Islam (part 15)

Islam From The Beginning To 1300

Date: 2002

Western Intrusions And The Crisis In The Arab Islamic Heartlands

By the early 1800s, the Arab peoples of the Fertile Crescent, Egypt,
coastal Arabia and North Afric had lived for centuries under Ottoman-Turkish
rule. Though most Arabs resented Turkish domination, they could identify with
the Ottomans as fellow Muslims, who were both ardent defenders of the faith
and patrons of Islamic culture. Still, the steadily diminishing capacity of
the Ottomans to defend the Arab Islamic heartlands left them exposed to the
danger of conquest by the aggressive European powers. The European capture of
outlying, but highly developed, Islamic states from those in the Indonesian
archipelago and India to Algeria in North Africa engendered a sense of crisis
among the Islamic faithful in the Middle Eastern heartlands. From the terror
of Christendom and the encirclers of its European bastion, the Muslims had
become the besieged. Islam had been displaced by Europe as the leading
civilization in a wide range of endeavors from scientific inquiry to
monumental architecture. Much of the Muslim community was forced to live under
infidel European overlords; what remained was threatened by European conquest.

The profound crisis of Islamic confidence brought on by successive
reverses and the ever-increasing strength of their old European rivals gave
rise to a wide variety of responses in the Islamic world. Islamic thinkers
debated the best way of reversing the decline and driving back the Europeans.
Some argued for a return to the Islamic past; others favored a large-scale
adoption of Western ways; while still others sought to find ways to combine
the two approaches. Reformist leaders, such as those in 19th-century Turkey,
tried to graft on elements of Western culture while preserving the old state
and society pretty much intact. Religious leaders, sometimes proclaiming
themselves divinely appointed prophets, rose up to lead their followers in
jihads, or holy wars, against the advancing Europeans. Though it is not
possible to examine all of these responses in each of the Islamic lands, the
following sections focus on key responses on the part of Arab peoples in Egypt
and the Sudan in the 19th century. In these areas, European involvement was
intense and the growing challenges posed by the West generated important
attempts to find ways of reversing the decline of Islamic civilization and
restoring it to its former glory.

French Invasion And Mamluk Defeat

Though it did not establish a permanent European presence in the Islamic
heartlands, Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 sent shock waves across what
remained of the Muslim world. Significantly, Napoleon's motives for launching
the expedition had little to do with designs for empire in the Middle East
itself. Rather he saw the Egyptian campaign as the prelude to the destruction
of British power in India, where, as we have seen, the French had come out on
the short end of earlier wars for empire. Whatever his calculations, Napoleon
managed to slip his fleet past the British blockade in the Mediterranean and
put ashore his armies in July 1798. There followed one of the most lopsided
military clashes in modern history. As they advanced inland, Napoleon's forces
were met by tens of thousands of cavalrymen bent on defending the Mamluk
regime that then ruled Egypt as a vassal of the Ottoman sultans. The term
Mamluk literally meant slave, and it suggested the Turkic origins of the
regime in Egypt. Beginning as slaves who served Muslim overlords, the Mamluks
had centuries earlier risen in the ranks as military commanders to the point
where they were able to seize power in their own name. Murad, the head of the
coalition of Mamluk households that shared power in Egypt at the time of
Napoleon's arrival, dismissed the invader as a donkey boy whom he would soon
drive from his lands.

Murad's contempt for the talented young French commander was symptomatic
of the profound ignorance of events in Europe that was characteristic of many
leaders of the Islamic world at that time. Murad's ignorance led to a series
of crushing defeats, the most famous of which came in a battle fought beneath
the pyramids of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. In the brief but bloody battle,
the disciplined firepower of the French legions devastated the ranks of Mamluk
horsemen clad in medieval armor, wielding spears against the artillery
Napoleon used with such devastating effect.

Because the Mamluks had long been regarded as fighters of great prowess
in the Islamic world, their rout was literally traumatic. It brutally revealed
just how vulnerable even the Muslim core areas were to European aggression and
how far the Muslims had fallen behind the Europeans in the capacity to wage
war. Ironically, the successful invasion of Egypt brought little advantage to
Napoleon or the French. The British caught up with the French fleet and sunk
most of it at the Battle of Aboukir in August of 1798. With his supply line
cut off, Napoleon was forced to abandon his army and sneak back to Paris,
where his enemies were attempting to use his reverses in Egypt to put an end
to his rise to power. Thus, Egypt was spared European conquest - for a time.
The reprieve brought little consolation, since the British, not Egypt's Muslim
defenders, had been responsible for the French retreat.

