigue’s new book, The Islamic Enlightenment, is a deeply researched riposte to Flaubert’s condescension. Beginning with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and ending with the late 20th century, De Bellaigue shows how the cultural struggles between modernity and tradition unfolded in Istanbul, Cairo, and Tehran. Where Flaubert saw a static biblical tableau, De Bellaigue discovers constant and contested transformation.

One powerful impetus for modernization was Egypt’s military defeat at the hands of the French. A…

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