's Comparative Politics/The Colonial Division of the Ottoman Empire

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by Professor Asma Afsaruddin, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies

Department of Classics, University of Notre Dame

As we head into the modern period, it is useful to divide this juncture of time into 4 main periods:


The first period, 1699-1798, was both a century of decline and of reform. The three great Muslim empires in this period, the Ottoman, the Safavid, and the Mughal, began to suffer economic and political setbacks. In 1699 (because of the signing of the Treaty of Karlowitz), the Ottoman empire lost extensive territories for the first time: they had to surrender Hungary and Transylvania to Austria, and the Ukraine to Poland.


The second period, 1798-1922, was characterized by European domination which began with Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798, followed shortly thereafter by British occupation of Egypt after the French were driven out. The French, however, would go on to occupy most of North Africa and Syria. The notorious Sykes-Picot Treaty which was concluded between Britain and France in 1916 gave France control of, or in the terminology of the day, designated France the protector of Arab Syria and Kurdish Mosul province, while Britain was designated the protector of Baghdad and Basra provinces. Up to the time of signing this treaty, the European powers, particularly the British, had been promising the Arabs that they would be allowed to form independent nations in return for helping the British to oust the Ottoman Turks, and as a consequence defeat Germany and her allies during the First World War. This treachery on the part of the British and the French was not easily forgotten or forgiven, as one might expect. In 1920, the League of Nations (the forerunner of the United Nations) gave its seal of approval to the terms of this treaty and awarded France and Britain mandates to rule the newly-created Arab states in 1920.

Before the period of colonialism, there was no concept of a territorial state in the Muslim world. Muslims were conscious of ethnic, linguistic, and regional differences among themselves, but they saw themselves as politically united first under the caliphate and then the later empires and sultanates. The nation-state, and thus nationalism, arose in the Muslim world only as a consequence of colonialism. In a number of cases, some of these nation-states were created in an ad hoc and arbitrary manner to serve the interests of the colonizers: For example, British interests in Persian Gulf oil led to the creation of Kuwait; France carved Lebanon out of Syria to create a friendly Arab Christian state; and Britain created Jordan to reward King Abdullah, who had fought with the British during World War I. In many cases, this gratuitous recarving of territory aggravated already existing ethnic, linguistic, and religious tensions as in the case of Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine, and Malaysia, for example. In some cases, secular nationalism focused on territorial boundaries arose as a consequence of the creation of nation-states, it always remained in competition with a broader religious identity, grounded in Islamic culture.

Specific actions that the colonial powers took against religious institutions had disastrous consequences afterwards and helped create an Islamic backlash. For example, SHARI‘A COURTS WERE ABOLISHED in many countries by the European colonizers. This in fact planted the seeds for future fundamentalist reaction against governments in a number of Islamic countries which, due to the abolition of the Shari‘a courts and the adoption of European legal codes, were now no longer seen as following and implementing Islamic law. The system of charitable endowments (waqf) which financially supported the madrasas and had allowed the madrasas and their professors to maintain independence from the various ruling authorities was dismantled by the British, for example, in Egypt. As a result, al-Azhar became a governmental institution. These policies were continued by the post-colonial governments which came to power after the departure of the British, which wanted to restrict the freedom of the ulama and the intelligentsia in general. The rector (our university president) of al-Azhar is now on the government payroll and widely regarded as a spokesperson for the government.


The third period, 1922-1962, was one of decolonization and the origins of nationalism and of political Islam. In 1922, Egypt gained limited independence from the British. In 1923, The Republic of Turkey was formed when the Ottoman sultan was sent into exile and the empire dismembered. In 1924, the caliphate based in Istanbul was abolished by the newly formed secular Republic of Turkey under Kemal Ataturk which ended the Ottoman Empire. Kemal Ataturk was a zealous secularist and he took a number of drastic steps to initiate modernization of the country, which he equated with adoption of Western ideas and customs and the abandonment of traditional Islamic practices and habits. Thus, he switched from the use of the Arabic script to write Turkish to Latin. He banned traditional Islamic forms of clothing, such as the Fez for men and the veil for women, and secularized the school system. Kemalism, as this deliberate adoption of secularism was called, is still the reigning ideology in Turkey today.

