The Life of the Mind

As should now be obvious, the period stretching from the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth was a time in which social and economic life in the Middle East underwent an extraordinary transformation. There was yet another aspect to this transformation that cannot go unexamined: the life of the mind. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries mark a period of striking intellectual ferment in which new ideological and religious movements emerged and contended. Some of these movements faded into obscurity, others are with us to this very day. These movements affected cultural and sometimes political life throughout the region.

The previous chapter described one such nineteenth-century movement and its effects on a Jerusalem musician. Poets, novelists, and playwrights of the nahda sought to rejuvenate Arabic literature to recover it from what they described as inhitat (decline). They experimented with techniques to simplify forms of expression, expand the reach of their works among Arabic speakers, and shatter literary conventions by infusing their works with new, sometimes borrowed, forms. Similar literary ventures were undertaken by belletrists writing in Turkish and Persian.

More often than not, intellectuals who identified with the nahda were Syrian and Lebanese Christians from Beirut and Damascus. Syrian and Lebanese emigrants living throughout the region and in such far-flung places as Europe and the Americas also participated in the movement. While it was certainly the case that these intellectuals often consciously borrowed ideas and forms of expression from the West, they represented only a segment of cultural producers in the region and only a tiny part of the population. Thus, if we were to focus on the cohort of Westernizing cultural producers to the exclusion of others, we would lose sight of the bigger picture.

The intellectual currents that emerged during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sprang from a variety of sources and took a number of forms. In contrast to the endeavors of Westernizers, for example, some intellectual movements arose in direct opposition to Western imperialism or the influx of Western ideas. We have seen one example of this in the previous chapter: the attempt made by some late nineteenth-century ulama to formulate a new Islamic orthodoxy. As we shall see later, this attempt was hardly as untainted by ideas originally produced in the West as its adherents claimed.

Other intellectual and religious movements emerged as an indirect response to the effects of integration and peripheralization, defensive developmentalism, and imperialism. A good example of this sort of movement is the Baha’s movement in Persia. The roots of Baha’ssm can be traced back to 1844, the one-thousandth anniversary of the occultation of the twelfth imam. That year, a merchant from Shiraz proclaimed himself to be the “gate” (bab) through which the hidden imam communicated. Then he revealed that he was, in fact, the hidden imam. For his efforts, he was executed by the Persian government. While the message of the bab was cloaked in what might be described as traditional religious garb, the movement he and his followers initiated was hardly traditional. Like other social/religious movements of the mid-to-late nineteenth century — the Taipings in China (1851-1864), who provoked a civil war that claimed more than thirty million lives, or the Native American Ghost Dance movement (1889-1895)—the Babi movement, as it was called, grew in response to the adverse conditions in which its members increasingly found themselves. The bab's followers advocated the abolition of taxes and private property and equal rights for men and women — an understandable response in a society affected by the widespread economic and social dislocations associated with nineteenth-century developments. And, like other movements of the time, the Babi movement was supported by diverse layers of the population — in this case peasants, minor ulama, artisans, and guild members — all of which lost ground over the course of the century. After being suppressed by the Persian government, many in the Babi movement, apparently believing discretion to be the better part of valor, became pacifists and disavowed politics. These are the Baha’is who have been persecuted off and on (now it is on) in Persia/Iran ever since.

While the Babi/Baha’i movement situated a modern social movement within the framework of conventional religious images and language, there were numerous intellectual currents that cannot be traced, either directly or indirectly, to integration and peripheralization, defensive developmentalism, and imperialism. It was often the case that scholars contributed to fields of knowledge such as Islamic law and theology in seeming isolation from the outside world, much as academics claim to do today. These scholars were, in effect, holding a dialogue with their predecessors. They expressed their end of the dialogue in much the same way that Muslim scholars had fashioned their arguments for centuries. This is not to say that their arguments did not have implications for the world outside the walls of their schools and seminaries. Nor is it to say that there was no relationship between the most “convincing” arguments and the political, social, or economic circumstances of the time. We shall look at one such dispute between two schools of Shi‘i theology and its effects on subsequent developments later in this chapter.

