Shah Abbas (1571-1629) Ascending to the Safavid throne in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, Shah Abbas “bureaucratized” and strengthened the Persian Empire in a manner similar to his contemporaries, such as the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Shah Abbas broke the power of the Qizilbash, established an army and bureaucracy under direct imperial control, and expanded the boundaries of the empire. To pay for his projects and conquests, he confiscated lands that had previously been granted to the Qizilbash, established monopolies over silk production and weaving, and attempted to supervise trade. While Shah Abbas was able to strengthen central control to an extent previously unheard of in early modern Persia, the Safavid Empire entered into a period of crisis soon after his death.
Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser Born in 1918 in a town outside Alexandria, Nasser was the son of a postal clerk who rose in the Egyptian military to the rank of colonel. A member of a clandestine group known as the Free Officers, Nasser participated in the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy and emerged as the leader of the Free Officers and Egypt shortly thereafter. With the rise of Third Worldism and the Suez War of 1956—known in Egypt as the Tripartite Aggression — Nasser became a leader in the nonaligned movement and put in place a populist, state-directed economic development program that became the model for much of the Middle East and beyond. If Nasser's political star rose after 1956, it fell after the catastrophic 1967 war. Nasser died in 1970.
Abdulhamid II Ottoman sultan from 1876 to 1909. While commonly derided as a reactionary and religious zealot (he reasserted his right to the tide of caliph, a tide rarely adopted by Ottoman sultans), Abdulhamid II is' better viewed as the last great modernizing sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Although he came to power promising to uphold the constitution, Abdulhamid II revoked it and prorogued parliament within two years of his accession to the throne. His efforts to strengthen the empire by centralizing power, promoting an Islamic/Ottoman identity, and undertaking public works (such as the Hijaz Railway which linked Istanbul with Medina) are reminiscent of the efforts of the Russian tsars of the same period.
Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897) In spite of his name, which signifies that he came from Afghanistan, it is more than likely that Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was born in Persia. This would make sense: While Jamal al-Din's ideas betray their Usuli roots, he sought to spread them in the Sunni Turkish and Arab worlds. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was a salafi whose ideology combined three elements: a fierce hatred of imperialism, particularly British imperialism; the belief that the battle against imperialism would be successful only if it involved all Muslims; and the conviction that Muslims would have to adopt both the technology and scientific method of the West to defeat their enemies. More important as a political activist than as a thinker, most of Jamal al-Din's influence came through his contacts: one associate (Muhammad ‘Abduh) became mufti of Egypt, one of his students assassinated the shah of Iran, and his followers played an important role in the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905.
Yasir Arafat (1929-2004) Born in either Jerusalem or Cairo to a well-to-do merchant family, Arafat received an engineering degree from King Fuad University in Egypt. He reached political maturity during the golden age of secular Arab nationalism, when anti-colonialism was at its zenith internationally. Arafat founded Fatah, a Palestinian guerrilla group, in the late 1950s but kept his group outside the Palestine Liberation Organization until after the 1967 war, when it became evident to many Palestinians that neither the Arab states nor the PLO as it had been constituted could be trusted with the liberation of Palestine. Elected chairman of the PLO in 1969, he led the PLO for twenty-five years, and in 1996 he was elected the first president of the Palestinian Authority. His death in 2004 coincided with the death throes of the Oslo Accord.
Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949) The son of a watchmaker in the town of Mahmudiyya, Egypt, Hassan al-Banna founded what many scholars consider to be the first modern Islamic political organization, the Society of Muslim Brothers (the Muslim Brotherhood), in 1928. He attended the Teachers' Training Center, then Cairo University, before he became a teacher in 1927. He founded the Muslim Brotherhood in the Suez Canal city of Isma‘iliyya, where he preached and recruited members in coffeehouses and similar public venues. By 1934, the brotherhood reportedly had more than fifty branches throughout Egypt. The ideology of the brotherhood combined anti-imperialism and nationalism with a call for moral and religious reconstruction. The brotherhood participated in a guerrilla campaign against the British in the Suez Canal Zone and sent volunteers to fight in the 1948 war for Palestine. Hassan al-Banna was assassinated in 1949, probably in revenge for the assassination of the Egyptian prime minister, which the government attributed to his organization.
Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) Born in Budapest, Hungary, Theodor Herzl is commonly regarded as the founding father of Zionism. There was nothing in Herzl's upbringing and early career that would have indicated the path he eventually took: The son of a wealthy merchant, Herzl moved to Vienna with his family when he was 18. Herzl studied law and worked briefly as a civil servant before he became a journalist in the capital of the sprawling Austrian Empire. According to most accounts, it was in 1894, while covering the Dreyfus Affair for his newspaper, that Herzl reached the conclusion that the only way Jews would be secure was if they formed a majority in a territory of their own. Herzl went on to publicize his views through a variety of media, from newspapers to novels, and organized the first Zionist Congress in 1897 which, in turn, launched the World Zionist Organization.
Ibrahim Pasha (1789-1848) Son of Mehmet Ali (Muhammad ‘Ali), Ibrahim Pasha was one of the great military leaders of the nineteenth century. Among his achievements was the defeat of the Wahhabi movement in Arabia and the restoration of Mecca and Medina to Ottoman control. Although he was unable successfully to defeat Greek separatism — his fleet was sunk by a combined British, French, and Russian fleet at the Battle of Navarino in 1827—he soon thereafter launched a campaign to bring Greater Syria under Egyptian control, where it would remain for approximately ten years. During that time, he imposed many of the same defensive developmental programs in the Levant that his father had pioneered in Egypt. His army was finally expelled from the region by a joint Ottoman-British campaign assisted by a local rebellion.
Shah Isma‘il (reigned 1501-1520) Descendent of the Kurdish mystic Safi ad-Din (from whom the Safavid dynasty got its name), Isma‘il was the leader of a group of Qizilbash ("red head") warriors who seized control of Persia in 1501. Isma‘il was a charismatic leader who claimed to be a nearly divine being. Under his leadership, the Qizilbash conquered Azerbaijan, Western Iran, and the Tigris-Euphrates basin. They also attracted a wide following among the Turkish tribes of central and eastern Anatolia, thus posing a threat to the Ottomans in western Anatolia. At the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514, Isma‘il engaged the Ottomans in battle, where he was decisively defeated. Nevertheless, he left an important legacy for the region: His conquests established the Ottoman-Persian boundary, which roughly coincides with the contemporary Turkish-Iranian boundary; he consolidated Safavid rule; and under his leadership Persia was converted to Shi‘i Islam.
Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk” (1881-1938) Mustafa Kemal was the most successful Ottoman general in World War I, organizing the defense of Gallipoli against British and Commonwealth invaders. After the war, when entente nations occupied parts of Anatolia, committees of resistance sprang up throughout the peninsula. The government in Istanbul dispatched Mustafa Kemal to put down the committees. Instead, he took control over the uprising, expelled foreign forces from Anatolia, established Turkey as an independent republic, and took the name “Ataturk,” father of the Turks. Mustafa Kemal was an unabashed Westernizer and secularist: He abolished the sultanate and caliphate, “Latinized” the Turkish alphabet, granted women the right to vote, pursued a policy of state-directed economic development, and even regulated headgear. All this was done at a price, however: His government suppressed minorities, attempted to standardize culture, and engaged in political repression and one-party rule.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1899-1989) Before 1963, Ayatollah Khomeini had been a relatively unknown cleric who, trained in the city of Qom, specialized in the field of theology. But in 1963, after the shah had launched the White Revolution, had expanded women's rights, and had increased the legal privileges of Americans in Iran, Khomeini rose to fame as one of the most vociferous opponents of the shah and his American backers. For his efforts, Khomeini was sent into exile, first to Iraq, then to France. After the shah expanded his crackdown on the opposition in 1977 and the official newspaper of Iran published scurrilous attacks on Khomeini, theological students in Qom protested. The army fired on the protest, killing seventy and triggering the Iranian Revolution. Khomeini kept in touch with the revolutionaries, and his exhortations to rebellion, recorded on cassettes, received wide distribution. In 1979, he returned to Iran to establish the velayat-e faqih—a state under the guardianship of a jurisconsult, or, as it is more commonly known, an Islamic republic.
Muhammad Mossadegh (1882-1967) Swiss-educated Iranian politician and prime minister from 1951 to 1953. Mossadegh rose to power on a platform to nationalize the oil industry, restore parliamentary rule, and reform and develop the economy — a program with which Nasser and many other Third World leaders of the time had much agreement. At first, Mossadegh's program received such widespread support that the shah feared for his life and fled the country. However, Mossadegh's domestic program alienated segments of the Iranian population and, spurred on by the United States and Great Britain, anti-Mossadegh fervor grew. After the army seized control and restored the shah, Mossadegh was sentenced to house arrest. He died in 1967 and has since become a central figure in the Iranian nationalist narrative.