Most Muslim countries under European colonialism gained their independence between 1945-1960. Another crucial event that occurred in this period was the creation of the Jewish state of Israel on Palestinian soil in 1948 by the League of Nations, which led to the homelessness of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. This was an event that further embittered the attitudes of Arabs and Muslims toward the West.

1962 to the present[edit]

And finally the fourth period, 1962 to the present: Nasser’s revolution. This is a period of continuing nationalism and the consolidation of political Islamic movements. The secular nationalists believed in pan-Arabism; that is the overall unity of the Arab world despite their separation into independent nation-states. However, nationalism began to give way to religiously resurgent movements. The most dramatic of these revolutions was that of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in 1978-79.

These cataclysmic events fostered the rise of political Islam in this period, the early 20th century. Some have referred to these highly politicized religious groups as neo-revivalists; the more usual term today is Islamist.


Scholars in the field refer to Islamic revivalism, Islamic resurgence, political Islam, and Islamism. Another term that is used is Islamic fundamentalism. We must remember that fundamentalism was a term coined in the 19th century to refer to particularly Protestant Christian movements which insisted on the acceptance of the Bible as the literal word of God. In Islam, scriptural inerrancy is simply not an issue. A Muslim by definition is someone who accepts the Qur'an as the literal word of God; whether one is a conservative or liberal Muslim, there is a consensus on this issue; one cannot be a believing Muslim without accepting that the Qur'an is a divine, revealed text. From this point of view, it doesn't make sense to talk of Muslim fundamentalists as a separate group within Islam. With this caveat, this warning, in mind, it is better to speak of Islamic revivalist or resurgent movements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and, particularly in the 20th century, to talk about political Islam or Islamism.

Political Islam can have many faces; some Islamists take the more militant and radical route, and these are the ones who regularly get into the media today. The earliest such groups are the Muslim brotherhood, established by Hasan al-Banna (1906-49) in Egypt and the Jamaat-i Islami (“the Islamic society”) established by Mawlana Abul ‘Ala Mawdudi (1903-79) of India. Both men were personally pious, highly educated men both in the traditional Islamic sciences and in Western learning. Both came to react strongly against British imperialism, under whose shadow they lived a part of their lives.

Also importantly, they were reacting against a local elite that under European colonial influence had become Westernized to the extent that members of this elite spoke the language of the colonizers, imitated their dress and customs, and considered themselves secular. Thus they were fighting the influence of both external and internal forces. Islamists are both religious and social activists; both al-Banna and Mawdudi were very effective at organizing supporters at the grass-roots level. They set up health clinics and social welfare projects that helped in gaining the loyalty of a cross-section of the middle and working class people. The activities of these Islamists may be described as being part of a religious, socio-political protest movement that was committed to fighting political corruption and religious laxity, through violence if necessary.

After the departure of the foreign colonial rulers, they continued their opposition to the local governments that were set up, often by the departing colonizers; these local ruling elites were thus perceived as representing Western interests at the expense of national interests. If you have studied anything about modern Middle Eastern politics and history, you will know that Arab governments that have ruled after the Second World War have off and on been primarily monarchies and military regimes. As far as the Islamists were concerned, these governments, often corrupt and despotic, had no legitimacy and therefore they had a sacred mission to set up a just and righteous government that would govern according to Islamic principles. If they had to resort to violence and lay down their lives for it; they were quite prepared to do so. For them, jihad primarily came to mean the equivalent of just war or holy war to fight those whom they regarded as compromising Islamic principles. Many Islamists believe in what Mawdudi called theo-democracy; in other words, a democracy that called for power-sharing through consultation, according to the Qur’anic concept of shura. They also believed in elections, because the Islamic principle of bay‘a which is a pledge an individual gives to his or her ruler, gives the right to the people to express their approval or disapproval of the government. But it would have to be an Islamic democracy, subject to the tenets of the religious law, the Shari‘a, which, as interpreted by them, was practically an unchanging body of law which mandated a specific form of government. This government, as Mawdudi pronounced, was founded on the notion of God’s sovereignty, in Arabic al-hakimiyyah.