This brings us to another important aspect of the intellectual and cultural movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: their implications for politics and political culture. Some of the movements discussed in this chapter had direct political ramifications, others did not. All the former movements had at least one thing in common: To be successful, their vision of political community had to be compatible with the international state system and the modern world economy. Those movements that were not initially compatible with both (such as the Sanusiyya movement of Libya or Wahhabism in Arabia, both of which will be discussed shortly) had to become compatible once their advocates achieved power. If not, these movements would simply not survive as a touchstone for political life. Thus, the state established by the Wahhabis in the early nineteenth century failed, but the state established by their descendants in the early twentieth century (Saudi Arabia), so far has not.

Although those intellectual and cultural movements with political implications needed to be compatible with the international state system and the modern world economy, they often used widely divergent arguments to justify their actions. For example, from 1878 until 1908 Sultan Abdulhamid II of the Ottoman Empire couched his policies of centralization and “modernization” within a rhetoric that drew from Islam. While the Young Turks who took over the Ottoman Empire in 1908 initially couched their policies in a rhetoric that drew from the latest scientific theories and secular philosophies, they followed pretty much the same centralization and modernization policies as the sultan they would depose. There is nothing mysterious about this. As discussed throughout this book, the modern state is far more capable of harnessing the social power of its citizens than any of its precursors, and so any political movement that wants to survive has to adapt to the ways of the modern world, no matter what language it uses to justify its policies.

The intellectual and cultural movements that arose in the Middle East during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thus ran the gamut from those that directly borrowed from Western Enlightenment traditions to those that developed in isolation from those traditions. It would be impossible to do justice to all these currents within the space of one chapter. Accordingly, this chapter will focus on just one type of movement: the sort that sought to reform society by reforming Islam.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many in the Middle East looked around and concluded that Islam and the Islamic world had, indeed, fallen on hard times. Many attributed the predicament in which Islamic societies had found themselves to the fact that those societies had abandoned the original teachings and doctrines of Islam. These were, after all, the teachings and doctrines that allowed Muslims to establish a vast empire that had stretched from Spain to Afghanistan at a time when Europe was in its Dark Ages. In order to restore the glory of Islam — or at least stand up to the threat from the West — they felt that they had to eliminate from Islam everything that had contributed to its decline.

Several intellectual currents in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries identified two sources of decline. On the one hand, many in the region questioned the tendency for Muslims to follow blindly the teachings of earlier generations of religious scholars who, they claimed, had contributed to Islam's decay. The harshest among them condemned their predecessors for misinterpreting or falsifying the original precepts of Islam. Others accused Islamic societies themselves of corrupting those precepts by mixing Islam with folk customs, such as saint worship, mysticism, and divination (prophesying the future by supernatural means). Movements that started from either of these two premises often encouraged Muslims to look to the first community established by Muhammad at Medina as a model for the moral and political regeneration of Islam. Because the first generation of Muslims was called al-salif al-salif (the “pious ancestors”), those who advocated using their community as a model were called salafis.

Salafis disregarded all Islamic sources but two: the Qur´an and the hadith (reports of the sayings and activities of the prophet). But there was an interesting flip side to the return to these foundational texts: Relying on them to the exclusion of all other sources was easier in theory than in practice. After all, Islamic societies in the modern world confronted situations that the first Islamic community never had to face. Was it legal to use the telegraph to transmit the sighting of the new moon marking religious holidays? Did the digging of artesian wells violate the injunction forbidding Muslims from drinking from standing pools of water? How should Muslims respond to the dictates of their colonial rulers? To deal with new situations, Muslims faced two choices: restrict the domain of Islamic law to those issues that corresponded to the issues faced by the first community, or somehow expand the range of issues Islamic law might deal with. Some advocated the first approach, others the second. To expand the range of issues, a number of scholars argued that Muslims knowledgeable in the law should exercise independent judgment based upon reason — an established legal procedure called ijtihad. In the hands of some, ijtihad became a tool for preserving Islam in the face of modern conditions. In the hands of others, ijtihad became a tool for bringing in European ideas and the “spirit of the age” through the back door.

According to some historians, nineteenth-century salafism was foreshadowed by an eighteenth-century “moral reconstruction” movement. As discussed earlier, the eighteenth century was not a particularly auspicious period for Middle Eastern governments and the people they ruled. Local notables and warlords were effectively challenging the authority of imperial governments. Ottoman and Persian armies met with failure after failure in their confrontation with the armies of Europe. Peasants were unable to count on weak central governments to provide rural security and often sought shelter in inhospitable cities. Artisans were displaced by Europeans who dumped finished products on the Middle Eastern market. There was no lack of awareness of these problems among bureaucrats, scholars, and common people in the region. In fact, many were quite aware and searched for both the reasons for the malaise and ways to overcome it. One solution they came up with was to rebuild society from the ground up — that is, to rebuild society by reconstructing the social and moral fabric that bound its members to one another. There was no more accessible or appropriate model for this project than the one provided by the life and community of the prophet and the pious ancestors.

