Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Nadine Connamacher | Response Paper 3

Nadine Connamacher
RELG 270
20 November, 2019

Over the course of a mere century, Islam rose from a small movement surrounding the prophet Muhammad to a religion that could inspire empires. Supported by their faith, the Islamic world conquered great swaths of land, produced great works of art and literature, and pioneered breakthroughs in science, philosophy, and theology. However, seemingly as quickly as the empires sprung up did they decline. In less than two centuries, like much of the rest of the world, the Middle East fell victim to European colonialism. The effects of this occupation drastically changed modern Muslim life and its affects are still felt prominently today.

In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte landed on the Egyptian coast. Within a month, Egypt was under French control.[1] Thus began the steady spread of European colonialism throughout the Middle East. The end of World War I saw the fall of the Ottoman Empire and, with the Sykes-Picot Agreement dividing up the remnants of Ottoman lands, nearly the entire Islamic world was in European hands.[2] European colonization brought many changes to the Muslim world with varying and permanent results. Though many effects of European colonization were negative, there were a few benefits. One of the more positive impacts was the rapid modernization in Middle Eastern countries following colonization.[3] European influence, having benefited from their own imperialism, brought technological advances that the Islamic empires had not been able to produce on their own.[4] European powers also introduced more modern ideas of law of government.[5]

[1] Daniel Brown, A New Introduction to Islam (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2017), 279.
[2] Mike Shuster, “The Middle East and the West: WWI and Beyond”, All Things Considered, NPR, August 20, 2004.
[3] Brown, A New Introduction to Islam, 282.
[4] M. Jafar Mahallati, “The Muslim World and European Colonialism” (lecture, Oberlin College, 4 November, 2019).
[5] Mahallati, “European Colonialism.”

Nevertheless, the troubles of life under European colonialism outweighed the benefits. With Europeans came European ideas of society, particularly the idea of nationalism and nationalistic prejudices.[6] Prior to the twentieth century, the umma had been understood as the community of believers. They were united regardless of tribe, and the umma even extended to include Jews and Christians who were allied with Muslims.[7] Though many people were Muslim, nowhere was there a universal faith. However, as European colonizers began to influence the Islamic world, arbitrary borders were drawn, and new nations created, faith became part of one’s national identity.[8] The umma took on a new notion of an Islamic nation–“nation” in the modern sense of the word.[9] In addition to being a religious identity, Muslim became a political and national identity, and, under European rule, a second-class identity. European prejudices targeted Muslims and for the first time since the prophet were Muslims considered low status in their own land. While Europeans were called “beautiful, worthy men,” Muslims were now thought of as “dirty, unclean wild beasts.”[10]

[6] Mark Sedgwick, “Islam and popular culture,” in Islam in the Modern World, ed. Jeffery T. Kenney and Ebrahim Moosa (Routledge, 2013), 283.
[7] Brown, A New Introduction to Islam, 67.
[8] Juan R.I. Cole and Deniz Kandiyoti, “Nationalism and the Colonial Legacy in the Middle East and Central Asia: Introduction,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 34, no. 2 (May, 2002): 200.
[9] Sedgwick, “Islam and popular culture,” 283.
[10] Francis Robinson, Separatism among Indian Muslims: The Politics of the United Provinces’ Muslims, 1860-1923 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 106.

Muslim response to European colonialism can be broadly said to have taken two different paths. Shared by these polarizing reactions, however, is the question of how to react to the globalization brought by imperialism. The introduction of Western culture meant that things that were once simply part of life in the Islamic world were now distinctly “Muslim”. What was once art was now “Islamic” art; what was once architecture was now “Islamic” architecture.[11] Ottoman, Persian, Seljuk, and Mughal, as well as others, were all included under the banner of “Islamic”, now united by their shared feature of not being Western. The Islamic public sphere now had to decide how much it should side with traditional, “authentic” Islam and how much it should adopt from outside Western influences.[12]

[11] Sedgwick, “Islam and popular culture,” 284.
[12] Sedgwick, “Islam and popular culture,” 285.

On the side of modernism, Muslim reaction was to side with the colonizers. In their minds, the reason Muslims had lost to the conquerors was because Islamic culture was, in fact, lesser. One notable prescriber to this idea was Indian reformer Sayyid Ahmad Khan.[13] Sayyid Ahmad strove to “revive pure Islam” by confining the religion to only spiritual matters and leaving all worldly matter to be determined by secular sciences, in particular British sciences.[14] Part of this involved devaluing any ideas not supportable by science and reason as nothing more than symbolism.[15] Sayyid Ahmad also founded the college Aligarh. Alligarh was essentially a British boarding school, and adapted its students to English culture, ensuring them work in the British-lead government.[16]

[13] Brown, A New Introduction to Islam, 287.
[14] Mazheruddin Siddiqi, “Religious Thought of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan,” in Islamic Studies 6, no. 3 (September, 1967): 294.
[15] Brown, A New Introduction to Islam, 288.
[16] Brown, A New Introduction to Islam, 288.

