By William R. Polk
Following the time of Qutb al-Din, increasing numbers of foreigners arrived and foreign activities penetrated Islamic societies more deeply.
Consider these events:
–In Eighteenth Century India, Englishmen paid a sort of homage to local customs. They dressed in Bengal style, smoked hookahs and even kept harems (Zananas). Then, province by province, they took over and finally in 1857, after the revolt of the Muslim Sepoy army, they destroyed the Mughal Empire and came to despise and segregate the Indians.
–In the Crimea the Russians invaded, impoverished or drove away much of the previously thriving population. In the Crimea, Russians also fought the destructive war that Tolstoy recounts in two of his novels.
–In Java, the Dutch clamped a colonial regime on the natives and, when they tried to reassert their independence, killed about 300,000 “rebels” between 1835 and 1840; they also fought Sumatra “rebels” between 1873 and 1914.
–In Algeria, after the bitter 15-year-long war that began in 1830, the French stole the lands and imposed an apartheid regime on the survivors.
–In Egypt, less violently but pervasively, the English looted the country. As David Landes wrote in Bankers and Pashas (p.316), the Egyptian treasury was plundered “of untold amounts … for indemnities, fraudulent and semi-fraudulent claims, exorbitant prices to purveyors and contractors, and all manner of bribes, designed to buy cheap honours or simply respite from harassment.” Of all this, the ruler of Egypt had little understanding and could, in any case, do little because of the pressure of the European powers.
Everywhere, by the middle of the Nineteenth Century, all foreigners enjoyed more privileges than do modern diplomats: foreigners charged with crimes could appeal their cases to courts in Europe and even if their crimes were against natives, the local government had no jurisdiction over them.
The speed of the transformation astonished the natives. It is illustrated by two events in the Levant: Whereas in 1830, a British consul had not been allowed to enter the city of Damascus, ten years later in 1840, another British consul actually chose the governor of Lebanon.
As the evidence of their weakness, sometimes demonstrated on the battlefield but also in the market place, came to seem more shameful, the Muslim search for guidance – in the Quranic phrase the Sirat al-Mustaqeem (the road of those who would be virtuous) – became urgent. When they didn’t find this guidance, a guide came looking for them.
An Influential Thinker
By far the most influential Muslim thinker of the Nineteenth Century was a much more worldly figure than even the Indian Muslim Qutub al-Din – and inevitably more controversial. Controversy, indeed, began with the attachment (Laqab) to his name that usually designates where a person comes from. (In this style, I would be called William Polk Texan.)
Jamal al-Din’s Laqab was “al-Afghani” although he was probably born in Iran. Why did he switch his birthplace? The usual explanation, which I believe to be correct, is that he wanted to be thought of as a Sunni or Orthodox Muslim (as the ruling ethnic group of Afghanistan was) rather than a Shii or minority-group Muslim (as most Iranians were). That is, he wanted to put himself into the mainstream of Islam.
Putting himself in the mainstream of contemporary affairs, Afghani certainly did in a career that took him over much of the Muslim world from Afghanistan to Egypt and from Istanbul to India. (Professor Nikki R. Keddie has written a number of works that touch on Afghani’s career. One of the best deals with the controversy Afghani was partly responsible for provoking, Religion and Rebellion in Iran (London: Frank Cass, 1966). Keddie uses the published catalogue of Afghani’s papers to correct the version he and his Arab followers put out on his life. As she sums up his career, “Through most of his life, he was consistent in working for the independence of Muslim states from foreign rule, but his emphasis was almost always particularly anti-British, perhaps because of early experiences in India.” His tactics were based on his appearing to be an Orthodox religious figure as shown in his book Refutation of the Materialism.)
In contrast to what appear to have been frustrating and unsuccessful encounters with the sultans, shahs and pashas, Afghani exercised a profound influence on Muslim intellectuals and theologians in Afghanistan, Iran, India, Turkistan, Ottoman Turkey and Egypt. His message to them was in essence simple: Muslims must get back to the origins of their religion if they hoped to free their lands from imperialism. And they must do it themselves since no foreigner would help them.
During his years teaching in Egypt, Afghani made common cause with the Egyptian cleric Muhammad Abduh. (Still the best book on Abduh is Charles C. Adams, Islam and Modernism in Egypt: A study of the Modern Reform Movement inaugurated by Muhammad ‘Abduh(London: Oxford University Press, 1933).
