Rise of the Secular Modernists

1336-1357 AH
1918-1939 CE

BY 1919, ASIA MINOR was crawling with French and Italian troops. Greek armies led by Greek nationalists dreaming of a Greater Greece were forging deep into the Ottoman heartland. Istanbul itself was occupied by British troops. Resistance movements bubbled up throughout Anatolia, coalescing around a hawk-faced general with piercing eyes. He was Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk—Father of the Turks. His forces drove out all the foreigners and in 1923 he declared the birth of a new nation-state: Turkey.

Turkey was not to be the Ottoman Empire reinvented. Atatürk repudiated the Ottoman past; he repudiated empire. He claimed nothing outside Asia Minor because he sought a coherent territory that made sense as a country. Henceforth, Turkey was to be a state with clear and immutable borders within which the majority of people would be ethnic Turks and the language would be Turkish. In this new country, Islam would be excluded from any role in public policy and demoted to the private sphere where it might go on thriving as a religion like any other, so long as its adherents didn’t bother the neighbors.

Turkey was thus the first Muslim-majority country to declare itself secular and to make the separation of politics and religion an official policy. Having demoted Islam, however, Atatürk needed some other principle to unify his new country, so he elaborated an ideology that sanctified six isms: nationalism, secularism, reformism, statism, populism, and republicanism. Turks still call this creed Kemalism, and some of version of it, usually emphasizing the first four isms, spread to or sprang up throughout the Islamic world after World War I.

Atatürk’s nationalism was not to be confused with the hardcore militarism of the Committee for Union and Progress. The roots of both went back to the Young Turks, but “Young Turkism” was a broad movement spanning a gamut from liberal constitutionalism to fascism, and Atatürk’s was a flexible, cultural nationalism that grew out of the liberal end.

It was cultural nationalism that led Atatürk to discard the many languages spoken in the Ottoman Empire in favor of one national language, Turkish. The many dialects and variants of Turkish spoken in the old empire gave way to a single standard dialect, and not the literary Turkish of the old court but a purified form of the street Turkish spoken by the masses. Some enthusiasts then wanted to ban all words that had crept into Turkish from other languages, but Atatürk disarmed this agitation with a simple narrative: Turkish, he said, was the mother of all the languages, so words borrowed from other languages were simply Turkish words coming home. The Arabic script, however, the one in which Turkish had long been written, was replaced by a new Latin alphabet.

A modernist to the core, Atatürk did not declare himself king or sultan. He had a new constitution written, set up a parliament, and established a republican form of government with himself as president. The parliamentary democracy he built endures to this day, but let’s be frank: another leader could not have replaced Atatürk through the ballot box in his lifetime—hey, he was Father of the Turks! One does not vote one’s father out of office! And although he was no military dictator and his ruling circle was not a junta (he established and abided by the rule of law), Atatürk did come up through the military and he valued discipline; so he herded his people toward his vision for the country with a military man’s direct, iron-handed resolve.

What was his vision? To break the authority of the ulama in Turkey, unseat Islam as the arbiter of social life, and authorize a secular approach to the management of society. In the Western context, this makes him a “moderate.” In the Islamic context, it made him a breathtakingly radical extremist.

First up on his agenda: opening the public sphere to women. Toward this end, he promulgated new laws that gave women the right to vote, hold public office, and own property. He had polygamy outlawed, discouraged dowries, frowned on traditional marriage customs, and sponsored new rules for divorce based on the Swiss civil code, not the Qur’an and hadith.

He also banned veils and head scarves, part of a new state-sanctioned dress code that applied to men as well as women—for example, the fez was banned too. Turbans and beards were strongly discouraged. Derby hats were okay, though, and so were bowlers, baseball caps, and berets. Atatürk himself wore suits and ties and urged his fellow Turks to do the same.

The religious establishment was shocked when ballroom dancing was introduced as official entertainment at state functions, but there was nothing they could do about it. Atatürk meant business, and he had the power and prestige to get it done. His parliament backed him to the hilt when he proposed a law requiring that public readings of the Qur’an henceforth be conducted in Turkish, not Arabic—blasphemy to the devout. Parliament backed him again when he moved the workers’ day off from Friday to Sunday—toSunday! Atatürk’s government went on to close religious schools, shut down the Sufi brotherhoods, and abolish the waqfs—those ancient religion-based charitable foundations—in favor of state-dispensed social services. In 1925, Atatürk capped his secular modernist revolution with a truly jolting declaration: he declared the khalifate dead.

