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Islam, Revolutions and Economic Liberalism

Here is a very topical, historical account by E.J. Hobsbawm of the rise of Islam in the so-called undeveloped world which occurred in reaction to the disruption caused by colonialism. People who are interested in why there is still apparent opposition between Western “democracy” and capitalism and Islam, might find it interesting.

Great revival of Islam in the period of 1789-1848 [1]

“In purely numerical terms it is evident that all religions, unless actually contracting, were likely to expand with the rise in population. Yet two types showed a particular aptitude for expansion [over the period of the massive colonisation during the British Industrial Revolution]: Islam and sectarian Protestantism. This expansionism was all the more striking as it contrasted with the marked failure of other Christian religions – both Catholic and Protestant – to expand, in spite of a sharp increase in missionary activity outside Europe, increasingly backed by the military, political, and economic force of European penetration. […]

Islamic expansion among peoples disorganized by colonialism and slavery

As against this, Islam was continuing that silent, piecemeal and irreversible expansion unbacked by organized missionary endeavour or forcible conversion which is so characteristic of that religion. It expanded both eastwards, in Indonesia and North-western China, and westwards from the Sudan towards Senegal and, to a much smaller extent, from the shores of the Indian Ocean inland. When traditional societies change something so fundamental as their religion, it is clear that they must be facing major new problems. The Moslem traders, who virtually monopolized the commerce of inner Africa with the outside world and multiplied with it, helped to bring Islam to the notice of new peoples. The slave trade, which broke down communal life, made it attractive, for Islam is a powerful means of reintegrating social structures. [2] At the same time the Mohammedan religion appealed to the semi-feudal and military societies of the Sudan, and its sense of independence, militancy, and superiority made it a useful counterweight to slavery. Moslem Negros made bad slaves: the Haussa (and other Sudanese) who had been imported into Bahia (Brazil) revolted nine times between 1807 and the great rising of 1835 until, in effect, they were mostly killed or deported back to Africa. The slavers learned to avoid imports from these areas, which had only recently been opened to the trade.

Islamic resistance to colonialism in South East Asia

While the element of resistance to the whites was clearly very small in African Islam (where there were as yet hardly any), it was by tradition crucial in South-east Asia. There Islam – once again pioneered by traders – had long advanced against local cults and the declining Hinduism of the Spice Islands, largely as a means of more effective resistance against the Portuguese and the Dutch, as ‘a kind of pre-nationalism,’ though also as a popular counterweight to the Hinduized princes. As these princes increasingly turned into narrowly circumscribed dependents or agents of the Dutch, Islam sunk its root more deeply into the population. In turn, the Dutch learned that the Indonesian princes could, by allying with the religious teachers, unleash a general popular rising, as in the Java War of the Prince of Djokjakarta (1825-1830). They were consequently time and again driven back to a policy of close alliance with the local rulers, or indirect rule. Meanwhile the growth of the trade and shipping forged closer links between south-east Asian Muslim and Mecca, served to increase the number of pilgrims, to make Indonesian Islam more orthodox, and even to open it to the militant and revivalist influence of Arabian Wahhabism.

Within Islam the movements of reform and revival, which in this period gave the religion much of its penetrative power, can also be seen as reflecting the impact of European expansion and the crisis of the old Mohammedan societies (notably of the Turkish and Persian empires) and perhaps also of the growing crisis of the Chinese empire. The puritanical Wahhabites had arisen in Arabia in the mid-eighteenth century. By 1814 they had conquered Arabia and were ready to conquer Syria, until halted by the combined force of the Westernizing Mohammed Ali of Egypt and Western arms, though their teachings spread eastwards into Persia, Afghanistan and India. Inspired by Wahhabism an Algerian holy man, Sidi Mohammed ben Ali el Senussi, developed a similar movement which from the 1840s spread from Tripoli into the Sahara desert. In Algeria Abd-el-Kader, in the Caucasus Shamyl, developed religio-political movements of resistance to the French and Russians respectively (see chapter 7) and anticipated a pan-Islamism which sought not merely a return to the original purity of the Prophet but also to absorb Western innovations. In Persia, an even more obviously nationalist and revolutionary heterodoxy, the Bab movement of Ali Mohammed, arose in the 1840s. It tended, among other things, to return to certain ancient practices of Persian Zoroastrianism and demanded the unveiling of women.

Expansion of Protestantism

The ferment and expansion of Islam was such that, in terms of purely religious history, we can perhaps best describe the period form 1789 to 1848 as that of world Islamic revival. …The expansionist movement of Protestant sectarianism differs from that of Islam in that it was almost entirely confined to the countries of developed capitalist civilization. […]

New Protestant sects in Anglo-countries mirrored rise of Atheism in Catholic Europe

[… ] The reasons for the geographical and social limits of Protestant sectarianism are evident. Roman Catholic countries provided no scope for and tradition of public sects. There the equivalent break with the established church or the dominant religion was more likely to take the form of mass dechristianisation (especially among the men) than of schism. (Conversely, the Protestant anti-clericalism of the Anglo-Saxon countries was often the exact counterpart of the atheist anti-clericalism of continental ones.)”

Egypt and revolutions

“Nationalism in the East was thus the eventual product of Western influence and Western conquest. This link is perhaps most evident in the one plainly Oriental country in which the foundations of what was to become the first modern colonial nationalist movement [other than the Irish] were laid: in Egypt. Napoleon’s conquest introduced Western ideas, methods, and techniques, whose value an able and ambitious local soldier, Mohammed Ali (Mehemet Ali), soon recognized. Having seized power and virtual independence from Turkey in the confused period which followed the withdrawal of the French, and with French support, Mohammed Ali set out to establish an efficient and Westernizing despotism with foreign (mainly French) technical aid. European left-wingers in the 1820s and 30s hailed this enlightened autocrat, and put their services at his disposal, when reaction in their own countries looked too dispiriting. The extraordinary sect of the Sain-Simonians, equally suspended between the advocacy of socialism and of industrial development by investment bankers and engineers, temporarily gave him their collective aid and prepared his plans of economic development. […] They thus also laid the foundation for the Suez Canal (built by the Saint-Simonian de Lesseps) and the fatal dependence of Egyptian rulers on vast loans negotiated by competing groups of European swindlers, which turned Egypt into a centre of imperialist rivalry and anti-imperialist rebellion later on. But Mohammed Ali was no more a nationalist than any other Oriental despot. His Westernization, not his or his people’s aspirations, laid the foundations for later nationalism. If Egypt acquired the first nationalist movement in the Islamic world and Morocco one of the last, it was because Mohammed Ali (for perfectly comprehensible geopolitical reasons) was in the main paths of Westernization and the isolated self-sealed Sherifian Empire of the Moslem far west was not, and made no attempts to be. Nationalism, like so many other characteristics of the modern world, is the child of the dual revolution.”[3]


[1] The source of this article is a highly readable and famous book by historian, E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789 to 1848, New American Library Publishing, 1962, pp.268-270. This was also the period of the rise of the Industrial Revolution and British imperialism, which won out over other contenders in the European trade and slaving wars that had gone on since the 14th century due to the chance coincidence of huge stores of coal and iron on that island, plus an army of dispossessed workers who could be forced to dig it up and man the foundries.

[2] The writer gives as his reference for this statement, J S Trimmingham, Islam in West Africa, Oxford, 1959, p.30. I am personally not aware of the reasons given there and would welcome comment or articles on why this might be so.

[3] Source, E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789 to 1848, New American Library Publishing, 1962, p.177.