Middle East Resources

Islamic Imperialism: A Neglected Topic

By Bassam M. Madany

Most Arab and Muslim writers, even those who claim to be moderate, hardly ever admit that Islam was responsible for the rise of a unique imperialistic venture in the history of mankind. No other major world religion combined religion with politics, church and state, as Islam has done during the last 1400 years. And no other religion spread primarily through the sword, as Islam has done. In fact, Muslims glorify their early futuhat or conquests, claiming that they were accomplished with the approval of Allah, who gave them the right to bring mankind under their rule.

I am fully aware that the West has been imperialistic; in fact I lived under the French presence in the Levant during my formative years. In the school I attended, almost all subjects were taught in French. While we did study the history of the Near East, the emphasis was on “Histoire de France.”  The title of our geography book was “La France et ses Colonies.” However, when the French departed, they left no lasting impact on the area. The same applies to the other European Empires: they began in the 19th century, and spread for 150 years, to disappear soon after WWII. An important feature about Western Empires is that they were all “Overseas.” Not so with Islam, it spread contiguously as a land empire, coupled with colonization of the occupied areas, thus  producing  a lasting impact on the native populations.  

To illustrate this fact, I would like to quote from the works of a British writer, V. S. Naipaul. Soon after the Islamic revolution in Iran, Naipaul visited Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. He met with people from all walks of life, and listened to them as they responded to his questions about the impact of their faith on their daily life. As a result of his research, he published “Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey,” (Random House, New York, 1982)

Reflecting on the impact of Islam on Iran, Naipaul wrote “Islam in Iran was even more complicated. It was a divergence from the main belief; and this divergence had its roots in the political-racial dispute about the succession to the Prophet, who died in 632 A.D. Islam, almost from the start, had been an imperialism as well as a religion, with an early history remarkably like a speeded-up version of the history of Rome, developing from city-state to peninsular overlord to empire, with corresponding stresses at every stage. P. 7 [Emphasis mine]

Almost two decades later, Naipaul re-visited these four Islamic countries, and managed to meet with some of the persons he had talked to in the 1970s. He produced a follow-up book, “Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted People.” It was published by Random House in 1998

The author returned to the theme of his previous book, and pointed to the unique nature of Islamic imperialism, namely to make “the Converted People” forget their entire past, as if history began with the Islamic futuhat of their countries! In the Prologue, he wrote:

“Islam is in its origins an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s worldview alters. His holy places are in Arab lands; his language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his. The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved; the turning away has to be done again and again. People develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of the converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can be easily set on the boil.” P. xi [Emphasis mine]

As I mentioned earlier, when I refer to the uniqueness of Islamic imperialism, I have in mind the fact that other imperialist powers like Britain and France did control many parts of the world, including Islamic countries. But when their empires came to an end; their former colonies had not been made over in the image of Britain or France. For example, France, after having established a permanent foothold in Algeria that lasted around 150 years, finally had to give up the attempt after a costly and bloody struggle that cost the lives of around one million Algerians.  Most Europeans settlers who began to live in Algeria since 1849 moved to France, or to other parts of Europe.  In contrast, Islam’s grip on the lands they conquered, with the exception of Spain, Portugal, and lands in Central and Eastern Europe, has remained to this day. 

The historian Efraim Karsh dealt with this subject. In his book “Islamic Imperialism: A History” published by Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2006

Writing in his Introduction, Professor Karsh contrasts Christianity with Islam, “The worlds of Christianity and Islam, however, have developed differently in one fundamental respect. The Christian faith won over an existing empire in an extremely slow and painful process and its universalism was originally conceived in spiritual terms that made a clear distinction between God and Caesar. By the time it was embraced by the Byzantine emperors as a tool for buttressing their imperial claims, three centuries after its foundation, Christianity had in place a countervailing ecclesiastical institution with an abiding authority over the wills and actions of all believers. The birth of Islam, by contrast, was inextricably linked with the creation of a world empire and its universalism was inherently imperialist. It did not distinguish between temporal and religious powers, which were combined in the person of Muhammad, who derived his authority directly from Allah and acted at one and the same time as head of the state and head of the church. This allowed the prophet to cloak his political ambitions with a religious aura and to channel Islam’s energies into ‘its instruments of aggressive expansion, there [being] no internal organism of equal force to counterbalance it.’” P. 5 [Emphasis mine]

While many Muslims continue to rail against Western imperialism, and especially against the United States, it is important not to forget the basic truths about Islam, as observed and commented on by V. S. Naipaul and Efraim Karsh. These men have drawn our attention to the inherently imperialistic nature of Islam.

In his Epilogue, Professor Karsh, noted:

“Political cooperation, however, has not meant accepting Western doctrines or values, as the events of September, 11, 2001, amply demonstrate. Contrary to widespread assumptions, these attacks, and for that matter Arab and Muslim, anti-Americanism, have little to do with US international behavior or its Middle Eastern policy. America’s position as the pre-eminent world power blocks Arab and Islamic imperialist aspirations. As such, it is a natural target for aggression. Osama bin Laden and other Islamists’s war is not against America per se, but is rather the most recent manifestation of the millenarian jihad for a universal Islamic empire (or umma). This is a vision by no means confined to an extremist fringe in Islam, as illustrated by the overwhelming support for the 9/11 attacks throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds. In the historical imagination of many Muslims and Arabs, bin Laden represents nothing short of the new incarnation of Saladin.” P. 234

One may add that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s quest to become a nuclear power will facilitate the spread of its hegemony beyond its borders. Inevitably, that would bring it into conflict with the Sunni powers of the Middle East. It has already been taking place in the Iranian support for President al-Assad of Syria, the Hezbollah Shiite Militia in Lebanon, and as its now happening, in Iran’s involvement in Yemen, by taking the side of the Hawthis, (a Yemeni brand of Shiism,) who have conquered most of Yemen by early April, 2015.  Once Iran has achieved the ambition of acquiring its nuclear weapons and developing its ballistic missiles, we can hardly imagine its awful consequences, not only in the Muslim world, but way beyond Daru’l Islam!