Empires of the Mind - Philosophy and Ideology in the 19th Century
Liberalism and Secularism in the Muslim World
As the Muslim state physically closest to Europe, it was no surprise that it would be the Ottoman Empire that would first encounter some of the new philosophical ideas concerning religion that originated in Western Europe. Whereas the Enlightenment of the 18th century had barely had an impact on the largely illiterate Empire of the time, the Ottoman Empire of the 19th century with its reformed education system proved a more receptive ground for new ideas coming from Europe. With the rise of “National Liberalism” in Western Europe at the beginning of the 19th century, the first ideas of a Turkish Nation appeared in the heads of some intellectuals in Constantinople, but they made little impact on the largely traditional society as a whole, which still saw Islam as the basis for the Ottoman State. However, as the first universities came to the Empire and literacy rates rose, an increasing number of people within the Empire, both Christian and Muslim, were exposed to radical ideas emanating from the West.
The idea of the separation of Church and State is still something of a troublesome subject in the Islamic world. While many Muslim thinkers argued that without established religious institutions parallel to the Catholic Church and various state churches in Europe, that the concept was redundant when used in an Islamic context, lesser numbers argued that the concept worked best when understood as a call to break the social power of the ulema, and to weaken the hold of the Sharia on Islamic societies. In the 1840s, their numbers were few, but these early secularists in the Ottoman Empire were gaining ground amongst the educated in Ottoman society. While the punishments for apostates had been quietly dropped in 1849, society as a whole took a very dim view upon those who challenged Islam’s traditional position. There are very few recorded instances of violence in this period, though it was common for the “New Thinkers” to be shunned by traditionalists. Although European ideas of secularism and anti-clericalism had established themselves within the ideological mix of the Empire, they appeared to be peripheral at best, limited to intellectuals who were increasingly isolated from the mainstream of Ottoman Society.
However, the “New Thinkers” were becoming more numerous in one key section of society. The Ottoman Army had made the education of its officers a greater priority from the 1820s onward, with all officers required to be literate in a decree in 1839. A surprising number of senior Ottoman officers had received a secondary education, still a rarity in the mid-19th century. As well as improving the efficiency of the Ottoman Officer Corps, the education of the officers made them more open than the general population to the ideas of the “New Thinkers”. In the army that was still thought of as the “Sword of Islam”, a startling number of officers had open sympathy with secular ideas. However, these ideas were still not common enough to lead to disobedience when the Sultan called for a Jihad, or Holy War against the Russians during the Russo-Turkish War. While prior to the war, some in the officer corps wanted to move away from an emphasis on religion in government, following the great wave of patriotism stemming from the victory at Çatalca ideological differences between the army and the government as a whole seemed to wane.
However, as the Sultan’s unpopularity began to mount following the economic troubles of the 1860s, the army now more than ever seemed to take a different stand to that of the government. In 1862, the Sultan had reportedly mulled over a purging of the officer corps to remove independently minded generals with those more loyal to the Sultan. He was reportedly dissuaded when warned that the disloyalty of the army was such that it could not be guaranteed that a purging of the ranks would not be met by mutinous action on the part of the army. This was a watershed moment in the history of the Empire, and marks the first time since the assassination of Osman II that there was a serious threat to the Sultan from his own army. In the Ottoman Empire, the rise of secularism and similar ideologies only seemed to add to the many divisions within Ottoman society.
The only other Islamic societies in which secularism was present in the ideological landscape were Persia and Egypt, the only Islamic States with ties strong enough to Europe for secularist modes of thought to be introduced, and populations large enough for an intellectual class of sufficient size to exist. In smaller nations such as Tunisia or Morocco, this trend would not appear until later on in the 19th century. However, unlike the Ottoman Empire in which the various stresses and strains encouraged the propagation of secularist thought as well as a general suspicion of the Ulema, those who identified as secularists remained a minority in Persia and Egypt, and did experience something in the way of discrimination in both societies. This was particularly true in Persia, where the Ulema remained a highly organized strata of society, a holdover from the days when Persia had been a Shia country in the Safavid era.
The political power of secularists was limited in these pre-democratic societies. Whereas the Ottoman Empire had a sufficient representation of secularists in the educated sphere to ensure some representation in government, especially in the army, this was not the case especially in Persia. As such, those who openly criticised existing religious authorities were likely to face discrimination or worse. Perhaps the only avowedly secular and possibly atheist Persian of his time, Ruhollah Kasra, was famously jailed after condemning escalating intercommunal violence in “Kafiristan”, the region now known as Kalashestan. No other voices were raised when the local government used Pashtun militias motivated by religious fervour to attack the pagan people of the region and forcibly convert them to Islam in the 1860s, and the very public defence of the “unbelievers” of the region went quite some way towards leaving the impression upon mainstream Persian society that secularists were simply the sympathisers of unbelievers, and quite possibly unbelievers themselves. However, in Egypt, where intercommunal violence was far less marked, secularism was seen as an ideology that would allow for the coexistence of the Muslim community and the sizeable Coptic Christian community.
* * * * * *
Muslim Reactions to the loss of Political Pre-Eminence
For much of the Eastern half of the Islamic world, the middle of the 19th century was a time of an adjustment to a strange new reality. Whereas previously, few Muslims had been ruled by non-Muslim rulers, and generally Islamic states were among the most vigorous in the region, this had swiftly changed in the closing years of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th. In Java, the most populous Islamic land of the East Indies, the relatively light hand of the Dutch was replaced by the French, who imposed direct rule on the whole island and went some way toward suppressing organized Islam on the island. With the possibilities for the political articulation of Islam largely taken away, the Muslims of Java began to look at the reform of the personal practice of their religion, and many syncretic practices were now abandoned as a version of the religion that more closely resembled that practiced in the rest of the Islamic world took a hold. Clothing changed to cover more of the body of both males and females, and the veneration of Hindu gods largely disappeared with the exception of isolated rural areas. This standardisation of Islamic practice mirrored what had already taken place in the more maritime areas of Islamic South East Asia.
In India, the previously powerful Muslim community was sidelined following the Indian Wars, which saw much of the subcontinent divided by the Sikh ruled Punjab and the British Raj. Although the Muslims were able to draw concessions from the British when it came to missionary activity aimed at the Muslim community, the Muslims of India remained politically weak and increasingly economically deprived. The Muslims of India began to embrace a reformist school which was named the Rohtaki movement, which advocated a purification of belief and practice and a non-interference of politics. The movement benefited from relative toleration on the part of both the British and Punjabi authorities, which saw the movement as a bulwark against schools of thought which advocated for a more muscular role for the Muslim community in India. Elsewhere in lands where Muslims were a minority, there began to be a gradual articulation toward an anti-Western and in some respects, an anti-Christian line of thought. In China, the Hui Muslims gave their support to the anti-missionary White Turban movement, and were rewarded with relatively preferential treatment under the Wu Dynasty.
* * * * * *
Author's Notes - Just a short update to give a bit of flavour to the Muslim world. Next update we'll have a look at South East Asia and the developments going on there, before moving on with the rest of the world.