Although, in later years, Abduh would become eminently “respectable” as the rector of Azhar University which was the heart of Islamic scholarship, and the chief judge (Mufti Am) of the Egyptian Islamic court system, he and Afghani then just tolerated outsiders. They oscillated between audiences at court and exile.
Then, just before the 1879-1882 nationalist uprising led by the Egyptian officer Ahmad Arabi against British rule, Afghani was sent out of Egypt and Abduh was sent into internal exile in his village. When the British suppressed the uprising, Afghani and Abduh moved to Paris where they founded the short-lived but immensely influential journal, Al-Urwa Al-Wuthqa. Its message was that both European domination and Oriental despotism must be ended and that the way to do it was to reinvigorate Islam and establish it as the ruling doctrine.
The magazine’s name is difficult to translate. It means something like a stirrup (which upholds one) that cannot be broken. It was one of three dissident and more or less clandestine journals of the time. Also in Paris, Aleksandr Herzen founded Kolokol (The Bell) that similarly influenced a generation of Russians.
At roughly the same time as Afghani and Abduh were holding forth, a sequence of Tatar or Turkish intellectuals in and around Bukhara began a similar mission. The most significant of these men was Ismail Bey Gaspirali who, like Jamal al-Din and Muhammad Abduh, founded a journal, Tarjuman (Turco-Arabic: “translator”), which was read throughout the Ottoman Empire, Russia and India. It provided a running critique of what many Turkic peoples had come to see as the source of their weakness, an ossified Muslim clergy which was unable to halt, and actually abetted, the advance of Russian imperialists.
(The Bukhara movement began with Abu Nasr Kursavi (1783-1813) who was followed by Ahmad Makhdum Danish (1827-1897), and he by Ismail Bey Gaspirali (1851-1914). While they disagreed among themselves on the degree to which they could use Western skills and power to the advantage of their peoples, they all sought to “purify” their religion in order to protect their heritage. See Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, Islam and the Russian Empire: Reform and Revolution in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).)
It wasn’t only the Russian Tsars who were imperialists in Central Asia. At roughly the same time as Catherine the Great was pushing into Western Muslim lands, the Qing (Manchu) emperors of China were moving into the sheikhdoms and principalities of Turkistan. There they virtually wiped out the Buddhist Dzungar people and installed Muslim Turks (Uighurs) as puppet rulers.
In 1864, the Uighurs revolted and set up an independent Turkish kingdom. When their state was recognized by Britain, the Ottoman Empire and Russia, the infuriated Chinese overthrew the kingdom and put the population into what amounted to a “reservation” (Hui Jiang). Under oppressive Chinese rule, the Uighurs were not able to produce either significant Islamic scholars or national leaders and still today are trying to assert their national existence both by resisting the Chinese and by participating in the armed struggles of other Muslims. We will see them again in the Islamic Caliphate.
Overall, these Turks, Arabs, Persians and Indians restricted themselves to sermons, slogans and scholasticism, but others began to try to implement similar thoughts in direct action. I now turn to them.
A Militant Revival
The first of the militant revival groups did not aim at the Europeans because, except for a few intrepid travelers, there were no Europeans in Arabia. Called into action by the theologian Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1787), the Wahaibyah or as they called themselves “Unitarians” (Muwahhidun), were, and are today, Sunni Muslim followers of the teachings of Ibn Hanbal as interpreted by Ibn Taimiyah.
They think of themselves as essentially a continuation of the mission of the Prophet Muhammad. They like to point out, that, just as he found a haven in Madinah when he was driven out of Mecca, so Abd al-Wahhab was given refuge in the town of Dariyah. It was in Dariyah (now a suburb of Riyadh) that Abd al-Wahhab acquired the ally who assured his worldly power.
The marriage of Ibn Saud’s son to a daughter of Abd al-Wahhab was the beginning of a partnership that has lasted to this day. Muhammad ibn Saud, himself a townsman, was recognized by the nearby Arab tribes as a natural leader and Abd al-Wahhab addressed their religious needs.
Like the tribesmen whom the Prophet had organized in the Seventh Century for the wars of the Conquest, they were wild and warlike. Managing them required a clear and acceptable code, astute diplomacy and the deflection of their hostilities abroad. The result, as the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun wrote of Islam, was to “turn their faces in the same direction.”