Moral reconstructionism was powerful in part because it was transmitted through networks of like-minded people. Sometimes the networks were confined to a single quarter of a city or to all the local practitioners of a trade. Sometimes the networks stretched for thousands of miles, joining like-minded Muslims from as far away as India and Indonesia with Muslims living in Persia, Egypt, Syria, and North Africa. Networks might take the shape of informal clubs or study groups, or they might be much more formal. And they were very popular. One historian has estimated that by the beginning of the nineteenth century, almost every male of every class in Cairo belonged to at least one such network.

These networks were called turuq (sing: tariqa). Turuq were not new to the Middle East. Sufis — those who adhered to popular, sometimes mystical forms of Islam — had used this structure for centuries to link initiates with their spiritual guides and with each other. But in the eighteenth century many mainstream Muslims, such as artisans and merchants, joined turuq to find solutions to common problems. To find those solutions, members of these turuq went back to the Qur´an and hadith to see how the prophet and first community might have handled similar problems. (This phenomenon, called neo-sufism, has been hotly debated among scholars, so keep in mind this is only one side of the story.) While hadith had always been a pillar of Islamic law, the fact that sufis would turn to hadith to resolve day-to-day problems was hardly conventional. In other words, theseturuq adopted the form of earlier turuq but used them for the very practical ends of reestablishing a sense of community and determining the rules for ethical/ legal conduct.

Turuq thus became the vehicles for purification and revival. Since certain turuq and sufi masters were important in some cities, merchants, ulama, and the like would travel from city to city, cross-fertilizing ideas from one part of the Ottoman Empire or Persia with ideas from another — from Istanbul to Damascus to Mecca and Medina to Cairo, with its great Islamic university, al-Azhar.


Students at al-Azhar, date unknown. (From: The Collection of the author.)

At the same time, on the fringes of the Ottoman Empire where central control was particularly weak or the presence of imperialists was particularly strong, moral reconstruction based on the Medinan model took on a more overtly political form. The Sanusiyya tariqa that flourished in the territory that now constitutes Libya was typical. Founded by Muhammad ibn ‘Ali al-Sanusi (1787-1859), who had studied in Egypt and Mecca and who preached a rigid puritanism, the tariqa spread throughout North and West Africa, uniting diverse tribes on the basis of a back-to-basics theology. Within a few years, there were approximately 140 Sanusiyya lodges across North Africa. These lodges participated in religious study, agricultural settlement, and trade. Later, they would play a central role in the fight against the Italians who invaded North Africa in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Another famous puritanical movement was founded by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab in central Arabia. Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab rejected many of the folk practices of Arabia (worship of saints, pilgrimages to local cult centers, and so on) and what he regarded as the quibbling of medieval scholars. In fact, he rejected any authority but the Qur´an and hadith. He joined forces with a local chieftain, Muhammad ibn Sa'ud, and, as the official version of events puts it, the combination of sword and message proved unbeatable in Arabia. By 1803, ibn Sa'ud's tribesmen had conquered Mecca, establishing a puritanical Islamic state based on the Medinan model there. This state was, however, soon suppressed by an Egyptian army under Mehmet Ali's son, Ibrahim, working at the behest of the Ottoman government.

In 1902, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Sa‘ud, a descendant of Muhammad ibn Sa‘ud, began his conquest of the peninsula from the central and eastern Arabian province of the Najd. Key to his conquests was a group called the ikhwan—nontribal levies attracted by the message of ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab — whom he settled, like Muhammad ibn ‘Ali al-Sanusi, in agricultural settlements. By 1925, ibn Sa'ud had conquered western Arabia and its two holy cities. Several years later he combined eastern and western Arabia to form the country of Saudi Arabia. To this day, the doctrines of ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab are the official state ideology of Saudi Arabia. Ulama — many of whom are descendants of ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and are related by marriage to the royal family — have a great deal of influence, the legal system of Saudi Arabia is based on the most conservative school of Islamic law, and the government claims, a bit disingenuously, that there is no need for a constitution because the state already has one: the Qur´an.

