As the Christian millennium looms, Muslims - rather than joining the celebrations - might fruitfully use the occasion to consider the Christian and western influence and impact on Islamic civilization. Beginning with the Crusades, and for nearly a millennium since, western Christian colonial and cultural incursions into the Muslim world are characterized by dastardly acts and destruction. Consider, for example, this case:
‘They opened fire with cannons and bombs on the houses and quarters, aiming specially at the mosque, firing at it with those bombs. They also fired at suspected places bordering the mosque, such as the market. And they trod in the mosque with their shoes, carrying swords and rifles. Then they scattered in its courtyard and its main praying area and tied their horses to the qibla. They ravaged the students’ quarters and ponds, smashing the lamps and chandeliers and breaking up the bookcases of the students and the scribes. They plundered whatever they found in the mosque, such as furnishings, vessels, bowls, deposits, and hidden things from closets and cupboards. They treated the books and Qur’anic volumes as trash, throwing them on the ground, stamping on them with their feet and shoes. Furthermore they soiled the mosque, blowing their spit in it, and urinating and defecating in it. They guzzled wine and smashed the bottles in the central court and other parts. And whoever they happened to meet in the mosque they stripped. They chanced upon someone in one of the student residences and slaughtered him.’ When people first read this quote, some think it depicts the Christian expulsion of Muslims from Spain, while others see in it more contemporary events, such as the Christian genocide of Muslims in Bosnia. Certainly the deeds and barbarities described are consistent with many instances of western atrocities against Muslims. Murder, plunder, destruction, humiliation - Muslims have suffered all of these at the hands of western invaders. But the event described above is significant for a number of reasons not apparent in the text. Mosques can be rebuilt, and people will be born to replace those who were slaughtered. The task of lasting colonization would require more than bombs and barbarities: it needed a plan which would alter the very foundations of Muslim civilization, as embodied in its beliefs and taught in its schools. In fact, the quote above describes the French attack on Al-Azhar, during their invasion and occupation of Egypt in 1798 CE, as described by Muslim scholar Abdul-Rahman al-Jabarti in his Chronicle. Led by Napoleon, the French attempted to cut British communication with the Eastern wing of its Empire. To present this adventure as being in the interests of Muslims, Napoleon claimed to be the liberator of Arabs from Turks. But Jabarti, and many others, denounced the occupation. The French soon realized that their biggest resistance would come from pious Muslims. With their attack on Al-Azhar, and other institutes of Islamic learning, they began concentrating on killing or subverting scholars, while tempting students away from the Islamic system by appealing to weaknesses for the dunya. A few decades later, in 1845, a French military officer in Algeria proclaimed: ‘In effect the essential thing is to gather into groups this people which is everywhere and nowhere; the essential thing is to make them something we can seize hold of. When we have them in our hands, we will then be able to do many things which are quite impossible for us today and which will perhaps allow us to capture their minds after we have captured their bodies.’ Having been thwarted by Islamic resistance in the Algerian hinterland, as elsewhere, the French realized that they needed a strategy, part of which required the rounding up and enumeration of the people they sought to control. Schools served this purpose well, and soon selected Algerians were being educated in French schools, where they could be easily ‘seized hold of’ and rewarded with positions of nominal authority in the emerging French colonial establishment.
The thinking in French intellectual circles was that, eventually, the very roots of Islamic culture, the main threat to their designs in the region, would have to be ripped out. As French author Fenelon noted in his novel Telemaque in 1867, ‘We, the masters, should seize on our subjects in their early youth. We shall change the tastes and habits of the whole people. We shall build up again from the very foundations and teach the people to live a frugal, innocent, busy life after the pattern of our laws.’ The novel was more than conjecture or fantasy. It was also a blueprint. Since it was not enough to kill the Islamic scholars and subvert the students away from Islam, the colonizers needed to root out Islam from ordinary people, who retained a strong faith. The way to do this was through the children. Again, schools were pressed into service of the colonial state, to ‘change the tastes and habits of the whole people.’
In 1893, only a few generations after Napoleon’s arrival, the colonization of selected segments of the Muslim populace in North Africa was complete. Convinced that west was best, the editor of an Egyptian academic journal, lamenting on the supposed ‘backwardness’ of his people, wrote, ‘It is we who have placed ourselves in this position. There is one thing that unites us all in the Orient: our past greatness and our present backwardness.’ But these were not original thoughts: he wrote those words only after consulting with his masters, a group of French orientalists who at the time were developing hierarchical theories of human development, putting white Christians on top. Dazzled by western military power and technocratic rule, many Muslims did not realize that they were participating in their own colonization, and imposing a colonial order on their own people. One of the most influential French orientalists among Egyptian intellectuals and rulers was Gustav Le Bon. His work on the ‘psychological laws of the evolution of peoples’ helped form the nationalist ideas of Muslim scholars like Muhammad Abduh. Abduh, along with other Egyptian nationalists, used the now-discredited racialist theories of Le Bon and other French social scientists like Emile Durkheim to formulate a vision of modernist Islam, in complete conformity with then current western theories of science and society. While the theories of Le Bon and Durkheim soon came to be viewed with a critical eye in the west, their legacy lived on in the East, to the extent that reformist Muslim thinking along the lines of people like Abduh survives in the Muslim world.
In 1910, American president Theodore Roosevelt visited Egypt to deliver an address at the newly opened National University in Cairo. Roosevelt, ironically also an avid reader of Gustav Le Bon, proclaimed that the Egyptian people were ‘not sufficiently evolved’ to deserve self-government, his arrogance blinding him to the century of colonization that produced the modern confusion of Islamic identity in the Arab Muslim world. And, after nearly a century of adjusting Arab Muslim culture toward the west, the western powers still viewed Islam as a potential threat to their designs in the region. To the extent that local rulers were dependent on the west, they, too, supported further adjustments. But Islam remained one of the key stumbling blocks to colonial designs. A systematic attack on Islam had begun nearly a century earlier, soon after Napoleon’s invasion, when Hasan al-Attar was sent to study in Napoleon’s Institut d’Egypte in Paris. Later a shaykh at Al-Azhar, he taught Tahtawi, who was instrumental in westernizing Egyptian schools and translating the works of French social scientists. Tahtawi’s work, in turn, influenced a new generation of reform-minded Muslims associated with Al-Azhar, including Abduh. Soon, another student at the newly adjusted Al-Azhar, Mustafa Abd al-Raziq, whose father was associated with Abduh, later studied at the feet of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim at the Sorbonne. Upon returning to Egypt, Abd al-Raziq taught Philosophy at the Egyptian University, and, in 1945, he became the Rector of Al-Azhar. Al-Azhar, like other centers of Muslim learning, had ceased to be a place of resistance to colonization, emerging instead as a quietist, legitimizing force. Beginning with bombs and proceeding through leadership at the hands of western-trained scholars, the neutralization of places like Al-Azhar was nearly complete by the late-20th century. Once the seedbeds of resistance to the west, many institutions of higher learning became part of the colonial order. The case of Al-Azhar illustrates a two-pronged western methodology for its assault on Islam: destroy and subvert the traditional Islamic foundations, while building a new set of west-directed foundations, including the key pillar of an unquestioned reliance on the western sciences. Until this is clearly understood, any movement toward the Muslims’ liberation is liable to achieve little more than may be achieved simply by continuing colonization.
Muslimedia: March 16-31, 1999