The direction where the faces of the recently united tribesmen turned in 1802 was the Shia city of Karbala, which in Bedouin style they sacked and in Hanbali style, since the inhabitants were heretics, they massacred.
Heretics were not their only targets. In the next few years, the Wahhabi-led tribesmen conquered Jiddah, Mecca and Madinah. In each place, they destroyed the tombs of saints. Everything that was not specifically authorized by the Quran was considered an illegal innovation (Bida). Religious fervor (jihad) was combined with the Bedouin tradition of raiding (ghaza). It was a fearsome combination and, as it did in the days of the Prophet Muhammad, it swept all before it. By 1811, the Wahhabi-Saudi-tribal Empire extended from Aleppo to the Indian Ocean.
Possibly the nonchalant Ottoman government would not have reacted to this attack on its Arab provinces, but the Wahhabi conquest of Mecca could not be tolerated because the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph was also the guardian of Islam’s Holy places. So in 1812, he authorized his nominal vassal, the already powerful Albanian ruler of Egypt, Mehmet Ali Pasha, to dislodge the Wahhabis. That action began a long series of wars through which the Wahhabi–Saudi-tribal combination survived to the present.
A generation later, in 1837, another Islamic revival movement was founded by a Berber who had been born in what is now Algeria about 1790. Muhammad bin Ali al-Sanusi was a scholar who spent much of his early life studying in the libraries of Fez, Cairo and Mecca.
Strongly influenced by Islamic mysticism, Sufism, he tried to push aside worldly concerns to devote himself to prayer. But, in the North Africa of his time, he could not. The French invasion of Algeria in 1830 blocked his return from pilgrimage to his homeland and forced him to create a different sort of “homeland” in Libya. What he created was the Sanusiyah.
Realizing that a revivalist movement, as he planned for the Sanusiyah to become, could not exist without popular support, Muhammad bin Ali also realized that a people ignorant of Islam could never be relied upon to protect it.
His solution was similar to what the Prophet had done: it was to graft onto the tribesmen who merely “submitted to Islam” (the Muslimun) a brotherhood of true believers (Muminun) who would be their religious guides (imams). He set about creating this brotherhood in the university he founded in a Libyan oasis.
As the brotherhood grew, its missionaries founded scores of “lodges” (Zawiyahs) throughout the deserts and steppes of North Africa through Egypt and all the way into the Arabian Hijaz. They covered an area larger than Europe. A typical Zawiyah was a more or less permanent encampment composed of a mosque or prayer room, a dormitory, a guest room and a school.
Virtually all of the people reached by the Sanusi “brothers” in this vast area were nomadic tribesmen on whom the requirements of Islam rested lightly. [The best account of the relationship of the Sanusiyah and the Bedouin is E.E Evans-Pritchard’s The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (Oxord: Clarendon Press, 1949). He had been the Political Officer in Cyrenaica of the British army for two years during the Second World War and when we became friends he was Professor of Anthropology at Oxford and a Fellow of All Souls College. His student and follower, Emrys Peters, also a close friend, carried on his studies and became Professor of Anthropology at Manchester University.]
What made the unlikely combination of religious scholars and nomads work was that the Bedouin got two things they wanted – an overarching but not oppressive unity (or at least occasional intertribal truce) and the codification of religion in easy to understand terms that did not violate such popular religion as they already practiced.
Muhammad bin Ali, unlike the more theoretical reformers, chose not to challenge the innovations (Bida) that had become their way of life but sought only to refine them. Probably, that would be nearly all one would have to say of the Sanusiyah had it been left alone in the vast Sahara. But that was not to be.
After the conquest of Algeria which the French completed about 1860, they moved deeper into Africa. Theirs was an unrewarding advance – there were no rich prizes like Algeria in the vast interior – but their advance was inexorable. Finally, at the village of Fashoda on the White Nile, they bumped into the British who also were moving south and west into the African interior from Egypt.
The two Powers divided Africa between them in the 1898-99 Anglo-French Partition Agreement, which legitimated, at least in European law, the French advance into “their” area. There, the French ran into the Sanusiyah, and in 1902 they destroyed the first of the Order’s lodges. As the French advanced, they destroyed each lodge that they encountered. Much worse was to come.
While the French were advancing from the south, a newly “awakened” Italy had discovered nationalism and began to think of itself as Rome Reborn. Contemporary Italians knew that their ancient ancestors had farmed the coastal plain of Cyrenaica (now eastern Libya) and thought they could meet the needs of their growing population by colonizing it.