The opposite reaction to colonizers was an increase in radical Islamic fundamentalism. This reaction is the one most often discussed in the West and the response that is most often used to defend Western Islamophobia. Fundamentalism, in any religion as well as Islam, focuses on the idea that there is one, true way to behave and one truth to believe in.[17] Muslim fundamentalism has pushed back, not just against Western colonizers, but also globalization as a whole, and tries to recreate a historical Islam.[18] One particular example of this reaction if Wahhabism, a conservative Sunni movement.[19] Based on the work of Muslim scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, the goal of Wahhabism is to purify Islam and return it to how it was during the life of the prophet Muhammad.[20] In particular, Wahhabism strives to get rid of idolatry–destroying shrines and anything that encourages “immoral” behavior, such as burning books.[21]

[17] Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick, The Vision of Islam (New York: Paragon House, 1994), 68.
[18] Sedgwick, “Islam and popular culture,” 285.
[19] Christopher M. Blanchard, “The Islamic Traditions of Wahhabism and Salafiyya,” CRS Report for Congress (January, 2008): 2.
[20] Blanchard, “Wahhabism and Salafiyya,” 2.
[21] Brown, A New Introduction to Islam, 274.

In recent decades, most colonies have gained their independence in one way or another. Yet this does not mean that the influence of their historical colonizers is not still felt. Not only is Western culture still affecting life in the Islamic world, in many cases Western powers are still directly impacting the political and social dynamics of Middle Eastern countries. Though there are many examples of this, a good one to focus on in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, a conflict which has affected the modern Muslim world for decades. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s modern origins go back to when Palestine was a colony of Great Britain.[22] To this day, the conflict is moderated by the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations, a union known as the Quartet.[23]

[22] Lorena S. Neal, “The Roots of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: 1882-1914,” Honors Projects (1995): 2.
[23] “About Us,” Office of the Quartet, accessed 19 November, 2019,

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is not one that can be summed simply; however, it can be said to be spurred on by the nationalistic fervor of both sides.[24] In addition, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict has shaped the modern Muslim world in many ways. As James L. Gelvin said best, it has “militarized Arab political culture, coarsened politics . . . , lead to the destruction of centuries-old Arab Jewish communities, and reinforced the tendency for regimes to find military solutions to political problems.”[25] The dispute has lead to an increase in both Arab military spending and military casualties.[26] Nationalistic sentiment of one side drives nationalistic sentiment of the other in a cycle that can appear ceaseless. Nonetheless, this conflict would not stand as it does if not for the influence of European colonization and, because of the conflict, Europe remains involved in the politics of the Middle East.

[24] James L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 279.
[25] Gelvin, The Modern Middle East, 280.
[26] Gelvin, The Modern Middle East, 280.

In a globalized world, it is hard to imagine a place that exists without Western influence. However, it is this exact influence, brought to the Muslim world by European imperialism, that has caused many of the challenges facing the Middle East today. Much has changed in the Islamic world since the time of empires; yet, through continued diplomatic and humanitarian efforts, perhaps a path can be found to bring about a modern return of that golden age.

Works Cited
“About Us.” Office of the Quartet. Accessed 19 November, 2019.
Blanchard, Christopher M. “The Islamic Traditions of Wahhabism and Salafiyya.” CRS Report for Congress (January, 2008).
Brown, Daniel. A New Introduction to Islam. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2017.
Cole, Juan R.I. and Deniz Kandiyoti. “Nationalism and the Colonial Legacy in the Middle East and Central Asia: Introduction.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 34, no. 2 (May, 2002).
Gelvin, James L. The Modern Middle East: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Muslim World and European Colonialism.” Lecture, Oberlin College, November 4, 2019.
Robinson, Francis. Separatism among Indian Muslims: The Politics of the United Provinces’ Muslims, 1860-1923. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Siddiqi, Mazheruddin. “Religious Thought of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan.” Islamic Studies 6, no.3 (September, 1967).
Murata, Sachiko, and William C. Chittick. The Vision of Islam. New York: Paragon House, 1994.
Neal, Lorena S. “The Roots of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: 1882-1914.” Honors Projects (1995).
Sedgwick, Mark. “Islam and popular culture.” Islam in the Modern World, edited by Jeffery T. Kenney and Ebrahim Moosa. Routledge, 2013.
Shuster, Mike. “The Middle East and the West: WWI and Beyond.” All Things Considered, NPR, August 20, 2005.

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