Islamic World


The Islamic world faced a major challenge during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Expanding Western European states and economies played a dramatic role in determining events, both on global scale and within Islamic world. “A major shift in power occurred as declining Muslim fortunes reversed the relationship of the Muslim world to the West, from that of ascendant expansionism to one of the defensiveness and subordination.” (Esposito p125)


By the end of the century, many Muslim territories were dominated by the West, some were under direct European control. “Faced with the painful evidence of their weakness, Muslim awoke to the fact that they were in effect surrounded by a European world empire, and that their old adversary had required new sciences and new techniques that gave it great economic and military superiority.” (Stewart p193) Substantial efforts were made to introduce Western techniques in the creation of a more effective state structure as well as to redefine Islam in order to meet the challenges. Other activities developed along with that redefinition either in conjunction or in competition; such that : radical reforms, nationalism and secularism.


The nineteenth century century was a time of important reform programs. Mehmet ali in Egypt, the most visible of a major type of Muslim leader that was emerging during the century, “attempted to bring Egypt into the modern world by borrowing from the West.”(Armajani p211) He tried to create modern-style armies and administrative structures. He was willing to adapt and adopt whatever appeared to have the potential for strengthening his government. The reform programs took place in a bureaucratically organized political system and were accepted as legitimate by the majority of the population. The ulama were displaced by the new bureaucracy, and the new foreign merchant class. The ulama did, however, produce a number of men that were crucial in the formulation of the modern Egyptian thought.


Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, “the writer who first made articulate the idea of the Egyptian nation, and tried to explain and justify it in terms of Islamic thought,”(Houranip68,69) went to Paris with a major diplomatic mission and gained a familiarity with French life and thought. Tahtawi was an important figure in the development of a new educational system and made a great contribution by encouraging translation framework in which Islamic and European ideas could be integrated. His view of the state is a “conventional Islamic view” not of that of liberal of the nineteenth century. “His country was ruled by a Muslim autocrat, and the only hope of effective reform was that the autocrat should use his powers properly.”(Hourani p73)


Tahtawi was enthusiastic about the historic glories of Egyptian civilization. Inspired by Montesquieu, he built his idea of the nation “watan”. He also defended the concept of ‘orders’ or ‘estates’ distinguishing four estates: the autocrat ruler, the ulama and scientists, the soldiers, and the ‘a’yan’ producers. He saw that Egypt must adopt the European sciences without “danger to her religion” and that it is her full right since the sciences “now spreading in Europe had once been Islamic sciences.” (Hourani p81) Thus , he also helped to build the foundations for Egyptian nationalism.


The reform programs in the central Ottoman Empire tried to answer the question of how far the new changes were compatible with the Islamic Law. The ulama group participated in the reform efforts and helped to open the door for attempts to adapt Islam to the new conditions, and the period is often called period of the “Tanzimat” or “reorganizations”. This Tanzimat aimed at giving the Empire a new moral and legal basis. The Young Ottomans, a diffuse group strongly influenced by European liberal thinking, feared the Tanzimat to create the foundations for an absolute government. Similar reforms were carried out in Tunisia and a lot of objections were raised. The need for more effective reform programs was clearly visible when the leading figure in the nineteenth-century Tunisian reformism khayr al-Din pasha became prime minister.


Khayr al-Din’s basic goal was to reform Islamic society in a way that would profit from European experience but remain true to the Islamic heritage. The key part of his reform was an emphasis on education combining traditional Islamic learning and a knowledge of the West. “The specific object of his thought is not, as with