The Rise of European Colonialism

During the period of European colonial expansion, from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, non- Muslim merchants and missionaries, soldiers and colonial administrators came to dominate much of the Muslim world. The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British, and French all developed colonial empires, and the Chinese and Russians also expanded their territories into Muslim- majority regions.

By the twentieth century, only frail Ottoman and Persian “The Reception,” John Frederick Lewis, 1873, dynasties maintained power, and only a few areas such as Wikimedia Commons. Afghanistan and central Arabia avoided colonial domination. The French ruled much of North Africa and parts of West and Central Africa. The British controlled Muslim areas of Africa (including Egypt) and of Asia (including India with its large Muslim minority) and parts of Southeast Asia. The Dutch ruled most of present-day Indonesia, while the Spanish controlled parts of North Africa and the Philippines. After World War I, the Ottoman Empire was dismembered and parceled out to Britain (the Persian Gulf region, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq) and France (Syria, Lebanon).

Such foreign domination was not only humiliating for many Muslims, particularly social elites, but also threatened the very foundations of Islamic society, as European rulers replaced traditional Muslim educational, legal and governmental institutions with Western ones. Europeans undermined the religious ethos of Muslim territories by privileging Christian-influenced, secular and materialistic cultural values and by encouraging ethnic, national, and religious divisions in the ummah.

The new conditions of the experience of the dominance of the European colonial powers had a significant impact on a number of very different movements of reform and revival in the Islamic world, redefining what it meant to be Muslim in this new context. The struggle to understand how God would allow Muslims to become subjugated to foreign, non-Muslim powers contributed to the emergence of three major perspectives: Salafism, modernism and messianism.

Even before the arrival of colonial powers into the Islamic world, some scholars from diverse backgrounds were arguing that the faith and practice of Muslims had become distanced from the original message of the Quran and the Prophet, as the masses had adopted devotional practices, of which the devotion to saints is the most commonly mentioned, that they saw as unjustified innovations. They also felt that scholars had begun to give more importance to the centuries of scholastic tradition than to the original texts of the religion. For many, the failure of Muslim societies to resist colonialism was a sign of God’s displeasure in the corruption of the last religion, and therefore the correct response was to return to the era of the first Muslim community. Now referred to as “Salafis,” a reference to the salaf or early companions of the Prophet, those who hold this perspective are interested in the “correct” practice of Islam and reject anything they perceive to be innovations inconsistent with their interpretation of the model of the early Muslim community, focusing on Sufism and Shi‘ism in particular. Such reformers often look to the Quran and Sunnah as the only authoritative sources for Islamic law, but, to varying degrees, they ignore the inherent pluralism and the continued discourses of the sharī‘ah system in favor of a single interpretation of those sources. Some examples of these diverse movements are the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia, and the Jama'a‘-i Islami of Pakistan.

In contrast to the Salafis, others saw western dominance to be the result of a technological and cultural progress that was worthy of imitation. Colonial rule introduced Western education, nationalism and certain technologies to much of the Muslim world, and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many Muslims travelled to Europe to study in Western universities. However, many modernist Muslim reformers did not idealize the West, lamenting the changes in their societies that they attributed to western materialism, yet also being frustrated with what they considered to be a failure on behalf of the traditional ‘ulamā’ to provide a meaningful response. Scholars such as Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905) and Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) argued for greater emphasis on reason, in the modern western sense of the term, in developing an interpretation of Islam that could adapt to the needs of the times. Despite differing attitudes towards the modern West, the revivalist interests of modernists and of Salafis, along with their criticisms of the centuries of Islamic scholarly tradition, led to considerable overlap between these trends.

The dominance of the colonial powers had another meaning for several charismatic Muslim leaders in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, heralding the end of the world described vividly in the Quran. A number of individuals claimed to be the awaited Mahdi, and thus to be the representative of the Prophet that would lead the world to justice, including the Sudanese Muhammad Ahmad (d. 1885), whose movement was eventually quelled by the British in 1898, and Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (d. 1908) in British-ruled India, whose followers today, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, number in the millions.

Salafism, modernism and messianism have led to great changes in what it means to be Muslim for large numbers of people around the world. However, this is not to say that all Muslims fit into these three categories. Indeed, the beliefs, ways of life, and scholarly traditions of traditional Islam continue to exist across the Islamic world, no doubt adapting to the changing conditions of the modern world yet maintaining a greater continuity with their past than any of these three trends. In response to these three trends, many conservatives and traditionalists reasserted the authority of the ‘ulamā’ and the need for recourse to tradition.

In the early twentieth century, further changes in the understanding of what it meant to be Muslim were brought about by the rise of nation states in the wake of independence movements in many Muslim countries, inspired to varying degrees by both the revival of Islamic principles and institutions and by Western-style nationalism. Muslims have adopted many different models for their post-colonial states, with the founders of each state coming up with their own approach to the role that Islam should play in a modern polity. The early leaders of modern Turkey, primarily Mustafa Kemal Atatü rk (d. 1938), declared a secular state in 1923 in which Islam would not play any role, abolishing the caliphate, replacing the Islamic court system and legal interpretation with a European-style law code, and outlawing Sufi orders. In contrast, after World War II, Pakistan was created as a homeland for the Muslim minority communities of the Subcontinent, initially welcoming diverse ways of practicing Islam and other faiths, but becoming an Islamic republic promoting a single interpretation of Islam in the 1980s under the military regime of Zia ul-Haqq. Some Islamic reform movements have adopted an ideology of political revolution, fusing particular interpretations of Islamic tradition with modern ideologies and political structures. The revolution in Iran led by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 is one example of this type of movement, and drew on influences including Shi‘i theology and Marxism. It is important to note that these movements are not monolithic but location-specific. However, in general the modern nation state has emerged as a new type of authority that has a role in defining what Islam means.

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Image Credits:

Pierre Auguste Renoir, “Parisiennes in Algerian Costume or Harem,”1872, National Museum of Western Art, Japan (2012), (public domain)

See also: Islam