So, like the French in Algeria, they moved in to seize the land. Driven by nationalist fervor, the Italians also wanted to win status among the European Powers by acquiring an African empire. In 1911, they landed their first troops. The Sanusi leadership did not want to fight, but organized by the Sanusi creed, the Bedouin resisted. The Italian invasion began a war that lasted nearly 30 years.
Evans-Pritchard wrote, the Grand Sanusi was “anxious to avoid any action which might enable those powers [France and Italy] to accuse him of political designs. He wished only to be left alone to worship God according to the teachings of his Prophet, and when in the end he fought the French it was in defence of the religious life as he understood it. In its remarkable diffusion in North and Central Africa the Order never once resorted to force to back its missionary labours. He even refused the aid asked for by ‘Arabi Pasha in Egupt in 1882 and by the Sudanese Mahdi in 1883 against the British. … But when the French invaded its Saharan territories and destroyed its religious houses, and when later the Italians, also without provocation, did the same in Cyrenaica, the Order had no choice but to resist.”p. 27-28.
An Italian-Driven Genocide
As carried out by the Italians, the 30 years’ war soon became genocide. The Bedouin, calling themselves “protectors” (Muhafizat) and called by the Italians “rebels” (rebelli}, fought as guerrillas while the Italians used counterinsurgency tactics to try to create “furrows of blood” (solci di sangria) among the tribes, hoping to incite them to fight one another.
What the Italians called politico-militari tactics — which phrase Americans translated and tactics largely copied — did not work because as the Italian military commander wrote, “the entire population took part directly or indirectly in the rebellion.” [General Rodolfo Graziani,Cirenaica Pacificata, (Milano, 1932), p. 60/]
As counterinsurgency failed, the Italians turned to genocide. Within a few years, they killed nearly two-thirds of the population of Cyrenaica. Among the casualties were virtually all of the Sanusis. But, as the Englishman who knew them best, Evans-Pritchard, has written, “With the [Italian] destruction of the Sanusiya … the war continued to be fought in the name of the religious order. … It then became simply a war of Muslims to defend their faith against a Christian Power. Deep love of home and deep love of God nourished each other. … Without due appreciation of the religious feeling involved in the resistance it would be, I think, be impossible to understand how it went on for so long against such overwhelming odds.” [Evans-Pritchard, Op. cit., 166]
In place of the Sanusi family, who abandoned the Bedouin to their fate, a remarkable figure who combined the best of the Bedouin and Sanusi attributes came to the fore. Umar al-Mukhtar, known as “the Lion of the Desert,” became a hero to his people in his resistance to the Italians.
Al-Mukhtar carried on the tradition begun by Sharif Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairiri (“the Algerian”) in the Algerian struggle against the French and as Amir Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi would lead the Berbers of the Rif in their war against the French and Spanish. What they held in common was their religious faith and the determination to keep their societies free and independent.
Umar al-Mukhtar emerges out of obscurity for Western viewers in the 1981 film Lion of the Desert where he is portrayed by Anthony Quinn. Abd al-Karim’s war in the Rif was the subject of Vincent Sheean’s raportage that subsequently became his 1926 book, An American among the Riffis. I got to know Abd al-Karim in Cairo, at the end of his long exile in 1954 and wrote a short account of his life in Perspective of the Arab World: An Atlantic Monthly supplement, 1955.
These were not the only struggles fought in the name of Islam against imperialism. For instance, when the Muslims of Java tried to win independence, the Dutch killed about 300,000 of them between 1825 and 1830 and they suppressed the people of Sumatra in a similarly brutal war from 1873 to 1914. But the one struggle that stands out, particularly in English memory, is the Mahdiyah war in the Sudan.
Hunting for Slaves
From the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, the northern Sudanese Funj sultanate converted to Islam and began to use the Arabic language. Then in 1820, Mehmet Ali Pasha, the ruler of Egypt, decided to monopolize the hunt for African slaves and invaded the country.
Having limited resources, Mehmet Ali’s grandson and successor hired Europeans to administer the Sudan. One of them, General Charles Gordon, was a vociferous exponent of Christianity who looked upon the native Muslims as pagans and was determined to stamp out their customs. Sudanese anger built against him and the Egyptians.