The Rise Of Muhammad Ali

In the chaos that followed the French invasion and eventual withdrawal in
1801, the Mamluk survivors fought with local notables for political control.
The unexpected winner of these struggles was a young officer of Albanian
origins named Muhammad Ali. He was a member of the Ottoman expeditionary force
that had been sent to drive the French from Egypt. Having consolidated his
base in the Cairo area by 1805, Muhammad Ali was master of Egypt after his
soldiers slaughtered 300 Mamluk chieftains in 1811. Deeply impressed by the
weapons and discipline of the French armies, the Albanian upstart devoted his
energies and the resources of the land that he had brought under his rule to
building an up-to-date European-style military force. He introduced
Western-style conscription among the Egyptian peasantry, hired French officers
to train his troops, imported Western arms, and adopted Western tactics and
modes of organization and supply. Within years he had put together the most
effective fighting force in the Middle East. With it, he flaunted the
authority of his nominal overlord, the Ottoman sultan, by successfully
invading Syria and building a modern war fleet that threatened Istanbul on a
number of occasions.

By the 1830s Muhammad Ali's armies had been so successful that they were
threatening the Ottoman regime itself. Twice, intervention by European powers
was necessary to rescue the regime at Istanbul and foil Muhammad Ali's dreams
of becoming the paramount lord of the Arab Muslim heartlands. Once again, the
Europeans, not Muslim leaders, emerged as the arbiters of the destiny of the
Arab world.

Though Muhammad Ali's efforts to introduce reforms patterned after
Western precedents were not confined to the military, they fell far short of a
fundamental transformation of Egyptian society. To shore up his economic base,
he ordered the Egyptian peasantry to expand their production of cotton, hemp,
indigo, and other crops that were in growing demand in industrial Europe.
Efforts to improve Egyptian harbors and extend irrigation works met with some
success and led to modest increases in the revenues that could be devoted to
the continuing modernization of the military. Attempts to reform education
were ambitious but limited in what was actually achieved. Many of the most
significant innovations in schooling were linked to Muhammad Ali's military
projects. His frequent schemes to build up an Egyptian industrial sector were
eventually frustrated by the opposition of the European powers and by the
intense competition from imported, Western-manufactured goods.

To secure his home base, Muhammad Ali also found that he had little
choice but to ally with the powerful rural landlords, the ayan, to control the
peasantry. He eliminated the tax farmers and claimed all land as state
property, but despite these measures within decades a hereditary landlord
class was firmly entrenched in the rural areas. His forcible confiscations of
the peasants' produce to pay for the rising costs of the military
establishment and for his foreign entanglements further impoverished an
already hard-pressed rural population.

The limited scope of Muhammad Ali's reforms ultimately checked his plans
for territorial expansion and left Egypt open to inroads by the European
powers. He died in 1848, embittered by the European opposition that had
prevented him from mastering the Ottoman sultans and well aware that his
empire beyond Egypt was crumbling. Lacking his ambition and ability, his
successors were content to confine their claims to Egypt and the Sudanic lands
that stretched away from the banks of the Upper Nile to the south.
Intermarrying with Turkish families that had originally come to Egypt to
govern in the name of the Ottoman sultans, Muhammad Ali's descendants provided
a succession of rulers, known as khedives after 1867, who were the formal
rulers of Egypt until they were overthrown by the military coup that brought
Nasser to power in 1952.

Bankruptcy, European Intervention, And Strategies Of Resistance

Muhammad Ali's successors made a muddle of his efforts to reform and
revitalize Egyptian society. While cotton production increased and the
landlord class grew fat, the great majority of the peasants went hungry or
starved. The long-term consequences of these developments were equally
troubling. The great expansion of cotton production at the expense of food
grains and alternative market crops rendered Egypt dependent on a single
export and vulnerable to fluctuations in demand on the European markets to
which most of it was exported. Some further educational advances were made,
mainly at elite schools where French was the language of instruction. But the
advances were too limited to benefit the populace by making government more
efficient or stimulating public works projects and improved health care.

Much of the revenue the khedives managed to collect, despite the
resistance of the ayan, was wasted on extravagant pastimes and fruitless
military campaigns to assert Egyptian authority over the Sudanic peoples along
the Upper Nile. The increasing inability of the khedives to balance their
books led in the middle decades of the 19th century to their growing
indebtedness to European financiers. The latter lent money to the profligate
khedives and members of the Turkish elite because the financiers desired both
continued access to Egypt's cheap cotton and, by the 1850s, a share in the
potentially lucrative schemes to build a canal across the Isthmus of Suez that
would connect the Mediterranean and Red seas. The completion of the Suez Canal
in 1869 shortened the distance by sea between Europe and Asia and allowed
steamboats to replace sailing vessels, which had earlier proven better able to
weather the rough passage around Africa.