This wasn’t actually breaking news, of course. For all practical purposes, the khalifate had been dead for centuries, but in the world between Istanbul and the Indus, the khalifate held a special place in the public imagination roughly analogous to that of ancient Rome in the West: it embodied the lingering dream of a universal community. In the West, the ghost of Rome persisted right to the end of World War I, visible in such traces as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was really just the final form of “the Holy Roman Empire,” and in the titles of the last German and Russian rulers before World War I—kaiser and czar were both variations on Caesar. Rome had been dead for centuries, but the Roman ideal of a universal state did not fully wink out until the end of World War I. The same was true of the khalifate. When Atatürk abolished the khalifate, he was abolishing an idea, and that’s what jolted the Muslim world.

Or at least it jolted traditionalists, but who cared what they thought? They were no longer in power. In fact, Atatürk would turn out to be the prototypical Muslim leader of the half-century to come. Iran generated its own version of the prototype. After the war, the last Qajar king faced the “Jungle Revolution,” a guerilla insurgency launched by admirers of Sayyid Jamaluddin-i-Afghan. The king’s forces consisted of two armies, one commanded by Swedish officers, one by Russian mercenaries.1 Little did the king realize that the real threat to his rule lay not in the jungle but among the foreigners propping him up. When Bolsheviks began joining the jungle revolutionaries, the British got nervous. Lenin had just seized power in Russia and they didn’t want this sort of thing to spread. The British decided the king wasn’t tough enough to squelch Bolsheviks, so they helped an Iranian colonel overthrow him.

This colonel, Reza Pahlavi, was a secular modernist in the Atatürk mold, except that he had no use for democracy (few secular modernist leaders did). In 1925, the colonel declared himself king, becoming Reza Shah Pahlavi, founder of a new Iranian dynasty. From the throne, he launched the same sorts of reforms as Atatürk, especially in the matter of a dress code. Head scarves, veils, turbans, beards—these were banned for ordinary citizens. Registered clerics could still wear turbans in the new Iran, but they had to have a license certifying that they really were clerics (and how could they meet this irksome proviso, given that Islam never had a formal institution for “certifying” clerics?). Still, anyone caught wearing a turban without a license could be beaten on the street and hauled off to prison.

Much the same thing was happening in Afghanistan, where, an impetuous young man named Amanullah inherited the throne in 1919. An ardent admirer of the Young Turks, this moon-faced fellow with a Hercule Poirot moustache gave Afghanistan a liberal constitution, declared women liberated, funded a nascent secular school system lavishly, and, yes, declared the usual dress code: no veils, no beards, no turbans, etc.

What I find interesting about this dress-code policy is that radical Islamists did exactly the same thing fifty years later when they came back into power in Iran and Afghanistan, except that their dress code was the opposite: suddenly, women were forced to wear head scarves and men were beaten for appearing in public without beards. But the principle of beating and imprisoning people for their clothes and grooming—this principle, both sides embraced.

The three rulers between Istanbul and the Hindu Kush could use state power to push the secular modernist agenda. Other parts of Dar al-Islam still lived under imperial rule but had vigorous independence movements, which were also led by secular modernists. In India, for example, the most prominent Muslim leader was the suave, British-educated attorney named Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

In short, secular modernism surged up throughout the Muslim world in the 1920s, one society after another falling under the sway of this new political creed. I will call it secular modernism, even though the term is inadequate, because secular-modernist-nationalist-statist-developmentalist is too cumbersome and even then doesn’t cover the entire movement. Suffice to say, this was a broad river of attitude and opinion that drew upon ideas explored earlier by the likes of Sayyid Ahmad of Aligarh, Amir Kabir of Iran, the Young Turks of Istanbul, and countless other intellectuals, educated workers, professionals, writers, and activists from the middle classes that had been emerging in the Middle World for a century. Suddenly, Muslim societies knew where they were going: the same way as the West. They were behind, of course, they would have to play desperate catch-up, but that was all the more reason to hurry, all the more reason to steam-roll over nuances and niceties like democracy and get the crash program underway—the core of which crash program was “development.”

