Colonialism, Islamic Reformers, and the Late Ottoman Period

The first half of the twentieth century was a dark time for Muslims. The scientific and technical dominance of the Europeans allowed them to strengthen their already tight stranglehold over Muslims lands. This was especially true in North Africa and the Levant, where Britain and France, and to a lesser extent, Italy, competed for influence.

While foreign occupiers are generally not known for their benevolence, the French, compared to the others, were particularly virulent. Their intent was to permanently annex these territories in an effort to create a ‘Greater France.’ This manifested in earnest attempts to supplant Islam with Christianity and replace Muslim culture and language with French.

It is no wonder then that during the Second World War, local populations prayed earnestly for Germany’s victory over France and Britain. The premise was that my “enemy’s enemy is my friend.” And so it was that people would flock around shortwave radios at night to listen to the Arabic service of Radio Berlin (Huna Berlin). But this had to be in secret. French authorities had banned listening to Radio Berlin. Being caught meant punishment and jail.

There were men and women, as there always are, who resisted this occupation of their lands with whatever means they had at their disposal. Among these was a certain Druze Prince named Shakib Arslan, an eminent Islamic thinker and reformer. 

He was born on Christmas day in 1896 into a Druze family in the Lebanese village of Choueifat, near Beirut. The Druze have their own religion. They do not accept outsiders and no one is allowed to leave. Shakib Arslan however immersed himself in the Islamic mainstream and followed the ways of Sunni Muslims in terms of prayer, fasting, the Hajj, and all other rituals associated with normative Islam. He studied the Quran from an early age and memorized parts of it. In addition to Arabic, he was fluent in Turkish, German, and French. During his life he travelled widely and met many religious, literary, and political leaders of his time. He was particularly influenced by the reformer Jamaluddeen Al-Afghani who he mentions in his book. He lavished high praise on his friend and teacher the American scholar, Arabist, and orientalist Cornelius van Dyck, one of the founders of the American University of Beirut.

Arslan came of age at a time when the European colonialists were at the peak of their power. He viewed the occupation as being primarily a result of the weakness of Muslims, their own internecine differences, and a failure to uphold the principles and values of their religion. The colonialists were not to blame. It was the Muslims who needed to change.

He came to believe that Muslims had lost not just the ability but also the will to toil and to sacrifice that which was precious to them. The way for them to regain these qualities was to resurrect the principles of their religion. Their Quran made it clear that success here, and in the Hereafter, was only possible through hard work and a willingness to forfeit all that one held valuable. The valuables of this world are in any case ephemeral. So why cling to them?

His political views and activities did not endear him to the foreign occupiers of his land. The French expelled him from Lebanon and exiled him to Europe. There, he continued to write and struggle. He was to spend a good part of his later life away from home. When he finally did return it was because Lebanon gained independence after the Second World War. The French who had prevented him from returning had gone. But his return to his homeland was to be short lived. He died some three months later on the 9th of December, 1946. 

Arslan was a prolific writer and poet. He wrote 20 books and hundreds of articles for journals and magazines. His poems sought to energize Muslims and rouse them from centuries of somnolence. His eloquence in Classical Arabic earned him the title of Ameer Al-Bayan, or Prince of Eloquence. For a language that has been in existence for at least 1400 hundred years and has seen some of the world’s greatest poets and writers, this is indeed an exceptional accolade.

Those who read his prose understand immediately that he was an exceptional writer. His words flow as eloquently and movingly as his poetry. Sentences glide into each other. Words have a music all their own. Meaning is expertly married to form. His writing style, by his own admission, was influenced by the historian and philosopher, Ibn Khaldun, author of The Muqaddimah, on whom he wrote a book entitled The History of Ibn Khaldun. Arslan writes: 

My love for the style of this Imam (Ibn Khaldun) in writing history, and my appreciation of his method in explaining critical events and establishing the principles of civilization has left a deep impression in me, which is always with me when I articulate my thoughts, or express the clamourings of my soul and the whisperings of my heart.

He goes on to say: 

I have been infatuated by this Muqaddimah as a young man, in middle age, and now as a sheikh (old man). And I remain enamoured by it. The passage of time has not doused my ardour for its enchantments.

His friend and colleague, Rashid Rida, the Islamic scholar, reformer, and publisher of the Egyptian journal Al-Manar, was to say later Arslan’s writing style reminded him of that used by Ibn Khaldun in the Muqaddimah. Indeed it was for Rashid Rida’s journal, Al-Manar, that Arslalan first wrote the series of articles that would be compiled later, in 1930, into the book entitled Why Muslims Lagged Behind and Others Progressed. It is this book, more than anything else he wrote, that has defined Arslan’s legacy. It is a measure of the importance and relevance of this book, even to the Muslims of today, that it has never been out of publication since it was first published almost a century ago.

Arslan was witness to the painful and inexorable advance of the colonialists as they extended and consolidated their control over Muslim lands. He felt that this was due to two main factors. One, was lack of Muslim unity. The other, was their collective failure to embrace science and technology, and hence to develop the industrial prowess needed to resist the colonialist onslaught. Hence, he was a passionate proponent of Muslim unity and the need to embrace scientific thought and learning. These are themes that he takes up in Why Muslims Lagged Behind and Others Progressed.

Today, nearly a century after he wrote the book, not much has changed; Muslims remain divided and in many cases are their own worst enemies. Witness, by way of example, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, or the seething animosity between Iran and the Gulf Arabs and the rise of extremist movements whose raison d’etre is hate for other Muslims. It is as if the Muslims are at war with themselves. In science, technology, and industrial prowess, the story is much the same. If anything, the Muslims have fallen further behind the West.

Arslan also believed that the central underlying reason for Muslim weakness in his time was their neglect for the principles of their faith. He wonders in his book whether the factors that allowed the early Arabs to conquer much of the known world in the space of half a century,

are no more, and there does not remain of belief (Emaan) but its name, and of Islam but its ruins, and of the Quran only its recitation with no regard to its commands and prohibitions?

These are questions that are perhaps more relevant today than they were a century ago.

Photo credit: Eric Calderwood, Colonial al-Andalus (2018)

About the author: Nadeem M. Qureshi is the English translator of Why Muslims Lagged Behind and Others Progressed and a frequent contributor to the opinion pages of English newspapers in Pakistan and the Gulf. He was educated at MIT where he earned SB and SM degrees in Civil Engineering. He holds an MBA degree from Harvard Business School and a Master of Arts degree in Arabic from the University of Karachi.

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