Mehmet Ali (Muhammad ‘Ali) (1770?-1849) Ruler of Egypt who seized control of the Ottoman province in the wake of the Napoleonic invasion and established a dynasty that would oversee Egypt until 1953. Mehmet Ali was the son of an Albanian pirate or merchant (depending on the source) who was a commander of a contingent of forces sent to Egypt by the Ottomans. As ruler, he attempted to restructure the military, the government, and economy of Egypt so that he and his family might maintain an autonomous dynasty within the Ottoman Empire. Mehmet Ali was a member of the first generation of leaders in the Middle East who realized that their survival depended upon their ability to “modernize” their domains and centralize their power. Ironically, the programs that had been intended to preserve Egyptian autonomy resulted in further integration of Egypt into the world economy, bankruptcy, and British occupation.
Osman (1259-1326) Legendary founder of the Ottoman Dynasty, Osman was a frontier warrior who waged incessant campaigns against Byzantine territory in western Anatolia. The Ottoman Empire emerged from the principality he established.
Reza Khan/Reza Shah (reigned 1926-1941) The leader of the Cossack Brigade — a unit in the Persian army that had been established by the Russians — Reza Khan seized power after the chaos, foreign intervention, warlordism, and famine of World War I, establishing a dynasty that ruled Iran until 1979. Reza Khan first toyed with the idea of establishing a republic in Persia, but after the Persian parliament deposed the last Qajar shah he took the title himself. Like Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk,” upon whom he modeled himself, Reza Shah imposed a far-reaching program for centralization and modernization. Under his direction, the power of tribes was broken, education and law were taken out of the hands of the ulama, the state played a dominant role in economic development, and the government even regulated dress and religious ritual. Because of his pro-Nazi sympathies, the Allies had him deposed during World War II, replacing him with his son, Muhammad Reza, the last shah of Iran.
Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566) Also known as Suleiman the Lawgiver. Suleiman was sultan of the Ottoman Empire at the same time Elizabeth I ruled Britain and Philip II ruled the Spanish Empire. Like his contemporaries, Suleiman consolidated imperial power, expanded the central bureaucracy, patronized the arts, and undertook monumental building projects. Under his leadership, the Ottoman Empire became the preeminent Muslim state of its time.
Ahmad ‘Urabi (1841-1911) Ahmad ‘Urabi was a colonel in the Egyptian army who hailed from Egyptian peasant origins at a time when the ruling elites of Egypt were descendents of Turks, Albanians, and Circassians. By the time he became the leader of the so-called ‘Urabi Revolt (1881-1882), Egypt had declared bankruptcy and Egyptian finances had been placed under the control of European creditors. The Europeans forced the government to expand taxation and cut military spending. The latter stipulation, alongside rules that discriminated against native-born Egyptians, angered many in the military. The former stipulation ensured that the military was not alone in its dissatisfaction. Military-led demonstrations were thus joined by a host of other disaffected groups, and soon the khedive faced a full-scale revolt that demanded the end of foreign interference, a national “charter,” and a curtailment of the khedive's power. The revolt had two lasting effects: The British, who invaded Egypt to put down the revolt, stayed for another three-quarters of a century, and the Egyptians got the first hero to place in their national pantheon.
Sa‘d Zaghlul (1857-1927) Born into a mid-level peasant family in the Nile delta, Sa‘d Zaghlul studied at the Islamic university, al-Azhar, in Cairo before attending the Egyptian School of Law. After his marriage to a daughter of an Egyptian prime minister, Zaghlul secured a number of ministerial positions in government. A moderate nationalist before World War I, Zaghlul was a member of the Umma Party, a party that sought to achieve Egyptian independence from the British by demonstrating that Egyptians were “civilized” enough to merit it. On the eve of World War I, Zaghlul adopted a more radical stance, and during the war he and his colleagues used their positions to construct nationalist committees throughout the country that would prove invaluable to Zaghlul and like-minded nationalists in the postwar period. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Zaghlul petitioned the British to represent Egyptian aspirations at the Paris peace conference. For his efforts, the British exiled Zaghlul and a few of his associates, an event that sparked the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. After the British granted Egypt conditional independence in 1922, Zaghlul's party — the Wafd — won 90 percent of the seats in parliament and Zaghlul became Egypt's first post-”independence" prime minister.