In Afghanistan and Iran, the state clamped down on citizens, but did so in pursuit of a “progressive” agenda. Monarchs in both countries set out to build roads, dams, power plants, factories, hospitals, and office buildings. Both established airline companies, set up state-run (and state-censored) newspapers, and built national radio stations. Both countries continued to grow their secular public schools. Iran already had a national university and Afghanistan founded one now. Both governments promulgated policies to liberate women and draw them into the public realm. Both were eager to make their countries more “Western” but saw no connection between this and expanding their subjects’ freedom. What they promised was not freedom but prosperity and self-respect.

It would be quite plausible to say that at this point, Islam as a world-historical narrative came to an end. Wrong but plausible. The Western cross-current had disrupted Muslim societies, creating the deepest angst and the most agonizing doubts. The secular modernists proposed to settle the spiritual turmoil by realigning their societies with the Western current. Make no mistake, most of these leaders still thought of themselves as Muslims; they just adopted a new idea of what “Muslim” meant. Most still worked to break the grip of specific Western powers over their specific people; they just did so as revolutionary anticolonialists rather than as zealous Muslims committed to promoting Islam as one big community on a mission from God. These elites sought to make gains by holding the West to its own standards and ideals and in doing this they implicitly validated the Western framework of assumptions.

They were not without popular support. Throughout the Middle World, traditional, religious Islam was quiescent now: beaten and subdued. Educated people tended to see the old-fashioned scholars and clerics as quaint. The ulama, the scriptural literalists, the miracle merchants, the orthodox “believers”—all these had dominated Dar al-Islam for centuries, and what had they created? Threadbare societies that couldn’t build a car or invent an airplane, much less stand up to Western might. Their failure discredited their outlook, and a sizable public was ready to give someone else a turn. The future belonged to the secular modernists.

Or so it seemed.

But secular modernism was not the only reformist current to come out of the nineteenth-century Muslim world. What of the other currents? What of the Wahhabis, for example? What of Sayyid Jamaluddin’s disciples? These movements should not be confused with orthodox Islam or old-fashioned religious conservatism. They were just as new-fangled as secular modernism, just as intent on smashing the status quo.

Even the Wahhabis, by their very appeal to a mythic moment in the distant past, were rejecting the petrified present (and the twelve centuries that led up to it). And they still breathed in the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, they seized state power there, with the founding of Saudi Arabia, about which more later. Outside Arabia, the Wahhabis could not gain much purchase among the educated elite or the new middle classes but they preached away in rural mosques to ill-educated and impoverished villagers. For that audience their message had resonance, especially in India. When they spoke of a glorious past, revivable only by a return to the ways of the First Community, the poor and dispossessed knew who they were talking about. They could see their own elites drifting away from the Muslim way of life, and boasting about it! They were to blame for Muslim weakness. In fact, if the Wahhabi narrative held water, the poverty of the rural poor was the fault of the urban rich.

In 1867, a group of puritanical Indian Wahhabis had built a religious seminary in a town called Deoband. For fifty years, missionaries pouring out of this seminary had been spreading through the subcontinent preaching Indian Wahhabism. In the late 1920s, these Deobandis gave a glimmer of their strength in Afghanistan.

King Amanullah, upon coming to the throne, had dazzled his country by declaring full independence from the British and sending troops to the border. The battles were inconclusive but he won Afghanistan’s independence at the bargaining table, making him the first and only Muslim monarch to win a direct confrontation with a major European power. Indian Wahhabis exultantly proclaimed him the new khalifa; but Amanullah was not the kind of man to accept that mantle. In fact, he “betrayed” the Deobandis by launching the full array of Atatürkist initiatives mentioned earlier. The Indian Wahhabis swore to bring the apostate down.

And they did it, but not by themselves. They got help from Great Britain. This may seem odd, because Amanullah was culturally so much more in tune with British values than the Deobandis were. European ideals were his ideals. But perhaps the British recognized him as a threat for that very reason. They knew what an anti-imperialist revolutionary was; they had seen Lenin. They didn’t know what a Deobandi was. Bearded preachers swathed in turbans no doubt struck them as picturesque primitives who might serve a purpose. Britain therefore fed funds and guns into the Deobandi campaign against Amanullah and soon, with further help from radical local clerics, the Deobandis set Afghanistan ablaze. In 1929, they managed to drive Amanullah into tragic exile.