Some intellectuals took salafism in a very different direction. Embracing the institutions and ideas brought to the region by integration and peripheralization, defensive developmentalism, and imperialism, many sought to reconstruct Middle Eastern society along Western lines. They argued that the true Islam which had preserved Greek philosophy during Europe's Dark Ages was not incompatible with science and reason. If Islam would shed its recent superstitious additions and root itself in the very reason that had given it its power, they argued, it could act as the foundation for a Middle Eastern scientific and industrial revolution. Those who argued that true Islam is compatible with Western notions of progress and other modern ideas are called “Islamic modernists.”

Some Islamic modernists had been exposed directly to Western ideas and frequently were acquainted with either English or French. Others developed their ideas independently, as a result of their lifetime exposure to institutions and participation in practices prompted by defensive developmentalism, imperialism, or both. Unlike the pure Westernizers, who frequently blamed Islam for the so-called backwardness of the Middle East and promoted such Western ideas as secularism, Islamic modernists were more selective in what they chose to borrow from the West — although some were more picky than others. It is probable that most Islamic modernists honestly believed that Islam and Western ideas were reconcilable. Others, however, were more cynical or realistic (depending on your point of view). They wanted drastic change along the lines advocated by the Westernizers. However, they felt that the Middle Eastern population was too backward or the power of the government or religious establishment was too entrenched to allow a frontal assault to succeed. Realizing that their opinions were not held by the majority of the population, they sought to manipulate forces greater than themselves to effect change. They did this by masking their ideas in a conservative, even religious rhetoric. Many of those who did this belonged to secret societies or were members of minority groups or despised religious sects (such as the Babis).

Islamic modernism took on various forms in the Ottoman Empire. In the heartland of the empire, close to the seat of power, a diffuse group of intellectuals known as the Young Ottomans trained their sites on the tanzimat itself. The tanzimat, they argued, had failed. True, the changes it had brought about had strengthened the power of the sultan, but this did not stop European imperial expansion at the expense of the empire. The Young Ottomans claimed that the empire needed an ideology that could guarantee and inspire the loyalty of all citizens of the empire. This ideology had to be based on indigenous Islamic principles. Among those principles was that of shura, that is, government by consultation. Although the concept of shura originally referred to such convocations as that held by the elders of the early Islamic community to choose the successor to Muhammad, the Young Ottomans adopted it to argue for an Ottoman constitution and parliament. While the influence of the Young Ottomans was initially limited to a thin stratum of intellectuals, many of their ideas became widespread throughout the Middle East. Their influence can be found in the Ottoman constitutional movement of 1876, the ‘Urabi rebellion in Egypt, and even in the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905.

Islamic modernists thrived on the same cross-fertilization of ideas that had contributed to the moral reconstruction movement discussed earlier. But rather than limiting themselves to just the ideas of other Muslims, they included in their repertoire European ideas as well. Take, for example, the case of Islamic modernism in Persia. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, there arose a new class of intellectuals in Persia, many of whom had been educated in the Dar al-Funun in Tehran. Others received their education abroad, often in Europe. Because of their position in society, and because of their aspirations, both groups had a natural affinity with European political and social ideas of the time — particularly the thought of two European thinkers.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) was a French intellectual who formulated a philosophy called Positivism. Positivism had many adherents in Europe, as it had in the Ottoman Empire and Persia. As a matter of fact, the Committee of Union and Progress that took over the Ottoman government in 1913 derived its name from two watchwords of Comte's philosophy: unity and progress. Positivism contained two ideas that were particularly appealing to intellectuals in the Middle East, which is why they gravitated to it. Comte believed that societies evolve through stages, like biological species: from religious-based societies through philosophically based societies to scientifically based societies. Thus, even though a society like Persia might be stuck at the first level, there was no reason why it might not rise to a higher level, as had European societies. Comte also believed that society should be guided by a class of technocrats known as savants. These were people who understood the scientific principles upon which society should be based. Of course, a Persian intellectual who thought of himself as a monavvar al-fekr (enlightened thinker), or, for that matter, an Arab intellectual who thought of himself as mutanawwir (enlightened), identified with this role.

The second European philosopher to whose ideas Persian (and Ottoman) intellectuals gravitated was Henri Comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825). Saint-Simon's philosophy was similar to Comte's in many ways, but he envisioned the establishment of a planned, socialist-style economy run by benevolent industrialists — the sort of people many of the graduates of the Dar al-Funun wanted to become.

