The Muslim Spring

Protest against Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. London, November 2015.

Turkey will never be the same again. The papers are filled with news of the crisis in Iraq, Soviet intrigues in Turkey, the persecutions of Christians, fears of a Turkish-Italian war, the hanging of opposition members of the Grand National Assembly, Turkish women demanding votes and claiming complete emancipation, and the Kurds rising in rebellion against the new “infidel,” Kemal Pasha. Times have certainly changed since the word Ottoman was synonymous with the defence of Islam, and Turkey was regarded as the stronghold of the faith.

Syria is dominated by France and Palestine by Britain, but we again meet the same symptoms of change and revolution. Syria is an armed camp. The Druze are in revolt. Damascus is shelled and parts of it are in ruins, while in Palestine an Arab-Jewish controversy breaks upon an otherwise peaceful land. Yet here too the same modem tendencies are at work. The West is pouring in with its aeroplanes, motors, and all other elements of the so-called civilized world.

We pass on to Egypt, and the note of nationalism meets us as we land. “ Egypt for the Egyptians ” is the slogan, and the country seethes with agitation. These lands are awake, stirred from an age-long slumber, roused to a frenzy against the West and its domination. With all the anti-western agitation, we find, paradoxical as it may sound, that the nationalists are as keen as others upon westernisation. “ Copy the enemy so that you may be strong enough to overthrow him ” is the policy, and yet in the midst of it all stands majestic and proud the old Azhar University, with its rigid adherence to the Koran and loyalty to the Prophet. It is like trying to mix water and oil. Western impacts and Koranic traditions do not coalesce, and change is seen on every hand.

Events that arrest our attention are a rebellion in Egypt (1919) with complete independence as its objective;  a strike in the Azhar University for a more modern type of education; the trial of Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razik for the publication of a book on Islam which the orthodox claim to be heretical; a feminist movement for compulsory education without distinction of sex, and for the prohibition of polygamy; and the promulgation of a religious decree by the Grand Mufti against the wearing of European hats, which are declared to be “ against the Muslim religion”. These are a few of the many Egyptian items of news that have within the past few years been discussed in the London press.

We cross over into Arabia, and again our curiosity is aroused by the news that we read. The war in the Hedjaz, the triumph of the Wahhabis, and the holding of the first pan-Islamic Congress of Mecca are arresting indeed. The isolated religious reserve of Islam is being slowly drawn into the vortex of western life. Newspapers from Cairo penetrate into the most remote regions. European statesmen in their Near and Middle East policies have to make room for the fact of Ibn Saud and his fanatical followers. The Islamic world of India finds it important to send delegates to confer with this Arab chief upon the future of Islam, and new links are being forged daily with the outside world.

Iraq has been a vexed problem in England, and the press has given us the fullest possible information on the indirect rule of Britain through King Feisul. Few perhaps realize the significance to this Muslim stronghold of the new contacts thus being established with the West. A new day has dawned in Mesopotamia, and western influence is making itself felt everywhere.

This movement towards the West that we notice in so many lands is perhaps more significant in Persia than in other Muslim countries. The Shah is deposed and an ex-soldier has mounted the throne. Bolshevism is making a great bid for supremacy in this old home of the Shias. Changes are taking place which a generation ago would have been scouted as utterly impossible. There are signs of a breakaway from Islam as a system.

The women in Persia, as in Turkey and Egypt, are beginning to make themselves felt in the politics of the land. Some of them regard Muslim law, as applied to women, as a badge of slavery. At the same time, the orthodox are heading a movement with “ Back to the Koran ” as its slogan.

Meanwhile, Indian Islam is striving to unite the scattered fragments of a dismembered Muslim body. Events in Turkey have roused India, and the Muslim press proclaims vociferously, “ Islamic federation and brotherhood.’’ Alongside this, the Englishman places the terrible accounts of Hindu-Muslim riots and the breakup of national unity through racial religious strife. The spread of western thought has intensified Muslim propaganda, and India dreams today of a new pan-Islamic league of nations. Muslim women leaders are thinking in terms of self-expression, women’s suffrage and emancipation.

Even a land like Afghanistan is not untouched by these waves of new thought, and there is a young Afghan party which seeks progress on western lines.

As we review even in this bald way some of these changes in the world of Islam, the startling fact emerges that no single country is uninfluenced by this renaissance. Every part of the Muslim world is passing through a period of momentous changes. New life is taking the place of an indifferent lethargy. Western civilization is becoming increasingly an ideal in these lands, and with it goes a burning thirst for new knowledge on the one hand and democratic government on the other. Nationality is the universal cry. Islam has struck its tents and is on the march.

Adapted from The Expansion of Islam: An Arab Religion in the Non-Arab World, by W. Wilson Gash (1928). Photograph courtesy of Alisdair Hickson. Published under a Creative Commons license.