Amid the uproar, a really primitive bandit, colorfully nicknamed the Water Carrier’s Son, seized the Afghan capital. The bandit ruled for nine riotous months, during which time he not only imposed “pure” Islamic rule but undid all of Amanullah’s reforms, wrecked the city, and drained the treasury. Anyone who knows what the Taliban did in Afghanistan at the end of the century will recognize an eerily precise preview of their carnage in the career of the Water Carrier’s Son. By the time he was finished, Afghans were so sick of chaos, they were eager to accept a strongman. The British obliged them by helping a more compliant member of the old royal clan claim the Afghan throne, a grim despot named Nadir Shah.

This new king was a secular modernist too, but a chastened one. He guided his country back toward the Atatürkist road but very, very slowly, taking care not to offend the British, and placating his hometown Deobandis by clamping down on Afghanistan socially and culturally.

So much for Wahhabism. What of the reformist current embodied by Sayyid Jamaluddin? Was that one dead? Not at all. Intellectually, Jamaluddin’s work was carried forward by his chief disciple, Mohammed Abduh, who taught at Egypt’s prestigious thousand-year-old Al Azhar University. Abduh pulled the Master’s patchwork of ideas together into a coherent Islamic modernist doctrine. Abduh’s own disciple and friend Rashid Rida went on to explore how a modern state might actually be administered on Islamic principles.

Then came Hassan al-Banna, perhaps the most important of Sayyid Jamaluddin’s intellectual progeny. This Egyptian schoolteacher was more activist than philosopher. In 1928, he founded a club called the Muslim Brotherhood, originally something like a Muslim version of the Boy Scouts. This was a seminal event for Islamism, but one that went virtually unnoticed at the time.

Banna lived and taught in the Suez Canal Zone, where he could feel the scrape of West against East every day. Virtually all trade between Europe and the eastern colonies passed through this canal, which was the most boomingly modern structure in Egypt, and every cargo ship had to pay a steep toll. A European firm owned by British and French interests operated the canal and took 93 percent of the rich revenue it generated. Foreign technicians therefore abounded in the Canal Zone, making this little strip of land the starkest embodiment of two worlds intersecting. One whole infrastructure of shops, restaurants, cafés, dance halls, bars, and other services catered to the European community. Another whole infrastructure consisted of markets, coffeehouses, and whatnot frequented by Egyptians of the humbler classes: two worlds interwoven but entirely distinct.

Hassan Banna saw his fellow Egyptians earnestly struggling to learn European languages and manners, trying slavishly to acquire enough Westernized polish to enter the Western world, even if only as workers of the lowest strata. The sight of all this Egyptian envy and subservience offended his pride. He founded the Muslim Brotherhood to help Muslim boys interact healthily with one another, learn about their own culture, and acquire some self respect. Boys dropped into the Brotherhood center after school to play sports, at which time they also received lessons in Islam and Muslim history from Banna and his instructors.

Eventually the boys’ fathers and older brothers started dropping in as well, so the Brotherhood began offering evening programs for adults, which were so popular that new centers were opened up. By the mid- 1930s, the brotherhood had outgrown its origins as a club for boys and become a fraternal organization for men.

From this, it slowly morphed into a political movement, a movement that declared secular Islam and Egypt’s own “Westernized” elite to be the country’s chief enemies. The Muslim Brothers opposed nationalism, the impulse to secure sovereignty for small separate states such as Syria, Libya, or Egypt. They called on Muslims to resurrect instead the one big transnational Umma, a new khalifate embodying the unity of all Muslims. Like Sayyid Jamaluddin, they preached pan-Islamic modernization without Westernization.

The Muslim Brotherhood was taking shape around the same time the United States was struggling with the Great Depression. In this same period, the Nazis were taking over Germany, and Stalin was consolidating his grip on the Soviet Union. Outside of Egypt, no one knew much about the brotherhood, not because it was secretive (at first) but because it had few adherents among the Egyptian elite and held little interest for foreign journalists. Even Egyptian newspapers published few stories about its activities and the Western press none at all. Why would they? This was mostly a movement of the urban working poor, and the foreigners who came and went through Egypt hardly noticed those hordes moving like shadows through the streets, doing the heavy lifting and loading, providing services, and begging for “baksheesh,” as tips were called (prompting the writer S. J. Perlman to quip of Egypt, “It’s not the heat, it’s the cupidity”).

