Middle East Resources

A Major Feature of Islamic Imperialism 

A Permanent Colonialism, Sanctioned by Divine Authority

15 March 2022

Bassam Michael Madany


European Colonialism reached its peak early in the 20th century. Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal had established their dominion over several areas in Africa and Asia during the 19th century.

Having lived under French rule in the Levant (Syria and Lebanon) during my formative years, I attended French schools and studied textbooks used in France and its possessions overseas. The géographie book was LA FRANCE ET SES COLONIES, with sections about L’Afrique Occidentale Française, L’Indochine, and Nouvelle Calédonie. The History textbook was HISTOIRE DE FRANCE. I still remember a picture from the textbook, showing the assassination of King Henri IV, while he was in his Chaise enroute to a destination in Paris! 

I have no idea whether the British followed the same policy in their vast Empire. However, the fact that English is now spoken in places like Kenya and Ghana, and used in the Indian Parliament during its deliberations, point to the lasting impact of British Colonialism. I am keenly aware of the global spread of English. Several readers of the articles on my two websites, come from countries that were not colonized by the UK.

Basically, European Colonialism lasted for 150 years. It had to come to its end, as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made it clear in his “The Winds of Change” speech to Members of both Houses of the Parliament of the Union of South Africa, Cape Town, on the third of February 1960i The following is an excerpt from this historic document:

“We have tried to learn and apply the lesson of our judgement of right and wrong. Our justice is rooted in the same soil as yours - in Christianity and in the rule of law as the basis of a free society. This experience of our own explains why it has been our aim in the countries for which we have borne responsibility, not only to raise the material standards of living, but also to create a society which respects the rights of individuals, a society in which men are given the opportunity to grow to their full stature - and that must in our view, include the opportunity to have an increasing share in political power and responsibility, a society in which individual merit and individual merit alone, is the criterion for a man's advancement, whether political or economic.”

While Great Britain managed the process of decolonization peacefully, France failed to keep its colonies, leaving her Indochinese and African colonies. Indonesia won its independence from The Netherlands without struggle.

In contrast with European Imperialisms, Islamic Imperialism has been, with a few exceptions, permanent and final. This is explained in the book, “Islamic Imperialism: A History,”ii  by Efraim Karsh, Professor Emeritus of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London, UK. 

“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 instruments of aggressive expansion, there [being] no internal organism of equal force to counterbalance it.’” (P. 5)

Another basic feature of Islamic Imperialism was the manner of its extension. In contrast with European Imperialism that was “overseas,” Islam spread contiguously and by land routes. From Arabia, eastward to Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, India; and westward to Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco; and northward to Spain! The only sea they crossed was the narrow strait known ever since as Jabal Tariq, Gibraltar!

Professor Karsh described that aspect of Islamic Imperialism as follows:

“The empires of the European powers of old were by and large overseas entities that drew a clear dividing line between master and subject. The Islamic empires, by contrast, were land-based systems in which the distinction between the ruling and the ruled classes became increasingly blurred through extensive colonization and assimilation. With the demise of the European empires, there was a clear break with the past. Formerly subject peoples developed their distinct brands of state nationalism, whether Indian, Pakistani, Nigerian, and so on. Conversely, the Arabic-speaking populations of the Middle East were indoctrinated for most of the twentieth century to consider themselves members of “One Arab Nation”iii or a universal “Islamic ummaiv rather than patriots of their specific nation-states.”                     (Page 7)

Dr. Karsh’s statement ‘With the demise of the European empires, there was a clear break with the past,’ must not be understood as a total break, especially with respect to the former French colonies in Africa and Asia.

France has retained a close relationship with her former colonies via “Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, an international organization representing countries and regions where French is a lingua franca or customary language, where a considerable proportion of the population are francophones, or where there is a notable affiliation with French culture.”

Furthermore, we should not forget a great cultural legacy by the European colonialists: the Latin script for the alphabetization of the African and Asiatic languages, which contribute to the spread of literacy among the various strands of society. A key role was played as well by Christian missionaries laboring in the field of translating the Bible into national languages. The French helped Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, by giving them a Latin-based Alphabet, thus liberating them from the Chinese Ideographic symbols they had previously used.

That was in contrast with Islamic Imperialism which brought the Arabic Alphabet into countries like Persia and Turkey, whose languages were non-semitic, thus requiring several additional signs and strokes to be added to the Arabic letters. It was the genius of Kemal Ataturk, the Father of modern Turkey, who while making a clean break with the Ottoman past, introduced a Latin-based Alphabet that increased literacy among the Turkish masses.

I find no better way of summing up the Impact of Islamic Imperialism on conquered people, than these words from the Prologue of V. S. Naipaul’s “Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among Converted People” published by Vintage Books in 1998.

“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 must 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 must 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  

 

__________________________________________________________________

iHarold Macmillan: The Wind of Change Speech, 3 Feb. 1960 Address by Harold Macmillan to Members of Houses of the Parliament of the Union Of South Africa, Cape Town, 3 February 1960
https://web-archives.univ-pau.fr/english/TD2doc1.pdf

ii https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300198171/islamic-imperialism

iii One Arab Nation, Umma ‘Arabiyya Wahida, is the Motto of the Baath Party in Syria and Iraq

iv Islamic Umma, is the Motto of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, after Ataturk’s abolishing of the Islamic Caliphate in 1924.