The ineptitude of the khedival regime and the Ottoman sultans, who were
their nominal overlords, prompted a good deal of discussion among Muslim
intellectuals and political activists as to how they might find the leadership
and means to ward off the growing European menace. Egypt, and particularly
Cairo's ancient Muslim University of al-Azhar, became in the middle decades of
the 19th century one of the key meeting places of these thinkers from
throughout the Islamic world. Some prominent Islamic scholars called for a
jihad to drive the infidels from Muslim lands. They also argued that the
Muslim world could be saved only by a return to the patterns of religious
observance and social interaction that they believed had existed in the
"golden age" of the Prophet.

Other thinkers, such as al-Afghani (1839-1897) and his disciple Muhammad
Abduh (1849-1905), stressed the need for Muslims to borrow scientific learning
and technology from the West and to revive their earlier capacity to innovate.
They argued that Islamic civilization had once taught the Europeans much in
the sciences and mathematics, including such critical concepts as the Indian
numerals. Thus, it was fitting that Muslims learn from the advances the
Europeans had made with the help of Islamic borrowings. Those who advocated
this approach also stressed the importance of the tradition of rational s
inquiry in Islamic history. They strongly disputed the views of fundamentalist
theorists who contended that the Quran was the source of all truth and should
be interpreted literally.

Though both fundamentalists and those who stressed the need for imports
from the West agreed on the need for Muslim unity in the face of the growing
European threat, they could not reconcile their very different approaches to
Islamic revival. Their differences and the uncertainties they have injected
into Islamic efforts to cope with the challenges of the West remain central
problems in the Muslim world today.

The mounting debts of the khedival regime and the strategic importance of
the canal gave the European powers, particularly Britain and France, a growing
stake in the stability and accessibility of Egypt. French and British bankers,
who had bought up a good portion of the khedive's shares in the canal, urged
their governments to intervene militarily when the khedives proved unable to
meet their loan payments. At the same time, French and British diplomats
quarreled over how much influence their nations should exercise within Egypt.
In the early 1880s a genuinely nationalist challenge to both the puppet
khedival regime and the European powers prompted the British to intervene
militarily to the chagrin of the French, who at that point were in no position
to do likewise.

The challenge was mounted by the supporters of a charismatic young
Egyptian officer named Achmad Orabi. The son of a small farmer in lower Egypt,
Orabi had attended Quranic school and studied under the reform-minded Muhammad
Abduh at al-Azhar. Though a native Egyptian, Orabi had risen in the ranks of
the khedival army and had become increasingly critical of the fact that the
officer corps was dominated by Turks with strong ties to the khedival regime.
An attempt by the khedive to save money by disbanding Egyptian regiments and
dismissing Egyptian officers sparked a revolt led by Orabi in the summer of
1882. Riots in the city of Alexandria, associated with mutinies in the
Egyptian armies, drove the frightened khedive to seek British assistance.
After bombarding coastal batteries set up by Orabi's troops, the British sent
ashore an expeditionary force that crushed Orabi's rebellion and secured the
position of the khedive. Though Egypt was not formally colonized, the British
intervention began decades of dominance by both British consuls, who ruled
through the puppet khedives, and British advisors to all high-ranking Egyptian
administrators. British officials controlled Egypt's finances and foreign
affairs, and British troops ensured that their directives were heeded by
Egyptian administrators. Direct European control over the Islamic heartlands
had begun.

Jihad: The Mahdist Revolt In The Sudan

As Egypt fell under British control, the invaders were inevitably drawn
into the turmoil and conflict that gripped the Sudanic region to the south in
the last decades of the 19th century. Egyptian efforts to conquer and rule the
Sudan, beginning in the 1820s, were fiercely resisted, particularly by the
camel and cattle herding nomads who occupied the vast, arid plains that
stretched west and east from the Upper Nile. The sedentary peoples who worked
the narrow strip of fertile land along the river were more easily dominated.
Thus, Egyptian authority, insofar as it existed at all, was concentrated in
these areas and in river towns such as Khartoum, which was the center of
Egyptian administration.

Even in the riverine areas Egyptian overlordship was greatly resented.
The Egyptian regime was notoriously corrupt and its taxes placed a heavy
burden on the peasants compelled to pay them. The Egyptians were clearly
carpetbagging outsiders, and the favoritism they showed some of the Sudanic
tribes was guaranteed to alienate the others. In addition, virtually all
groups in the Muslim areas in the north Sudan were angered by Egyptian
attempts in the 1870s to eradicate the slave trade. The trade had long been a
great source of profit for both the merchants of the Nile towns and the
nomads, who attacked non-Muslim peoples, such as the Dinka in the south, in
order to capture slaves. British advisors at the khedive's court had strongly
pushed for the antislavery effort, and an English commander, George Gordon,
had taken charge of the campaign and on occasion employed very heavy-handed
methods to suppress the trade.