As Westernization and industrialization proceeded, Egypt’s urban working poor kept proliferating. With the expansion of this class, the brotherhood outgrew even its identity as a political movement and became more of a pandemic low-level insurgency—seething against secularism and Western influence, seething against its own modernist elite, against its own government, against all nationalist governments in Muslim countries, even against the apparatus of democracy to the extent that this reflected Western values.

By the late thirties, then, secular leaders throughout the Muslim world, whether they held state power or spearheaded independence movements, found themselves squeezed between two sets of forces: European imperialists still pressed down on them from above; meanwhile, Islamist insurgents were pushing up from below. What was a leader to do?

Under this kind of pressure, politicians typically try to associate themselves with some popular passion to shore up support; and often the passion they tap into for this purpose is religion. But religion was the one passion secular modernists could not appeal to, because it was the very thing they were trying to move their societies away from. So they waved two other banners instead. One was “development” and the material prosperity it would bring; and the other was nationalism, which they claimed to represent. In Iran, for example, the Pahlavi regime tried to invoke a connection to pre-Islamic Persia. In Afghanistan, the Nadir Shah regime insisted on declaring Pushto a national language, even though only a minority spoke it at home. Everywhere, the glories of the nation, the splendor of its culture, and the proud history of its people were trumpeted.

Nationalist sentiment was not in short supply; lots of that was sloshing around in the Middle World at this time. The trouble was, most of the new nation-states were rather artificial. Afghanistan, for example, had been created by Russia and Britain. Iran, until recently, had been a loose conglomeration of disparate parts, an empire, not a country. Turkey was a nation-state because Atatürk said so. As for India, where does one even begin?

But the most problematic region for nationalism was the Arab heartland. Here’s why.

After World War I, the victors had met at Versailles, France, to reshape the world. As a prelude to that conference, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson had given a speech to the U.S. Congress laying out a “fourteen point” vision of a new world order that most colonized people found inspiring. To Arabs, the most thrilling of Wilson’s Fourteen Points was his declaration that every people’s right to self-rule must be respected and accommodated. Wilson had also suggested creating a neutral “League of Nations” to adjudicate international issues, such as the fate of Arab-inhabited lands formerly ruled by the Ottomans. At Versailles, the “peacemakers” had set up just such a body.

But stunningly enough, the United States refused to join this body! And once the League set to work, the European victors of World War I quickly turned it into an instrument of their will. In principle, for example, the League endorsed the idea of self-rule in the Arab world, but in practice, it implemented the Sykes-Picot agreement, dividing the area into zones called “mandates,” which were awarded to Britain and France. The document setting up these mandates called them territories “inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world” and said “the tutelage of such peoples should be entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their . . . experience . . . can best undertake this responsibility.” In short, it spoke of Arabs as children and of Europeans as grown-ups who would take care of them until they could do grown-up things like feed themselves—such was the language directed at a people who, if the Muslim narrative were still in play, would have been honored as the progenitors of civilization itself—and who still retained some such sense of themselves.2

France got Syria for its mandate, and Great Britain got pretty much everything else in the “Middle East.” France divided its mandated territory into two countries, Syria and Lebanon, the latter an artificial state with borders gerrymandered to ensure a demographic majority for the Maronite Christians, whom France regarded as its special clients in the region.

Great Britain had clients to satisfy as well, beginning with the Hashimites who had led that helpful Arab Revolt, so the British bundled together three former Ottoman provinces to create a new country called Iraq and made one of their Hashimite clients king of it. The lucky man was Faisal, second son of the sheikh of Mecca.

Faisal, however, had an older brother named Abdullah, and it wasn’t seemly for a younger brother to have a country while his older brother had none, so another country was carved out of the British mandate and given to Abdullah, and this was Jordan.

Unfortunately, the boys’ father ended up with nothing at all, because in 1924 that other British client in the region, Aziz ibn Saud, attacked Mecca with a band of religious troops, took the holy city, and ousted the Hashemite patriarch. Ibn Saud went on to conquer 80 percent of the Arabian Peninsula. Only Yemen, Oman, and a few sliver-sized coastal emirates remained outside his grasp. The European powers did nothing to stop him because he too held some IOUs. In 1932, Ibn Saud declared his holdings a sovereign new country called Saudi Arabia.