In all, many Persian intellectuals thought of themselves as a privileged enlightened class that was united by its opposition to royal despotism, religious fanaticism, and foreign imperialism. It was difficult for graduates of the Dar al-Funun and their allies to organize against these problems openly. After all, royalty and clerics do not appreciate being told they are despotic and fanatic. Thus, many joined together in secret societies called anjumanha (sing.: anjuman), where they could engage in political conspiracy. Others simply masked their ideas.

While there were numerous participants in anjumanha, historians have highlighted the careers and influence of two in particular. Mirza Malkom Khan was an Armenian Christian who may or may not have converted to Islam. He grew up in Paris, then returned to Persia, where he taught at the Dar al-Funun. Malkom Khan had an ambivalent relationship with religion. Like Comte, Malkom Khan thought that religion would be superseded by “humanity” and “reason.” But Malkom Khan also thought that religion in general and the ulama in particular could be enlisted to build a new Persia. He was particularly enamored by the idea of ijtihad, whose application, he believed, might be harnessed to advance society. Malkom Khan organized several secret societies that included intellectuals, guild leaders, ulama, and, on occasion, members of the Qajar family. Many of those who participated in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905 were affiliated with Malkom Khan's secret societies and may have been introduced to the idea of a constitution through Malkom Khan's Book of Reform. The Book of Reform, in turn, presented constitutionalist ideas picked up from the Young Ottomans.

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was a second political conspirator of importance. In spite of his name (which means Jamal al-Din, the Afghan), Jamal al-Din was probably born in Persia and sought to obscure his Shi‘i origins so that he might be more influential in the Sunni world. During his lifetime, he traveled widely, living in Paris, Cairo, and Istanbul, among other places. Like Malkom Khan, al-Afghani was drawn to European and Ottoman ideas about social evolution and the special role for an intellectual elite in society. Like Malkom Khan, al-Afghani sought to harness religion to the cause of social change. And, like Malkom Khan, al-Afghani organized secret societies that would become politically influential. One of al-Afghani's followers took political activism to a whole new level by assassinating Nasir al-Din Shah in 1896. Many others participated in the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905.

The sources from which Malkom Khan and al-Afghani drew were not just those within the European philosophical tradition. To the contrary, both they and their followers grew up in an environment enriched by the Persian legal tradition as well, particularly the debates between two schools of legal thought. Up until the early nineteenth century, there had been no consensus among the ulama of Persia regarding their role in society. On the one hand, followers of the Akhbari school claimed that the ulama were limited in their legal and doctrinal decisions to the traditions of the prophet and the teachings of the twelve imams. In contrast, members of the Usuli school asserted that select religious scholars — called mujtahids—could act as representatives of the hidden imam. Mujtahids were chosen informally from among the ulama because of their piety and learning. They had the right to give fresh interpretations to the law — to practice ijtihad—in order to make the law compatible with real-life conditions.

During the nineteenth century, the Usulis came out on top. They remained on top, at least in part, because they filled a necessary niche in Qajar society. Remember, the power of the Qajars was limited and their legitimacy was always suspect. Because the Usulis believed that ulama should be actively engaged in society by performing educational, judicial, and even legitimation functions for the Qajars, the Usuli tendency was perfectly consistent with the Qajar style of rule. Usuli ulama held a monopoly over the educational apparatus and over civil law (laws not related to state administration and criminal activity). Thus, unlike ulama in the Ottoman Empire and Egypt whose power was usurped by the state, the victory of the Usulis over the Akhbaris guaranteed that the ulama of Persia would retain a direct and necessary role in society. As a result, the participation or aloofness of the ulama could make or break such political movements as the Tobacco Protest, the Constitutional Revolution, and the revolution of 1978-1979.

Like the Usulis, Malkom Khan and al-Afghani believed that ulama had a key role to play in society, that Islam constantly had to be revised to be applicable to contemporary conditions, and that ijtihad could be harnessed for that revision. Both believed that Islam was ingrained in Eastern society and that any reform of that society had to take this into account. At the same time, both preached that Muslims had much to learn from the West, particularly in the realm of science and technology.

But how could religion and science be made compatible? Could Islam — or, indeed, any religion — be used to promote modernity? From the Enlightenment through Comte and beyond, Western social philosophers have pronounced secularism to be a prime attribute of modernity and religion to be either the primitive ancestor of modernity or its mortal enemy. Whether or not this is the case is the subject of the next chapter.

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