Finally in 1881, another of those figures we have seen all over the Islamic world came to the fore. Muhammad Ahmed reached back into Muslim legend and proclaimed himself the Mahdi, a man sent by God to rectify injustice (Zulm) and return the people to the true path (Sunnah). He organized his followers into armed zealots called the Ansar.
The choice of the name Ansar is an allusion to the men who made possible Muhammad the Prophet’s flight from Mecca. So Muhammad al-Mahdi was putting himself in the position of the Prophet and his 30,000 to 40,000 followers in the center of the Muslim tradition. But, while he acted in the name of Islam he proclaimed himself to be virtually the equal of the Prophet Muhammad. Despising his claim and underestimating his power, the Egyptian government allowed itself to be defeated in small encounters by the Mahdi’s followers. They, in turn, took their victories as proof of God’s favor. So, by the time the British, who were effectively running Egypt, decided to suppress the Mahdiyah, it had become a national movement.
Fortunately for the British, the Mahdi died of typhus, but the Mahdiyah lingered on. Finally, in the spring and summer of 1898, the British attacked, destroyed the Sudanese army and absorbed Sudan into the growing British Empire.
(I have dealt with the Sudan in more detail in my book The Arab World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980). More detailed is Peter Holt, the Mahdist State in the Sudan 1881-1898(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958). The government the British imposed on Sudan was patterned on their administration in India which was made up primarily of graduates of Cambridge who had excelled in athletics (known as “the blues”) so the contemporary joke was that the Sudanese government was “the rule of the Blacks by the Blues.”)
Muslims in the Philippines were never able to organize a mass resistance neither to the Sixteenth Century Spanish invasion nor to the Nineteenth Century American invasion. Under the Spaniards, the population of most of the northern islands was converted to Catholicism while the Muslims retreated to the south.
To try to stop the American troops, the Muslims fought as guerrillas. Not having modern arms, they often fought with agricultural tools in suicide attacks that became a feature of modern guerrilla warfare. To stop the suicide attacks, the American government adopted the relatively heavy pistol, the .45 that became the standard officers’ weapon for the next century.
While Britain and Russia were often on the brink of hostilities, and in the Crimean War actually fought one another, they shared a determination not to allow the peoples they conquered to move toward freedom. Their common opponent was the “Pan-Islamic” movement.
Fear of Pan-Islam played a role in shaping British and Russian policies toward much of Asia and French policy toward Africa. Like the French and the Russian empires, the British had conquered and ruled over millions of Muslims, and, like the French and Russians, they were sure that the Muslims were always on the point of revolting.
A Russian ‘Domino Theory’
British security officers, like army generals, were always preparing for the last war and their text was the 1857 “Mutiny.” Their fears were echoed by the Russians who imagined a sort of “domino theory” in which its Central Asians would rise and one after another topple the imperial structure. And the French had reason to fear the same thing as a result of their brutal policies in Algeria and Morocco.
All was based on rumor and much was myth but apprehension was real. The mood may now be best judged not in sober (or not so sober) diplomatic dispatches but in the then wildly popular novel, a precursor of the James Bond series, John Buchan’s Greenmantle, which cast sinister Turkish and German agents from whom the civilized world was saved only by intrepid British agents. Buchan gave us “007” long before Ian Fleming invented him.
But the danger of Pan-Islam was largely a figment of the imperial powers’ imagination. Muslims did not even conceive such a movement as Pan-Islam. A few like Afghani and Ismail Bey Gaspirali reached out beyond their immediate neighborhoods but most reformers were strictly local. And very few did more than write or talk.
Armed rebellions in the name of Islam were rare. Indeed, all over the Muslim world, reformers and militants were admitting at least to themselves that, regardless of aims, tactics and dedication, religion-based nationalism had failed to stop foreign intrusion.
So, in a ragged pattern, disillusioned Muslims from Central Asia to Sudan and from Java to Morocco began to search for new ways to defend their societies, cultures and religion. To a growing number and finally to most, the answer seemed to be found not in their own background but in the West.
To be “modern” and strong, they were coming to believe, required adoption of the mainly secular ideology of the West. To what Asians and Africans made of western style nationalism I now turn.
William R. Polk is a veteran foreign policy consultant, author and professor who taught Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. President John F. Kennedy appointed Polk to the State Department’s Policy Planning Council where he served during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His books include: Violent Politics: Insurgency and Terrorism; Understanding Iraq; Understanding Iran; Personal History: Living in Interesting Times; Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times; and Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change.
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