In Egypt, meanwhile, Great Britain succumbed to its own pieties and declared the country independent, sovereign, and free—with a few caveats. First, Egyptians could not change their form of government; they must remain a monarchy. Second, Egyptians could not replace their actual rulers; they must retain their existing royal family. Third, the Egyptians must accept the continued presence of British military forces and bases on their soil. Fourth, the Egyptians must leave the Suez Canal in British hands without protest. Fifth, the private company controlled by Britain and France must continue to collect all fees from that busiest of sea channels and send the bulk of it back to Europe.

Egypt would get an elected parliament, but this parliament’s decisions must be approved by British authorities in Cairo. Beyond these few points, Egypt was to consider itself sovereign, independent, and free. Egypt quickly developed a full-fledged (secular modernist) independence movement, of course, which offended the British, because why would an independent country need an independence movement? Didn’t they get the memo? Apparently not.

The French faced a bit of resistance too, in Syria. There, a Sorbonne-educated Christian Arab writer named Michel Aflaq was elaborating a pan-Arab nationalist ideology. He asserted the existence of a mystical Arab soul forged by a common language and a shared historical experience that gave a unified singleness to the vast body of Arabic-speaking people. Like all the other twentieth century nationalists inspired by nineteenth century European philosophers, Aflaq argued that the “Arab nation” was entitled to a single contiguous state ruled by Arabs.

Although he was Christian, Aflaq put Islam at the center of Arabism, but only as a historical relic. Islam, he said, had awakened the Arab soul at a certain moment in history and made it the spearhead of a global quest for justice and progress, so Arabs of every religion should honor Islam as a product of the Arab soul. What counted, however, was the Arab soul, and Arabs should therefore seek a rebirth of their spirit, not in Islam, but in “the Arab Nation.” Aflaq was a hardcore secular modernist and in 1940 he and a friend founded a political party to pursue their vision. They called it the Ba’ath, or “rebirth” party.

Four new countries were carved out of the European mandates, a fifth one emerged independently, and Egypt acquired pseudoindependence. But one question remained unresolved: what should be done with Palestine? The principle of self-rule dictated that it too should become a country ruled by itself, but who was its “self?” Was the natural “nation” here the Arabs, who constituted nearly 90 percent of the population and had been living here for centuries? Or was it the Jews, most of whom had come here from Europe in the last two decades but whose ancestors had lived here two thousand years ago? Hmm: tough question.

To the Arabs, the answer seemed obvious: this should be one more Arab country. To the Jewish immigrants from Europe, the answer also seemed obvious: whatever the exact legal arrangements, this patch of territory should become a secure Jewish homeland, because Jews were endangered everywhere else in the world and only Palestine made sense as a place they could call their own. Besides Britain’s Balfour had made them that memorable promise.

Britain decided to make no grand decision about Palestine at all, but to deal with events de facto as they came up and just see how things went.

How on earth could secular modernist leaders use nationalism to bind together their dubious nations, especially since some of their own were calling for an Arab nation transcending existing boundaries—while at the same time Islamists and Wahhabis were saying to hell with nations; to hell with ethnic identity politics; we’re all Muslims; let’s rebuild the khalifate?

Ultimately, in this environment, the success of secular modernism hung on two things. First, since the secular modernists kept waving the banner of “development,” they had to develop something and deliver the prosperity they evoked. Second, since they sought legitimacy through nationalism, they had to gain actual independence for their nations.

In the decades after World War I, however, they failed to achieve either goal. They failed because, despite the thrilling rhetoric of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, there was never any real chance of the Western powers loosening their grip on the core of the Muslim world.

No chance of it because at this point every Western power was racing to outindustrialize every other. The Western powers were moving toward an apocalyptic showdown fueled by ideologies, communism, fascism, nazism, democracy. The stakes were absolute. Victory depended on industrial strength, industrialism now depended on petroleum, and most of the world’s petroleum lay under Muslim-inhabited soil.