By the late 1870s Egyptian oppression and British intervention had
aroused deep resentment and hostility, particularly among the Muslim peoples
of the northern Sudan. But a leader was needed to unite the diverse and often
divided peoples of the region and to provide an ideology that would give focus
and meaning to rebellion. The son of a boat builder named Muhammad Achmad, who
had been educated by the holy man head of a local Sufi brotherhood, proved to
be that leader. The fact that his family claimed descent from the Prophet and
that he had the physical signs - a cleft in his teeth and a mole on his right
cheek - that the local people associated with the promised deliverer did much
to advance his reputation. The visions he began to experience, after he had
broken with his Sufi master and established his own sectarian following, also
suggested that a remarkable future was in store. What was seen to be a
miraculous escape from a bungled Egyptian effort to capture and imprison
Muhammad Achmad soon led to his widespread acceptance as a divinely appointed
leader of revolt against the foreign intruders.

The jihad that Muhammad Achmad, who was known to his followers as the
Mahdi (the promised deliverer), proclaimed against both the Egyptian heretics
and British infidels was one of a number of such movements that had swept
sub-Saharan Africa since the 18th century. It represented the most extreme and
violent Islamic response to what was perceived as the dilution of Islam in the
African environment and the growing threat of Europe. Muhammad Achmad promised
to purge Islam of what he viewed as superstitious beliefs and degrading
practices that had built up over the centuries and to return Islam to what he
claimed was its original purity. He led his followers in a violent assault on
the Egyptians, whom he believed professed this corrupt version of the faith,
and the European infidels. At one point, his successors dreamed of toppling
the Ottoman sultans and invading Europe itself.

The Mahdi's skillful use of guerrilla tactics and the confidence his
followers placed in his blessings and magical charms earned his forces a
number of stunning victories over the Egyptians. In 1883 the Mahdi's
commanders drew a force of 8000 Egyptians, led by British officers, deep into
the desert wilderness and ambushed and destroyed it in a desolate valley
called Shaykan. By the end of 1883 the Mahdi's forces controlled most of the
northern Sudan and were besieging the Egyptians' last major stronghold at
Khartoum. In both ignorance and arrogance, the British sent a single officer,
General Gordon, who had earlier overseen the suppression of the slave trade,
up the Nile to Khartoum to command the Egyptian garrison and put down the
Mahdist rebellion. Just under a year after Gordon's arrival, the city was
taken and he was killed by the Mahdi's followers. The Mahdists had driven off
the Egyptians, slaughtered their British commanders, and were now the masters
of the Sudan.

At the peak of his power, the Mahdi fell ill from typhus and died just
months after the capture of Khartoum. In contrast to many movements of this
type, which have collapsed rapidly after the death of their prophetic leaders,
the Mahdists found a capable successor to Muhammad Achmad in the Khalifa
Abdallahi, one of his most skillful military commanders. Under Abdallahi, the
Mahdists built a strong, expansive state and a closely controlled society,
where smoking, dancing, and alcoholic drink were forbidden and theft,
prostitution, and adultery were severely punished. For nearly a decade,
Mahdist armies attacked or threatened neighboring states on all sides,
including the Egyptians to the north, whose territories the Mahdists planned
to invade. But in the fall of 1896, famed British General Kitchener was sent
with an expeditionary force to put an end to what was one of the most serious
threats to European domination in Africa. The spears and magical garments of
the Mahdist forces proved no match for the machine guns and artillery of
Kitchener's columns, and at the battle of Omdurman in 1898 the bulk of the
Mahdist cavalry and Abdallahi himself were slaughtered. The Mahdist state
collapsed and British power advanced still farther into the interior of

Retreat And Anxiety: Islam Imperiled

The 19th century was a time of severe reverses for the peoples of the
Islamic world. Outflanked and outfought by their old European rivals, Islamic
leaders either became puppets of European overlords or their lands passed
under the rule of infidel colonial rulers. Diverse forms of resistance, from
the reformist path taken by the Ottoman sultans to the prophetic rebellions of
leaders such as Muhammad Achmad, slowed but could not halt the European
advance. European products and demands steadily eroded the economic fabric and
heightened social tensions in Islamic lands. The stunning military and
economic successes of the Christian Europeans cast doubts on Muslim claims to
possession of the one true faith. By the century's end it was clear that
neither the fundamentalists, who called for a return to a purified Islam free
of Western influences, nor the reformers, who argued that some borrowing from
the West was essential for survival, had come up with a successful formula for
dealing with the powerful challenges posed by the industrial West. Failing to
find adequate responses and deeply divided within, the Islamic community grew
increasingly anxious over the dangers that lay ahead. Islamic civilization was
by no means defeated, but its continued viability was clearly threatened by
the powerful neighbor that had become master of the world.

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