The first big pools of petroleum oil had been discovered in the late nineteenth century in Pennsylvania and Canada but at the time these discoveries had sparked little excitement because the only product really made from petroleum back then was kerosene, and kerosene was used only to light lamps, for which purpose most consumers preferred whale oil.

In 1901, the first of the big Middle Eastern oil fields was detected in Iran by a British prospector named William Knox D’Arcy. He promptly bought exclusive rights to all of Iran’s petroleum from the Qajar king of the time, in exchange for a sum of cash stuffed immediately into that shah’s pockets, and a 16 percent royalty payable to the Iranian treasury later, a royalty to be calculated on “net profits” realized from Iran’s petroleum, not on the gross, which means that D’Arcy’s lease made no guarantees about how much money Iran ever stood to make from its oil.

You might wonder what sort of king would sell his country’s entire stock of any mineral known and unknown for cash to some vagabond wandering through and why the citizens of the country would not immediately depose such a king. The answer is, first: tradition. The Qajar kings had been doing this sort of thing for a hundred years. Second, the country had just struggled mightily to scuttle the tobacco monopoly, which their king had sold to British interests, a struggle that had left the country’s activists exhausted. Third, oil didn’t seem very important; it wasn’t tobacco, for God’s sake (or even whale oil). Fourth, activists were girding for a struggle that did seem more important than oil and tobacco combined: the struggle for a constitution and a parliament. The oil deal therefore went unnoticed.

At the very time that Iran was giving away its oil, however, the importance of oil was about to skyrocket, due to a new invention: the internal combustion engine. External combustion engines such as steam engines ran on anything that burned, which in practice meant wood or coal; but internalcombustion engines ran strictly on refined petroleum.

In the 1880s, a German inventor had used this type of engine to power a big tricycle. That tricycle evolved into a car. By 1904, cars were becoming just popular enough in Europe and the United States that some roads were being rebuilt to accommodate them. Soon after that, trains started to run on oil. Then in 1907 the airplane was invented. Next, ocean-going ships began switching over.

World War I saw the first use of tanks, the first oil-powered navies, and the first airplanes that dropped bombs. By the time the war ended, anyone could tell that petroleum-powered war machinery would grow only more sophisticated and that whoever owned the world’s oil would end up owning the world.

For Iran, that realization came too late. William D’Arcy had already sold his Iranian oil concession to a company owned by the British government (it still exists: it’s now British Petroleum, or BP). By 1923, according to Winston Churchill, Great Britain had earned 40 million pounds from Iranian oil, while Iran had earned about 2 million from it.3

Meanwhile, that British company had joined forces with Royal Dutch Shell and certain U.S. interests to form a supercompany (“the Turkish Petroleum Company”) that proposed to look for oil in the Ottoman provinces bordering the Persian Gulf. By the time the supercompany was ready to drill, the area in question was part of the British “mandate.” It was then that the British created Iraq and put their Hashemite client in charge of it. The oil consortium immediately approached King Faisal for a monopoly on the country’s oil resources, and he gladly accommodated them. Going into the negotiation, the Iraqis were hoping for a 20 percent equity share in the company, but they compromised at 0 percent, in exchange for a flat fee per ton of oil extracted, that sum not to be linked in any way to the price of oil or the company’s profits, at least for the first twenty years of the agreement. Equity in the company was divided among the several European powers and the United States, and the only real wrangling was among them over who would get what percent. In 1927, after all these issues had been settled, the company found the first of Iraq’s enormous oil fields.4

Nine years later, Aziz ibn Saud celebrated the discovery of oil in his realm as well. Saudi Arabia would, in fact, turn out to have the world’s biggest reserves of the crucial mineral. The Saudis had barely started pumping their oil when World War II broke out and the strategic significance of oil soared even higher. During that war, U. S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with Ibn Saud, and the two men reached an understanding to which both sides have adhered faithfully ever since, even though it is not enshrined in any formal public treaty. The deal ensures the U.S. unfettered access to Saudi oil; in exchange, the Saudi royal family gets as much U.S. military equipment and technology as it needs to stay in power against all comers. Indirectly, this understanding partnered the United States with the Wahhabi clerical establishment and made American military prowess the guarantor of the Wahhabi reform movement. And by the time World War II broke out, the Wahhabis, and the Islamists throughout Dar al-Islam were gathering their strength for a full assault on the secular modernists.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!